Gettysburg in the Western Territories

By Hayden McDonald ’25

The role and importance of the State in the Civil War is one that cannot be exaggerated. The idea of Statehood was integral for community and individual identity amongst Civil War soldiers from both sides. As important to the common soldier as more abstract ideas like “Union” and “Confederacy” may have been, many also turned to the slightly more concrete institution of Statehood for inspiration. Many on both sides were as fiercely loyal to their state as to their national government. Many Virginians sought to protect the Old Dominion from supposed Northern depredation as much as they desired to support the newly forged Southern Confederacy. When Lee’s army crossed the Potomac in 1863 and marched north onto Union soil, Pennsylvanians understood the coming conflict to dictate the fate of their nation as well as their state. For native Pennsylvania soldiers, the Rebel invasion was an affront to home and hearth, as well as a threat to the Union, and a return to native soil to defend their state from the Rebels was both a source of “homecoming” joy and newfound determination to protect Pennsylvania at all costs.

At the outbreak of the secession crisis in 1861, only 34 of today’s 50 states were members of the Union. A 35th would be added in 1863 in the form of West Virginia, but still, the vast amount of land west of the Mississippi River was governed as territories, not states, throughout the Civil War. In a war that was fought over either the protection or disintegration of a national Union between the States, these territories occupied a nebulous position. For most of these western territories, the war was a distant echo in everyday affairs. However, these events were routinely covered by territorial newspapers, for many understood that the outcome of the war would dictate the future of these territories.

As reports of the battle of Gettysburg circulated throughout the nation and newspapers inundated their readers with conflicting, and sometimes entirely fabricated descriptions of the battle’s outcome, word of the conflict reached the isolated territories. In the New Mexico territory, the Santa Fe Gazette reported on the battle, and on August 1st of 1863 lauded the achievements of “that brave body of American soldiers” and their victory over the Southern invaders. In its reporting, the Gazette is staunchly loyal to the Union cause, and condemns further attempts by the Confederacy to escalate or continue the conflict. As the editor puts it, the South’s manpower had suffered so heavily that it will “make them consider long before they conclude to prosecute the rebellion to greater extremes.”

What is truly interesting about how the Santa Fe Gazette discusses Gettysburg and the Civil War as a whole is the relative detachment with which the paper reports on it: Gettysburg is a distant place caught up in a distant war. The pressing matters of the nation in Washington D.C. and Richmond are mere points of conversation for the majority of residents in Santa Fe. The massive armies of North and South are fighting each other on the other side of the continent. Far nearer at hand are the rampages of the Navajo on American settlers. As important as Lee’s losses at Gettysburg may be, it is the story of the ongoing war with the Native Americans of the region that is most pertinent. For the Santa Fe Gazette, the real strategic reverse did not happen on the fields of Gettysburg, but rather with the arrival of several hundred Native Americans of the Ute tribe who agreed to fight alongside American settlers against the Navajo.

Equally supportive of the Northern war effort is an account of the battle of Gettysburg published by the Washington Statesman of Walla Walla, then Washington territory. The Washington territory lay, at that time, at the westernmost fringes of the United States. In the extreme northwest of the nation, the people of Walla Walla were as far from the conflict as one might get within the nation. With this distance came also a skepticism of the newspaper reporters of the East. For too long had editors in the West been fed information that erred from reality, or were fed false hopes of quick victory over the rebels. In a July 18th, 1863 edition of the paper, the editor of the Washington Statesman surely found some issue with the reports of the South’s “Waterloo defeat” at Gettysburg. As the editor writes, “we have no great faith in this wholesale bagging business. All the braggadocio heretofore indulged in about capturing large bodies of troops has resulted in a good wide gap for the army so to be bagged, to escape through.” Clearly, news of a quick end to the war had been transmitted West one too many times. The natural distance from the eastern battlefields to the American territories in the far West bred a disconnect between those territories and the war itself. Newspapers depicted this disconnect in different ways, whether that be through the Washington Statesman’s skepticism or the Santa Fe Gazette’s bookmarking of Gettysburg so as to discuss the latest news in the geographically closer Navajo war. The war affected Americans in myriad ways, and the echoes of that conflict grew fainter the further they traveled from the fields of battle. These two papers provide an instructive example of how vastly different Americans’ experiences of the Civil War were: To those closer to the East, it was a time of up-close-and-personal bloody carnage, widespread destruction of landscapes and infrastructure, everyday threats to lives and livelihoods. While the war undoubtedly shaped the lives and futures of westerners in no small way, for them, distant rumors, suspect reporting, and often merely “footnoted” battles comprised the reality of their Civil War.

