I once met a man who was a dead-ringer for Joseph Goebbels. He had the same dour sort of face plastered to a gaunt skull that could only have been squeezed in a vice; the same thin hairline that had retreated in step with the Reich’s exhausted armies; the same curt manner that summed itself up in a curled finger–“come here.” Our introduction to each other began with a beep from an airport scanner in Frankfurt. With no words, he directed me to an isolation space behind the security station. I’d be a liar if I said that standing with my arms outstretched as he patted me all over with gloved hands and chemical swabs didn’t send my heart racing. I didn’t know what to expect.
But more than that, I was on my guard. This was my first time in Germany–a connecting flight to elsewhere. All I knew of Germany and its people was what my grandfather’s stories and the History Channel had accidentally made instinctual to me: they were the enemy. There was something of a reckoning in that moment. It seemed that history had left me with only one response to an nationality: suspicion.
My grandfather rode with the 2nd Armored Division from Normandy to the Rhine. At the age of thirteen, his future wife led her siblings to shelter under the stairs as the Luftwaffe bombed targets across Somerset, night after night. Her aunt lost a thirteen-month old daughter in the London Blitz. Her uncle served with the BEF in France, and, after his capture in Greece, he spent five years as a slave laborer in a Bavarian salt mine. A generation earlier, my family sent almost a dozen men to fight above and below the trenches of the First World War. While–miraculously–not one died in combat, my great-great-grandfather, a sapper at Ypres, wheezed with the effects of mustard gas for the rest of his life.
On Wednesday, April 20, 2016, Gettysburg College students and faculty gathered in Penn Hall Lyceum to acknowledge the centennial of the Easter Rising. On April 24, 1916, the day after Easter Sunday, an armed rebellion led by Irish Republicans seized the General Post Office and other major buildings in the center of Dublin, and declared a “Republic of Ireland.” Approximately 1,600 members of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army participated in the six-day rebellion. The Rising was an act to overthrow the British government in Ireland and provoke a full-out revolution. After a week, however, British forces squashed the rebellion and arrested 3,000 people. The following month, fifteen leaders of the Rising were executed. While the Rising did not initially gain support from the Irish public, the ensuing brutality administered by the British in the aftermath of the rebellion spawned public dissent and fueled political unrest and further violence.
Three Gettysburg College faculty members, Benjamin Luley, Ian Isherwood, and Robert Bohrer, presented at the Wednesday night panel. Vice Provost Jack Ryan gave opening remarks and introduced the panel.
As early as the 1850s, the game of baseball was being referred to as “our national game.” At a time when the nation was being ripped apart at the seams, it served as a relatively new symbol of national identity. Baseball did not fully reach its unifying potential until after a bloody war that pitched North against South. However, these reconciliationist qualities did not strike at the heart of all Americans.
Civil War soldiers often turned to baseball between battles. George Putnam, a Union soldier fighting in Texas, recalled a game that had to be cut short due to a surprise Confederate attack.
“Suddenly, there was a scattering of fire, which three outfielders caught the brunt; the centerfield was hit and was captured, left and right field managed to get back to our lines. The attack…was repelled without serious difficulty, but we had lost not only our centerfield, but the only baseball in Alexandria, Texas.”
Two decades before the Irish Brigade covered itself with glory, an earlier unit of Irish immigrants had won renown for its service during the Mexican American War. Calling themselves the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, these men marched under a flag of brilliant emerald decorated with Irish motifs: a harp, a shamrock, and the image of Saint Patrick.
Unlike the Irish Brigade, however, the Saint Patrick’s Battalion fought against the U.S. Army. Led by the disgruntled Irish immigrant John Riley, this elite battalion was comprised of roughly two hundred Irish-American deserters who pledged their loyalty to General Santa Anna and the Mexican government. When Los San Patricios were defeated and captured by U.S. forces, fifty-seven deserters were sentenced to hang for their crime.
In American memory, Riley is a traitor, a deserter, and a mercenary. But this summer while exploring County Galway, Ireland, I stumbled upon a monument to his memory given to his hometown by Mexico in recognition of his service. The experience delivered to me some perspective. To pass judgment on Riley and his men, we must understand their times.
