Antietam’s Dunker Church: Meaning in the Viewpoint of the Beholder

By Ryan Bilger ’19

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

Antietam National Battlefield’s venerable Dunker Church stands out today as one of the battlefield’s most recognizable landmarks. While visitors to the park commonly seek it out as a place to explore today, the church has held several different meanings for those who have interacted with it over the years. These varying perspectives on the simple white brick structure provide great insight into how material objects influenced the attitudes and beliefs of historical actors. Across the decades, the Dunker Church has remained a key object in this regard, even as its meaning has changed depending upon the viewpoint of the beholder.

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Dunker Church is one of Antietam National Battlefield’s most recognizable landmarks. Photo courtesy Ryan Bilger.

When Sharpsburg farmer Samuel Mumma donated the land on which the Dunker Church would be built in 1851, he surely intended for the new place of worship to become a peaceful refuge and a communal gathering place. The Mumma family occupied a position near the center of the tight-knit local community, which included several of members of the pacifist German Baptist Brethren church, better known as the Dunkers. In its first decade of existence, the church filled its intended niche as an anchor for the local congregation. Its simple design and sparse furnishings reflected the devout religious beliefs and relative focus on austerity held by those who met there each Sunday, further contributing to its status in the community as a place of peace and solemnity. This meaning largely defined the Dunker Church in its early years. However, the arrival of two powerful armies at its doorstep would alter that meaning for some, and change overall perspectives on the structure forever.

On September 17, 1862, the Dunker Church stood in the center of the single bloodiest day in American history, and assumed totally different meanings for those who fought at Antietam. For the Union generals and soldiers attacking Robert E. Lee’s Confederates, the church became a landmark to guide their advance. Their hopes and goals for the day, in many cases, fixated upon it as the symbol of the victory they desperately desired. After the chaos and carnage of battle ravaged the fields of Sharpsburg, the Dunker Church transformed once again. It became a hospital aid station for wounded Confederate soldiers desperately in need of treatment, and, according to one account, an embalming facility for Union dead. The pacifist meeting house became a scene of suffering and death, creating experiences that surely shaped how the soldiers and surgeons who passed through it thought about the maelstrom of war. The Battle of Antietam radically altered the meaning of the Dunker Church for those who interacted with it in September 1862.

Today, Antietam National Battlefield works effectively to stimulate visitor thinking on the different meanings ascribed to the Dunker Church and how people have interacted with it throughout history. The church occupies the position of Stop #1 on the battlefield auto tour, ensuring that visitors take time to observe the structure and reflect on its significance. Additional related artifacts in the Visitor Center museum highlight the dichotomy of uses and meanings, and interpretive signs and markers, as well as the Battlefield Ambassadors program on weekends, further contribute to promoting visitor reflection on the variation in the relationship between the Dunker Church and those who used it across the years. Overall, this targeted interpretation contributes well to ensuring that visitors remain mindful of how historical objects interacted with the people who used them in different, nuanced ways, and it should continue to do so into the future at Antietam.

Monumental Questions: 1860s Civil War Monument Vandalization at Manassas

By Ryan Bilger ’19

On October 4, 2017, I awoke to the news that the Stonewall Jackson equestrian monument at Manassas National Battlefield Park had been vandalized. Having worked there as a Pohanka intern during the summer of 2016, I was saddened to hear this. Now, I have no great love for the Jackson monument. It makes the Southern general look like Superman atop a horse that appears to have had a good amount of steroids mixed with its oats and hay. Yet, I believed then, as I do now, that covering the monument in colored paint was an extremely inappropriate act of vandalism.

The incident raised questions in my mind. In this era of tense controversy over Confederate monuments, vandalization seems to have become a common occurrence. Is it a particularly new one, though? How much of a history is there of defacing Civil War monuments? I still remember the outrage that I felt, even at nine years old, when another band of anonymous cowards vandalized three of Gettysburg’s monuments in 2006, inflicting damage that took years to fully repair. How much further back do these stories go? As I pondered these questions, two examples from the battlefield at Manassas came to mind. One took place during the Civil War itself, while the other happened in the years following the war. Both constituted malicious acts that influenced the memory of those who fought and died in the two battles that took place on those hallowed fields. This phenomenon, then, does indeed have a history, one that stretches all the way back to some of the earliest days possible.