California’s “North and South”

By Hayden McDonald ’25

From the fields of Pennsylvania to the towns of Virginia, from the hills of Kentucky to the plantations of Georgia, the American Civil War wrought death and destruction across the eastern United States. The so-called “western theater” of the conflict was constrained, in large part, to the Deep South and territory due east of the Mississippi river. The war is easily contracted to fit the framework of North vs. South. What, then, of the “Far West”? Discussions of the Civil War seem oddly out of place on the Pacific Coast, though both California and Oregon had been admitted into the Union in 1850 and 1859 respectively. For Americans living in the far west, the war was, in many regards, distant–a mere side note to daily life. But the news of the fearful clashes in the east reverberated across the plains and mountains, and reached the ears of Californians all the same, the ultimate repercussions of that fighting sure to impact the nature of settlement in the adjacent western territories. California, despite its relatively small contributions to the Union war effort, remained loyal. This is not to say, however, that all the citizens of the Golden State were of the same mind when it came to secession. Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, North Carolina–these are some of the states that were most clearly divided during the war. Few, however, remember the divisions within California, nor the strong sentiments she housed for both the North and the South.

Accounts of Gettysburg, the battle which swiftly gained a reputation as the largest and most decisive of the conflict, echoed across the wide nation all the way to California, where they were met with two vastly different interpretations. A few months after the battle, a Bay Area newspaper named the Pacific Appeal published an account of a lecture given by a Reverend T. Starr King, an influential Californian minister and Unionist. In a lecture delivered at an African Methodist Episcopal Church on the history of the Mississippi River Valley, Reverend Starr King strayed from his present topic to offer a few remarks on the “patience and valor of American soldiers.” There is no question who exactly he meant by “American soldiers.” As he says of the late battle in Pennsylvania, “the valor of Gettysburg has never been surpassed, I believe in any battle in the world. The wicked hopes and the fierce expectations of the enemies of civilization” were valiantly struck down by the armies of the North. These “enemies of civilization” relied upon the institution of slavery as the economic backbone of their nation, one which Reverend Starr King found morally repugnant and fiscally unviable, stating, “the paper based on the visionary opulence of a great slave empire was worth even less than the Confederate bills.” The Confederacy was doomed through and through, he argued vehemently, and God’s favor would undoubtedly shine upon the Northern cause in the end, as the Union victory at Gettysburg had now “foretold.” With all this talk of slavery, freedom, and moralism, it is worth noting that Starr King’s audience for this lecture would have been predominantly African-American, though as the editor points out, “there were many white persons present.” Starr King was himself an abolitionist, and although California was a Free State, not everyone was enthused about that fact. His comments on the righteousness of abolition and the Union Cause fell on sympathetic ears amongst the parishioners of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in San Francisco.

Compare the moralizing and nationalistic sentiments of Reverend Starr King’s lecture with an article published by the Los Angeles Star, the largest newspaper in southern California. Los Angeles was known at the time for housing a rather vocal population of pro-Confederate, pro-Secessionist advocates. Henry Hamilton, the head editor of the Star in the war years, was an acknowledged Confederate sympathizer, so much so that he was arrested and forced to take the oath of loyalty to the Union. It was this man who, in January of 1864, published an article attacking President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In it, he argued that “Mr.” Lincoln’s assertions regarding the moral fidelity of the Northern war effort were anything but. For him, Northerners were fighting to “ignore the distinctions of race and amalgamate their descendants with four millions of negroes.” It would not take too much extrapolation to guess Hamilton’s stance on the issue of slavery. Furthermore, according to Hamilton, rather than espousing any lofty ideals about the perpetuation of American democracy, Lincoln’s address clearly revealed that he was fighting to institute a “system where the minority rule over the majority.” Henry Hamilton’s article is, in many ways, a caricature of both prewar and postwar Southern justifications for secession. In it, he embraces all of the hallmarks of the Lost Cause — from States Rights to the inferiority of African Americans — long before the Southern cause is actually lost.

