James Bedell: The Inhumanity of War

By Jonathan Tracey ’19

This semester, I am continuing to work on the Killed at Gettysburg digital history project. This time, I selected James T. Bedell, Private in Company F of the 7th Michigan Cavalry. I was introduced to his story while transcribing Henry Janes’ Case Book for Gettysburg National Military Park as a part of my work study program. Henry Janes was the doctor in charge of Camp Letterman, and after the war he compiled the bed cards of many soldiers treated at the hospital, creating his Case Book. Bedell’s record on a page entitled “Skull, Fractures of, with Injury of the Brain” was one of the first cases I transcribed back in September 2017, meaning that my year at Gettysburg will conclude with a nice tie back to the beginning. However, Bedell’s story became incredibly personal to me and shows just how inhumane the American Civil War really was.

Camp Letterman
Camp Letterman. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Enlisting on January 1st, 1863, Bedell was thrust into the world of a cavalryman. As a farmer, he may have had experience with horses, explaining why he didn’t go into an infantry regiment. Winter was filled with training, and spring was composed of light guard duty and a handful of small skirmishes. Gettysburg would be Bedell’s first and final major battle. On July 3rd, the Michigan Brigade was deployed east of town on what is now called the East Cavalry Battlefield. While Pickett’s Charge assailed the front of the Union lines, Confederate cavalry clashed with Union troopers in the rear. The untested 7th Michigan Cavalry, led by George Armstrong Custer, was sent to charge Confederate troops to prevent them gaining momentum for a charge of their own. It was a disaster.

The regiment charged directly into a fence and became disorganized. During this chaos, Bedell’s horse was shot out from under him, and he was unable to withdraw with the rest of his unit. Uninjured, though likely disoriented, he was captured and led to the rear. The Confederate officer leading the column of prisoners was furious at Bedell for not keeping pace. He struck Bedell with his saber and left him beside the road to die.

Photo credit: National Museum of Health and Medicine

Bedell was brought to the Cavalry Corps Hospital and ultimately to Camp Letterman. There, his wound was described as “on the left side of the cranium by a sabre stroke crushing the skull from a point one inch above the lambdoidal suture extending anteriorly nearly 4 inches on a line parallel to the saggital suture.” The saber had opened his skull, and he was weak with a slow pulse. He was completely lucid, and when roused from his depressed state was able to communicate effectively. He survived in this state until August 30th, when his pulse suddenly increased, and he suffered from a severe chill. This increased stress led to the brain protruding from the wound, and he went blind. Throughout all this his mind remained clear for hours until he finally died.

On May 21, 1862, Surgeon General William Hammond had issued Circular No. 2. This order instructed medical officers to “collect and to forward to the office of the Surgeon General, all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical and medical, with may be regarded as valuable.” It also established the Army Medical Museum as a repository for these unusual cases. Hammond hoped to use the war as a way to further medical knowledge and believed that gathering battlefield specimens in this new museum would allow them to be studied in more depth. James T. Bedell’s wound was considered one of these valuable specimens. Saber wounds were rare, and doctors were undoubtedly curious as to how he had survived for nearly two months. Following his death, his skull was removed from his body. It was shipped to the Army Medical Museum where photographs were taken, and the remainder of his body was laid to rest in the National Cemetery in Gettysburg. It is highly unlikely that his family was ever asked for consent. These images accompanied with his medical history would be published in medical journals through the 1870s.

Nat Cem stone
Photo credit to the author.

The sheer inhumanity with which Bedell was treated in both life and death shocked me. A Confederate officer struck down a prisoner of war, utterly shattering the 19th century bonds of masculine honor. Bedell was left for dead and brought to a hospital, where he clung to life for nearly two months experiencing extreme discomfort. Following his death, he still was not treated as a human being. He was given a named place in the National Cemetery, a place of honor. However, Bedell’s skull does not read beneath that stone with the rest of his body. Instead, it still sits in the National Museum of Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland. Treated poorly in both life and death, I can only hope that my telling of his story returns some level of humanity to a man regarded only as interesting for medical science.


