I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts

By Kevin Lavery ’16

I had no plans of writing a blog post this week. I said my piece on ghost tours last year. This Halloween, it was the next generation’s turn to share their opinions on the matter. Jules and Jen both did a spectacular job on the subject, and I commend them even though our perspectives differ. But when I learned that my stance had come under fire from another blog, I eagerly leapt from the comfort of my editing armchair and returned to the front lines to compose this piece.

Gettysburg skyline from the roof of the Appleford Inn on All Hallow's Eve Eve.
Gettysburg skyline from the roof of the Appleford Inn on All Hallow’s Eve Eve. Photograph by the author.

In a post earlier this week, The Sundance Kid of the History Bandits wrote a piece arguing that I “missed the point” of ghost tours. He argues that they are an expression of folklore that should be considered an equally important part of the town’s historical landscape. I didn’t miss the point. I rejected it.

Now, I should clarify that I’m not rejecting folklore as a valid form of making sense of suffering. I firmly believe that it is a core component of Gettysburg’s heritage. I am only rejecting ghost tours as an authentic expression of folklore. It is true that spiritualism has long predated the emergence of the ghost tours industry. But I believe it is problematic to confound folklore with the stories told by ghost tours. Continue reading “I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts”

Once More (Again) Unto The Breach: Fall 2015

At the dawn of this new academic year, the Civil War Institute Fellows have returned to the trenches to prepare for yet another grueling campaign laden with risk and reward. Fresh from a summer of hard labor and riveting adventure, they are even now arming themselves with knowledge and steeling themselves for rhetorical battle.

By Kevin Lavery ‘16

With the dawn of a new academic year, the Civil War Institute Fellows have returned to the trenches to prepare for yet another grueling campaign laden with risk and reward. Fresh from a summer of hard labor and riveting adventure, they are even now arming themselves with knowledge and steeling themselves for rhetorical battle.

The 2015-2016 Civil War Institute Fellows are ready for action!
The 2015-2016 Civil War Institute Fellows are ready for action! Photograph courtesy of Shawna Sherrell.

Continue reading “Once More (Again) Unto The Breach: Fall 2015”

Memory on Parade: The Gallipoli Centenary and Anzac Day Commemoration

By Kevin Lavery ’16

On April 25, 2015, record crowds were drawn from across Australia and New Zealand to the annual Anzac Day celebrations. This year’s commemoration was extra special, for it marked the one hundredth anniversary of the First World War’s Gallipoli campaign. Several of my primary news sources reported heavily on the festivities and it all got me thinking again about how people rally around these patriotic, semi-historical holidays even if the holidays are often distorted reflections of the historic events that they are meant to commemorate.

The United States does not have a perfect parallel to Anzac Day, but the way in which our own national identity is constructed around certain annual holidays like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July–and around certain locations such as Gettysburg and Washington, DC–does present us with some loose parallels that we can work with to discuss some of the issues at play. I realize that comparisons can be problematic tools when dealing with history, but I also think that understanding such commemorations as a global phenomenon is essential to recognizing the scale and spread of the issues involved. Continue reading “Memory on Parade: The Gallipoli Centenary and Anzac Day Commemoration”

Gettysburg College campus purchased by preservation society

By Kevin Lavery ’16

Please click on each of the images below to read articles at full size and resolution.

The above articles are satirical pieces meant to imagine the danger of a paradigm of preservation lacking in strategy and judgment. Preservation is a wonderful cause, but like any cause it must be approached with purposeful intent and not simply for its own sake. It is an excellent tool of meaningful historical engagement when done properly; when mishandled, it can do the surrounding region harm without accomplishing anything of value.

Photos courtesy of the author and Wikimedia Commons, respectively.

On the Fields of Glory: A Student’s Reflections on Gettysburg, the Western Front, and Normandy

By Kevin Lavery ’16

I’m very fortunate to have had no shortage of opportunities to get out into the field and put my classroom learning into practice. I am especially lucky to have twice had the opportunity to travel to Europe. Two years ago, I went with my first-year seminar to explore the Western Front of World War I in France and Belgium. This year, I traveled with The Eisenhower Institute to tour the towns and beaches of Normandy where the Allies launched their invasion of Hitler’s Europe during World War II. Having experienced these notable sites of military history, and having taken a number of strolls through the battlefield in my backyard here in Gettysburg, I thought that it might be nice to reflect on each of these special places in a blog post.

Since many of you are likely most familiar with Gettysburg, let’s use it as a point-of-reference for my descriptions of the battlefields in Europe. In many ways, Gettysburg is unique even among Civil War battlefields—in its scale, the ubiquity of its monuments, and the quality of its preservation. Nevertheless, Gettysburg is a site intimately linked with what battlefield tourism looks like to Americans. Continue reading “On the Fields of Glory: A Student’s Reflections on Gettysburg, the Western Front, and Normandy”

The Unfinished Work: Slavery Today

By Kevin Lavery ’16

2.7 million. That’s an estimate for the number of slaves in the world today. The true number is probably higher, even though the United States abolished slavery 150 years ago. Most of today’s slaves go unseen and unaided, victims of an opaque system of exploitation that conspires to keep them oppressed.

Photo by Ira Gelb. Via Flickr.
Photo by Ira Gelb via Flickr.