 Where, then, is the unity in California’s approach to the Civil War? The state remained loyal, but clearly not all of its citizens agreed with that stance, as proven by Mr. Hamilton and his followers. California never saw any fighting in the Civil War, and the bloodshed of the conflict remained comfortably far-off for many of its citizens, but in a time of civil conflict where the stakes are high for both those directly and indirectly involved, sectarian divides sprout up everywhere, even on the opposite side of the country.

Where a Painting Lies

By Hayden McDonald ’25

Sitting on the floor of the Civil War Store on Steinwehr Avenue, leaning against a glass case of Gettysburg-themed hoodies and mugs, lies a painting. This painting, framed in a classy wooden mounting, stands out as an oddity when compared with many of the other items for sale around it. In a store chock full of toy muskets, Confederate shot glasses, and Robert E. Lee- themed pocket watches, a painting of this caliber draws some attention. Resting by itself on the floor of the shop, proudly displaying its $45 price tag, it entices any passerby to stop a moment and take a closer look.

The manner in which a work of art depicts war is key to understanding how it is meant to be interpreted. War is, after all, the thing which wears two faces. It is a thing of glory, of heroism, of individual and collective valor. It is unfortunate, but it is necessary, and through war some of the most revered of human traits are brought to the fore. And yet war is hell. It is destruction, devolution, despair borne of deep-seated political, sectional, an ideological divisions. It shatters friendships, families and nations alike, and leaves a smoldering trail in its wake. Clearly, this painting focuses mostly on one of those interpretations: A lone Union man gallantly operates a cannon all by himself against the advancing tides of an unseen foe, his comrades either shot down or having fled from his side. A disabled gun sits helpless in the foreground, serving as a reminder of the dangers of battle. Behind the lone patriot waves the stars and stripes, blurred in the haze of black powder smoke. This artwork celebrates the heroism and gallantry of battle, and of the individual, specifically. The flag in the background reinforces the patriotic zeal that it is designed to evoke. The battle that is taking place could be any during the Civil War, but what matters is the man and the action that is unfolding. It is not necessarily a rare, complicated, or noteworthy piece of fine art, yet it embodies many of the same sentimental war tropes as do many of its more expensive cousins.

The odd placement of the painting within the store thus seems to create a disconnect between the artwork’s subject matter and its display. . One might expect that something of this relative commercial value and  subject matter, with its lofty implications about Union, war, and individual valor, would be displayed in a place of prominence and easy viewing–someplace where it could catch the eyes of wandering shoppers and pique their interest, not sitting out of the way on the floor where someone would have to crouch to get a proper view of the art. Why, then, would the shop owners decide to place this painting here? It is clear that this shop does not receive most of its revenue from the sale of paintings; far from it. It is a place to purchase a plastic rifle, or a kepi, or a T-shirt with a witty phrase on it. It is not a place to peruse the visual arts. There are other places to do that in Gettysburg, and the Civil War Shop seems to acknowledge that. However, the inclusion of such a piece in a store like this suggests some attempt to make the shop seem more “official” in its hawking of “history and heritage”-themed souvenirs. After all, there can’t be a Civil War store in Gettysburg that doesn’t have a painting for sale.

In Gettysburg, there has long existed a nearly inseparable, though at times uneasy bond between commercialization and commemoration. This visual tidbit of the (supposedly) “real” war helps to bridge the gap between the shop’s distantly-connected-to-history Gettysburg souvenirs and the heart of what makes the town and battlefield worth visiting and remembering in the first place. It serves as an admission on the part of the shop that perhaps Gettysburg does and should mean more than just lighthearted, collectible memorabilia such as shot glasses and toy guns, and yet the commercial remains inextricably bound up with the commemorative. Indeed, if one looks broadly enough, perhaps a more authentic, however sentimentalized, meaning of Gettysburg can be found anywhere in town, even leaning against a display case on a shop floor.

Gettysburg in a Globe: The Essence of War, Suspended in Time

By Hayden McDonald ’25

Gettysburg is a town filled to the brim with gift shops. At each place, a story–an interpretation of the battle–is told through the souvenirs for sale there. No place, however, spends more time pondering what story their items tell than Gettysburg National Military Park. There, every item for sale aligns with the Park’s interpretive mission for the battlefield. No matter how small or mundane, each item has something to say about the battle of Gettysburg.

