Complicating the Civil War Narrative: The Lincoln Lyceum Lecture

By Savannah Labbe ’19

Ayers
Edward Ayers

On October 3rd, the 2018 Lincoln Prize-winning author and historian, Edward Ayers, gave a talk on his most recent book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America. Ayers began the process of writing this book in 1991 while driving through the Shenandoah Valley and wondering how places so naturally beautiful could go to war with each other so quickly. In his book, he attempts to answer that question by looking at how the Civil War was experienced on the ground by normal, everyday people. He does this by following two communities from 1863 to the immediate post-war years: Augusta County, VA and Franklin County, PA. He began following these two counties in his previous book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, and The Thin Light of Freedom serves as a follow-up to that book. Ayers chose these counties because, on the surface, they seemed to be very similar. Both counties had similar soil and geographic features and they are relatively close in proximity. They also both initially supported the Union. However, despite their similarities, their inhabitants still went to war with each other and had very different opinions about the war. Augusta County ultimately sided with the Confederacy when Virginia seceded, which radically changed the lives of the county’s inhabitants, both black and white. By examining the war’s impact on both whites and blacks in these two communities, Ayers provides a fuller picture of the complex racial, social, economic, and cultural fabric of these societies. Ayers sees these counties as a sort of microcosm of the Civil War itself, in that they provide specific examples and concrete evidence for the larger, intangible legacies of the war, such as the fight over historical memory.

 

Ayers began his lecture by arguing that the Civil War was marked by boundaries of all kinds, not just regional ones. The war changed the boundaries that marked who was considered a human being and who was considered property. Time also made its mark on the lives of soldiers in that soldiers would often look back upon battles and see them as landmarks, or turning points, in their lives. Battles such as Gettysburg, where Ayers begins his book, had this effect. A man from Franklin County was at Gettysburg, and after the great victory near his home, he was able to sneak off to see his wife. His wife back home could hear the roar of battle but could not see it. After his visit, though, she was able to feel secure in the knowledge that her husband had survived the battle. For the soldier, his visit home after the great carnage at Gettysburg served not only as a much-needed break from the battlefield’s death and destruction, but also was a celebratory moment and a happy memory from which he could derive hope and purpose. However, on the Confederate side, the scene was very different. Confederates were not able to return home and celebrate their victory with their wives. Instead, they watched as wounded and mutilated men were dragged down the road by wagons, some of whom had not even seen a doctor yet. In contrast to the more hopeful Union soldier, the Confederates looked back upon the Battle of Gettysburg as a moment of immense and unmitigated suffering and loss.

Though the Confederates lost at Gettysburg, they were able to come back in 1864 and capture another Pennsylvania town: Chambersburg. In addition, the Union forces also occupied Staunton, the largest town in Augusta County, in June of 1864. When the Confederates took Chambersburg, the residents of Franklin County despaired over its loss. However, the Confederates relished in the terror of Chambersburg’s citizens and hoped that the county would never again be under Union control. An African American soldier defending the town wrote about how bravely his regiment had fought. The raid was particularly dangerous for this black soldier not only because he risked his life in battle, but also because he risked being captured and sold into slavery by the Confederates. However, he was determined to fight to gain the rights of black people to be acknowledged as human beings, to be free, and to vote, or die trying. Ayers used the experiences of town citizens, Confederates, and the black soldier to portray the range of emotions involved when the Confederates captured Chambersburg. Ayers showed this range of emotions and opinions in order to provide insight into what was at stake for each of these groups of people.

The citizens of these counties had differing opinions and feelings about many political and social issues, including the election of 1864. During the campaign season, northern Democrats vilified Abraham Lincoln. The Republicans and African Americans, on the other hand, believed Lincoln was correct in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and making the war not only about the preservation of the Union but also about ending slavery. Though he only gained 1% of the northern Democratic vote, Lincoln won in a landslide vote in the electoral college, ultimately ensuring the demise of the Confederacy. However, white Augusta residents vowed to never give up, and even offered to send their slaves to fight for the Confederacy. They had already lost so much, since much of the war was fought on their land, and were willing to sacrifice even their most prized “possessions”—their slaves– in order to preserve southern independence. In proposing to send their slaves to fight for the Confederacy, Augusta residents defied many other southern slaveowners who believed that slavery provided both the physical labor and the socio-political backbone that kept the Confederacy on its feet. The actions of southerners like the Augusta residents helped shape the Lost Cause narrative and southern memory of the war. For example, the idea that southerners would never give up influenced the Lost Cause idea that the southerners never did give up but were, instead, simply overrun by overwhelming numbers. Augusta residents’ willingness to give up their slaves also shaped the Lost Cause narrative, as southerners used such evidence to try to argue that the war was not about slavery, but rather about southern independence.

White southerners, such as those of Augusta County, entered the post-war world believing they were in the right and that God had been on their side, and they fought tenaciously to preserve such a narrative for posterity in their attempts to control the historical memory of the war. Immediately after the guns of war fell silent, the whites of Augusta County set out to decorate the graves of the Confederate fallen. In doing so, they sought to promote the notion that the Confederate dead were the only war dead that deserved to be honored, as they had fought for the only noble cause. The next day, the African Americans of Augusta County went out to decorate the graves of Union dead. With this action, they fought back against the white residents’ attempt to control historical memory of the war by arguing that the Union dead were more deserving of having their graves decorated because they had fought for the more righteous cause of freeing the slaves.

Due to African American resistance to the Lost Cause narrative, southerners did everything they could, both legally and illegally, to prevent African Americans from gaining suffrage and fully participating in American society. In this way, Ayers believes, the South committed its own suicide: If southerners had not fought so hard to deny blacks their rights, then the drastic reforms of the Radical Republicans in Congress that forever changed the fabric of southern society would not have been necessary. Ayers believes that the Radicals’ most important reform was the public-school system, which allowed African Americans to become educated. Southerners did not want blacks to have access to education because then they would become a threat to southerners’ visions of “proper” political and social order. Through public education, blacks would gain the knowledge and intelligence necessary to fight for suffrage and to stop discrimination. African Americans would then realize that they could achieve everything white people could, thus making them the equals of the white man. Such realizations would challenge the claim that white people were inherently superior and would ultimately undermine whites’ discrimination methods, such as segregation.

Ayers’s lecture provided an in-depth look at two counties which, on the surface, seem very similar but were actually radically different. His close analysis of Augusta and Franklin Counties offers a compelling window into the lived realities of the war for two specific communities, while unpacking some of the critical regional complexities that shaped those communities’ differing experiences of and reactions to the war. Additionally, his examination both of the long fight for historical memory and of the differing worldviews and experiences of all those involved in the conflict shows that a multi-faceted view of the war is necessary to fully understand the conflict and its legacies.