On July 21, 1861, as Union forces streamed up the side of Henry Hill in the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run), Confederate defenders desperately attempted to push back the onslaught and earn an important victory. One of these units responsible for defeating the oncoming Yankees was a brigade of Georgia regiments under Colonel Francis Bartow. The Colonel stood as a father figure for his men, who referred to themselves as “Bartow’s Beardless Boys.” Sadly, their time with their beloved commander proved short, as he fell mortally wounded in the chest leading them in a counterattack across the hill. The soldiers of Bartow’s brigade decided almost immediately after the battle that they wished to honor their slain commander on the field on which he fell, and officers in the 8th Georgia set about ordering a monument to fulfill that purpose. According to Melvin Dwinell, a second lieutenant in the regiment and editor of the Rome Tri-Weekly Courier, the original Bartow memorial was a rounded column of “plain white marble, six feet long, four feet above ground, and about eight inches in diameter at the top.” The monument was dedicated on September 4, 1861, just over six weeks after Bartow’s death, at a ceremony attended by thousands of Georgia soldiers. These Confederates had erected one of the very first Civil War battlefield monuments, but unfortunately for them, it was not destined to last long as a reminder of the lost Bartow.

Bartow Monument
Artist’s rendering of soldiers standing by the Francis Bartow monument. Library of Congress, via Civilwartalk.com.

In the months after the construction of Francis Bartow’s monument, the marble shaft fell victim to a multitude of vandals. Observers noted that some visitors to Henry Hill, tourists interested in seeing the site of the great battle, had chipped away pieces of the memorial to keep as souvenirs. Others had damaged Bartow’s column by inscribing their names on it in pencil, perhaps to make memories or leave their mark on the battlefield; one correspondent wrote in December 1861 that it had been blanketed in writing to the point of “not so much space being left as one might cover with his finger nail.” The monument remained in this decrepit state until March of 1862, when Union troops took possession of the fields of Manassas, including Henry Hill. The site of a monument to a dead Rebel general surely galled many of these Federal soldiers, and one regiment took matters into their own hands. According to a New York soldier, members of the Fourteenth Brooklyn became “so exasperated at the treatment of their fallen companions as to break the marble monument erected over the remains of a secesh General who fell on that field.” They destroyed Bartow’s memorial in order to reclaim the memory of that space, and to deny it to Confederates like the fallen general. Georgia soldiers attempted to find the monument they had so lovingly dedicated after Confederates reclaimed Henry Hill in the Second Battle of Manassas in August 1862, but they discovered only shattered fragments. The Francis Bartow memorial had thus fallen victim to two types of vandals: memory-making tourists and angry Federal troops. Even as the Civil War was still being fought, the memory of those who fell during its course became a flashpoint for controversy.

The impulse to memorialize the fallen of the two battles at Manassas evidently remained alive in the minds of many Northerners. Shortly after the Grand Review in May 1865, the U.S. Army approved the construction of two memorials on the Manassas battlefields. One was erected on Henry Hill near the remains of the Henry House, while the other was constructed at the Deep Cut, the sight of a fierce Union attack during the Second Battle of Manassas on August 30, 1862. The men of Colonel William Gamble’s cavalry brigade built the monuments, using red sandstone from the battlefield’s famous unfinished railroad, in about three weeks, and dedication ceremonies took place on June 11, 1865.

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Photograph by Alexander Gardner of the Groveton Monument, taken shortly after its dedication in 1865. Wikimedia Commons.

While the memorial on Henry Hill remained largely intact, the Deep Cut’s monument, often referred to as the Groveton Monument, suffered intense vandalism. The soldiers who built the monument had decorated it with shells and cannon balls found on the battlefield, as seen in Alexander Gardner’s photograph of it in June 1865. However, these artifacts presented attractive targets for relic hunters, and they soon set about picking the Groveton Monument clean to obtain them for themselves. These vandals pried the precious shells and balls out of the mortar with which they had been attached to the base, and some even took away pieces of the wooden fence surrounding it. By 1886, there was nothing left but an empty stone pylon, slowly becoming covered by the four trees that had been planted around it. The desire for personal gain and profit led to the vandalization of another Civil War monument, thereby disrespecting the legacies and the memory of the soldiers who had fought and died at Second Manassas.