In the gift shop attached to the visitor’s center, alongside the fully stocked bookshelves and across from the Gettysburg-themed fudge recipes, stands a shelf full of that most unassuming of souvenirs: Snow globes. These snow globes do not depict Gettysburg, sleepy with the weight of a fresh blanket of snow, nor do they show the battlefield, obscured in a fog of floating smoke. Only the armaments of war are housed within. A miniature cannon sits permanently fixed atop a mini hillock, with a rifle and a sword leaning upon its side. Upon its base flies an eagle, imbuing the piece with patriotic sentiment and pride in our nation’s martial past.

 However, despite this explicit Civil War imagery, this piece manages to remain noticeably nondescript. If one was to take off the Gettysburg National Military Park stamping, little remains that directly connects this piece to Gettysburg specifically. The hilltop that the cannon sits upon may be Little Round Top or Culp’s Hill or Oak Ridge, or it might be any hilltop on any Civil War battlefield across the country. The globe features no distinct geographic features or historical figures to distinguish it as commemorating the bloodiest battle of the Civil War aside from the labeling. The contents of the globe capture the essence of the Civil War generally, but not Gettysburg specifically.

But what does this say about Gettysburg National Military Park’s interpretive mission? In the ever-changing intermingling of history and memory, Gettysburg’s myriad tour guides, caretakers, souvenir hawkers, and consumer marketers have frequently aimed to make the historic town and landscape into a memorial not only to the battle, but also to the overall war in which it occurred. Gettysburg, we are told, encapsulates the full range of personalities, conflicts, complexities, and big questions that defined the Civil War. For many visitors, it is their first, and sometimes only, Civil War battlefield visit—a visit which, in one fell swoop, can educate, inspire, and provoke the visitor to contemplate the enduring legacies of the Civil War as a whole. In the same fashion, this snow globe—a snapshot of an iconic symbol of the war, stamped with the name of the war’s most iconic battle—seeks to represent the war and its timeless swaying power in its entirety.

The Park works to keep the landscape as close as possible to that of 1863. In a constantly developing and modernizing world, the Gettysburg battlefield has tried to remain in the nineteenth century as much as possible. The conflict is kept alive through the commemoration and memorialization of the battlefield. In many ways, although Gettysburg National Military Park’s interpretation of the battle is constantly evolving and the historical memory of the battle continuously contested, the park’s hopes for touching the hearts and minds of its visitors through that interpretation and meticulous preservation remain constant, and are much like this snow globe: The landscape—even with its myriad post-war and twentieth-century commemorative monuments and markers—is somehow timeless.  It is to provide a snapshot of the Civil War and the nineteenth century as a whole, frozen in time, a living memorial to the battle to ponder with great wonder. It unfolds before the visitor, seductively beautiful, bucolic, and serene, silently waiting for the visitor to come along, to ponder, and to shake it to life.

Reporting on “Victory”

By Hayden McDonald ’25

The Impossibility of Raising Another Rebel Army ( : New York Herald (New York City, NY) July 10, 1863

The Battle of Gettysburg ( : Camden Confederate (Camden, SC) July 17, 1863

In the days, weeks, and months following the Battle of Gettysburg, journalists and newspaper editors feverishly attempted to recapture the full details, implications, and meaning of the massive fight that had transformed one small, formerly obscure, south-central Pennsylvania town into a household name. While some reporters struggled to ascertain the exact facts of the battle amidst the chaotic aftermath, others wrote with clear political agendas intended to sway the hearts and minds of their readership and, in turn, bolster their respective side’s support for the war effort. Still others searched for meaning in the aftermath through the prisms of religion, world history, and other lenses.  In this mini-series, students will explore the myriad ways that 19th-century newspapers, throughout the North and South, “re-fought” the Battle of Gettysburg, its factual components, and its larger significance in print in the immediate aftermath of the fighting.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, commanders, soldiers, and civilians alike struggled to make sense of what really happened on the field. Often, even soldiers fighting on the same side and on the same field walked away with curiously different perceptions of the battle they had just endured. Additionally, in an age without instantaneous communications, the line between fact and fiction could be obscured, and rumors quickly turned into to “reality.” As first a trickle, and then a flood of first-and second-hand reports of the fighting at Gettysburg made their way back to the home front, both local and national newspaper publishers found themselves with a plethora of differing and contradicting information. Many newspapers, having no way of determining the cold hard facts, published stories that turned out to be less than true. However, other publishers, aware of the influence their pens wielded, capitalized on the confusion surrounding Gettysburg and its aftermath to bolster their respective war efforts, regardless of factuality. Two such articles, one published by the Northern New York Herald and the other by the Southern Camden Confederate, provide a glimpse into how the outcome of Gettysburg was construed or altered to serve ulterior motives in print.

