This Saturday past brought with it an electric sort of chill, the kind fueled by a driving breeze that lifts your jacket, steals past your socks and up your legs, worms its way through gaps in scarves and gloves, and leaves you feeling naked and afraid and alive in ways that no one else can see. The kind of wind that whisks away complicity and surety, leaving you with nothing but a burning compulsion to do something that will reignite your humanity, your belief in goodness, your claim to a kind life. For those who attended, the Dedication Day ceremony in the National Cemetery trembled with the same terrible power. This year, there was something dreadfully eerie about coming together to honor men slain in the struggle to prove that a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could endure terrible division and betrayal between its countrymen. The speechmaking, no matter its tenor, could not escape the gravity of the question on everyone’s mind: what does the future hold for America, and how can we make sure it won’t undo the already unfinished work for which our forefathers died?
That is not to say that many did not try desperately to drown out the unpleasant facts of the hour with platitudes. And perhaps that response was to be expected. These are uncertain times, and before an uncertain audience some speakers said things that would have been reassuring a year or two ago. They spoke triumphantly of the honor in the fight, of the eternal and resonating success of the Union. Of the dignity of the nation that emerged from the war, battered and bruised, but energized. They spoke of the “great work” engaged at Gettysburg through the warm lens of nostalgia like it was fairy tale, complete with the token happy ending, written just for us. Like the great work was finished, and all that remained was to remember. Like there was, conveniently, nothing to fear and nothing to discuss.
Not only did the armies leave something of a state of chaos behind them after the battle of Gettysburg; they also left their dead buried poorly almost everywhere. Within days, the combination of rain and pigs rooting around the battlefield had exposed multiple skeletons and partially-decomposed bodies. The smell was horrendous, and residents and visitors alike were shocked by the state of the burials.
Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin was among these visitors. After seeing the state of affairs during his tour of the battlefield on July 10th, Curtin appointed local attorney David Wills to act as his “agent” in affairs related to Pennsylvania’s dead. As agent, Wills did everything from helping families locate loved ones’ bodies to disinterring and sending those remains home. This process was made more complicated by the fact that those grave markers that existed were only partially legible, if at all.
In anticipation of Remembrance Day and Dedication Day this week, we have asked our Fellows why and how they commemorate the Civil War. Read Megan’s post below, then check back later in the week for more posts on commemoration and remembrance.
In my last post, I appealed to the public to make good on the tragedies of Gettysburg in the same broad vein as President Clinton’s appeal at the 20th anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica—to make the tragedy a “sacred trust” towards a better future. Needless to say, the material of the last piece stuck with me powerfully. In my musings I realized that I had, in my own experiences, stood witness to some small but remarkable efforts by visitors at Gettysburg to take something constructive and enduring from this tragedy.
Living in Gettysburg, I’ve learned that the town is many things to many people. It’s the place where the Civil War most permeates the public imagination, most touches the lives of everyday Americans. It’s a tourist trap. It’s our greatest killing ground. But above all, it’s a place where seekers from all segments of society come to understand—just what have we inherited from these men, and where do we take it from here? Once visitors step onto the field and learn the stories of what happened here—once they see the graves, the white stones and the sunken hollows of burial pits strewn across the field—many cannot help but start their search by trying to understand these men: their sorrow, their intentions, the sum total of their lives and the consequence of their actions. Continue reading “Some Small Tribute: How Modern Americans Find Meaning in the National Cemetery”
Those who know death know mourning. Those who know mourning know the meaning of empty spaces that we all wish had stayed filled. But do we, or even can we, as the few members of this society who habitually reflect upon the tragedies and triumphs of the past, fully understand the immensity of the suffering we dwell upon while wandering our battlefields? In the Civil War field, whether as professors or as history buffs, we deal with the heartbreak and the violation of violence on a daily basis. However, this summer, as I worked at Gettysburg National Military Park and gave my National Cemetery tour almost daily, I quickly realized just how much of a disconnect the ages have put between us and the Civil War generation. I realized how never having known the people in the graves at your feet warps your perception of the events that took their lives. And I realized how, especially for the majority of the park’s visitors who have never known war, it is imperative that we try to connect to the reality of suffering that the war generation bore in order to understand not just our fragility as humans, but the long reach and lasting consequences of our actions.