An ongoing and rather controversial debate in the Civil War world is that over the rightful placement of the Confederate battle flag in American memory. Being such a provocative symbol both in terms of history and race relations, its ‘true’ meaning and ‘true’ symbolism are constantly in flux. With recent disputes on the removal of the Confederate flag from Robert E. Lee’s tomb at Washington and Lee University making their way into the mainstream news, the complicated meaning of the rebel symbol and where it belongs in American memory have earned their places at the forefront of the national consciousness.
Brad Paisley worked the issue even further into the public arena with the release of the song “Accidental Racist” on his 2013 album Wheelhouse. Set toward the end of the album, the country song with a little flavor of rap features LL Cool J as a guest artist. Immediately after its release, the song drew criticism both from white and black Americans about its aims and the intended meaning behind its unusual yet distinctive lyrics.
The Dropkick Murphys is a popular American Celtic Punk band known for their combinations of punk rock and bagpipes. Their songs are filled with Irish pride and often have something to do with hard partying and whiskey. However, in their 1999 album The Gang’s All Here, the Murphys took on the topic of Irish soldiers in the American Civil War. The song “The Fighting 69th” was first sung by the Irish band The Wolfe Tones on their 1993 album Across the Broad Atlantic. The album features several songs dedicated to Irish immigrants to America and holds a certain fascination for the Irish American. The Wolfe Tones version of the song is a more traditional-sounding Celtic song detailing the journey of Irish immigrants as “they sailed away/and they made a sight so glorious/as they marched along Broadway…and from there they went to Washington/and straight into the war.” When the Murphys released their version of the song in 1999, they added their signature punk anthem sound to make their version a hard rocking ballad dedicated to the men of the Irish Brigade.
Many Americans are familiar with the tune “Dixie’s Land” as the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Despite the song’s ties to the Confederacy, it is still a popular tune even today. Some, like poet and critic Babette Deutsch in the 1920s, have even argued that it is more popular than the “Star Spangled Banner.” Deutsch writes that “the national anthem never is sung with the same hearty joy and strong emotion with which an audience, even of Northerners, greets [‘Dixie’].” Deutsch’s early twentieth century interpretation of this phenomenon is very likely dependent on the era in which she wrote it, but even today there are those in the South who rally for “Dixie” more than for the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Yet despite the song’s popularity, it seems that the majority of the American public is not aware of the long and somewhat unexpected history of “Dixie.” Even of those who know “Dixie” was actually written by a Northerner, how many are aware of its origins as a minstrel song functioning to draw comedic attention to the role of black slaves on Southern plantations? “Dixie’s” history has largely been obscured by time and the Lost Cause, and so it is significant not only to note the complex history of the tune, but also to raise questions about why such a song became the most popular rally cry of the Confederacy in the first place.
This post is part of a series on the experiences of our Pohanka Interns at various historic sites working on the front lines of history as interpreters and curators. Dr. Jill Titus explains the questions our students are engaging with here.
We have all heard the stinging statement, “Americans do not know their basic history.” Although the blame for this atrocity is sometimes laid upon the shoulders of the United States’ educational systems, more often the judgment goes hand in hand with the stereotype that Americans are lazy. And perhaps we are. Like any American college student, my laundry will pile up until I run out of socks, and I would much rather watch a historically sketchy movie than dig through the research stacks at the library. But regardless of our love of television remotes and microwavable dinners, my summer as an intern at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park and the 1994 historical survey undertaken by David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig have shown me that Americans are taking an active effort to engage and connect with the past, albeit in a utilitarian way.
This summer’s Annual Civil War Institute Conference will focus on the War in 1864. Dr. K. Stephen Prince, an Assistant Professor at University of South Florida in Tampa, is conducting a concurrent session during the conference on southern ruins and their influence on Reconstruction. He is also conducting a dine-in session on Frederick Douglass’ “Mission of the War” speech. Dr. Prince’s book entitled Stories of the South: Race and Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1919, will be released right around the time of the conference.
Monday evening, November 18, students from Gettysburg College got to sit down and discuss memory with Dr. David Blight from Yale University, author of the renowned work Race and Reunion. The session was conducted as an informal panel with Dr. Blight and Gettysburg College’s own Dr. Isherwood and Dr. Jordan. Dr. Blight spoke about beginning his work when memory studies was not an official field and stumbling his way headlong into working with the memory of the American Civil War. When discussing whether or not memory studies were a fad that would pass away, Blight reassured the audience that people have doing memory studies long before there was an official field. Memory is essential to who we are as human beings and all peoples and all nations construct their past in a way that is useable to their future.