Although these two articles stemmed from opposite sides of the conflict, they both overstate the gains of their respective nations, while understating the achievements of the enemy. Such reporting methodology was by no means unusual during the Civil War, but the extent to which each paper misconstrues events to paint its respective army in the best light possible ventures into the realm of the conscious spread of disinformation. The first article, published by the popular Northern paper, the New York Herald, paints the Union’s victory at Gettysburg as absolute. It opens with the direct statement that “the rebels staked their all upon the invasion of the North, and in losing the battle of Gettysburg have lost it all.” This characterization of the fighting leaves no room for misinterpretation: The Union utterly and completely defeated the Confederate army at Gettysburg. In fact, the paper goes on to claim, the victory was so complete that “a few skirmishes and guerilla fights will end the war, and our armies, as they advance, will occupy the rebel cities without opposition.” These are bold words from the Herald, and words which would not prove to be true.

Unfortunately for the North, the war would drag on for another year and a half, with the fate of its final outcome hanging desperately in the balance even as late as the summer of 1864. The solemn fact that, despite the hard-won victory at Gettysburg, the war was far from over is exactly why the Herald utilizes such uncompromising language: The war must go on after Gettysburg, and so the North must capitalize on the victory to combat war-weariness and continue to increase support for the conflict that had been lagging in the months leading up to the battle. This article, published on the 10th of July, 1863, appeared before the public eye only three  days before the outbreak of the deadly draft riots in New York City. Many Northerners were  tired of fighting and the Peace Democrats were gaining traction; thus the Herald understood that it must bend the facts a little if it was to improve public opinion of the conflict and maximize the influence of the battlefield victory on home front morale.

The other piece, published by the Camden Confederate, offers an exact opposite interpretation of what happened at Gettysburg. While the Herald’s language is a tad fanciful, it is still based on the plausible reasoning that if Lee’s army were truly destroyed, the war could not, in fact, continue for much longer. The Camden Confederate, however, actively spreads misinformation about the outcome of Gettysburg. Though the extent of the Union’s victory at Gettysburg may be up for debate, the reality of the Confederacy’s battlefield defeat is not disputable. Much in the same vein as the article from the Herald, this piece presents a complete and ultimate Southern victory at Gettysburg. “He [Lee] has been engaged with the whole force of the United States and has broken its backbone.” Any possibility of construing Lee’s withdrawal as a mere retreat is explained away by the fact that the Army of Northern Virginia is simply overburdened with wounded and prisoners that it must remove to safety, and that, after all, “Hagerstown is nearer to Washington than Gettysburg.”

While the propagandistic usefulness of this type of reporting is clearly evident in bolstering Southern support for the war, it is also worthwhile to note that the publishers of the Camden Confederate may not actually believe that the information they are reporting is inaccurate. The publishers note that they are receiving their information about the battle and its aftermath from the Richmond Examiner, a prominent Confederate newspaper based in Richmond, Virginia. The scarcity of accurate reporting in the South, especially in a place as far away from the action as Camden, South Carolina, means that Richmond was typically the determining agent in what was fact or fiction. If the Camden Confederate’s article proves to be untrue, individuals have nowhere else to turn to with blame than to the Richmond papers themselves.

The dichotomous narratives created by these two drastically different (content-wise), yet similar (methodology-wise), articles offer a further glimpse into the nature of reporting during the Civil War. As is true of much of today’s journalism, reporting did not always contain true, raw, evidence-backed facts, as both ulterior political motives and the difficulty of procuring reliable information in places so far from where the fighting occurred and in such a short span of time often blurred, if not totally obscured, the line between fact and fiction. Gettysburg may not have been the absolute victory that the Herald or the Confederate speak of, but due in large part to the written words of both battle participants and period newspapers such as these, how the public has perceived its outcomes and aftermath has been ever shifting, whether it be a week after the battle, or a century-and-a-half.

