Most Gettysburg residents took note this past winter when the Appalachian Brewing Company’s branch restaurant near the Lutheran Seminary closed. The Civil War Trust bought the land for its historical value; the structure and an adjacent hotel surround the Mary Thompson House, General Lee’s Headquarters during the battle. From the moment of purchase, the plan had been to demolish the buildings, sow grass, and transfer the four-acre lot to the National Park Service as a prized addition to the park. Most onlookers probably think that the tale is told as soon as the land is bought, cleared, and promised to the park. However, that thinking only pans out in a vacuum. In reality, the results of this purchase—as with any large purchase of land in a community—cannot be foreseen. Too many different actors are involved in and affected by something as simple as the demolition of a couple of businesses and the placing of a conservation easement on a property. And for those who stand to be affected by this purchase, controversy is pervasive and understandable.
One of the most seductive forms that Confederate memory has taken in the century and a half since the alleged return of peace truly reeks of a David vs. Goliath complex. The image of the luckless-yet-plucky Johnny fighting off endless blue waves of Northern invaders—with all of the hope of a man stabbing the ebbing ocean with a butter knife—endures in popular memory. As Tony Horowitz’s investigations in the 1990’s uncovered, those sympathetic to the Southern cause have long since codified the notion of the rebel cause as A) nobly doomed from the start on account of the North’s overwhelming industry and manpower and B) a stand for noble principles of personal freedom from governmental intervention—i.e. the ‘States Rights’ argument. In all of this, of course, there is no longer any serious contemplation of the horrors of slavery, the clear unhappiness of the slaves, or the palpable class-based oppression of the South’s antebellum ‘Haves’—the slaveholding aristocracy. The days when political alignments eclipsed the dark side of the South have long since passed, but the old rationalizations still persist and mistakenly defend the Southern war effort, portraying her soldiers as spotless martyrs.
And these views can be hard to challenge. Not from an objective standard, necessarily, but from an emotional one. A visit to Point Lookout, Maryland—former site of one of the larger prisoner of war camps to hold captured rebels—reminds visitors of how strongly the plight of the rebel prisoner of war is still felt today. The sight sports not one but two grand monuments to the Southerners who perished in Federal captivity. A sober obelisk placed by the United States government post-war marks a mass grave for 3,384 Confederate prisoners who could not be identified for individual burial. A dazzling, lovingly-maintained mash-up of state and rebel unit flags, soldiers’ names carved in stone, and the illuminated likeness of the ubiquitous Southern son sits separated from its sister by a few yards and a scraggly tree line. This addition appeared on the scene in 2008. Every time I visit I find reminders, such as wreaths, that people have taken time out of their lives to drive to the very tip of Maryland to pay their respects.
Recently, I contributed a piece called “Days Gone By, Days to Come: Monuments and the Politics of Peace” on the political teeth with which monuments are often imbued (or are deliberately denied). While I do not intend to ramble on about this issue—I hope that the previous piece will do enough to inspire readers to take a critical eye to any monuments that they cross in the future—I felt that one more story of poor documentation deserved illumination. The context: as Charles Lane chronicles in his book The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction, on April 13, 1873—Easter Sunday—the racial and political tensions already boiling in Reconstruction-Era Louisiana burst into decisive, open racial warfare. On that date, the Colfax courthouse in Grant Parish was stormed by a mob of white Democrats who, in a final bid to resolve the question of which party’s candidate had won the 1872 gubernatorial election, shattered the trench lines around the courthouse with small arms and a small cannon. Defending the courthouse were hundreds of freedmen and white Republican officials who had fled into Colfax from the countryside as racial violence had grown increasingly prevalent and organized. Most were refugee women and children. By massacre’s end, three whites and up to one hundred and fifty freedmen lay dead. A PBS documentary on Ulysses S. Grant reports that “nearly half [the victims were] murdered in cold blood after they had already surrendered.”
In the century and a half following the events of that Easter Sunday, the victims of Colfax have not been allowed to rest. Their memory has primarily been ignored or bent toward political ends, usually by those who couldn’t care less for the massacre’s victims of white supremacy. The site’s monuments reflect this. Perhaps there is no more abhorrent example of blood bound to stone for shallow aims in all of U.S. history. Continue reading “Tributes to Terror: The Mis-Monumentation of the Colfax Massacre”
Monuments may or may not represent the facts of a battle. They are, after all, post-facto by design. They may or may not have anything to do with the specifics of a conflict or its combatants. Many make a statement focusing not on an aspect of the suffering of a past war, but on an aspect of the peace that the survivors and their descendants hope to foster. They are not just memorial—born out of memory—but also political. Just as the future is fully malleable, so too is what we tell ourselves about the past. The images and ideas that a monument invokes are often designed, and how they are designed can reveal much about the builders and their aspirations.
For example, I once wrote a piece on the 90th Pennsylvania Volunteers’ monument here at Gettysburg. Rather than reiterate, let it suffice to say that it caught my eye because it was unusual. A granite tree for a monument? Even one shattered by shellfire is unorthodox. Embossed with a metal dove and a nest full of lively chicks seems even odder. I would argue that in building that unorthodox monument, the regiment’s survivors hoped to make a statement. They hoped not just to draw attention to themselves—not just to claim fame with a physical mark. They wanted to tie their toil and tribulation to something positive rather than negative. Rather than dwell on the bloody math of men lost and yards won, they attached redemptive imagery to their physical mark on Earth. Continue reading “Days Gone By, Days to Come: Monuments and the Politics of Peace”
I lied in the title. Ideas don’t die. Period. Once thought, they stay thought, failing the death of the species. However, that’s not to say that they stay recognizable, as time and circumstance make use of them in unforeseeable ways. And that is not to say that symbols are not co-opted and recycled with regularity. However, it is to say that no generation can allow a lack of foresight, or the complacency of memory, to allow such ideas and symbols to go un-scrutinized.
