Inside The Civil War Defenses of Washington: An Interview with Steve T. Phan

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming

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Steve Phan.  Image courtesy of Steve Phan

2018 CWI conference  about their talks. Today we are speaking with Steve T. Phan, a Park Ranger and historian at the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Prior to his arrival at CWDW, Steve worked as an intern and park guide at Richmond National Battlefield Park, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, and Rock Creek Park. A military history scholar of the Civil War era, Steve’s research focuses on military occupation, operational command, fortifications, and the Western Theater during the Civil War.  He is the author of several articles about Asians and Pacific Islanders in the Civil War and is currently writing a guide book for the Civil War Defenses of Washington.  Steve is also continuing his work on an extended research project about the Union Army First Corps and the life of General John F. Reynolds.  He holds a Masters degree in American History, with a concentration in Public History. 

Continue reading “Inside The Civil War Defenses of Washington: An Interview with Steve T. Phan”

Preservation or National Necessity? Gettysburg National Military Park During the World Wars

By Jonathan Tracey ’19

The great battle in 1863 was not the only time that soldiers occupied Gettysburg. As a National Military Park, the land was administered by the War Department for decades before becoming part of the National Park Service in 1933. As such, the department could use the land for whatever purpose was deemed necessary. During both World Wars the government made use of the historic landscape where Pickett’s Charge took place, and mandated the registration of monuments for potential removal as scrap metal for the war effort. The government saw the threats posed by 20th century warfare to outweigh the value of a preserved landscape.

A Renault tank cresting a dirt hill near the Bliss Farm in 1918. Courtesy of Eisenhower National Historic Site.

In 1917, the fields briefly hosted a mass mobilization camp, but that was short lived. The more major encampment came in 1918. The fields of Pickett’s Charge had become home to Camp Colt, a training camp for the newly formed Tank Corps. Soldiers under the command of Dwight D. Eisenhower ensured that the sounds of war again echoed through Gettysburg. Infantry carried out drill, and trucks with machine guns and 3 inch naval guns used the Round Tops for target practice. Once tanks arrived, drivers honed their skills on the battlefield, accidentally plowing through dirt as they maneuvered over historic landscapes, including the remnants of the Bliss family’s farm. After the war, the buildings were demolished, but the camp still left a physical mark on the landscape. Years later, William Redding, a farmer who had leased his farm from the government prior to the war, filed a complaint that, despite the fact the government had promised to return the land to the original condition, “sewers, water courses, trenches, and other excavations” remained in the fields.

In 1944, enemy soldiers again arrived in Gettysburg. Instead of invading Confederates, these new soldiers were German prisoners of war, mostly captured in North Africa. Chosen for the isolated location, local labor deficiencies, and remaining infrastructure, the former grounds of Camp Colt became home to an unnamed POW camp. Many Gettysburgians were angered by this, but not necessarily because of the use of the battlefield. Instead, their complaints primarily focused on fears of violent German escapees or anger that jobs vacated by their loved ones in the armed forces would be filled by the enemies the former workers had gone off to fight. These prisoners worked in businesses around Gettysburg, filling American soldiers’ vacant jobs by cutting wood, picking apples, and working in canning plants. Interestingly, many of the work crews also helped clear brush from the battlefield, helping to restore the historic landscape that their camp was intruding upon.

The tents that comprised the WWII prisoner of war camp on the fields of Pickett’s Charge in 1944. Courtesy of Gettysburg National Military Park.

During the Second World War, Gettysburg’s landscape also paid a price during the scrap drives. Fences, markers, and even parts of monuments were split into categories based off “importance.” These categories would determine at what pace they would be removed if the situation became so desperate that the government absolutely needed the metal. Luckily, the situation never became so desperate to call for the removal of monuments, but Gettysburg did sacrifice “750 spherical shells, 14 iron guns, 1 bronze gun, 8 bronze howitzers, 26 bronze siege guns, and 38 bronze guns.” These were of post-Civil War manufacture, and deemed expendable. Modern visitors can still see the places where the spherical shells were once placed, such as the concrete foundations next to Cushing’s Battery at the Angle.