Busey, Travis and John Busey. Union Casualties at Gettysburg: A Comprehensive Record, Volume 1. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc, Publishers, 2011.

Dr. Henry Janes Case Book. University of Vermont – Special Collections. Transcription at Gettysburg National Military Park.

National Museum of Health and Medicine. James T. Bedell File.

Reports on the Extent and Nature of the Materials Available for the Preparation of a Medical and Surgical History of the Rebellion: Circular No. 6 War Department, Surgeon General’s Office, Washington, November 1, 1865. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co, 1865. Pp. 40.

The Howell Brothers: A Costly Sacrifice on the Altar of Freedom

By Jonathan Tracy ’19

This semester, I have been working on the Killed at Gettysburg digital history project, which aims to tell the story of soldiers who died at Gettysburg while also tracking their movements on a map so that they can be followed. I was given Hannibal Howell of Company C of the 76th New York Infantry, and his story proved to be a lot more than I expected.

76th Monument
This granite monument, dedicated by the State of New York on July 1, 1888, stands near the intersection of Reynolds Ave and Buford Ave. This monument marks the first line of battle where the 76th NY lost over half the regiment as killed, wounded or missing in only twenty minutes.

His story is one that cannot be understood without contextualizing it by discussing his family. In 1861, he was a 34-year-old married painter with several children. His wife, Charlotte, was pregnant with their fifth child, though he likely did not know that yet. He does not exactly fit the stereotypical image of the 18-year-old unmarried soldier, so why did he enlist? The answer probably lies within the fact that his two younger brothers Byron and Tappan joined up. All three enlisted together on September 16, 1861, serving in the same company. Byron was made a Corporal, which certainly must have elicited some teasing and jokes between the brothers. Byron did not last long in the army; he was discharged for an unknown disability in April 1862. He likely had no choice in the matter, but potentially would have felt guilty for leaving his brothers, neighbors and new friends behind. Soon after, the other two brothers first saw combat. Tappan would be mortally wounded at the Battle of South Mountain a year after enlisting, and Hannibal was now alone. Hannibal was killed on July 1st, 1863, when his regiment took over 50% casualties in a mere twenty minutes. Only days before. he had passed within a mile and a half of South Mountain.

Of course, the story does not suddenly end when he was killed at Gettysburg. Almost all the personal information I could gather about Hannibal was found in his pension record which was over thirty pages long. Charlotte was caught in a bureaucratic nightmare in order to receive a pension she so badly needed to raise five children, most of whom were under the age of ten. She had even been forced to move closer to Hannibal’s parents after he had enlisted so that she could have a support network. The town in which they had been married in changed counties, and the Reverend who performed the ceremony was missing, so Charlotte could find no written record of their original marriage, despite the marriage lasting fourteen years. This is where Byron re-entered the picture. Trying to help his sister-in-law, he traveled across New York trying to find records. Though he was unsuccessful, Charlotte did receive the pension in 1864. After the war, when the government instituted increased pensions based off the number of children, Charlotte applied for the increase with Byron acting as her attorney for free. Byron also appears as the attorney for numerous other pension records for Union soldiers, especially for others who served in the 76th NY. Perhaps this was his way of redeeming himself for leaving the army, his friends, and his brothers so soon.

76th Position 2
After pulling back to reorganize, the regiment formed a second line of battle. From here, they could see their dead and wounded. Perhaps Hannibal had already been killed, or perhaps he was forced to watch comrades that he couldn’t help suffer while he was still fighting for his own life.

