The Civil War Institute will be celebrating the National Park Service Centennial this spring with its brand new “Find Your Park Friday” series. Inspired by the NPS #FindYourPark campaign, the series will challenge our fellows to share their experiences exploring America’s national historical, cultural, and natural resources through trips and internships with the NPS. In our third post, Elizabeth Smith reflects on her time as an intern at Andersonville National Historic Site and the personal element of history.
As a first-year student back in 2013 I was given the opportunity to work as a Pohanka Intern at Andersonville National Historic Site. During the American Civil War, Andersonville—or Camp Sumter, as it was officially called—was perhaps the most infamous prison camp, and today it remains the best known. Though it was only open for fourteen months between 1864 and 1865, 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned there, 12,920 of whom would be buried just a quarter of a mile away from the stockade that took their lives.
While working as a Pohanka intern I lived on-site in a small studio apartment a few hundred yards back from the old stockade and a quarter of a mile away from the cemetery. Today, the cemetery is the final resting place for nearly 20,000 veterans and their spouses. There is something unique and, to be quite honest, creepy when you are the only living person on the entire site. To walk the perimeter of the stockade as the sun goes down, knowing that only you are standing in the exact spot where 45,000 men suffered, and to be able to soak in the atmosphere is an incredibly moving experience.
On Friday, April 8, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation in which he designated April 9 as National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day. “We salute the selfless service members throughout our history who gave their own liberty to ensure ours,” the president declared, “and we renew our commitment to remaining a Nation worthy of their extraordinary sacrifices.”
For the American Civil War, the prisoner of war story is often summed up in one word: Andersonville. The mythos surrounding this infamous prison site has, for many, become the determining factor to understanding the Civil War prisoner-of-war story, but the story is far more complex than one place. At the beginning of the war, a prisoner exchange system had to be set up in order to exchange prisoners. This happened on July 22, 1862 in what would become known as the Dix-Hill Cartel, and set up the system of equal exchange. Any soldiers not exchanged would be issued parole, meaning the soldier would remain in a parole camp and not take up arms until properly exchanged. Continue reading “Pay Them Gratitude and Respect: Remembering the Civil War’s Prisoners of War”
“So listen and cross your heart that you won’t tell. I love you—love you—love you, and oh, little one, I want to see you so!” These words, supposedly written by General George E. Pickett to his future wife LaSalle Corbell, sum up the nature of Valentine’s Day. They are full of love, even as they were supposedly written in a time of war. In 1913—thirty-eight years after Pickett’s death—LaSalle Pickett published The Heart of A Soldier: As Revealed in the Intimate Letters of General George E. Pickett. This collection of letters were, according to LaSalle, written by her husband to her during the Civil War. The letters provide detailed information about various campaigns and battles as well as serving as love letters from Pickett to his wife. The collection sold very well, but it eventually became a controversial work.
George Pickett and LaSalle Corbell met sometime between 1850 and 1860, but their relationship didn’t truly begin until 1861 or 1862. They would marry on September 15, 1863 when LaSalle was twenty (she would later claim she was sixteen) and George was thirty-eight. This was George’s third and final marriage. It would last until George’s death twelve years later. After her husband’s death, LaSalle would dedicate the rest of her life to preserving her husband’s memory.
Controversy arose in 1968, however, when historian Gary Gallagher made the argument that The Heart of a Soldier was not comprised of letters written by George Pickett. Instead, he argued that it was, in fact, LaSalle Corbell Pickett who either heavily edited or completely wrote the letters. There are several reasons for this argument to be made. The first is that the letters hold far more information than General Pickett could have had at the time of writing. The next is that the tone of the letters did not match with letters know to have been composed by George Pickett. Continue reading “Loving and Forever: George Pickett and LaSalle Corbell”
On January 4, 2016 a large group of people met in the theater of the Mill Springs Battlefield Visitor Center in Nancy, Kentucky. Only a few weeks shy of the 154th anniversary of the small Kentucky battle, these individuals gathered on the chilly night to attend a public forum in support of the addition of Mill Springs into the National Park system.