Ultimately, Gettysburg sacrificed parts of the historic and commemorative landscape during the World Wars. Fields were occupied by soldiers, weapons were discharged towards the Round Tops, military vehicles drove over previously preserved fields, and commemorative objects were removed for scrap drives. Were these sacrifices worth it? Should the government have found different places for military camps and different sources of metal, or was the integrity of Gettysburg’s landscape worth partially sacrificing in order to achieve military success? Imagine if modern prisoners from the War on Terror were brought to live on the fields of Pickett’s Charge today. During the World Wars, Gettysburg and the historical community were willing to consent to sacrifices for the war effort, but it is far less likely that these sacrifices would be accepted today.

The fields near Emmitsburg Road as they appear today, having mostly recovered from military occupation. Photo by author, 2017.


“Camp Colt Damages.” Gettysburg Compiler, May 1, 1926.

Eisenhower, Dwight D. At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.

Hartwig, D. Scott. “Scrap Drive 1942.”

Murray, Jennifer. On A Great Battlefield: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933-2013. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2014).

Battlefields and Supermarkets: The Importance of Battlefield Preservation and the Case of Camp Letterman

By Savannah Labbe ‘19

Gettysburg National Military Park is an immense park, encompassing and preserving a large section of the battlefield. What many don’t realize, however, is that the battlefield was not confined only to the areas that have been preserved, but also to a much larger section of the greater Gettysburg area. Where now stands the Giant supermarket was once home to land that the Confederates retreated over and also, more importantly, to a large battlefield hospital, Camp Letterman.

Tents at Camp Letterman
Tents at Camp Letterman in August, 1863. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After the Battle of Gettysburg, most of the wounded and the medical staff moved on with the army. However, some wounded couldn’t be moved due to the severity of their injuries. All these men were consolidated into the general hospital that became known as Camp Letterman, which housed around 21,000 badly wounded Union and Confederate soldiers. It was the largest field hospital of the Civil War with 500 tents and the capacity to house 21,000 wounded. About 1,200 soldiers died there, but that number could have been much higher if not for Major John Letterman’s advanced triage system. His system became the gold standard of medical practice during that time period. Since Camp Letterman treated both Union and Confederate soldiers, they were able to interact and help begin to heal the divide that was crippling the nation. For example, there was a picnic at Camp Letterman in which both Union and Confederate soldiers ate and played games together. Camp Letterman was also involved in the First World War, providing housing for soldiers in the wake of the Spanish flu epidemic. Continue reading “Battlefields and Supermarkets: The Importance of Battlefield Preservation and the Case of Camp Letterman”

First In the Nation’s History: Gettysburg From Battlefield Memorial Association to National Park

By Hannah Christensen ’17

Just over a month after the Battle of Gettysburg turned the town on its head, local attorney David McConaughy sent a letter to several prominent citizens suggesting that “there could be no more fitting and expressive memorial of the heroic valor and signal triumphs of our army…than the battle-field itself.” He had already purchased some of the ground, and in order to keep the effort going, he suggested trying to get Pennsylvania citizens to contribute money to purchase and preserve more. In order to manage this fund and the battlefield, McConaughy proposed the formation of a preservation association and made a plan to seek its formal incorporation by the State Legislature. The idea went over well with the local citizens, and on September 5, 1863, they and McConaughy met to consider the matter of battlefield preservation. What they established was Gettysburg’s first preservation organization and the nation’s earliest attempt to preserve a Civil War battlefield.

The beginnings of battlefield preservation went hand in hand with another post-battle development: the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. David Wills and McConaughy presented competing solutions to the problem of where to put thousands of Union dead, and Wills’ plan won out. McConaughy’s plan was designed to benefit the local Evergreen Cemetery, while Wills had planned for an entirely separate cemetery. McConaughy then turned his attention to battlefield preservation: he and the group of citizens that met on September 5th created the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (GBMA), which created a fund for preservation purposes to be supported by voluntary subscriptions at $10 per share. They also appointed a provisional committee from which an executive committee would be elected; they would also appoint local committees across Pennsylvania.