The story of Hannibal Howell can only be understood through the lens of family, and that makes his story still relevant over 154 years later. It is timeless. The story of brothers enlisting together, the story of a wife left alone to raise children, and the story of one brother working tirelessly to help his sister-in-law can all connect with someone in a different way. The story continues from there. Hannibal is listed only as having been buried on the field, with no records beyond that. It is unclear if he remains somewhere on McPherson’s Ridge, or in an unknown plot in the National Cemetery. His name is also on a stone he shares with Charlotte at the Hector Presbyterian Church Cemetery in New York near many other family members. He may have been brought home, or maybe that stone is simply a way to remember a man who left home and never returned. This is a story that people can relate to, and this is a story that lay mostly buried for countless years. Hannibal, Charlotte, Tappan, and Byron all had their own struggles during the Civil War, and it deserves to be remembered. To quote Lincoln’s famous Bixby letter, the Howell’s surely had solemn pride “to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.”

We may never know what compelled the Howell brothers to enlist. They might have believed in an in-dissolvable Union of states, they may have had abolitionist beliefs, or maybe they just saw it as their generation’s chance for adventure. Nonetheless, whatever expectations they had upon signing up were far from what they saw. Their experiences with disability, death, and disease shattered the Victorian ideal of “the Good Death,” and Byron and Charlotte were left behind after to pick up the pieces of a shattered family after the war. Their experience are important, as they remind us that behind every regimental marker, every unknown plot in the Gettysburg National Cemetery, every stone in the Antietam National Cemetery, and every family plot in a local cemetery is a story. The stones are not stones; they are people. They are people with real lives, real stories, and real pain.

Revisiting Fredericksburg: Using Provocation to Explore New Questions

By Jonathan Tracey ’19

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. 

To Freeman Tilden, provocation was an essential ingredient to effective interpretation, and I tend to agree with that idea. Both my walking tour at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center and the interpretive exhibits at Chatham Manor utilize provocation in different forms, with different challenges and opportunities. Overall, the atmosphere of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park is one that supports and encourages provocative thinking by visitors.

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The Emblem of the XXV:  A USCT Corps from Petersburg to Appomattox

By Jonathan Tracey ‘19

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.

25th Corps. Corps badges. These pins were worn by members of an all-black unit formed late in the war which had the distinction of being the first to enter Richmond. Corps badges like these were used to easily identify units on the battlefield. Each corps had a unique design, and each division a different color—red for the first, white for the second, blue for the third, and sometimes green for the fourth.

Pictured here are three corps badges for the Union XXV Corps. Beginning in 1863, most corps in the Union Army adopted symbols so it would be easier to distinguish different commands from each other during the height of battle. In addition to the symbol distinguishing what corps a soldier belonged to, badges were also color-coded to denote divisions. Generally, red would mark the first division, white the second, and blue the third. The XXV Corps adopted this shape, sometimes worn as a square, although usually seen pinned on as a diamond.

Continue reading “The Emblem of the XXV:  A USCT Corps from Petersburg to Appomattox”

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).

Adams County in the Great War

2017 marks the hundred-year anniversary of the US joining the First World War. This post will be part of a series examining the Great War in scope and in memory.

By Jonathan Tracey ‘19 

The First World War has generally faded from American memory, and is generally considered to have not cost the United States much. Although the country did not experience the total destruction that Europe endured, even small towns such as Gettysburg paid a cost, and the sacrifices made one hundred years ago should not be forgotten. First off is a brief summary of Adams County in the war, sourced primarily from Paul Foulk and Percy Eichelberger’s “Adams County in the World War.” Foulk and Eichelberger were students of Gettysburg College (then Pennsylvania College) and returned from service in the war and wrote the book to chronicle the county’s involvement. Consisting primarily of statistics and lists of soldiers from each town in the county, the book concludes with accounts written by soldiers about their overseas experiences.

WWI Liberty Bonds
Many residents of Adams County supported the war effort by buying war bonds. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.


Adams County responded with great vigor to the news that the United States would be joining the war. The initial draft registration of men included only those between the ages of 21 and 31, but was eventually broadened to all men ages 18 to 45. By the end of the war, 6,376 county men were registered and divided into several “classes” based on exemptions such as dependents or certain occupations. Of these, 548 were called to service and only two delinquencies were reported. The small number of delinquencies indicates a general acceptance of being drafted among county inhabitants. Additionally, 330 past, current, or future students of Gettysburg College enlisted, ranging from the Class of 1873 all the way to the Class of 1923. Naturally, the vast majority came from the Class of 1914 to the Class of 1920.