To Liberty, Honor, and…Cufflinks?: The Grand Army of the Republic

By Savannah Labbe ’19

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Grand Army of the Republic cufflink. (via Special Collections at Gettysburg College)

Borne of the Civil War, one fraternal organization quickly assumed such great authority that it re-shaped cultural prescriptions of manhood, dictated the northern public’s memory of the war, and even influenced presidential elections. This organization, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), was formed in Illinois in 1866 by veteran Benjamin Franklin Stephenson and its number of posts in the United States quickly increased. In order to be a member, one simply had to be a Union veteran. By the 1890s, there were 7,000 GAR posts around the country; approximately 1.3 million men, half of all Union veterans, were group members. Members would have worn these cufflinks, or more commonly, the badge with the same image on it, as status symbols. They purchased these cufflinks and badges not merely so that they could have another piece of jewelry, but so they could show everyone that they were one of the heroes who fought for the Union, one of the brave soldiers who were now part of the most powerful veterans’ organizations in the United States. Being a member of the GAR meant one had participated in one of the greatest wars of modern times (so they thought). In addition, these accessories indicated that one had not only participated in that war, but that he had fought on the right side– the side of liberty and freedom. These cufflinks became a symbol of one’s martial manhood, proving that one had served with courage and honor while fighting for a just cause. In this way, the GAR promoted its own history of the war– what is now known as the Treasury of Virtue. Similar to the Lost Cause narrative, it promotes a biased interpretation of history, in this case from the northern perspective. According to this narrative, all northern soldiers were noble, honorable, and heroic men who triumphed because they fought for the righteous goal of emancipation.

The imagery on the cufflinks also served to highlight the ideas of moral righteousness and martial fraternalism that the GAR tried to foster within its members Lady Liberty can be seen in the background–yet another concrete reminder that Union veterans had fought for a virtuous cause. A soldier and a sailor clasp hands in front of Lady Liberty, which symbolizes fraternalism, one of the goals of the GAR tried to promote. These cufflinks would have made it easier for men to recognize each other as fellow brothers-in-arms: They would know immediately that the man they had just met had gone through the same experience they had and would understand it as no one else could. It is hard to relate the horrors of war to someone who has never been through it, and the GAR provided an outlet for former soldiers to express these horrors and know that those around them would understand and empathize, instead of simply pitying them. Amidst the fraternal comfort of the GAR, that strict veil of 19th century manliness could be pulled aside; veterans could realize that they were not the only ones who had felt scared in combat or had been wracked with guilt over killing a man. To help facilitate these connections between veterans, the GAR held local, regional, and national meetings in which they would sit around campfires singing war songs and telling stories. Not only did this serve as a sort of therapy for the men, but it also allowed them to reminisce and be proud of their actions and the fact that they were part of so great a cause at so important of an historical moment.

Two figures kneel before the soldiers on the cufflink. Scholars debate over who these figures are supposed to represent. Some believe they are two orphan children, while others believe they are slaves. Either one would make sense. The GAR set up a fund to help widows and orphans and they also helped set up many homes for orphans. These activities went hand-in-hand with another goal of the GAR– that of charity. The GAR believed that those who had fought and died for the Union deserved proper care for their families. The government was hard-pressed to provide pensions for veterans, let alone to provide for the families of the fallen, so the GAR took this task upon itself. By doing so, members set an example, showing that veterans and their families deserved to be rewarded for their sacrifice, and thereby declaring them members “worthy of charity.” It is also equally plausible that the figures in front are slaves because GAR members liked to promote an image of themselves as the liberators of the oppressed.

The GAR used its moral authority of being on the side of righteousness to try to control the memory of the war. The GAR funded many Civil War memorials and monuments in order to promote its version of history. For example, in Arkansas, a state divided in its loyalties and with many more Confederate monuments than Union ones, the GAR made sure to make its presence known. The inscription on one of the three GAR monuments in Arkansas proudly proclaims that the Union soldiers’ “sacrifices cemented our union of states and made our flag glorious forever.” Not only did the GAR remember the Civil War through monuments, but it also started the official tradition that came to be known as Memorial Day, (though many others, particularly Southern women, had been observing similar days since the war ended). Originally known as Decoration Day, the commander-in-chief of the GAR designated that May 30, 1868, would be a day for the decoration of Union graves. 31 states adopted Decoration Day as an official state holiday by the next year. This ensured that those who had sacrificed their lives for the Union cause would never be forgotten. In addition, it also served as a reminder that those living veterans who would proudly wear their cufflinks to these events to publicize their fraternal identity, deserved to be rewarded for their services.

In order to fight for what they believed veterans deserved, especially pensions, the GAR became a very political body. After the Civil War, it was difficult for a president to be elected or even win a primary without the endorsement of the GAR. The GAR became a political arm of the Republican party, lobbying for certain presidents and political candidates. It was not until 1885 that a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, was elected president. However, Cleveland was not able to win immediate reelection because he vetoed a pension bill, which made members of the GAR angry . The GAR was very concerned with the welfare of veterans, and because of this they focused their lobbying efforts on obtaining pensions for veterans and their families. When politicians vetoed or opposed pension bills they were sure to feel the wrath of the GAR. Before the formation of the GAR, soldiers did not really take a large role in politics. Americans held that the ideal soldier was first and foremost a citizen and as such they should not take a role in government affairs. Americans were all too familiar with the unruly armies in Europe who did not protect the citizens but instead fought for money and power. American soldiers tended to return quietly to private life after they were done fighting because of this fear. The GAR, in contrast, was openly political and fought for what they believed they were owed.

This cufflink was much more than just a piece of jewelry. It was a way for comrades to identify each other and immediately bond over shared wartime experience . As such, it promoted camaraderie, friendship, and healing among veterans. Those who wore it were immediately identified as a member of a heroic class, and the white, northern veteran became the new model of honorable manhood. This cufflink also helped the GAR shape the memory of the Civil War. Its symbolism reinforced the idea that the Union had fought a just war that had saved global democracy and liberated an entire race of people. Additionally, the monuments and the traditions that the GAR started helped to promote a distinctly northern memory of the war, its causes, and consequences . As is evidenced by the actions of those who proudly wore these cufflinks, the post-war years were not, contrary to popular belief, all about reconciliation and a “forgive and forget” attitude; both sides tried passionately, and for many decades, to assert their own particular memory of the war. While the GAR was a veterans’ organization, it also became a political lobbying group. For the first time since the American Revolution, citizen soldiers became a tightly organized interest group dedicated to reshaping the political life of the country. No longer retreating back into their post-war private lives, these veterans but became directly involved in national politics, fighting for the material benefits and respect they believed they deserved in return for their sacrifice.


Sources:

Blight, David W. Race and Reunion. Cambridge, USA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Christ, Mark K. “Arkansas Listings in the National Register of Historic Places: Grand Army of the Republic Monuments.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 77, no. 1 (Spring2018 2018): 67-73. Accessed September 16, 2018.

O’Leary, Cecilia Elizabeth. ““When Johnny Comes Marching Home”: The Emergence of the Grand Army of the Republic.” In To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism, 29-48. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

“The Grand Army of the Republic and Kindred Societies (Main Reading Room, Library Of Congress)”. Loc.Gov. Last modified 2011. Accessed September 16, 2018.