When the fund was large enough, the subscribers were supposed to elect trustees, meet at Gettysburg, and organize. The officers on Gettysburg’s preliminary committee consisted of Joseph R. Ingersoll (chair), Dr. Samuel S. Schmucker and Rev. J. Ziegler (vice chairs), T. D. Carson (treasurer), and David McConaughy (secretary). The executive committee consisted entirely of Gettysburg residents and included J. B. Danner, J. L. Schich, D. A. Buehler, David McConaughy, R. G. McCreary, George Arnold, and T. D. Carson.

View of woods near the location where General John Reynolds was killed c. July 1863. This area was one of the first parts of the battlefield purchased on behalf of the GBMA. Photo via Library of Congress.

Continue reading “First In the Nation’s History: Gettysburg From Battlefield Memorial Association to National Park”

The Power of Passion: How a Lack of Momentum is Dooming New Hampshire Battle Flags

By Savannah Rose ’17

In my last post, I looked at preservation of Civil War artifacts at the local level, but not even at the state level do these items receive the attention they need. I spent my winter break back home in New Hampshire and decided to take a visit to our capitol building to visit the Hall of Flags. I have seen and read about the Hall before, but I hadn’t visited it in a few years. I arrived at the capitol building after a few hours of driving, opened the large doors to the governmental building, and immediately arrived in the Hall of Flags, all ranging from the Civil War to Vietnam.

The Hall of Flags contains 107 battle flags ranging from the Civil War to the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of author.
The Hall of Flags contains 107 battle flags ranging from the Civil War to the Vietnam War. Photograph by the author.

The State House has possession of battle flags from regiments deriving from the state of New Hampshire from more than 150 years ago. The first flags came to the State House in 1866, months after the last shots of the Civil War were fired. The flags resided in the Concord City Hall, entering their current home in the state capitol building in 1900, and have not been touched since. Straight from the battlefield, the flags create a magnificent exhibit of loyal colors, showing the pride the state had for its citizens who fought in more than five different wars. The flags are tattered, faded, and worn out, not solely due to bullet holes and bloodstains, but by the way they are presented to visitors. Continue reading “The Power of Passion: How a Lack of Momentum is Dooming New Hampshire Battle Flags”

To Be Or Not To Be: A Kentucky Battlefield’s Drive to Become a National Park

By Elizabeth Smith ’17

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.

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On January 4, people gathered to attend a public forum at the Mill Springs Battlefield Visitor Center. Photograph taken by author January 2016.

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”

Saving Colonel Cross: How Money Determines Which Histories Are Preserved

By Savannah Rose ’17

This summer, I spent my weekends volunteering at the Lancaster Historical Society near my hometown in northern New Hampshire. I went to elementary school in Lancaster and suffered through lessons on local history, but it wasn’t until I arrived at college that I discovered an interesting piece of Lancaster’s heritage. I learned that the commander of the “Fighting Fifth” NH, Colonel Edward E. Cross, was born and buried in Lancaster, an astonishing and exciting discovery that brought the Civil War back to my hometown.

After discovering this, I anxiously waited to go home to see what belongings of Cross Lancaster had in its possession, only to be incredibly disappointed by what I found. The grave of Colonel Cross is currently locked away from the public, rarely open for viewers to enter the cemetery. I was understanding of this as it was a private cemetery, but nothing could prepare me for what I found at the historical society. The historical society, operating out of a house in town, was closed the first summer I came home forcing me to wait a year to see the artifacts relating to Cross. Last summer was the first time I saw the artifacts of Colonel Cross, all together in a pantry-sized case.

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Colonel Edward E. Cross’s artifacts reside in this small closet within the Lancaster Historical Society. Stacked on top of each other, the artifacts have to endure the temperatures of a New Hampshire winter. Photo courtesy of the author.

Continue reading “Saving Colonel Cross: How Money Determines Which Histories Are Preserved”

Report from the Headquarters: A Reflection on the Lee’s Headquarters Public Forum

By Elizabeth Smith ’17

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.

Photograph by J. Stephen Conn, via
Photograph by J. Stephen Conn, via Flickr.

