Hot off the Press: War Matters Review

by Cameron Sauers ’21

War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era
Ed. Joan Cashin
University of North Carolina Press
ISBN: 9781469643205
262 pages

This collection of essays illustrates that a material culture approach to the past can help us better understand some of the deeper complexities of the Civil War era, such as the expansion of consumer culture, the common soldier’s experience, and behavioral history, as well as issues of race, bondage, and emancipation. Cashin argues that it is important to study the objects featured within the book to understand their multi-valenced roles in the daily lives of 19th-century Americans, as well as the cultural and emotional significance they held for those who utilized them. From Robert Hicks’s essay on vaccinating the Confederate armies, to Sarah Jones Weicksel’s examination of shelter in refugee camps, these pieces explore a wide assortment of artifacts. The authors reveal that these artifacts enabled historical actors to shape events in specific ways and give meaning to their surrounding world.

In her own essay, Cashin focuses on the relationship Civil War soldiers had with artifacts from the American Revolution. She specifically notes southern whites’ veneration of Revolutionary War artifacts and their desire to protect them from Union soldiers. Union soldiers were eager to find jewelry and cuts of wood from Founding Fathers as they campaigned, items that were valuable to them but were also easy to physically carry. Cashin argues that soldiers wanted physical contact with these artifacts to serve as second-hand connections to great figures, especially George Washington, which would serve as inspirational reminders of the past, as well as mementos that could be taken away as souvenirs of war. Cashin’s essay ends with a sentence that sets up this new subfield of historical scholarship: “The study of material culture can illuminate yet other undiscovered aspects of politics and memory in the long sweep of American History.”

Two other essays in the collection that complemented each other were Earl Hess’s, “The Material Culture of Weapons in the Civil War,” and CWI Director Peter Carmichael’s, “The Trophies of Victory and The Relics of Defeat: Returning Home in the Spring of 1865.” While exploring different aspects of the soldier experience, both pieces cover the tenuous relationship that many Civil War soldiers had with their weapons during the war. Hess explores the ambivalence that soldiers felt toward their guns and the act of shooting them. Some Civil War soldiers were petrified by the power of their rifles, realizing that the weapon purposefully took the life of an enemy or could accidentally discharge into a comrade. For other soldiers, America’s emerging gun culture made them supremely confident in the handling and use of small arms while campaigning. Carmichael discusses how rifles and other militaria carried heightened symbolism during the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. Some Confederate soldiers were so grief-stricken, or in denial, over the Confederacy’s demise that they could not bring themselves to personally surrender their weapons. Instead, they simply left their weapons in their tent and walked away rather than face the indignity of handing over these much-desired trophy pieces to Union victors. Enlisted men felt that the surrender of their weapons encroached on their personal honor because the decision to surrender was not theirs.

For casual buffs or serious scholars, War Matters is a rewarding read. Each author reconstructs the physical and symbolic importance of objects for readers. Moreover, the authors give voice to different human stories and the material objects through which individuals made sense of their world. The more we understand the artifacts themselves, the more we understand the people who used them. As the contributors to War Matters successfully showcase, material culture is an important complement to traditional history. Cashin and the contributors to the volume illuminate new subjects and provide another layer of understanding to the construction and unpacking of historical narratives.

A Gun With a Story: Waller Patton’s Civil War Pistol

By Laurel Wilson ’19

Musselman Library Special Collections is home to a wide variety of artifacts, including a rather impressive number of Civil War era items. One Civil War artifact, the Patton Pistol, stands out from the rest by virtue of the story attached to it. The 1861 Navy Colt revolver originally belonged to Waller Tazewell Patton, who was the great uncle of General George S. Patton Jr. of WWII fame.

Patton Pistol
The 1861 Colt Navy Revolver owned by Confederate Colonel Waller T. Patton and donated to Gettysburg College Special Collections by James D. Patton ’13. Courtesy of Gettysburg College Special Collections.