Finding Meaning in the Flag: The KKK Era

By Olivia Ortman ’19

This post is the seventh in a series about the Confederate flag in history, memory, and culture. It offers one Fellow’s individual perspective as she investigates different sources and opinions. Read the first post here.

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Image drawn by Arthur Szyck in 1949. Bubble in top corner reads: “Do not forgive them oh lord, for they do know what they do!” Bottom bubble reads: “Each negro lynching is a national disaster! Is a stab in the back to our government in its desperate struggle for democracy…”

In 1972, black Vietnam soldier, Frank J. Francis sat down for an interview with Forward, an African American newspaper in New Jersey. The purpose of the interview was for Francis to share his experiences with racism in the army. At one point, Francis began talking about the Confederate flag. He told his interviewer, “If anyone is familiar with the South, then one knows that throughout the South black people have been and are still being terrorized by such organizations as the KKK or the White Citizens’ Councils, extreme anti-black, racist organizations. These people use the Confederate flag as a symbol of their allegiance to the racist South and all of its anti-black policies.” Francis further shared that the flag was often displayed by white men; there were four Confederate flags in his company alone. The black soldiers found these flags highly antagonistic because, as Francis explained, that flag could only mean one thing: The presence of racist organization members and sympathizers. Even in Vietnam, Francis’s most concerning battle was the one he had to fight over his skin color . Others, however, would have a very different experience with the Confederate flag and its symbolism in those circumstances.

Francis’s association of the flag with racism was not unique; it followed a century’s worth of tradition. One of the first hate groups to adopt the Confederate flag as their symbol was the Carolina Rifle Club of Charleston, South Carolina. The group was formed in 1869 to defend the white race against “negro aggression.” Although their official flag was their state flag with a C superimposed over the palmetto tree, in the late 1870s, the club’s president boasted that it was “the first military body of white men which paraded in the streets of the city or the State, bearing arms…under the Confederate Banner, since the struggles of the War had ceased.” The South Carolina Rifle Club would be the first of many hate groups to carry the flag while preaching white supremacy.

The hate group most commonly associated with the Confederate Flag, the Ku Klux Klan, did not pick up the Confederate flag until much later. Although the KKK was formed in 1865 by a group of ex-Confederate soldiers, their connection to the flag was individual, not organizational. Several of the founding members had Confederate flags draped over their caskets when they died, denoting their involvement in the Confederacy, but the group itself did not specifically identify with the flag. Actually, since the early 1900’s, the KKK’s official flag has been, and still is to my knowledge, the U.S. flag. The group’s goal was to defend America, which (to them) meant enforcing racial segregation and black subordination at the time.

The first serious connection between the KKK as an organization and the Confederate flag was made in 1946. Stetson Kennedy, a labor organizer and investigator from Florida, went undercover to investigate a Klan in Atlanta. During the initiation ceremony, Kennedy noticed the presence of a Confederate flag draped across the altar. His description of the ceremony was featured in the May 27th edition of Life magazine, along with a story of the Klan’s attempted comeback.

Although there is nothing that explicitly states why the different Klan factions began incorporating the Confederate flag into their iconography, it was most likely a desire to identify with their Confederate ancestors. Historian John Coski explains that World War II had reinvigorated a sense of regional identification and the flag’s connection to a unique southern identity. The Klan’s adoption of the flag coincides with the end of World War II and an overall southern desire to connect with the flag. The Klan members in the 1940’s were also amongst the first generations of Klansmen not directly connected to the Civil War. The original founders of the KKK and many of the members of early Klans were Confederate veterans. These early members did not need the Confederate flag to be identified as men who fought to preserve a distinctly southern way of life . For later generations of Klansmen who had not fought in the Civil War, the flag provided a tangible connection to since-deceased Confederate soldiers, men whom Klansmen upheld as heroes.

The Klan’s connection to the Confederate flag would continue to grow throughout the 1950’s and beyond. By the mid-1960’s, the Confederate flag became almost synonymous with the KKK and white supremacy. Life magazine did a series of articles on the KKK throughout 1965, each one featuring prominent Klansmen standing in front of large Confederate flags. The first article was printed in the February edition and discusses several hate groups in America. The section dedicated to the KKK is preceded by a full-page image of Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton in full regalia posed in front of a very large Confederate flag. The magazine quotes other Klan members stating, “Fools, traitors, and Communists seek to mix our race with the blood of an inferior and cannibalistic black race,” as well as, more simply, “We’re against the niggers.” The implication could not be made any clearer. By posing a prominent Klan member in front of the flag, Life and Shelton were claiming the Confederate flag as a symbol for the KKK and therefore intertwining the flag with the group’s racist agenda.

Two months later, Life’s April edition featured a full article on the KKK alone. Halfway through the article, a Klan member is pictured holding a Bible and a copy of the Constitution and wearing a Confederate flag vest. Above the picture is the quote, “We love Negroes, in their place – like shinin’ shows, etc.” The May edition provides the most shocking connection to racism of all. Life covered the trial of Collie LeRoy Wilkins, a 21-year-old Klansman who murdered Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights advocate. Throughout the trial, Wilkins ranted and raved about his violent ideas concerning blacks and the whites that helped them. Regardless of these horrifying comments, the jury found Wilkins not guilty and set him free. What was the first thing Wilkins did upon release? Wilkins marched in a Klan parade where he proudly waved a Confederate flag to the applause of the crowd. Growing up in an atmosphere like this, it is no wonder that Frank Francis would see the Confederate flag as being solely a symbol of racist hate groups.

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Imperial Wizard, Robert M. Shelton, signs autographs at a KKK rally in Hattiesburg, Miss. in 1965. The flag in the corner appears to be a Confederate flag.

Surprisingly, however, the flag was also used as the symbol of an anti-racist group. In 1970, just two years before Francis gave his interview, the newspaper Great Speckled Bird printed an article about a group calling themselves Young Patriots. The Young Patriots were young white activists based in Chicago who used community service to address issues of oppression within impoverished white communities. Although their primary focus was on poor whites, the Young Patriots used their work as a platform to foster a partnership with African Americans who were also being oppressed by rich whites. The group had modeled itself after the Black Panthers and actually worked very closely with the Panthers to spread acceptance and awareness of struggles faced by African Americans.

Members of the group were very proud to share photos of a rally held jointly with the Panthers in Chicago. In these photos, a Confederate flag hangs behind the podium right next to the Panthers’ flag. For these young white men and women, the Confederate flag represented their southern heritage and what they celebrated as a uniquely southern tradition of rebellion . The Young Patriots ignored the causes of the Civil War, reducing it simply to an act of resistance by southerners, therefore making the Confederate flag the ultimate symbol of resistance to authority. The group then used the flag as a connection between themselves and poor white southerners, visually stating that they all had distinct southern roots based in rebellion. By displaying the Confederate flag, the group hoped to rally impoverished whites to join African Americans in resistance against their mutual oppressors.

