I had no plans of writing a blog post this week. I said my piece on ghost tours last year. This Halloween, it was the next generation’s turn to share their opinions on the matter. Jules and Jen both did a spectacular job on the subject, and I commend them even though our perspectives differ. But when I learned that my stance had come under fire from another blog, I eagerly leapt from the comfort of my editing armchair and returned to the front lines to compose this piece.
Now, I should clarify that I’m not rejecting folklore as a valid form of making sense of suffering. I firmly believe that it is a core component of Gettysburg’s heritage. I am only rejecting ghost tours as an authentic expression of folklore. It is true that spiritualism has long predated the emergence of the ghost tours industry. But I believe it is problematic to confound folklore with the stories told by ghost tours. Continue reading “I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts”
One of the most enduring archetypes of heroic storytelling is the triumph of the underdog: a figure who overcomes great and powerful foes due to their innate virtues, the nobility of their goal, or the hubris of their arrogant and highly flawed enemy. Their triumph illustrates the existence of greater forces of fairness, justice, and righteousness in their story world: a world in which they who are truly deserving of victory find it, and they who are unworthy are cast down – a story which has a spotty record at best in the real world. The narrative does not necessarily have to be so grand, either (the casting down of an enemy is completely optional). The enduring narrative of the self-made-man, for instance, follows a similar path: here is a person who has no material advantages to speak of, but is able to rise to the top of society through their own virtue and skill, triumphing against all odds.
As a human society, we love underdogs – from sports teams, to politicians, to businesses, to even something as mundane as a high school debate team. Why? Because their their success makes a good story, and is a hopeful suggestion that there is a force of fairness in the world that will reward those who work for their success. This is why, for instance, sports fans go nuts for a successful low-seed team during NCAA March Madness. The very fact that we call such turns of fortune “Cinderella Stories” reflects our affection for the fairy-tale of the underdog. Continue reading “The Clash of Storytelling and History”
In his essay, “The Politics of Memory: Black Emancipation and the Civil War Monument,” Kirk Savage describes a phenomenon in which the plastic arts of memory can re-appropriate blocks of bronze and stone meant to convey a certain message about the Civil War and change their meaning entirely. There is no better materialization of this theory than the Meade Pyramid located on the Fredericksburg Battlefield. The 400-ton granite structure constructed near Prospect Hill had the original intent of marking the location of General “Stonewall” Jackson’s headquarters; however, in time the purpose of the monument shifted to denote the location of a small, but unique, Union success on the Fredericksburg Battlefield – General Meade’s breakthrough of the Confederate lines. It is this monument’s new purpose which provides its modern namesake.
The pyramid was built in 1898 by a partnership between the Confederate Memorial Literary Society (CMLS) and the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad. The intent of the monument’s purpose was clear even in the initial stages of design. R.F.&P. Railroad employee John Rice was charged with visiting the mammoth Confederate memorial pyramid at Hollywood National Cemetery in Richmond in order to take measurements in an attempt to build a scaled-down duplicate by the tracks at Prospect Hill. From personal experience, the Hollywood Cemetery Pyramid sits in the epitome of “Moonlight & Magnolia” romanticism, but its location is isolated in a tucked away small portion of the vast cemetery. The Meade Pyramid, however was placed right beside the railroad tracks with the primary goal of serving as a landmark-memorial to the most geographically diverse audience Fredericksburg regularly experienced – those travelers passing through town by rail. If nothing else, it is safe to say that the pyramid embodied romantic Confederate memory and placed it at a location of highest public exposure. Continue reading “The Meade Pyramid’s Shifting Sands”
In July 1863
A Nation Torn In Tragedy
A Trick Of Fate, Two Great Armies Merge
Gods Of War At Gettysburg
Devastation Lies Ahead
50,000 Bodies Litter The Land
Hell Rages Three Full Days
The Reaper Sows, There’s The Devil To Pay.
Thus begins the first song in Iced Earth’s three-part ballad inspired by the Battle of Gettysburg. The heavy metal epic is intense, dramatic, brutal, tragic, and romantic. Released in 2004 on their album The Glorious Burden – which, incidentally, also features songs inspired by Attila the Hun, the Red Baron, Waterloo, and Valley Forge – Iced Earth’s “Gettysburg (1863)” trilogy offers listeners a vivid musical interpretation of the memory of Gettysburg popularized by Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. Beginning with the “The Devil to Pay” and continuing in “Hold at All Costs” and “High Water Mark,” each song in the trilogy is devoted to the events of a single day of the battle. Encapsulating some of Gettysburg’s best-known moments, the songs each convey a sense of the battle’s epic scale and its powerful legacy. In consequence, however, the ballad reinforces an exclusively emotional interpretation of the Civil War that can obscure a more meaningful understanding of the battle and its larger implications. Continue reading “Heavy Metal Gettysburg and the Allure of Emotive History”
Last year, I attended a Civil War Conference that highlighted what has become known as the “Dark Turn of the Civil War.” Basically, the turn is a shift in focus from the shiny-bugles-and-gleaming-bayonets interpretation of the Civil War to revealing the ugly underside of the Civil War, emphasizing themes of death, destruction, and loss. At the time, I remember thinking, this is a good thing, Civil War history does tend to be overly romanticized as the glorious American tragedy. One panel that bothered me, however, featured a discussion on “Dark Tourism.” I had never heard of Dark Tourism, and I remember being wary of whatever was about to happen. One man on the panel had led ghost tours in Gettysburg; another had worked for a museum exhibit of a Viking village, working with perfumers to recreate the authentic smells of a Viking latrine.
She stood staring into the room, tears streaming down her face. The quiet tick of the clock in the background was an appropriate melody for the sad scene. The woman mourned the loss of a great man who one hundred fifty years earlier had rested his tired body in the bed just feet from where she was standing. Today this site is the Stonewall Jackson Shrine Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP in Woodford, Virginia. It is the death site of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, located twenty-seven miles south of the Battlefield at Chancellorsville where the famous Confederate general was shot. But the greater question is not where, but why. Why, after so many years, are people still mourning the loss of Stonewall Jackson?
Stonewall Jackson was an incredible phenomenon during his lifetime; he was one of the most well-known generals of the Civil War and his death on 10 May 1863 even made Northern newspapers. But what makes Jackson so appealing to people today? In many ways Jackson’s story is reminiscent of the American spirit, for it finds its beginnings in humble roots but ends in glory. Jackson was born in what is today Clarksburg, West Virginia (at that point still Virginia) and shortly after birth became an orphan. (1) He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, but only after another Virginia man returned home, thereby creating an opening. (2) By the end of Jackson’s four years of military education, the young man who had been woefully unprepared for West Point graduated in the top half of the Class of 1846. (3) Jackson would go on to gain recognition in the Mexican War, but it would be the American Civil War that brought true fame to Jackson.
Ambrose Bierce, 1842-1913?, has become renowned in the Civil War world for his sharp-witted and cynical short stories that frequently feature ghastly death and the terrible irony of survival. His life has become somewhat of a caricature, used by historians such as Mark Snell and Gerald Linderman to demonstrate the utter disillusionment of the common soldier and the retreat into hibernation in an attempt to escape the trauma experienced during the war. This view of Bierce fails to capture the complexity of the man and his war experience. Rather than a skeptical realist, Bierce demonstrates the characteristics of a jaded romantic.