Waller T. Patton was a Colonel in the 7th Virginia Regiment of the Army of Northern Virginia. He was mortally wounded during Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd, 1863, when a piece of artillery shrapnel removed much of his jaw. He was brought to the Pennsylvania College Hospital (now known as Pennsylvania Hall at Gettysburg College), where he eventually died on July 21, 1863. Continue reading “A Gun With a Story: Waller Patton’s Civil War Pistol”

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”

Special Collections Roadshow–Episode 10 (Part 2): Brogans

By Meg Sutter ’16 and Megan McNish ’16

Special Collections Roadshow was created by students at the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College in the Spring of 2014. It normally showcases various artifacts from Special Collections at Gettysburg College. For our tenth episode, we went on the road to the Gettysburg National Military Park. Thank you so much to the park staff, specifically Andrew Newman for letting us film an episode on an enlisted man’s uniform and to film in their facility! #FindYourPark #GettysburgNMP

Special Collections Roadshow — Episode Ten: Union Uniform

By Meg Sutter ’16 and Megan McNish ’16

Stay tuned for Part Two!

Special Collections Roadshow was created by the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College in the Spring of 2014. It normally showcases various artifacts from Special Collections at Gettysburg College. For our tenth episode, we went on the road to the Gettysburg National Military Park. Thank you so much to the park staff, specifically Andrew Newman for letting us film an episode on an enlisted man’s uniform in their facility! #FindYourPark #GettysburgNMP

Causing Conversation: Civil War Memory in Beyoncé’s “Formation”

By Annika Jensen ’18

Not only did Beyoncé slay in her latest music video, but she got historical. Her single “Formation” touches on feminism, oppression, sexuality, and police brutality, and her video offers a visual representation for the overall theme of African American cultural ownership. It is, of course, an essential message for contemporary discussion, and the formerly-silenced subject is beginning to achieve prevalence in the music industry, but there is something special and bold about Beyoncé’s take on race: by appealing to Civil War memory and forcing viewers to accept the African American struggle for life, freedom, and success, she is shattering perceptions of one of our country’s most popular areas of historical study. What’s more? She’s a woman.

In some scenes, the iconic singer reconnects with her Southern roots by appearing in a Civil War era Southern-style parlor with other women of color, all sporting opulent Victorian clothing. In another, she stands clad in black outside what appears to be a large plantation home and, in an act of rebellion, flips off the camera. These historical allusions certainly create a powerful image of African American social progression, but they also present a more subtle message about the memory of slavery and the Civil War. Beyoncé is denying any attempt to erase her from our history while presenting the complexity of black lives during the Victorian era. She carefully lays out the connotations of black and white, of woman and man, and of power and submission.

Beyoncé gets historical in her latest music video. Photograph via

Continue reading “Causing Conversation: Civil War Memory in Beyoncé’s “Formation””

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”

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.

CWI Cross
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”

Living History or LARPing? The Case of Vox’s Modern Victorians

By Alex Andrioli ’18

Sarah A. Chrisman and her husband, Gabriel, love the late Victorian era. Like many lovers of history, the Chrismans have a specific time period they enjoy studying more than others. For them, it’s the 1880s and 1890s. However, they take their research a little more seriously than most. They don’t just take their work home with them, they live their work.

In an article for Vox, Sarah Chrisman wrote, “Everything in our daily life is connected to our period of study, from the technologies we use to the ways we interact with the world.” She and her husband live in Port Townsend, Washington in a house that was built in 1888. They have replaced many modern appliances with “period-appropriate” appliances like the electric refrigerator that came with their house when they bought the property. They now have an icebox that they stock with block ice that dribbles into a drip tray that requires being emptied once or twice a day depending on the season. Along with this icebox, the Chrisman house is stocked with a mechanical clock that needs to be wound every day, fountain pens and ink, electric light bulbs that are based on the original patents of Edison and Tesla, oil lamps, mortars and pestles, a hairbrush that has a 130-year-old design, and toothbrushes that have natural boar bristles. These, among other items, are what make up the Chrismans’ Victorian paradise.

An 1885 painting depicting a woman playing tennis in fashionable Victorian clothing. Did the woman in this painting have the same opinion of her clothing as Chrisman? “I became so accustomed to the presence and movements of my skirts, they started to send me little signals about my proximity to the objects around myself.” Painting by Sir John Lavery, via Wikimedia Commons. Sir John Lavery. “A Rally.” 1885.

Continue reading “Living History or LARPing? The Case of Vox’s Modern Victorians”

Special Collections Roadshow: Ink Well and Diary

Meg Sutter ’16 and Megan McNish ’16 report from Gettysburg College’s Special Collections in Musselman Library. In this episode, they present a Civil War diary and ink well used by Lewis W. Tway of the 147th New York.