Support for the Young Patriots varied amongst African Americans. Those who supported the Black Panthers usually looked favorably upon the Young Patriots, although they acknowledge there were still some racist qualities that needed to be ironed out. Others who felt the Black Panthers were too militant typically classified the Young Patriots in the same category of radicalism. Although neither that article nor the other dozen articles I looked through specifically mentioned how African Americans felt about the group’s use of the Confederate flag, its continued use seems to imply a measure of acceptance from the African American community. The Young Patriots worked very closely with the Panthers and often displayed the Confederate flag beside the Panthers’ flag. Since the Panthers allowed this, they must not have been overly offended by the flag. Maybe the Panthers saw this as a small token of revenge against white southern supremacists: They were appropriating one of the most dominant pieces of those supremacists’ iconography and imbuing it with a message of black support in order to ultimately empower the African American community to defeat such racism. However, it is likely that the Confederate flag was still very jarring for African Americans unfamiliar with the Young Patriots . Most African Americans’ only experiences with this flag had been instances of hate and racism. For them, it was a symbol of oppression and white supremacy. Considering the pervasiveness of this interpretation of the flag, one can understand how wary many African Americans must have felt when confronted by the Young Patriots bearing the flag aloft. However, the group’s use of the flag proved that the flag’s symbolism was not, and never would be static and that – as is still true today – specific historical context matters when determining the flag’s multi-pronged messages.


Sources:

“Great Order Will Not Die, Confederate Veteran Says.” Wisconsin Kourier (Washington, DC), December 26, 1924. Accessed April 14, 2018. KKK Newspapers.

“Interview with Frank J. Francis.” Forward (Fort Dix, NJ), February 1, 1972, 7th ed. Accessed April 5, 2018. Independent Voices.

Joye, Barbara. “Young Patriots.” Great Speckled Bird (Atlanta, GA), March 9, 1970, 10th ed. Accessed April 5, 2018. Independent Voices.

Kelley, Robert W. “Pictorial Summation of a Tragicomic Mistrial.” Life, May 21, 1965, 32-39. Accessed April 5, 2018.

“KKK.” Life, April 23, 1965, 28-35. Accessed April 5, 2018.

“October 28, 1965, Ku Klux Klan Rally in a Hattiesburg (Miss.) Field Featured on the Front Page of the October 29, 1965, Hattiesburg American. Speakers on Stage. Robert M. Shelton, Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America, Signs Autographs.” October 1965. Moncrief Photograph Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. In Wikimedia Commons. June 22, 2005. Accessed September 16, 2018.

“Stetson Kennedy Dies at 94; Infiltrated Ku Klux Klan.” The New York Times. August 28, 2011. Accessed April 16, 2018.

Suiter, John. “Black Panthers: The Algerian Festival, Police Decentralization, and Hard Words to Student Radicals.” Berkley Barb, August 8-14, 1969. Accessed April 14, 2018. Independent Voices.

Szyck, Arthur. “Do Not Forgive Them, O Lord, For They Do Know What They Do.” Cartoon. New Caanan, CT. 1949. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed April 14, 2018.

“The Fearmongerers.” Life, February 7, 1965, 71-77. Accessed April 5, 2018.

“The Ku Klux Klan Tries A Comeback.” Life, May 27, 1946, 42-44. Accessed April 5, 2018.

Between the World and Them

By Jeffrey Lauck ’18

The first time I learned the story of the Bryan family and their Gettysburg farm was when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. For Coates, there was something poetic about the fact that the climax of the Civil War’s bloodiest and most well-known battle—a moment forever enshrined in Confederate memory thanks to the likes of William Faulkner and Ted Turner—occurred on land owned by a free black man and his family. Pickett’s Charge—the greatest symbol of Confederate martial honor in the Civil War canon—had been repulsed on property that represented so much of what its participants fought to prevent: freedom, prosperity, and dignity enjoyed by African Americans.

Continue reading “Between the World and Them”

Competing Memory: Camp Colt’s Place in Gettysburg History

By Anika Jensen ’18

I recently came face-to-face with the issue of relevance in my research on Camp Colt for a public history class, and in studying the tankers’ noble intentions—preserving democracy, stemming German militarization, progressing American innovation—on an equally noble battlefield, I came to an troubling impasse: should America’s first tank school, which operated on the same ground where men fell in droves during Pickett’s Charge roughly fifty years prior, be recognized to the same degree as the Battle of Gettysburg? Is there a way to justify discussing Eisenhower’s command over the fledgling tank corps, which never saw combat, in the same light as the Civil War’s costliest land battle? To me, of course, the answer is yes. With my interests lying in the First World War, I think the Camp Colt experience proves imperative to understanding Gettysburg as a place, but I also see it as more than a neat anecdote. The training that occurred on the battlefield in 1918 paved the way for America’s participation in modern, armored war and established Dwight D. Eisenhower as a notable leader. Moreover, the camp’s trainees looked to Civil War era values of bravery and duty, memorialized in stories about Joshua Chamberlain and Pickett’s Charge, to establish a new martial masculinity for the 20th century.

That said, I understand the opposition. Gettysburg is the holy of holies, a national shrine, and the ultimate signifier of honor, duty, and sacrifice. To place its memory and its venerated dead beside a group of recruits who never saw combat, never really impacted the course of the Great War, would be to trivialize the battlefield that for so long has served to remember and consecrate. I understand the argument that they simply cannot be compared in scale and experience. If Gettysburg can only hold one group’s memory, then, it should be those that fought and fell there in 1863.

 

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Camp Colt recruits trained with the Renault FT-17. Photo credit: Eisenhower National Historical Site, Gettysburg National Military Park

The debate is one of static versus continuing history. Static history, in this case, focuses on Gettysburg as a Civil War site, a logical idea, given that the majority of this town’s visitors are more interested in learning about the Bloody Angle than the Renault FT-17. Static history certainly evolves, evident in Gettysburg’s increasing importance in Civil Rights and African American history, but it prioritizes singularity over collectivism. Here, many of us establish a sense of place based on a single battle and its aftermath, often overlooking any events or cultural phenomenon that do not connect to the Civil War directly. It makes it easier to understand the town in which we live.

But there is much to be said about continuing history, too. By studying Camp Colt and the Great War alongside the Civil War, we create a bigger picture of American history that absorbs both the 19th and 20th century and helps us understand things as they are. This approach works with history as a continuum. It uses the Battle of Gettysburg to interpret the Camp Colt experience, emphasizing the importance of both while creating a more complete, whole idea of “Gettysburg.” While I recognize the necessity of preservation, I firmly believe that it can survive alongside a more continuous, all-encompassing historical narrative.

When I delivered an interpretive program on the Camp Colt experience, placing the summer of 1863 beside the summer of 1918, I received positive feedback (from Civil War buffs, no less). I realized that focusing on Camp Colt does not detract from the collective Gettysburg memory or trivialize the battle but rather enhances the sense of place and timelessness this town holds. It was this same sense of place, after all, that motivated Eisenhower’s tank recruits to emulate the bravery and comradeship of Gettysburg’s dead. By 1918, the young tankers knew what they would face in France, but they remained willing to serve, motivated by the ground on which they trained. It does not matter, then, that they never made it into combat; their willingness is enough to warrant their memory.