Last month, the Gettysburg College chapter of Free the Slaves hosted “The Unfinished Work,” a conference that brought together students and activists from across the country to discuss what can be done to fight modern slavery. These modern-day abolitionists—spiritual successors of William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass—came together to talk about a perverted institution that certainly did not end with the Civil War. We all know that the legacy of slavery haunts the moral conscience of the United States, but we cannot afford to forget that slavery itself remains with us, albeit in a different set of forms. Continue reading “The Unfinished Work: Slavery Today”

Maybe, Maybe Not: The Tao of History

By Kevin Lavery ’16

Many years ago, I read an old Chinese parable in one of my brother’s books. I haven’t been able to determine its precise origins, but it goes something like this:

One day, a farmer’s only horse broke loose and ran away from his stable. “What bad luck,” the farmer’s neighbors said to him. But the farmer merely replied, “Maybe, maybe not.”

On the next day, the farmer’s horse returned with three wild horses and all were brought back to the farmer’s stables. “What good luck,” the farmer’s neighbors remarked. But the farmer merely replied, “Maybe, maybe not.”

On the third day, the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses, but fell off and broke his arm. “What bad luck,” the farmer’s neighbors said to him. But the farmer merely replied, “Maybe, maybe not.”

On the fourth day, a band of soldiers arrived to force local young men to join the army. They saw the broken arm of the farmer’s son and continued on to the next house. “What good luck,” the farmer’s neighbors remarked. But the farmer merely replied, “Maybe, maybe not.”

The story ends here, but I could keep tracing the intertwining of fortunes good and bad. From my limited exposure to eastern philosophy in high school, I’m pretty sure it’s a Taoist story given its message of ‘going with the flow.’

Now, you’re probably wondering why I think this Chinese parable has a place on a blog about the American Civil War. Let’s see if I can explain. Continue reading “Maybe, Maybe Not: The Tao of History”

Searching for Stevens

By Kevin Lavery ’16

You haven’t seen much from me yet this semester. For this I apologize. I have been knee-deep in preliminary research for a special project I’m working on for the blog – one that can’t be completed until the weather breaks. I originally meant to learn just enough about the topic of this project to share a brief overview with you all, but, as sometimes happens during the research process, I’ve become a little obsessed with the central figure of my research:  one Congressman Thaddeus Stevens.

To call the great politician polarizing in his own time would be a grave understatement. Frankly, it’s a testament to his willpower and political savvy that he managed to accomplish as much as he did considering how many enemies he made along the way. When I was in high school, we didn’t really learn much about Stevens except that he was one of the Radical Republicans who favored a hardline policy against the South during and after the Civil War. I knew his name, but I had no idea of the man behind it. Continue reading “Searching for Stevens”

Crusading for the Truth

By Kevin Lavery ’16

Last semester, I received a very memorable critique on one of my more polarizing blog posts. In it, a reader derisively referred to another of the CWI Fellows and me as “truth-driven crusaders” for our commitment to healthy historical engagement. Finding it an appropriate if not excessively romanticized description of the work we do as historians-in-training, my friends and I have since then appropriated the term to describe ourselves. I feel obliged to admit here that the antagonism signaled by the term “crusader” makes me a bit uneasy, but I like to think that we “crusade” against certain ideas, and not the people who hold them. Some interpretations of history are worth fighting for or against—with rhetoric as our weapon, though, not swords and spears.

A rather less benevolent crusader than those of the "truth-driven" historian variety. The Last Crusader by Karl Friedrich Lessing. Wikimedia Commons.
A rather less benevolent crusader than those of the “truth-driven” historian variety. The Last Crusader by Karl Friedrich Lessing. Wikimedia Commons.

I have no intention here of reopening what was a well-argued debate on both sides of the original issue, but rather to offer a reflection on the question it raised in my mind.

To whom or to what do a historian’s responsibilities lie if not to truth?

Continue reading “Crusading for the Truth”

Their Chance for Redemption?: The Dauphin County Regiment at Second Fredericksburg

By Kevin Lavery ’16

After a less than respectable showing on the slopes of Marye’s Heights in December 1862, the 127th Pennsylvania Regiment found itself in desperate need of an opportunity to redeem itself on the field of battle. Could a mulligan assault on the same ridge be the key to restoring their honor? Assigned to Hall’s Brigade in Gibbon’s Division for the duration of the Chancellorsville Campaign, they now had a chance to find out.

By the spring of 1863, the Army of the Potomac was itching for another shot at the Confederates. The 127th Pennsylvania – colloquially known as the Dauphin County Regiment – now considered itself to be a hardened veteran regiment, mocking newer regiments that carelessly discarded their blankets and extra layers of clothing in anticipation of combat. As part of the detachment under General John Sedgwick designated to assault the Confederate line from Stafford Heights as Hooker led his main army around the foe, Gibbon’s division would again cross the Rappahannock River on pontoon boats, capture the town of Fredericksburg, and march on the Confederate position at Marye’s Heights.

On May 2, Lieutenant Colonel Hiram C. Alleman and Major Jeremiah Rohrer were called before General John Gibbon, who reminded them that their section of the line would be particularly weak during the battle based on the division’s formation, “and General Lee knows it; so both of you will be held responsible if you allow yourselves to be surprised.” To ensure his point had been made, Gibbon then added, “You will be held liable, and will certainly be shot.” Perhaps, as the regiment’s later conduct would suggest, these words should have been taken closer to heart.

Major Jeremiah Rohrer, of the 127th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers
Major Jeremiah Rohrer, of the 127th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers

Continue reading “Their Chance for Redemption?: The Dauphin County Regiment at Second Fredericksburg”