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”

The Original Birthplace of George Washington

By Max Zammataro ‘16

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

Looking back at American history, George Washington was a monumental figure to a significant portion of our citizens. As a founding father of our country, historians and relatives of President Washington have long wanted to properly document and share his birthplace with the American public. Memorializing where President Washington was born and raised acknowledges the great service he did for our country. Over the past 150 years, there has been an ongoing investigation into where exactly George Washington was brought into the world. There have been conflicting arguments because there was no definitive proof of his birthplace. The original structure where he was born, in Popes Creek Virginia, was burnt to the ground in 1779, leaving archaeologists with minimal artifacts to work with, such as pieces of china, hinges, a candle, a silver teaspoon and a bunch of keys. The lack of solid historical evidence disabled investigations to conclude exactly where President Washington was born. The lack of proper documentation and technology in the past also made it significantly harder to keep track of the facts.

As time passed, a number of people have claimed that they know exactly where George Washington was born. The information many of these parties have provided conflicts with what others were led to believe. George Washington Parke Custis, adopted grandson of George and Martha Washington, was the first to take the initiative to mark the site of the original birth house, placing a stone slab inscribed with the date of George Washington’s birth. The problem was that without proper documentation of the actual house, Custis was escorted to the spot where there were a few bricks laid to supposedly mark the spot of George Washington’s birthplace. Unfortunately, this was not necessarily factual, but for the time being it was marked as the birthplace. As the years passed, Custis’s slab was moved numerous times and chipped away at. Later it was released by the Daily National Intelligencer in 1857 that another chimney that was part of a smaller separate structure had been found on the site. It was located in the same vicinity as the original chimney marked by Custis. While these may appear to be minor details, they are significant because those “interpreting” the site were sharing incorrect information with early visitors.

One must acknowledge that these early historians and interpreters were trying their best to preserve and share what little information they had with American citizens even though the information itself was incorrect. This misinformation continued for such a long time because historians had no other way of checking the historical data other than going off the records available to them. The questions surrounding the actual birthplace of George Washington were misinterpreted for so long was because there were few artifacts to support the authenticity of the site. It wasn’t until a nearby site was excavated that additional information surfaced reshaping the story of Washington’s birthplace. This archeological data made it clear that Custis was incorrect in locating the site of the birth home. He was working with less than perfect information so cannot be blamed for the inaccuracies. He was just trying to share what he thought to be his grandfather’s story with his county. Continue reading “The Original Birthplace of George Washington”

Historical Preservation: The Elizabeth Cady Stanton Property

By Amanda Thibault ‘17

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

The Elizabeth Cady Stanton property presents a number of preservation and interpretive challenges. The NPS is currently considering launching a landscape restoration project. Photo courtesy Amanda Thibault.
The Elizabeth Cady Stanton property presents a number of preservation and interpretive challenges. The NPS is currently considering launching a landscape restoration project. Photo courtesy Amanda Thibault.

Historical preservation has always been a problematic issue for the National Park Service. Park officials must find a balance between preserving and exploiting historical landscapes. At battlefields such as Antietam, the National Park Service has issued a policy of landscape freezing to help visitors understand the historical significance of the park. Landscape freezing refers to preserving the landscape of a particular historical period in time. Antietam has issued a policy of restoring the landscape to the eve of the battle to the maximum extent possible. However, there are many problems facing this plan, like removing the roads that allow visitors to travel through the battlefield and form an emotional connection to the site.

The problems of historical preservation are pronounced here at Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY, especially at the Elizabeth Cady Stanton property. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the primary figure behind the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848. During tours of the property where Elizabeth Cady Stanton, her husband Henry Stanton, and her seven children lived from 1847 to 1862 only ten people are allowed in the house at once because of its small size. If there is a larger tour, the remaining visitors have to wait outside. Today, the only remnants of the Stanton property are the horse chestnut tree in front of the property and fruit trees located in the northeast corner of property. The orchard, flower and vegetable gardens, the circular driveway, the outdoor playground for the children, the barn and other outbuildings no longer exist. I believe the National Park Service should recreate as much of the original landscape as possible so visitors can roam around while waiting to go inside the house. Continue reading “Historical Preservation: The Elizabeth Cady Stanton Property”