What am I on about? I would say that, for Americans, no ideas could afford to go unexamined more than the ill-defined ones that fall under the notion of “Confederacy.” I cannot say that, however, because these ideas are global, and even our familiar symbols—the flags that hold sway over some of our hearts as attractive faces of a positive good or a personal, emotional history—are no longer ours. They belong to the world and to the ages. Thus, it is everyone’s urgent responsibility to call to attention and scrutinize ideas—and their hallmarks—that do not reflect our modern conceptions of morality or sensibility, or that simply don’t make sense. Continue reading “Flags of Some of Our Fathers, Part 1: Ideas Don’t Die Easy”
A number of weeks ago, I put out a series of pieces focusing on some of the goals and hitches that come with the territory of historical preservation (see “A Vision for a Place: A Commentary on the Rehabilitation of the Harmon Farm” and “Stewarding Our Lands: Historical Preservation in Gettysburg”). To make these topics more bite-sized, I pared my focus down to the recently-preserved Harmon Farm property on Gettysburg’s outskirts. A commenter later asked for my thoughts on the matter of how to present what’s just been preserved in our backyard, so I will try to do that issue justice in this post.
Firstly, the changes that Andrew L. Dalton, the Harmon Farm’s leading scholar, recommended must be made. Decades as a country club/golf course/resort hotel have altered the topography of the place, especially with the addition of that honking water feature. Whatever was brought in must be taken out. But beyond those obvious changes, the question of how to shape the site for presentation to the public becomes open to discussion. Often the debate over how to present a site falls along two distinct lines that can be summarized with the question, “Do you want more or less human intervention at the site?” For this particular site, I say more. I want to see the golf cart paths repurposed to lead people around a circuit of explanatory waysides and perhaps stone outlines to mark the foundations of the actual buildings of the farm, where applicable. Continue reading “How to Delve Into the Dark: An Opinion on Interpreting the Harmon Farm”
According to a July 4, 2011 NPR segment hosted by Michele Norris, at last glance there were approximately 30,000 Civil War reenactors in the United States. This number had taken a nosedive from 50,000 over the previous decade. The interviewer, Gigi Douban, explains part of the reason behind the decline in interest for the hobby. She lists “The cost of travel, the cost of gear. That runs into the thousands. And it’s economic pressures like these that have some shying away from re-enacting. And the ones that are doing it are doing less of it.” Mr. Dana Shoaf, the editor of the Civil War Times, adds that “There just aren’t as many kids that are… finding re-enacting as an enjoyable hobby.” Continue reading “Laughing at Ourselves: Public Perception of Reenactors”
In the wake of any tragedy, people cannot resist asking with an honest, if gruesome, fascination, “How bad was it?” The question is unavoidable with regards to a tragedy like the Battle of Gettysburg, and the answer is evasive. As the experience of battle is so surreal that few can begin to understand it, the story of a regiment offers one of the best avenues for someone who was not there to look in on the carnage. While many regimental stories provide visitors to Gettysburg with a glimpse of the tragedy, one regiment’s tale stands out in particular.
Early on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, the men of the 26th North Carolina formed the center of Brigadier General Heth’s Division’s final assault on McPherson’s Ridge, aimed at driving the left flank of the Army of the Potomac’s I Corps off that high ground. They stood opposite Brigadier General Meredith’s famed Iron Brigade, known for their black Hardee hats and their discipline under fire. The 26th North Carolina formed up in a wheat field before the imposing ridgeline, which was concealed by McPherson’s Woods and screened by Willoughby Run, a natural moat sure to slow down any attackers. Continue reading “Superlative Sacrifice: The 26th North Carolina’s Losses at Gettysburg”
By Matt LaRoche ’17
My last post, “Stewarding Our Lands: Historical Preservation in Gettysburg,” aimed at engendering a general awareness of the goals and challenges that historians face in preserving and presenting places of value. To bring the message home to Gettysburgians, I used the somewhat recently acquired Harmon Farm property as a focusing lens. To follow it up, I interviewed the young man who literally wrote the book on the Harmon Farm.
Andrew L. Dalton has been a Gettysburg resident since the age of four and will be attending Gettysburg College next year. In his book Beyond the Run: The Emanuel Harmon Farm at Gettysburg, Dalton attaches stories and faces to the fameless ninety-five acres of the Harmon property. The terror and suffering borne by the soldiers who contested that ground, as well as the fear felt by sixteen-year-old Amelia Harmon and her family as their home was occupied and burned, have long ago hallowed that ground. Now their stories stand on the cusp of remembrance. But to remember these people properly, the property needs some renovation. 150 years of history has left its mark on what was once a simple Pennsylvania homestead. The industry of subsequent owners more than the battle has transformed the place into a fixer-upper in the best sense of the word. Hosting a hotel and a country club green has changed the landscape, but has also left a historical site full of potential – if a vision emerges to realize it. Continue reading “A Vision for a Place: A Commentary on the Rehabilitation of the Harmon Farm”
In recent decades, more and more time, energy, and resources have been put towards saving large tracts of our historical heritage. This surely appears self-evident to residents of a place like Gettysburg, which has seen the boundaries of the park grow exponentially thanks to the National Park Service, as well as to the actions of various private organizations and individuals. However, the conservation is far from complete. Not every “vision-place of souls” has been saved. However, while every parcel of preserved land is a gift to the American people, much preserved land still waits to be properly rehabilitated and made a meaningful part of the national tapestry.