The Battle of Mill Springs occurred on January 19, 1862 between Confederate forces under Felix Zollicoffer and Union forces under George H. Thomas. The battle begin in the early morning fog and would continue for four hours in a cold rainstorm. Men from Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota, Indiana, and Alabama would meet at the fields near Logan’s Crossroads where they would engage in a short but influential fight that would see the death of Zollicoffer supposedly at the hands of Speed Fry. Though small compared to later battles, Mill Springs would become the first major Union victory since First Bull Run, help to stop the Confederate defensive line in the West, and gain nationwide recognition for George H. Thomas and Speed Fry. Continue reading “To Be Or Not To Be: A Kentucky Battlefield’s Drive to Become a National Park”
On November 21, a small contingent from the 26th PEMR or PCG—Gettysburg College’s reenacting group—gathered early in the morning in Union uniform and civilian dress outside of the Appleford Inn. With a flowered wreath in hand, the small group made their way down Chambersburg Street. There, in sight of the Dollar General and the Segway Tour office, they laid the wreath at the base of the monument, which features a young college boy, musket in hand, as he marches off to battle. The group of students read the history of the unit and had their pictures taken, an annual tradition that has become a prominent memory in the minds of the student reenactors.
For many, Civil War reenacting serves as a way to remember the Civil War. With reenactments ranging from large scale events like Gettysburg to small town living histories, thousands of men and women from all around the country—indeed, from all around the globe—choose to wear wool uniforms and day dresses and reenact this period of history. Reenacting, though controversial as a medium of public history, serves as a way for many people of all different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds to remember the American Civil War and the soldiers who served. Continue reading “The Grand Parade: Remembering the American Civil War”
My last post recounted some of my favorite takeaways from my Civil War road trip this summer. But this trip was about more than just mosquito bites and cheap donuts; it was the first time I ever visited a historical site as a student of public history. My first tour was with Elizabeth Smith ’17 at the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg. Elizabeth’s tour was unique in that she was able to connect the events that transpired along Marye’s Heights, a moderately nuanced subject, to President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a very well-known subject. I was delighted to see this connection that appealed to a wide audience. For the hardcore Civil Warrior, Elizabeth’s accounts of the 5th New Hampshire and Cobb’s Georgia Legion gave the military historian exactly what he or she was looking for. Tying the mortality of the common soldier and the pathos of the war-torn nation that was so evident at Fredericksburg to the familiar and powerful Gettysburg Address gave the casual Civil War enthusiast something relatable (and perhaps it provided a new perspective to the hardened military historian as well). Her knowledge of her audience combined with her ability to connect broad themes to specifics and the importance of location demonstrated Elizabeth’s skill as a public historian.
This post is the last in a three-part series on women soldiers in the Civil War and during modern reenactments. You can also check out the first and second parts of this series.
Civil War reenacting has come a long way in the years since Lauren Cook was asked to leave the Antietam reenactment. Now women who aspire to portray soldiers have a far easier time of joining a unit that will allow them to take to the field. This does not, however, mean that the controversy surrounding women soldiers has vanished. Women may not be directly approached about their persona, but the disapproving glares like the ones I myself have received are all too prevalent.
Women who wish to portray soldiers in Civil War reenactments face a multitude of challenges. First, they must get past the physical limitations. “How serious are you at disguising yourself and presenting yourself as a ‘man?’” writes one reenactor on an online chatroom specifically dealing with women portraying soldiers.
Would you cut your hair? Trim your nails? Go without any makeup and perhaps smear your face with dirt? Wear restraints to hide your feminine features? The reason most reenacting units will not permit a female in the ranks is because, 1. It is more historically accurate. 2. Most women trying to act like a male soldiers do a rotten job of it.
This post is the second in a three-part series on women soldiers in the Civil War and during modern reenactments. Also check out the introduction of this series.