A photograph of the dead of Cold Harbor taken three months after the battle, via Off the Beaten Path.
A mass grave where vicims of the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre were disposed. Photograph by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com, via Wikimedia Commons.
The war did not end with the Battle of Gettysburg, of course, and Gettysburg and Pennsylvania College were still impacted after the battle and the end of the war. In November 1863, David Wills, an 1851 graduate of Pennsylvania College, invited President Lincoln to give an address dedicating a National Cemetery to those who had died at Gettysburg giving their “last full measure of devotion.” Dr. William E. Barton in Lincoln at Gettysburg described November 18, 1863 as “Gettysburg’s greatest night . . . John Hay and other gay spirits made a festive night of it. They had an oyster supper at the college, other re-freshments elsewhere, and went abroad singing John Brown’s Body and other up-to-date music.” It is known that some of the students followed a procession up to the National Cemetery for President Lincoln’s dedication and his famous Gettysburg Address the next day. One lucky college student who witnessed the Address was Dr. P. M. Bikle, class of 1866. He claims that the college students were “tail-enders” ordered to follow at the end of the procession, but that they were pleasantly surprised when they were ordered to march to the front of the crowd and “halt directly in front of the large platform built for the speakers and other dignitaries.” He provides an accurate statement of the reaction to Lincoln’s Address: “Mr. Lincoln’s speech was simple, appropriate, and right to the point, but I don’t think there was anything remarkable about it.” Many will of course disagree with Dr. Bikle’s statements now because the Gettysburg Address further embedded the name ‘Gettysburg’ into history. Thus, a tradition was begun in which all Gettysburg College students now walk to the National Cemetery during orientation week to hear the Gettysburg Address read.
The next August, Gettysburg would once more be disturbed when Chambersburg was burned just 25 miles down the road. Many students left, but Commencement still occurred on August 11, 1864 with only two of the remaining twelve students in the senior class present. All twelve did receive their diplomas, however. Statistics show that 27 undergraduates and 27 former students of the college served during the Civil War, but this did not include the 54 who joined Company A of the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia. Robert Fortenbaugh recorded the total number of former students and current students who served in the war as 950 men, both graduated and matriculated at the College. A total of 116 graduates saw service with 11 killed, six for the Union and five for the Confederacy. Three of them died at Gettysburg. Pennsylvania College was majorly impacted by low enrollment following the battle. By the Fall term of 1864 only 61 non-preparatory students enrolled compared to the average immediately before the war of about 92. Continue reading “The Legacy of Battle: Pennsylvania College in the Post-Civil War Era”
The creation of the Soldiers??? National Cemetery in Gettysburg was designed to honor the fallen Union soldiers of the battle with a peaceful final resting place easily accessible for visitors. This was a difficult, costly, and momentous undertaking…
This post was first published on the Civil War Institute’s previous blog, 901 Stories from Gettysburg.
The creation of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg was designed to honor the fallen Union soldiers of the battle with a peaceful final resting place easily accessible for visitors. This was a difficult, costly, and momentous undertaking, but its success is as important today as as it was in 1864. While only a small percentage of the total number of visitors to Gettysburg see the National Cemetery, it is important to recognize the hard work and dedication which went into its creation. Equally as important are those who were not buried in the cemetery, those who were left buried on the field until 1871, the Confederate dead.
After the initial burials of the dead soldiers of Gettysburg in July 1863, townspeople and officials noted a few problems with the grave sites: agricultural issues because bodies were buried on working farms, visitation issues for both known and unknown soldiers, shallow graves that failed to show the respect due for men who had died for their country, and the lack of a place for communal remembrance. As a solution, Dr. Theodor Dimon, a relief surgeon sent from New York, suggested part of the Evergreen Cemetery should be purchased and turned into a national cemetery for the interment of the Union dead, as made possible by the passage of a law in 1862 allowing the Federal government to purchase land for use as national cemeteries. David McConaughy, president of the board of directors for Evergreen Cemetery, made a similar suggestion to the state of Pennsylvania to buy plots of land and bury all of the state’s dead there. Understanding the need for reinterment, David Wills, a prominent Gettysburg attorney, spearheaded the movement to purchase the land and create a national cemetery at Gettysburg for all Union men.