These stories from the Manassas battlefield remind us that Civil War monument vandalization is not a new phenomenon. Instead, it unfortunately has a long history, stretching back as far as the 1860s themselves. Each of these types of vandals acted on their own individual attitudes towards the war and its legacy; the relic-hunters saw it as a get rich quick opportunity, the soldiers of the Fourteenth Brooklyn felt that there was no place for Confederate memorialization, and the tourists used Bartow’s monument as a way to remember their trip. In effect, all of these vandals, based on their personal viewpoints, worked to alter and reshape popular memory of the war by altering monuments from their original, intended state or even destroying them entirely. The motivations may have shifted over the last century and a half, but the impact remains the same on the war’s memory: a destructive act that shows disregard for those who gave their lives in the conflict. The sad truth appears to be that as long as there have been Civil War monuments, there have also been those who wish to destroy them.


Sources:

Adelman, Garry. “The Deep Cut’s Missing Piece.” Civil War Trust. Accessed April 2018.

Panhorst, Michael W. “‘The first of our hundred battle monuments’: Civil War battlefield monuments built by active-duty soldiers during the Civil War.” Southern Cultures no. 4 (2014): 22. Literature Resource Center, EBSCOhost.

Pope, John. “The Second Battle of Bull Run.” Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine vol. 36 (1886): 441. Google Books.

Stonewall Jackson Monument Vandalized at Manassas National Battlefield Park.” INSIDENOVA.COM. October 04, 2017. Accessed April 23, 2018.

Zenzen, Joan M. Battling for Manassas: The Fifty-Year Preservation Struggle at Manassas National Battlefield Park. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010.

Looking Ahead to the 2018 Pohanka Internship Program

By Ryan Bilger ’19

This summer, 21 Gettysburg College students will head to the front lines of public history through the Brian C. Pohanka Internship Program. From Andersonville National Historic Site to Minute Man National Historical Park, these interns will carry forward the legacy of the late Brian C. Pohanka, while also developing their own skills in the field of public history. Brian Pohanka was an avid student of the Civil War who shared his love of the past through presenting and reenacting, as some of the interns who bear his name will do this summer. They will work at some of the sites most dear to him, including Gettysburg National Military Park, Manassas National Battlefield Park, and Richmond National Battlefield Park.

To preview this summer’s experiences, I reached out to three of the 2018 Pohanka interns, each with different backgrounds and positions this summer. I asked them about what they expect to be doing at their sites, what they think they will gain from the experience, and how it will fit into their plans for the future.

Laurel Wilson ‘19

Site: Special Collections & College Archives at Gettysburg College’s Musselman Library

Majors/Minors: History and studio art/Civil War Era Studies and public history

Past Pohanka Experience: Antietam National Battlefield, 2017

What will you be doing this summer?

Work in archival research, processing, and digitizing materials, including creating a finding aid for a collection and transcribing Vertical File Manuscript materials

What do you hope to gain from this experience?

“I hope to gain valuable archival skills and to learn how Special Collections takes care of it’s amazing collection of historical artifacts and other resources. I am also excited to have the opportunity to work with the artifacts and manuscripts directly, as it is not something that everyone gets to do every day.”

How will this internship fit into your plans for the future?

“I hope to go into some kind of curatorial or archival work in the future, so the experience that I will gain from working in Special Collections will definitely be incredibly valuable for that. This internship will provide me with a basis of knowledge to continue building upon in the future, which is incredibly exciting.”

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The author giving a walking tour of Henry Hill at Manassas National Battlefield Park last summer. Photo by Cathy Bilger.

Jared Barna ‘20

Site: Manassas National Battlefield Park

Major: History

What will you be doing this summer?

Working to orient visitors to the battlefield, through interpretive tour programs and answering questions at the Visitor Center desk.

What do you hope to gain from this experience?

“I will gain knowledge about how to engage individuals with major questions about history and become a better public orator.”

How will this internship fit into your plans for the future?

“This internship will help me decide as to whether I wish to work in the park service full time or if I want to become a high school history teacher.”

Cameron Sauers ‘21

Site: Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park

Major: History

What will you be doing this summer?