I was thirteen years old when I joined the 5th Kentucky Orphan Brigade, a Confederate reenactment group based out of south-central Kentucky. At fourteen, I “saw the elephant”—a Civil War term for seeing battle—for the first time as a soldier. It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done, but seven years later I credit that decision to go through with it as bringing me to where I am now, writing for the Compiler here at Gettysburg College. In those seven years, however, I have faced my fair share of scrutiny for portraying a soldier rather than a civilian. I didn’t become aware of the scrutiny until more recently, however, as I became more conscious both of historical and modern views about women portraying soldiers at Civil War reenactments.
I’ve been lucky. Only once have I ever been in a situation where I thought I would not be able to participate in the event because I am a woman, but that one time when I was sixteen was quickly fixed by my first sergeant convincing the board of that particular reenactment to amend the rules that had said no women were allowed to portray soldiers. In seven years, never once has anyone directly questioned whether or not I should be allowed to take the field. I’ve been complimented on my authenticity, encouraged to continue to be as accurate as possible, and never had a negative comment directed at my portrayal of a woman soldier.
Although I haven’t had anything said to my face, I have received nasty glances that clearly say “She doesn’t belong.” Though the reenacting community has become far more open to women soldiers since 1989, there are some who do not believe it is a woman’s place to be on the battlefield. I’ll discuss this more in depth in the next post, but for now it is safe to say that there are some who believe no women should portray soldiers. Continue reading “A Woman in Soldier’s Dress: Then and Now”
The year was 1989. The place, a Civil War reenactment at Antietam National Battlefield. Lauren Cook (then Burgess) had been participating in reenactments for two years. Her portrayal of a fifer required her to wear a soldier’s uniform rather than in a civilian woman’s dress. She did her best to portray a soldier, disguising her sex so she could pass the “fifteen yard” rule, which meant that at fifteen yards she could not be identified as a woman. The call of nature proved to be her undoing, however, when an NPS official “caught” her coming out of the women’s restroom. Asked to wear a dress and portray a civilian, Cook refused and was told to leave the event. Cook perceived this as sex discrimination and filed a law suit against the federal government. Four years later, in 1993, she would win her court case.
Though dramatic in nature, Cook’s experience is echoed through the many stories of women who attempt to portray soldiers in Civil War reenactments. Times have changed since 1989, and women are now allowed to portray soldiers, but the stigma remains. Women who wish to portray soldiers are expected to not only have an accurate uniform, but to pass the “fifteen yard rule.” For some, this is what they strive to do and many go above and beyond in accomplishing this. Others, however, do not even attempt to disguise their sex. This is where the controversy begins and people start to question whether or not women should be allowed to portray soldiers at all.
On October 6, approximately seventy people gathered at the Gettysburg Visitor’s Center to attend a public forum discussing the future of the site commonly referred to as Lee’s Headquarters. The property is located on Buford Avenue near the Lutheran Seminary and the Seminary Ridge Museum. On July 1, 1863, the area was the site of several artillery pieces, part of the Union retreat route through the town, and on July 2nd and 3rd, it would serve as Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters. After the battle, the site would serve as one of the first automotive tourist spots for the millions of visitors who traveled to view the first day’s battlefield. Small cottages, motels, and eventually the Quality Inn would emerge to cater to the mass of tourists.
The forum began with information relating to the work and reports that have already been completed regarding the Lee’s Headquarters site. These reports detailed what, if any, adverse effects the demolition of the buildings currently on the site—specifically the old Quality Inn motel—would have on the environment and future archeology. The tentative answer is that the removal of the motel would have no such effects. Representatives from the Civil War Trust, the organization that purchased the land, spoke about their goals for the Lee’s Headquarters’ site. Their mission is to either demolish or remove the buildings on the site to another location in order to restore the view of the first day’s battlefield, replant the orchard that use to be on the site, put in period-accurate fences, and create a simple battlefield trail that will tell the story of the battle, the headquarters, and the tourist industry that thrived in the years following the battle. Continue reading “Report from the Headquarters: A Reflection on the Lee’s Headquarters Public Forum”