On August 10, 1863, The Compiler announced that the Tyson brothers were preparing to release their first group of battlefield photos. Many of the Tyson negatives have been lost over the years, but perhaps some of the most important survivors are t…
The Tyson Brothers of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and their apprentice and eventual successor, William H. Tipton, immortalized the Samuel McCreary house through their photography in the years following the Battle of Gettysburg. Charles J. and Isaac G. Tyson were the first local cameramen to have recorded scenes on the battlefield during the summer of 1863. When they initially opened their gallery after their move from Philadelphia on August 16, 1859, they concerned themselves with portraiture rather than outdoor scenes and landscapes. Their first views of the Battle of Gettysburg were not taken until weeks after the battle was over, in part because they needed to obtain the equipment to accommodate outdoor views. Their gallery, located at present day 9 York St, remained open during the first day of the battle, before the townspeople were advised to evacuate the premises in anticipation of Confederate occupation. In response to the sudden vacancy of the town, Charles Tyson asked a fellow citizen: “What does this mean?” to which the man replied: “It means that all citizens are requested to retire into their houses as quietly and as quickly as possible.” Fortunately for the Tyson brothers, their house and gallery were left untouched, although a cannonball lodged itself into the edifice of their studio. It was never removed and can still be seen today. Continue reading “Samuel McCreary House”
The Veterans??? Home That Wasn???t: What the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers can tell us about the tangled themes of place and healing In July of 1913, well over 50,000 Civil War veterans from both the Union and Confederate armies descended upo…
What can the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers can tell us about the tangled themes of place and healing?
In July of 1913, well over 50,000 Civil War veterans from both the Union and Confederate armies descended upon Gettysburg. They had come to commemorate the events that had transpired there 50 years earlier but not the viscerality of the fighting and loss that they had experienced. These silver-haired men came to Gettysburg amidst the triumph of sectional and spiritual reconciliation; healing was the order of the day. And where could healing take place more powerfully and symbolically than at the site of one of the climactic battles of the Civil War? If veterans of the Blue and Gray could shake hands at a place as brutally contested as the stone wall of Pickett’s Charge – and do so amidst sincere good feeling – reconciliation and healing must have been complete.
What does this have to do with the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers? The 1913 Gettysburg Reunion was a testament to how powerful place can be in creating a fitting sense of healing and even closure to a painful historical event. National cemeteries at Civil War battlefields, like the one at Gettysburg, represent the same concept. Many Union soldiers killed during the battle are buried in Gettysburg, the place where they fell, in what is seen as a fitting resting place. But beyond these better known examples of the 1913 Reunion and the National Cemetery, a very similar process – one that utilized a place to create a sense of healing – was also at work in 1867 with the proposal of a veterans’ home known as the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers. Continue reading “The Veterans’ Home That Wasn’t”
Dead in the immediate vicinity of Culp???s Hill, though not in danger of the farmer???s plow, had been buried in shallow, mass graves. Culp???s Hill had been the site of fierce fighting on July 2nd and 3rd as Confederate troops sought to dislodge the Ar…
Dead in the immediate vicinity of Culp’s Hill, though not in danger of the farmer’s plow, had been buried in shallow, mass graves. Culp’s Hill had been the site of fierce fighting on July 2nd and 3rd as Confederate troops sought to dislodge the Army of the Potomac’s right flank. The above photograph is illustrative of the manner in which Confederate dead were interred by the Union burial parties beginning on July 4th. On July 5th, civilian Clifton Johnson visited the hill and bore witness to the economized strategies of these men. At that point, burial parties were hurrying to deal with bodies that had been lying out for up to three days:
I went over to Culp’s Hill Sunday. They were burying the dead there in long narrow ditches about two feet deep. They would lay in a man at the end of the trench and put in the next man with the upper half of his body on the first man’s legs and so on. They got them in as thick as they could and only covered them enough to prevent their breeding disease.