Develop and deliver educational programs and activities to K-12 students and families at Harpers Ferry

What do you hope to gain from this experience?

“I think Harpers Ferry will give me the chance to see how the public, especially young people, interact with our nation’s history.” The long and varied history of the site will also help in these observations.

How will this internship fit into your plans for the future?

“I have a desire to either work in the NPS system or continue on to graduate school. I would love to be able to teach students at the high school or college level.”

 

As for myself, I will be returning to the Pohanka program for my second summer as an intern, this year at Antietam National Battlefield. I expect that my duties will also include orienting visitors to the Antietam battlefield through programs and work at the front desk. I hope to continue refining my skills as a public historian and interpreter, and to bring the history of Antietam to the general public in an interesting and engaging way. This fits into my future goals of working in public history, whether in the National Park Service or at another historic site or museum.

This summer is shaping up to be an exciting one for the 2018 Brian C. Pohanka interns! Stay tuned throughout the summer, as we’ll be posting reflection pieces from the interns on their individual experiences!

Perspectives on Our Past: The Killed at Gettysburg Stories of Franz Benda and Augustus van Horne Ellis

By Ryan Bilger ’19

Once again, I have spent the semester working on the Civil War Institute’s Killed at Gettysburg project. This project continues to be one with which I feel a strong connection, as I have always taken an interest in the stories of Gettysburg’s fallen. As such, I am glad to have had the opportunity to work on it again.

As before, I have focused on two soldiers in my research this spring, one an enlisted soldier in the ranks and one a regimental commander. The latter, Colonel Augustus van Horne Ellis of the 124th New York Volunteer Infantry, has a life-sized statue of him on the battlefield, while the former, Private Franz Benda, 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, remains obscure. Both of them, though, lived fascinating lives, and each of their deaths reverberated far beyond the rolling hills of southern Pennsylvania. Through text narratives and interactive story maps, I sincerely hope that both of their stories can be told to broader audiences who can thus gain a greater appreciation for these men who heroically gave their lives for the cause of the Union.

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Company H, 26th Wisconsin Infantry. These men would have been among Franz Benda’s comrades. Photo courtesy Oshkosh Public Museum.

Writing about these two soldiers has been extremely valuable for me in that it has encouraged me to think about different perspectives. For example, Franz Benda immigrated to the United States from his birthplace in Bohemia at a young age. He and his parents built a new life for themselves as farmers in Wisconsin, and the young man appeared well on his way to achieving a piece of the American dream. Everything changed in 1862 when he joined a regiment that made up part of the ethnically-diverse Eleventh Corps. The unit’s failures at Chancellorsville brought down heavy nativist criticism against Franz Benda and his comrades, making them feel as though they did not belong as fighters for the Union.

His story also ended in a heartbreaking fashion, as after his death at Gettysburg, his parents lost their farmland and died in poverty. While I knew the stories of the Eleventh Corps before this project, I had never taken the time to deeply consider what it must have been like for a young man like Franz Benda to experience that sort of pain and shame, much of which was undeserved. To consider his family’s tragic loss of both the human life of their son and the way of life they had made together. Benda’s story provides a powerful example of how soldiers could reach such psychological lows in the Civil War, and how the friends and relatives of those who died often lost so much more than their loved ones. As such, I feel proud to have developed a concise narrative of his life and legacy so that more people can learn about these themes as I did.

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A statue of Colonel Augustus van Horne Ellis atop his regiment’s monument gazes out over the field where he gave his life for the Union. Photo by the author.

The story of Augustus van Horne Ellis has raised other valuable questions in the course of my research. For example, what qualities of a man and a leader could inspire those he commanded to include a statue of him atop their monument decades after his death? Ellis’s story is one of leadership and loss delicately intertwined. He clearly had the sort of strong personality to win over the hearts and minds of his fellow soldiers, as they elected him captain in his first term of duty. Ellis led his men well at First Bull Run but also had to grapple with the heartbreaking loss of his brother at that battle. He became known as a strong disciplinarian and a good recruiter, leading to his becoming colonel of the 124th New York, a regiment he played an instrumental role in raising and with which he forged a strong bond. Ellis died near Devil’s Den leading his men in a valiant but ultimately brutal charge, sealing his place in their memories as a brave commander to the last. Yet, his young wife of just four years had to deal with the loss of her husband in a profoundly emotional way that changed the course of her life. These twin narratives intersected throughout the short life of Augustus van Horne Ellis in different ways, raising issues of what it meant to lead men in the Civil War and what it meant to lose loved ones as well. Just as Franz Benda’s story creates certain important questions in the mind of the reader, Ellis’s does too, and I am happy to be able to bring the New Yorker’s story to the public.