Eisenhower’s tank recruits, selected specifically for their bravery and competence under pressure, build upon the Gettysburg we know and expanded our understanding of war, memory, suffering, martial masculinity, and duty. In a sense, the men of Camp Colt were casualties of war, as 150 died of the Spanish Flu, a testament to the truly global nature of the First World War. This point is combated; can we really call them casualties of the war if they never suffered in the trenches of France or the mountains of Italy? That is the tragedy and revelation of the Great War: there were no more illusions about nobility in death, no more Victorian ideas of grand self-sacrifice, no more ars moriendi as was perpetuated during the Civil War era.

Moreover, we cannot separate the two wars entirely. The Civil War was fresh in American minds in 1918, as demonstrated by a number of newspaper articles and editorials noting the importance of remembering the country’s bloodiest conflict in the midst of global war. Furthermore, over the course of five years the battlefield had witnessed a fifty-year anniversary, the dedication of the Virginia memorial, a boom in tourism, and a tense attempt at reconciliation. With the Great Migration just beginning and an unwelcome atmosphere greeting African American soldiers returning from the front, it is clear that the race issues that impacted the Civil War were far from resolved. Moreover, many monuments erected from 1914 to 1918 spoke directly to the Great War; speeches, inscriptions, and the monuments themselves drew on Civil War stories and culture heroes—Bobby Lee, Chamberlain, Grant, and the like—to encourage steadfast patriotism amidst the threat of German militarism.

If Camp Colt has taught me anything, it is that memory is not exclusive but collective. Its space in the Gettysburg narrative may be contentious, but I hold that it is essential. In the same way that the memory of Pickett’s Charge motivated young tankers to train harder and inspired them to serve on some of the world’s deadliest battlefields, our memory of Camp Colt can be used to further consecrate Gettysburg and understand it as a place both remaining in history and continuing in time.

Reviving the Past: The Battle Flag in the Confederate Memorial Period

By Olivia Ortman ’19

In the years immediately following the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag mostly disappeared from public view. In their diaries, Southerners wrote about hiding flags and other Confederate symbols for fear of Union retaliation. In most cases, Southerners intuitively understood that these symbols were now taboo, but occasionally, they stated that Union troops explicitly forbade displays of the battle flag. Some Southerners did still flaunt the flag as a means of defiance against Union troops, as mentioned in my last post, but most people quietly tucked it away. A mere five years after the war ended, though, the flag began to reappear.

After the war ended, Southern ladies and veterans began forming organizations to care for war survivors and honor the dead. At first, this meant transferring dead Confederate soldiers from battlefield graves to Southern cemeteries and aiding survivors with medical and monetary support. The first Confederate battle flags accepted in public again were those used to drape the coffins of Confederates being reinterred. Then, during the 1870s, these ladies’ and veterans’ groups turned their efforts toward memorialization. After Reconstruction, Southerners became increasingly concerned with the Confederacy’s legacy. Thus, between 1880 and 1920, there was an explosion of Confederate memorial events: monument dedications, veterans’ reunions, and memorial days. The Memorial Day we celebrate today is actually an offshoot of Southern memorial days. Started as local holidays organized by ex-Confederate women to honor local Confederate dead, they grew into a nationwide celebration honoring fallen soldiers from all wars.

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The United Daughters of the Confederacy lay a wreath and hold up a Confederate States of America flag at the Confederate Memorial during Confederate Memorial Day services at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia, U.S. on June 5, 1922. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The flag’s reintroduction to the public started slowly. At the beginning of the Confederate memorial period, few flags were displayed at memorialization events, and they were displayed mostly by women, probably to avoid angering Northerners. Southern men were afraid of being accused of treason by occupying Northern troops, but women were afforded a measure of protection by their gender. Southern journalists were also careful to mention that the national flag was displayed in equal, if not greater, proportion to the Confederate flag. In the newspaper articles I found between 1878 and 1879, only one Confederate flag was mentioned at each memorial occasion, while multiple national flags were present. Journalists wanted to make it very clear that the South was loyal to the Union. Furthermore, the few flags that did appear at these early events were always old wartime flags, nothing new. Newspapers took great pride in describing “the shell-torn and tattered banner which had waved…on many a hard fought field.”

Throughout the Confederate memorial period, the presence of the Confederate flag quickly increased. At the unveiling of Lee’s statue in Lexington, Virginia in 1883, there was only one U.S. flag displayed, while four old Confederate battle flags surrounded Stonewall Jackson’s grave alone. When another Lee monument was unveiled in Richmond in 1890, a North Dakota journalist complained that the Confederate flag was everywhere, and the authorities “refused to remove the traitorous colors.”

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George Washington Custis Lee, 1832-1913, on horseback, with staff reviewing Confederate Reunion Parade in Richmond, Va., June 3, 1907, in front of monument to Jefferson Davis. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Around this time, reproductions of the flag became widespread, which sparked a large debate over the flag’s place in the nation. Union veterans were especially upset about the reproductions. General William Jackson Palmer started a press war in the early 1890s when he suggested banning the flag from memorial events. He and many other Union veterans had been tolerant of original flags, which were mementos of the war, but reproduction flags were outright treason. Even some Confederate veterans were upset about reproductions, believing they cheapened the integrity of the original war flags. Most Southerners, though, insisted their flags were just for commemoration of Confederate soldiers, not acts of disloyalty.

In the long run, Northern upset quieted down, and the Confederate flag was seemingly accepted in public. The 1905 Congressional act calling for the return of captured Confederate flags to Southerners appeared to signify the end of the debate. Some historians, like David Blight, have chalked acceptance up to reconciliation. Ultimately, Northerners were tired of fighting, and the presence of the Confederate flag was a small price to pay for peace and union. Other historians, like Caroline Janney, have argued that this acceptance was mostly for public show. Union veterans continued to harbor resentment towards the Confederacy and its battle-flag, but they accepted it at public events because it served their purposes. Using reunions to remember the war, soldiers could gain personal clarity and closure while connecting with other men who understood their traumatic experiences, even if those men had fought as their enemies during the war. By talking about the Confederacy and its flag in positive terms, Union veterans also glorified their own role in the war. Fighting and defeating a worthy Confederate army made Union troops all the greater. Both historians are right; people accepted the flag for a variety of personal reasons. However, an acceptance of the Confederate battle flag in public does not necessarily correlate to an acceptance of the flag’s symbolism. While the flag was tolerated at commemoration events, many Northerners, especially veterans, continued to hate it.

