A Beacon of Hope: Contraband Camps, Harpers Ferry, and John Brown

By Alex Andrioli ’18

This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead:  Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.

Contraband Camp at Harpers Ferry, WV. Stereoview card. The 3-dimensional stereoview and other photography brought the reality of the Civil War into civilian homes. This stereoview shows the rag-tag conditions of a contraband camp, erected just a few yards from John Brown’s Fort in Harper’s Ferry. Courtesy of Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.
Stereoviews were created by using a twin-lens camera that captured the same subject from two slightly different angles. The photographer then placed the two images on a stereoview card that could be inserted into a special viewer that merged the two images together and created a life-like, three-dimensional image. Stereoviews’ low cost meant they were an inexpensive way to insert one’s self into realistic three-dimensional scenes like the pictured contraband camp.

Continue reading “A Beacon of Hope: Contraband Camps, Harpers Ferry, and John Brown”

The Legacy of “Old Osawatomie”: John Brown in Art and Memory

By Ryan Bilger ’19

Have you seen this man before?

John Brown Kansas
Tragic Prelude (1940) by John Steuart Curry. Located in the east wing of the 2nd floor rotunda in the Kansas State Capitol Building. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps you have, and perhaps you’ve already thought a bit about him and what he represents to you. But if you have not, take a moment and just look at him, and consider the question I have raised. What emotions does this painting, showing a man towering over other figures and a landscape like a god stir up in you?

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Grave’s Anatomy: Abolitionists, Body Snatchers, and the Demise of Winchester Medical College

By Kaylyn Sawyer ’17

GRAVE, n.  A place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student.

A census in 1890 listed Chris Baker’s occupation as “Anatomical Man.” While the title sounds like that one of today’s superheroes, the nineteenth century existence of this vocation kept people from lingering around medical colleges after dark. By day, Chris Baker worked as a janitor for the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. By night, he had the darker task of obtaining corpses for the school. He was a “resurrectionist,” and he was not alone in his eerie nocturnal task of preying on the powerless and recently interred with a shovel, bag, and cart close at hand. Until legislation governing the supply of anatomical material in Virginia was passed in 1884, grave robbing and body snatching were primary means of obtaining cadavers for medical school instruction. African American cemeteries and potter’s fields were primary targets, and medical students themselves were often the perpetrators. For students at the Winchester Medical College, this unseemly practice would lead to the destruction of their school.

Chris Baker (left) with anatomy students at the Medical College of Virginia around 1899. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Tompkins-McCaw Library, Virginia Commonwealth University.
Chris Baker (left) with anatomy students at the Medical College of Virginia around 1899. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Tompkins-McCaw Library, Virginia Commonwealth University.

Continue reading “Grave’s Anatomy: Abolitionists, Body Snatchers, and the Demise of Winchester Medical College”

Now Quite Certain: Uncovering the Unexpected History of Harpers Ferry

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

By Annika Jensen ’18

If my experience in Harpers Ferry this summer had a thesis statement, it would be this: there is so much more than John Brown.

Jensen 1
Photo courtesy of Annika Jensen.

Going into my first day of work in the education department I had a tightly-wrapped set of expectations regarding not only the nature of the place in which I was now living but my own skills as an interpreter as well as a teacher; I was just as convinced that Harpers Ferry was a town trapped in the history of the Civil War as I was that I was no good with kids. I had read about Jackson’s position in the town and Sheridan’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, but I could not admit to knowing much more than that. Continue reading “Now Quite Certain: Uncovering the Unexpected History of Harpers Ferry”

Making History Relatable

By Alexandria Andrioli ‘18

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.

Since beginning my internship at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, I have learned that interpretation is immensely important. It is not just about spouting out facts, dates, and figures at members of the general public who will probably never remember half of the stuff you tell them. National parks are about taking important and interesting material and making it relatable to the lives of the visitors that come to the park on a daily basis. Although Civil War emphatics deeply appreciate meticulous information, the average visitor wants more than just cold, hard facts. He/she wants to take something more meaningful away from his/her time spent at the park and this is where interpretation is key.

Dwight Pitcaithley addresses the idea of interpretation and the deeper meanings behind the significance of national parks (especially battlefield parks) in his work “A Cosmic Threat: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the Civil War.” In this essay, Pitcaithley explores the history of interpretation at NPS battlefield parks. When battlefields were first being preserved, their purpose was “to understand the military actions which took place there and to remember the men who fought there.” As Pitcaithley puts it, battlefields were to be “explained in detail” like “a chess game of war.” This idea was widely accepted, especially among the Civil War veterans who had fought these battles, because it sped up reconciliation between the men of the Blue and the Gray armies. Avoiding sensitive subjects that could easily reopen old wounds and focusing on common experiences shared between comrades and enemies alike was too tempting to resist. So naturally, parks that memorialized the battles and the soldiers of the Union and Confederacy did the same. “Any interpretation of the war, any mention of the war’s causes, or any mention of slavery” was dodged like the plague. Continue reading “Making History Relatable”

“Lincoln: The Uncertain President”

By Avery Lentz ’14

Many historians who study the United States share a passion for studying Abraham Lincoln’s intricacies and complexities. One of those historians is none other than Dr. Allen Guelzo. Dr. Guelzo has given many lectures on Lincoln, the most noteworthy of which is his four-part lecture series on the President’s life. On January 28, 2014, Dr. Guelzo presented a lecture in Gettysburg College’s Kline Theatre called “Lincoln: The Uncertain President”. The lecture was primarily focused on Lincoln’s rise to power, starting with his debates with Stephen Douglas to the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Dr. Guelzo’s main theme throughout the lecture was showing how Lincoln, during the early years of the Civil War, was confronted with a situation that no president had ever dealt with before. Lincoln was new to the presidency and a war of secession was new to the country.

Lincoln

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Apprehension and Excitement: My Summer at Harpers Ferry

By Blair Mitchell ’16

Before the start of my internship at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, I only had vague ideas of what it was like to be a teacher. My thoughts were mostly along the lines of, “yeah, I could teach”. However, abstract thoughts rarely prepare you for the real thing. My vision of flawlessly teaching 30 middle-schoolers about history inevitably did not line up with reality, leaving room for doubt to creep in. At first it seemed daunting to be in charge of so many students and lead them through the history of Harpers Ferry. But as I observed and taught more I realized how much fun it was, in addition to being challenging.

Blair at HF
Blair at Harpers Ferry NHP

The best thing about my Mondays and Tuesdays working with middle school students from around the country is having the opportunity to teach them new things and possibly leave an everlasting mark on them. But this potential for success and failure is what made me so apprehensive about teaching in the first place.  For most of the children that I teach, this is the first time they have ever learned about John Brown, and this both excites and scares me. On one hand, it is exciting because I have the chance to inspire a child to become a historian, but on the other hand they could lose interest and label all history as “boring”. I have always been aware of the power teachers hold in regard to the interests and futures of their students, and this summer that responsibility has fallen to me. Even though I only have my students for a day, I still believe that just one day can make a huge impact. Continue reading “Apprehension and Excitement: My Summer at Harpers Ferry”