The Biases of Battle

By Hayden McDonald ’25

In the days, weeks, and months following the Battle of Gettysburg, journalists and newspaper editors feverishly attempted to recapture the full details, implications, and meaning of the massive fight that had transformed one small, formerly obscure, south-central Pennsylvania town into a household name. While some reporters struggled to ascertain the exact facts of the battle amidst the chaotic aftermath, others wrote with clear political agendas intended to sway the hearts and minds of their readership and, in turn, bolster their respective side’s support for the war effort. Still others searched for meaning in the aftermath through the prisms of religion, world history, and other lenses.  In this mini-series, students will explore the myriad ways that 19th-century newspapers, throughout the North and South, “re-fought” the Battle of Gettysburg, its factual components, and its larger significance in print in the immediate aftermath of the fighting.

Post-battle newspaper accounts of the fighting at Gettysburg are rife with “factual” reporting, proclamations as to the larger significance of the battle to the war effort, and vivid descriptions of key portions of the battle. However, many newspapers immediately embraced political reasoning to explain not only how the battle unfolded and why, but also how particular generals performed on the battlefield and in what light the American public should hold them.  Two mid-summer, 1863 articles in the Boston Daily Advertiser and New York Herald embody this sort of opinionative reporting.

Granted, these two articles voice two very different opinions. One is very much interested in a surface-level understanding of the key players who took part in the battle. It is the very definition of popular reporting, valuing the men at the head of the Army of the Potomac based upon their celebrity, and more specifically, on their political affiliations. The Boston Daily Advertiser, run by Nathan Hale until his death in early 1863, was a Republican paper before the war. Its Republican biases undergird key portions of this article, such as when the author censures Chief of Artillery, General Henry Hunt for “a lingering fondness of slavery.” Interestingly, despite its own, transparent political biases, the paper disapproves of political sectionalism within the army. Given the constant rotation in command of the Army of the Potomac in the months before Gettysburg, the author predicts that, lamentably, it will be only a matter of time until General Meade is replaced due to politically motivated gripings about his military performance. While the paper presents many possibilities for his replacement, and has much good to say about a certain General Winfield S. Hancock, it is also critical of Hancock’s political aspirations, stating that since his ascension in the army, he “has since ever been ready to acquiesce in the policy of the Government.” It is worth noting that Hancock was a Democrat, which might explain some of the Advertiser’s skepticism.

The other article depicts the exact reverse interpretation of politics in the army. In fact, its explicit impartiality and calls for politically unbiased evaluations of army commanders makes it stand out in a period where political sectionalism in newspapers was all the rage. In a comparison of decisions made respectively by Generals McClellan and Meade after the Battles of Antietam and Gettysburg that reads as if it could have been written today for its keen application of hindsight, comprehensive analysis of battle facts and situation-specific contextualization of military decision-making in and after each fight, and reporting from a bird’s eye view, the writer for the New York Herald points out much of the hypocrisy behind popular opinions of army commanders. As the article notes, both Meade and McClellan failed to pursue the Confederate Army into Virginia during their respective retreats from Gettysburg and Antietam, yet Meade was often applauded and McClellan was chastised. Instead of taking a political standing like the Boston Daily Advertiser, this author decides to take an unbiased view of things. “If, then,” the author writes, “there is little cause to find fault with Meade for not immediately following up the fruits of his victory, there is assuredly less for censuring McClellan for acting on the same prudential considerations.”  It would be easy, as many had done before, to look at McClellan’s political aspirations and use them to explain his failings as a military commander, or to hint at the efficacy of having only generals representing one of the political parties at the helm; employing such partisan rhetoric and politically motivated arguments to the assessment of generals’ military performance would be much more in line with what the Advertiser does. However, such is not the point of this publication. As the author himself states in the article’s final sentence, “Its [the article’s] object is simply to have the same even handed measure of justice dealt out to all, whatever may be their supposed political tendencies.”

Civil War was a time rife with extreme political bias that dramatically shaped how battles and leaders were discussed by the press and evaluated, both in print and by government officials in charge of promotions and replacements. Articles such as these played a critical role in shaping the debates about the role of politics in military assessment, occasionally urging fairness and politically unbiased analysis in popular evaluations of battlefield performance, and yet often unable to free themselves from the highly political lenses through which they represented the war and its leaders to the American public.