The inclusion of Confederate flags in memorial events had a profound impact on the flag’s symbolism. The most notable consequence was the adoption of the battle flag as the Confederate flag. During the war, the battle flag only represented ideas related to battle, whereas in the memorial period, it came to represent the ideals and principles of the Confederacy as a whole. The choice of the battle flag instead of the Confederacy’s national flag speaks a lot to the values Southerners wanted to favor in the Confederacy’s legacy. When discussing the Confederacy, orators spoke in great detail about military prowess of Southern soldiers and bravery on the battlefield. Although the Confederacy lost, its soldiers could still be hailed as heroes. As Jefferson Davis stated at a Memorial Day in Georgia in 1878, “it is better to have fought and lost, than never to have fought at all.” This focus on battle ensured that the Confederacy’s legacy would largely revolve around politically-neutral military tactics instead of the controversial causes of the war.

When speakers did mention the Confederate cause, they waxed poetically about states’ rights, carefully avoiding slavery. Only one of the dedication speeches I read included the word slavery. A Virginia senator acknowledged at an 1879 monument dedication that the Confederacy fought for the Constitutional right to hold slaves. All other speakers were either vague or completely silent about slavery. A speaker in 1894 shared, “in our Union there is trouble. Social disorder vexes the soul of the patriot,” which vaguely points towards the freedom of blacks but is not explicit.  However, Southerners were comfortable asserting that the Confederacy, and therefore the flag, was dedicated to white supremacy. It was made clear that these memorial events, and the Confederate flag, were for white Southerners only. During this time period, African Americans held separate memorial days and commemoration events in the South where they could celebrate the Union and emancipation.

During the Confederate memorial period, the Confederate flag became an assertion of a unique Southern identity, one deeply intertwined with the Confederacy. Southerners may have lost the war and submitted to Northern demands, but they were still unique in their white heritage. They clung to their past and their flag to preserve their honor and pride. We can also see the start of many arguments that still surround the flag today: the acceptability of originals vs reproductions; where and when to display flags; heritage vs hate. A century later, we are no closer to resolving these arguments than Americans during the memorial period.


Sources

“Corner Stone Laid.” Daily Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), May 23, 1894. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

“Corner Stone Laid.” The Knoxville Journal (Knoxville, Tennessee), May 22, 1891. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

Coski, John M. Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem. Harvard University Press, 2006.

Gallagher, Gary W., and Alan T. Nolan. The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Ingraham, William M. “Address at the Dedication of the Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg, Friday, June 8, 1917 By Hon. William M. Ingraham, Assistant Secretary of War.” Address, Dedication of Virginia Memorial, Virginia Memorial, Gettysburg, PA, June 8, 1917.

Janney, Caroline E. Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

“Lee Monument; Washington.” The Daily Herald (Grand Forks, North Dakota), May 30, 1890. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

“Memorial Day.” The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), April 27, 1880. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

“”Mustn’t Do It Again”.” The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), February 6, 1892. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

Stuart, Henry Carter. “Address at the Dedication of the Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg, Friday, June 8, 1917 By His Excellency Henry Carter Stuart, Governor of Virginia.” Address, Dedication of Virginia Memorial, Virginia Memorial, Gettysburg, PA, June 8, 1917.

“The Confederate Dead.” The Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), June 7, 1879. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

“The Confederate Flag.” The Columbus Enquirer-Sun (Columbus, Georgia), October 27, 1891. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

“The Historic 26th. Memorial Day in Macon.” Georgia Weekly Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), April 30, 1878. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

“Unveiling Lee’s Statue.” The Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), June 29, 1883. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

The Things We Remember: Interpreting the Virginia Memorial

By Olivia Ortman ’19

When I was in high school, I read The Things They Carried for my English class. It is a fiction book about the Vietnam War written by a Vietnam veteran. The author, Tim O’Brien, had the life experiences to write an autobiography based on true events, but he chose fiction as his vehicle. He explains this choice in one of the chapters in his book. O’Brien stated that, in an ironic way, fiction allowed him to share more truth than reality. His made-up stories allowed him to create the feelings and meanings of the war that his real experiences couldn’t get across for people who had not lived them. This is an idea that has stuck with me ever since, and it has been on my mind a lot lately.

This year, I was asked to work on a special project for the Civil War Institute that involves creating a new wayside for the Gettysburg battlefield. Another student and I have partnered with Gettysburg NPS to write a wayside for the Virginia Memorial. This is a very daunting task, especially in today’s political climate, which has made me all the more determined to do history and the monument justice. A lot of what I have been sifting through for the monument deals with Civil War memory, especially Gettysburg and Confederate memory. This is why I have kept going back to The Things They Carried. Like O’Brien’s book, the Virginia Monument is a fictitious image of a war scene. It was not meant to depict an actual scene of war but to share important feelings. The big questions for me have been what those intended feelings were and how they have shaped our memory of Confederate involvement at Gettysburg.

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Virginia Memorial. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The speeches from the monument’s dedication answered many of my contextual questions. The memorial was revealed in June of 1917, two months after the United States entered World War I. The dedication speakers were quick to connect the monument’s significance to war efforts. The country needed men to enlist and families to support the war effort from home. The Virginia Memorial became a tool for inspiring those sacrifices. Each speaker explained that by remembering the martial valor of Virginians and their dedication to the Confederacy, Americans would find an example of what would be required of them in World War I. “We treasure the heroic deeds and inspiring example of all the brave soldiers living and dead who gave to us and to the world a new standard of American manhood,” proclaimed Henry Carter Stuart, Governor of Virginia.

This new standard of manhood was also used to reunite the country. Dedication speakers repeatedly stressed the greatness of American unity after such great sectional strife. Standing in the crowd on June 8, 1917 were Union and Confederate veterans. 54 years earlier, those same veterans had faced each other on opposite sides of the field for Pickett’s Charge with the intention to kill. Something like that doesn’t go away overnight. The design of the Virginia Memorial was an attempt to smooth over the still-lingering scars of war through a celebration of martial manhood. The Virginians at the base of the memorial represent the ideal soldiers. Although each man is from a different military branch, they are all strong and manly. Their faces and stances show a mixture of anxiety and determination. They are facing great odds, but they will go forward. Lee towers above the group, the picture of stoicism. He is calm and collected, even in the face of battle. At the time, he was also a reminder of Christian ideals. This was a man who believed God had a plan for him and allowed that faith to keep him steadfast. These were values that could be appreciated by men everywhere, regardless of their war loyalties. Those Union and Confederate veterans could stand beside each other in the crowd that June day and find common ground.

How these messages affect our memory of Gettysburg and the Confederacy is interesting. On the one hand, the romantic aspect of the Virginia Memorial obscures many realities. For example, the focus on the military side of war often excludes the Confederate cause. Like the Virginia Memorial, our conversations often jump right into the fight and skip past why the men were there fighting. The Confederacy was formed to protect the right to own slaves as property. The soldiers themselves had different reasons for fighting, but the ultimate Confederate goal was to successfully secede and protect slavery. We don’t see that in the monument, and subsequently, most of us aren’t having that conversation when we visit the battlefield. The Virginia Memorial also adds to the misconception that Gettysburg was the end of the Confederacy. When I talk to many of my non-history friends, they think that Gettysburg spelled the end for the Confederacy and that Appomattox was right around the corner. They are shocked when I tell them that the war continued for two more years after Gettysburg. Clearly, Gettysburg didn’t end the Confederacy if they could keep going for two years; it was just one of their defeats. However, the Virginia Memorial’s depiction of the soldiers as grimly determined to do their duty even though they knew they would lose makes Pickett’s Charge the last stand of the Confederacy in popular memory.