The stories of the past continue to hold relevant connections to the lives of the present, and the Killed at Gettysburg project this semester has been valuable to me in this way. Considering the perspectives of others, whether that of a young, poor immigrant private or of a colonel born and bred in the nation’s largest city, remains extremely important today, in addition to the specific details of their lives and legacies. Working on the Killed at Gettysburg project has once again been highly enjoyable for me, and I hope that through it more people can ponder the lessons of the past and how we can apply them to our presents and our futures.


Sources

Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Veterans of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War with Spain, compiled 1861 – 1934, National Archives, Washington D. C.

McAfee, Michael. “The Sons of Friends and Neighbors: Orange County’s 56th and 124th Regiments of New York Volunteer Infantry.” The Hudson River Valley Review 22, no. 1 (Fall 2005): 1-9. http://www.hudsonrivervalley.org/review/pdfs/hrvr_22pt1_mcaffee.pdf.

Military, Compiled Service Records. Civil War. Carded Records, Volunteer Organizations. Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1890–1912. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Pula, James S. The Sigel Regiment: A History of the Twenty-Sixth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, 1862-1865. Campbell, CA: Savas, 1998.

Weygant, Charles H. History of the One Hundred and Twenty-Fourth Regiment N.Y.S.V. New York: Journal Printing House, 1877.

“We the undersigned…bind ourselves mutually”: Civil War Draft Resistance in Eastern Pennsylvania

By Ryan Bilger ’19

On August 6th, 1863, a group of sixteen men gathered at the East Penn Railroad depot in Millerstown, Pennsylvania, now known as Macungie, a small farming community located about seven miles southwest of Allentown. The young men met that day to create a contract with one another in anticipation of the army conscription draft, scheduled to take place in a week’s time with men between ages twenty and thirty-five eligible for selection. They created the “Millerstown Club,” agreeing “that each member of the club has to pay the sum of fifty dollars on or before the day previous to the draft.” Should the misfortune of being drafted fall upon any members of the club, the money collected would be used either to hire a substitute to serve in the army in the club member’s place or to pay the “commutation” fee of $300 to free them from service entirely. Any signer of the contract who did not pay his share by the day before the draft would not be considered a member should he be drafted. This apparently happened in the case of three of the men, who have their names crossed out on the contract. The creation of the “Millerstown Club” reflected a strong desire to avoid the war among the draft-eligible men of the town.

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The Millerstown Contract. Photo courtesy of Dale Eck, Macungie Historical Society.

Events throughout the previous year had brought the young men of Millerstown to this point. Congress passed the Enrollment Act on March 3, 1863 to provide fresh manpower for the thinning Union Army ranks, requiring all male citizens and citizenship-seeking aliens between the ages of twenty and forty-five to register by April 1 for potential drafts to come. The law proved wildly unpopular across the North, from “Copperhead” Peace Democrat strongholds in the Midwest to cities on the East Coast. The best-known example of resistance to the draft took place when rioting broke out in New York City on July 13-16, 1863. Rioters destroyed homes and property in the city before beating and lynching African Americans in anger over the government’s adoption of emancipation as a cause for continuing the war. They only dispersed when troops pulled from the Army of the Potomac shortly after Gettysburg arrived in the city. Exactly one month after the violence in New York started, the communities of rural eastern Pennsylvania prepared to face a draft of their own.