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Appomattox: 152 Years Later

By Jonathan Tracey ’19

Just over a week ago was the 152nd anniversary of General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.  Although that number may not be as big a deal as the 150th anniversary a few years ago, there was something else special about this year. For only the seventh time since 1865, April 9th fell on Palm Sunday, just as it did on the day that Grant and Lee met in the McLean House. Not only was I lucky enough to attend this commemoration, but I was able to revisit the job I held over the summer by volunteering that weekend. Arriving on Friday, I donned a volunteer uniform, attached my nametag from the summer, and walked out into the surprisingly cold air.

Names on Bags)
A small section of the 4,600 paper bags with the names of slaves emancipated in Appomattox County that lined the roads throughout the park. Photo courtesy of the author.

Luckily the weather was vastly improved on Saturday and Sunday, as hundreds of visitors flocked to the small village far out of the way of most tourists. Volunteers greeted visitors at the parking lot and helped to answer questions across the site. All weekend, interpretative programs were delivered on topics including Union General Philip Sheridan’s 1865 Central Virginia campaign, the United States Colored Troops at Appomattox, and the surrender proceedings themselves. Reenactors, both Union and Confederate, camped within the park, carrying out firing demonstrations to represent the fighting within and around the village and recreating the stacking of Confederate arms. Continue reading “Appomattox: 152 Years Later”

A Soldier and His Many Hats: The Evolution of American Military Headgear

By Jonathan Tracey ’19

Military headgear is a fascinating topic. It exists on a spectrum from the gaudy to the protective, but how did headgear evolve with the military? Interestingly, changes from the decorative to the practical can be examined through this blog’s favorite topic, the 1800s and the American Civil War. By tracing key changes in American military headgear in the 1800s, ideas about the nature of war, as well as how the United States was distancing itself from Europe, become clear.

Initially, military headgear served a very decorative purpose. Of course, at the beginning of American history, the early military defaulted to the use of British uniform tradition. This means that the military adopted the use of the Chapeau hat. Chapeaus came in two styles, either the stereotypical tricorn hat or the bicorn, which is familiar to those who have seen paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte. Although these hats once began life as a civilian covering, gradual changes made them less practical and more decorative. By the time bicorn headgear became standard, it was clear that the hats, offering little coverage from the sun or rain but providing a great, colorful decoration of rank or branch of service, had become more ceremonial than practical.

The Chapeau was dropped from uniform regulations by 1805, and although the foot artillery wore them until 1812, infantrymen found themselves in different headgear during the War of 1812. Instead, one would find soldiers wearing either dramatic dragoon helmets with horsehair, feathers, cockades, and eagles or the new infantry cap. The new infantry cap followed British designs, being a “shako of felt, still cylindrical but with the body shortened and a false front added to give the ilusion[sic] of height.” These hats served inadequately as weather protection, and the addition of the false front indicates just how important appearance was to designers. Continue reading “A Soldier and His Many Hats: The Evolution of American Military Headgear”

Becoming a Better Historian

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 Jon Tracey ’19

I’ve had an absolutely incredible summer at Appomattox. I will be leaving the National Historical Park with tons of knowledge and wonderful memories, as well as valuable experience. I’ve learned so much over the course of the summer, both about the Civil War as well as about myself. I’ve become a better historian, learned how to complete more advanced research, and discovered new ways to help teach the public about history. Of course, the summer had plenty of ups as well as downs. Losing power and air conditioning on a hot Virginia night while trying to do research was certainly frustrating! I also had some experiences with visitors that were less than perfect. While delivering first person living history programs, I had to stay within the context of what that particular soldier would have known in the summer of 1865. Sometimes visitors wouldn’t understand that, and once I was shouted at for being unable to answer the question of “What’s original inside the general store?” Luckily, that interaction was the exception rather than the rule, as most of my internship was filled with high points.

McLean House, Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading “Becoming a Better Historian”