On the other hand, the Virginia Memorial also reveals a lot about Americans at the time. Seeing the celebration of martial manhood reminds us of the importance of rigid gender roles at the time. We can see that men were expected to defend their cause and prove their worth on the battlefield. The absence of slavery representation tells us that Americans have always been uncomfortable with our past connection to the institution. It also shows us that unification was important above all else. Even though the Union  won, Northerners allowed Southerners to place this shrine of Confederate ideals on the Gettysburg battlefield. Northerners allowed Lee to top this monument in a somewhat defiant location that allows him to stare down Union General Meade. Northerners even accepted speeches which hailed Virginians of the Confederacy as the ultimate examples of ideal soldiers and men. Virginians compromised by displaying their state flag on the monument instead of the Confederate flag. They also made several revisions to the inscription at the base in an attempt to find a less inflammatory message. Both sides were willing to make concessions for the goal of unity. That’s the legacy that the Virginia Memorial gives us. We still have a lot of work to do as a nation, and we always will, but we treasure our unity and will always fight for that.


Sources

Dugan, David. 15-23-0327: Virginia Memorial. August 17, 2015. In Wikimedia Commons. Accessed November 13, 2017.

Foster, Gaines M. Ghosts of the Confederacy : Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865-1913. Cary: Oxford University Press, 2014. Accessed November 15, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Gallagher, Gary W., and Nolan, Alan T. The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000. Accessed November 15, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Ingraham, William M. “Address at the Dedication of the Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg, Friday, June 8, 1917 By Hon. William M. Ingraham, Assistant Secretary of War.” Address, Dedication of Virginia Memorial, Virginia Memorial, Gettysburg, PA, June 8, 1917.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Mariner Books, 2009.

Przyblek, Leslie A. Soldiers to Science: Changing Confederate Ideals in the Public Sculpture of Frederick William Sievers.

Stuart, Henry Carter. “Address at the Dedication of the Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg, Friday, June 8, 1917 By His Excellency Henry Carter Stuart, Governor of Virginia.” Address, Dedication of Virginia Memorial, Virginia Memorial, Gettysburg, PA, June 8, 1917.

Warriors of Bronze: The Virginia Monument and Remembrance Day

By Zachary Wesley ’20

Memory is a peculiar thing. To recall it is to remember, and there are two days dedicated to this activity in mid-November in Gettysburg. On November 18 and 19, reenactors and keynote speakers gather here to honor the sacrifices of millions of soldiers and sailors during the American Civil War. November 19 rings throughout the history of oration as the date of Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, itself an exercise in remembrance. The recent Remembrance and Dedication Days have encouraged me to think of my work on the Virginia Monument Wayside Project in light of the celebrations. Just as much as the parades and memorial wreaths, the monument speaks to a complex, ever-evolving memory of one of the defining moments in American history.

On June 8, 1917, a crowd gathered in front of the veiled Virginia Monument. Politicians and ministers gave stirring speeches that celebrated the valor of Virginia’s soldiers,  especially Robert E. Lee. The date was a crucial moment in reconciliationist memory of the war. For the majority of the previous fifty years, Union veterans and Northern politicians vehemently opposed nearly every attempt to commemorate the Confederacy at Gettysburg. As the ranks of veterans’ organizations thinned and new generations of Americans prepared to embark on ships bound for France, attitudes began to shift. The monument’s design followed a rocky road as well.

The Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the Confederacy, is notably absent from the monument. Instead, the gallant Virginia trooper along the monument’s base carries the Virginia State Flag. This feature is no accident. The War Department and the Battlefield Commissioners strongly encouraged the use of the State Flag and the committee formed by Virginia’s General Assembly complied. One suggested inscription containing the phrase,“They Fought for the Faith of Their Fathers” was rejected outright by the Commissioners. They wanted a politically neutral message in the monuments on the landscape. Regardless, the monument possessed, and continues to possess, a powerful message of the Southern – specifically Virginian – memory of the war.

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This photograph shows one of Frederick William Siever’s plaster studies of an early design for the Virginia Monument. The soldiers are replaced by women, children, and a grave. The image of Lee as the protector of the South’s most vulnerable inhabitants presents a protector of virtue and innocence rather than a master of strategy. It is curious to think what message the Virginia Monument might show if this design were what we see today. Photo courtesy of Gettysburg National Military Park.

The romantic heroism of the soldiers on the Virginia Monument is evident, yet so too is a hint of anxious preparedness for an assault on the Union positions along Cemetery Ridge. Even before the monument’s creation, many individuals in both the North and South embraced the attitude that Pickett’s Division was a force comparable to Napoleon’s Old Guard. Robert E. Lee epitomized the Christian, agrarian values of the Old South. Absent, however, was the specter of slavery. Lee became the silent spokesperson for a lost way of life. This message is not explicitly written on the monument, though the speakers at the unveiling understood this point well. Governor Henry Carter Stuart of Virginia stated that Lee “represents and embodies all that Virginia and her sister Southern States can or need vouchsafe to the country and to the world as the supreme example of their convictions and principles.”

No doubt few visitors take the time to consider seriously the history of the layered memories associated with the Virginia Monument. The same, perhaps, can be said of the activities of Dedication and Remembrance Days. The November 19 festivities date only to 1938: the seventy-fifth anniversary of the National Cemetery’s dedication. Congress formalized the day eight years later. At a time when only a handful of Civil War veterans remained, the occasion presented an opportunity for Lincoln’s words to live on as those who carried their echoes passed away.

The messages of Union and liberty are still as apparent to modern audiences as they were to the crowds of 1863 and 1938, though the context has changed considerably. Initially a holiday that honored only Union veterans, Confederate sacrifices, too, are now part of the festivities. As debates about the display of Confederate imagery continue to swirl, the meaning of both Dedication and Remembrance Day and the Virginia Monument will continue to change, as well. Memory is shaped by these same currents, evolving with each subsequent generation until the amnesia of time obscures fact into fantasy. Memory is complex. For instance, memory makes some of the most gruesome events of history – the Civil War, for example – appear rosy and grand. The grim realities of slavery, and its role in the countless political debates before and during the Civil War, was one of the first casualties of this amnesia, as were the horrors of the battlefield. How else were the worlds of Gone with the Wind or The Blue and the Gray born? On other occasions, however, memory may summon the pains of the past, and encourage us to think critically about wounds that continue to plague us. Indeed, memory is a peculiar thing.


Sources:

Dedication Day – Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address,” Destination Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 2017. Accessed November 11, 2017.

Nicholson, John P. John P. Nicholson to L.L. Lomax, February 7, 1912. Gettysburg National Military Park Archives.