“Gossip About Generals,” Boston Daily Advertiser (Boston, MA) August 14, 1863

“A Military Parallel—Antietam and Gettysburg,” New York Herald (New York City, NY) July 23, 1863

A Sweet Serving of History

By Hayden McDonald ’25

In the days, weeks, and months following the Battle of Gettysburg, journalists and newspaper editors feverishly attempted to recapture the full details, implications, and meaning of the massive fight that had transformed one small, formerly obscure, south-central Pennsylvania town into a household name. While some reporters struggled to ascertain the exact facts of the battle amidst the chaotic aftermath, others wrote with clear political agendas intended to sway the hearts and minds of their readership and, in turn, bolster their respective side’s support for the war effort. Still others searched for meaning in the aftermath through the prisms of religion, world history, and other lenses.  In this mini-series, students will explore the myriad ways that 19th-century newspapers, throughout the North and South, “re-fought” the Battle of Gettysburg, its factual components, and its larger significance in print in the immediate aftermath of the fighting.

Imagine a small-town ice cream shop– a local place on the main drive through town. It’s small and welcoming, with brightly painted walls and today’s special flavors exhibited on a chalkboard out front. It’s a spot to stop in and enjoy some quality ice cream with the family, somewhere to get out of the sun and enjoy some sweets, a place to relax and enjoy your vacation.

 It’s a place like Cone Sweet Cone, situated on Baltimore Street, in historic Gettysburg. However, like many other places in Gettysburg, this ice cream shop serves up its sweet treats with a side of history. When you walk through the doors, on your right you’ll see a glass display case with photos and memorabilia relating to aviation during the Second World War–some for sale, others for decoration only. A table stands across from this display, just a few feet from the ice cream bar. On this table lie a plethora of unassuming wooden pieces, each one stamped with the name of an historic location within Gettysburg. The way the shop is situated, your eye is inevitably drawn to them as you wait in line for your ice cream. Your stop for a sweet treat now is imbued with a distinctly historic association—an association authenticated by a slip of paper lying next to the wood fragments that explain the significance of the objects, their historic credence, and why they are for sale in this shop.

The fragments are from a tree that witnessed President Abraham Lincoln’s procession down the same street that the ice cream shop stands upon on November 19, 1863, while en route to the newly created Soldiers National Cemetery to deliver his famed Gettysburg Address. Clearly, these are no ordinary bits of wood; rather, they are tangible pieces of the past—hand-held witnesses to some of the most important events in Gettysburg’s, and the nation’s, history. Surely you must take one home with you!

These pieces of wood, like much of historic Gettysburg, offer an “authentic” and tangible connection with the town’s history which, when held in one’s palm, seem to offer an immediate transplant to the past–an avenue of escape from the modern, commercialized present into the dramatic historic events that transformed the town into a national icon.  People who are standing in line waiting for ice cream will suddenly find themselves thinking not about what flavor to get, but about the trees which stood just opposite where they are now, and what great events they bore witness to. The casual visitor who might think they had “left the past behind” when exiting Gettysburg National Military Park is now reminded that, in fact, the battle’s history surrounds them wherever they go in the town itself.  Suddenly, their carefree ice cream purchase has taken on an entirely new and specialized meaning, which they can remember and share with others through the purchase of one of the storied wood fragments; in turn, their unexpected encounter here with history is thus associated with the enjoyable sensory experience of ice cream eating at Cone Sweet Cone in particular—the historical and the commercial thus reinforcing each other.  

The store’s blending of an offer of historic authenticity with the light-hearted consumerism inherent in visiting an ice cream shop is brilliant. The majority of people who stop by this ice cream shop will be tourists, and many will, in their travels throughout the town, be looking to take home something with them to remember their trip and their encounter with one of the nation’s most cherished historic sites. What better commemorative item to purchase, then, than a piece of a real witness tree?! In a town filled with t-shirts, mugs, and snow globes, the authenticity of this historic piece of wood is all the more enticing and thrilling.  Furthermore, with so many different historic stampings to choose from on the various wood fragments, why not collect them all?  You may walk into this shop hoping for ice cream, but you might just walk out with a piece—or two or three–of Gettysburg’s history in your pocket.