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New York draft riots. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

By August 1863, the people of Millerstown were no strangers to the military draft. Ten months earlier, in October 1862, several of the town’s men were selected to join the 176th Pennsylvania Infantry (Drafted Militia). This draft took place under the Pennsylvania State Militia Draft of 1862, prompted by the inability to fill President Lincoln’s summer call for 300,000 militia volunteers. Company A of the nine-month regiment mostly included men from Millerstown and the adjacent Lower Macungie Township. Despite the rancor that the state militia draft inspired throughout Pennsylvania–which included women and boys throwing hot water, sticks, and stones at draft enrollers in the coal mining regions–the Millerstown men who entered into service seem to have made the best of their situation. A letter written to Millerstown resident and future Pennsylvania College student A. Jacob Erdman by Orderly Sergeant Franklin Mertz in January 1863 tells of the regiment’s movement from Suffolk, Virginia to the North Carolina coast at New Bern. Mertz also related that “[O]ne hears no fighting and quarrelling in our regiment like one hears in many other regiments,” and that only six men of the unit were in the hospital at the time. Even with these reassurances from the front, though, the men in Millerstown in the summer of 1863 looked at the events of the last year and made plans to resist the draft.

Unlike the rioters in New York or others who fled to Canada or the deep backcountry to avoid being drafted, the members of the Millerstown Club decided to protect themselves from the draft legally. Perhaps they did so to avoid the unrest and destruction that had gripped New York City the previous month and to resist the draft while maintaining order in their community. Regardless, by showing a willingness to pay either a substitute or for a commutation fee, these men followed the lawful channels of resistance. Taking such measures would have been more likely to occur in Millerstown as well. A statistical analysis of legal and illegal draft evasion by Peter Levine found a small but still noteworthy correlation between higher levels of illegal draft evasion in July and August 1863 and congressional districts with higher levels of non-Republican voting, Catholics, and foreign-born residents. As a relatively old Protestant Pennsylvania German farming community, Millerstown would have been less likely to witness illegal methods of draft avoidance. The goal of the Millerstown Club to resist conscription legally thus fits well into the context of draft evasion at the time.

Another documentary trace of the Millerstown Club, though, shows that anti-draft support may not have been as strong in the town as the club’s formation would indicate. The members had also planned a fundraising campaign, as seen in a surviving document that was written to “honorably implore those of our fellow men of Millerstown, who are not subject to the impeding draft… to contribute to the aforesaid club, such sums of money as to them may seem to be a proper support for bearing expenses of those who will be drafted.” If this was indeed the form that members of the Millerstown Club used to solicit donations from the people of their community, it shows that perhaps the local anti-war sentiment was not strong enough to impact the decisions of those not immediately touched by the prospect of military service. The section for recording donations is blank.

The other residents of Millerstown may have drawn on a range of causes in their decision not to support the members of the Millerstown Club financially. Perhaps they did not believe in the anti-war movement enough to part with their own hard-earned money, or they may simply not have had the funds to give to the town’s young men. The other residents might also have looked at the bigger picture regarding the club’s method of resistance. Paying commutation fees still ultimately supported the federal government and the war effort, and perhaps they realized this and chose not to contribute on grounds that the Millerstown Club was not doing enough to resist the draft.

Any or all of these factors may have been at play in Millerstown, providing a stark contrast to the more fervent anti-war spirit demonstrated by the sixteen signers of the contract at the East Penn Railroad depot. The case of the Millerstown Club provides a fascinating example of how the theoretical concept of opposition to the war could crystallize into active resistance. The draft became an issue with which communities had to grapple, and its impact reverberated far beyond the streets of New York City and the farm lanes of eastern Pennsylvania across the North during the latter half of the Civil War.


Sources:

Eck, Dale. “The 176th Regiment Pennsylvania Drafted Militia.” Macungie Historical Society, 2011.

Franklin Mertz, Letter to A. Jacob Erdman, January 22, 1863. Macungie Historical Society, Macungie, Pennsylvania.

Levine, Peter. “Draft Evasion in the North during the Civil War, 1863-1865.” The Journal of American History 67, no. 4 (1981): 816-34. doi:10.2307/1888051.

Millerstown Club Contract and Fundraising Form. August 6, 1863. Macungie Historical Society, Macungie, Pennsylvania.

“New York Draft Riots.” In The Reader’s Companion to American History, edited by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1991.

Shankman, Arnold. “Draft Resistance in Civil War Pennsylvania.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 101, no. 2 (1977): 190-204.

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.