Reardon, Carol. Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Stuart, Henry Carter. “Address at the Dedication of the Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg, Friday, June 8, 1917, By His Excellency Henry Carter Stuart, Governor of Virginia.” Speech Given at the Dedication of the Virginia Monument, Gettysburg, PA, June 8, 1917.

Improving the Present by Studying the Past: Killed at Gettysburg Remembers O’Rorke and Phelps

By Ryan Bilger ’19

This semester, I have had the honor of working on the Civil War Institute’s Killed at Gettysburg project, hosted at killedatgettysburg.org. The project seeks to document the lives and legacies of soldiers who died during the three days of fighting in July 1863. I am happy to be contributing to Killed at Gettysburg again, as I strongly connected with the project when I worked on it for Dr. Carmichael’s Gettysburg class last semester.

In the course of my research and writing, I have dealt specifically with two men who gave their lives at Gettysburg. One, Colonel Patrick O’Rorke of the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry, is quite possibly one of the most well-known soldiers among the battle’s dead. The other, Fourth Sergeant Charles Phelps of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, may not be quite as famous but still has a great story of his own. Over the last couple of months, I have researched the lives and deaths of these two gallant soldiers and constructed narratives to inform readers about their experiences before Gettysburg; what happened to them on July 2, 1863; and how their deaths affected other people, both at home and beyond. Supplementary interactive maps will join these narrative texts in the final product, enabling viewers to explore the ground over which Patrick O’Rorke and Charles Phelps took their final steps and creating a more holistic reader experience.

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Colonel Patrick O’Rorke, 140th New York. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

My primary goal throughout my work on Killed at Gettysburg has always centered around putting flesh and blood behind these stories of the past. Rather than presenting O’Rorke and Phelps as ephemeral legends of a bygone era, I want to humanize them to the reader. These men who gave their lives so long ago had personalities that made them unique. In addition to remarkable heroism and bravery, they had hopes, dreams, worries, and fears, just as we do today. I hope that the Killed at Gettysburg project can help close the gap between the past and the present by making readers feel like they are truly getting to know the soldiers we are profiling on a level beyond their basic achievements in life.

In many ways, it is hard to believe that it has been 154 years since the Battle of Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln’s famed address. Living and learning in Gettysburg can sometimes make it feel as though these events took place not so long ago. This observation, and the commemorations that take place each year, beg a larger question: why bother remembering what happened at Gettysburg? What makes men like Patrick O’Rorke and Charles Phelps worthy of attention in a modern that is world far different from that which they inhabited?

To me, we should–and do still–care about the past because of how it can help us improve in our present and our future. O’Rorke and Phelps both demonstrated highly admirable qualities in their daily lives and on the battlefield at Gettysburg that we can learn from today, even across such a wide expanse of time. Patrick O’Rorke grew up as an Irish immigrant during a time when anti-Irish sentiment was at its absolute highest in the United States. Yet, he did not allow himself to be put in a box based on his background; he excelled as a student, graduated first in his class at West Point, and appeared poised for a sterling military career before a Confederate bullet tore through his neck on Little Round Top. Charles Phelps demonstrated great loyalty and tenacity by striking down the enemy soldier who had mortally wounded his brigade commander before being killed near the Wheatfield. Only nineteen years old at the time of his enlistment, Phelps displayed strength beyond his years in his final hours. Both men ultimately put their lives on the line for the cause of the Union in which they so dearly believed. When the time came, as Lincoln said, they gave their last full measure of devotion, and that ultimate sacrifice cannot be forgotten. Patrick O’Rorke and Charles Phelps stand as prime examples of courage and devotion that we can still learn from, and to me, that makes their stories matter even today.

Each year, Remembrance Day provides us with a perfect opportunity to consider these lessons and sacrifices from so long ago. The luminaria candles that adorn the gravestones in the Soldiers National Cemetery represent the everlasting public memory of those who gave their lives so that the nation might live. Though Patrick O’Rorke and Charles Phelps are both buried in their home states rather than the national cemetery, I believe that those candles burn for them as well. Beyond the immediate stimulus of Remembrance Day, I hope that the Killed at Gettysburg project will also keep these flames of memory alive. O’Rorke and Phelps deserve secure places in the public mind so that we in the present can continue to learn from their exemplary lives and legacies. Remembrance Day and Killed at Gettysburg both serve as important reminders of these lessons from the past, and this year we should take the opportunity to remind ourselves once again.

Remembrance Day: History, Memory and the 20th Maine

By Savannah Labbe ’19

Every November, on the Saturday closest to the 19th, the town of Gettysburg celebrates Remembrance Day. This day is held in memory of those who fought and died at the Battle of Gettysburg and during the Civil War as a whole. On November 19th, crowds gather to celebrate Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. These events pose a few very important questions: why do we still remember the Civil War in this manner? Why do we find it so important to have an entire day dedicated just to Civil War soldiers? Why does Civil War memory matter?

Over the semester, I have been working on a project in which similar questions have arisen. I am working to create a new wayside for the 20th Maine on the Gettysburg Battlefield. The one that currently sits there is more a wayside to Colonel Joshua Chamberlain than it is to the men of the regiment. Why do officers seem to loom so far above regular soldiers? During Remembrance Day, the ordinary soldiers who sacrificed their lives are remembered, which is very important because without them, the generals who are usually highlighted would not have been able to accomplish the feats they are best remembered for. Something I have been attempting to do in developing the text for the wayside is remember the ordinary soldier and shift the 20th Maine’s story away from only being about Joshua Chamberlain. This has proved a challenging task, as the ghosts of the movie Gettysburg that propelled Chamberlain to fame do not seem to want to leave.

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20th Maine memorial on Little Round Top. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

As I am from Maine, this project has been a special one for me. I am helping shape the legacy of fellow Mainers. I am also working to write a text that will influence visitor’s perceptions of the battle and Maine’s role in it. While Maine did have many other regiments at Gettysburg, the 20th is the one that is best remembered and most likely offers battlefield visitors’ only glimpse of the state. I want to do my fellow Mainers and their sacrifice at Little Round Top justice while at the same time making sure I am not being plagued by Chamberlain’s ghost and the idea that the 20th Maine saved the Union. In addition to all of this, I am left with the question of why this matters. Why is the 20th Maine so important, and how will the words I write shape their memory? This is not an easy question to grapple with, but as a history major, I believe that history matters and  the way we remember it is important.

History helps us learn from our past and gives us context for the problems in the present, and thus, how we tell this history and how we shape the past has important contemporary implications. Do we present a past that paints the Maine men as noble and dedicated heroes, or do we portray them as men who had flaws and may not even have wanted to fight? I believe the solution is a combination of both. The 20th Maine was made up of regular men, but they did do something heroic and important. Theirs was a critical position in the Union line but, at the same time, the battle raged on for another day and the war for another two years, so by no means did the 20th Maine save the Union. This question of how to best remember is an important one, and I believe it is raised in both my wayside project and on Remembrance Day. Is it right to remember the men who died through reenactments and parades? How do we shape memory in a way that is true to history, and how do we do justice to the men that died at Gettysburg while at the same time being careful not to make them akin to gods?