An Interview with Harold Holzer: Lincoln, Memory, and Dedication Day

Last Friday, CWI Fellows Abigail Cocco ’19 and Ryan Bilger ’19 interviewed renowned Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer about his upcoming Dedication Day speech at the Gettysburg National Cemetery on November 19th. Holzer discussed various aspects of Civil War memory as well as Lincoln’s legacy in contemporary society. Currently the Jonathan F. Fanton Director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, Holzer has authored, co-authored, or edited 52 books, the most recent being Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Mr. Holzer was also a featured speaker at the Civil War Institute’s annual summer conference this past June. You can watch his CWI talk here.

harold holzer

Holzer’s Dedication Day speech will take place at 10:30 a.m. at the rostrum in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Gettysburg National Military Park, following a 10:00 a.m. wreath-laying ceremony at the Soldiers’ National Monument. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, please visit www.lincolnfellowship.org.

“Died of the Spotted Fever”: The Spot Resolutions and the Making of Abraham Lincoln

By Ryan Bilger ’19

On December 22, 1847, the Speaker of the House of Representatives recognized a young, freshman congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln who wished to speak about the ongoing war with Mexico. The lanky, awkward, high-voiced westerner raised doubts regarding President James Knox Polk’s conduct in starting the war, proposing eight resolutions that challenged Polk to provide evidence for his stated reason for doing so. Polk had said that Mexican troops had shed “American blood on American soil” and forced his hand, but Lincoln challenged this assertion. Lincoln insinuated that the fatal encounter between Mexican and American troops had in fact occurred in a contested region between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, a region to which Mexico had stronger claims than the United States. With his demand that Polk prove that the exact location of the engagement had been on American soil, Lincoln’s proposals became known as the “Spot Resolutions.” This speech brought Lincoln into the national spotlight for the first time, and it proved key in the development of his future career.

Abraham_Lincoln_by_Nicholas_Shepherd,_1846-crop
Caption: Daguerrotype of Abraham Lincoln as Congressman-elect in 1846, by Nicholas Shepherd. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Lincoln’s Spot Resolutions provoked a storm of intense reactions from fellow politicians and newspapers alike. Many of these criticisms compared Lincoln unfavorably with the former holder of his Congressional seat, John Jay Hardin, who had served as a militia commander in the war with Mexico and had been killed in action earlier in 1847 at the Battle of Buena Vista. Missouri Congressman John Jameson, for one, responded in a speech of his own a few days later with the exhortation, “The gentleman from Illinois, from the Hardin and Baker district, took a strange position before the American Congress for such a Representative. Yes, sir; look back and see what your Hardin did.” The Illinois State Register gave Lincoln the nickname “Ranchero Spotty,” connecting him with Mexican guerrilla fighters who preyed on American soldiers that left camp alone. The Democratic Peoria Press heckled, “What an epitaph: ‘Died of the Spotted Fever.’ Poor Lincoln.” Even Lincoln’s friend and law partner, William Herndon, wrote to him criticizing his Spot Resolutions speech as “political suicide,” while gatherings of citizens in his home district in Illinois denounced his “base, dastardly, and treasonable assault upon President Polk,” labeling him “this Benedict Arnold of our district.” This outpouring of public sentiment contributed greatly to Lincoln’s defeat in his reelection bid the next year, putting a hold on his time in the national spotlight.

Though many people disagreed with the ideas expressed by Lincoln in his Spot Resolutions speech, others recognized his great capacity for oration. This sentiment permeated across the nation. The Missouri Republican wrote that the speech was “one of great power, and replete with the strongest and most conclusive arguments. He commanded the attention of the House, which none but a strong man can do.” The Baltimore Patriot opined that “evidently there is music in that very tall Mr. Lincoln.” In Massachusetts, a Solomon Lincoln wrote to his congressman that “[O]ur attention has been arrested in this quarter of the country by the able speech of Hon. Mr. Lincoln of Illinois made this session, in the House of Representatives, and it has been a source of gratification to those bearing his name to know that the old stock has not degenerated by being transplanted. On the contrary, it exhibits fresh vigor in the fertile soil of the West.” Lincoln’s speech won him acclaim from a range of outlets, a real achievement for a young, first-term congressman.

Abraham Lincoln may have only served one term as a congressman before his 1860 nomination for president on the Republican ticket, but in that brief time he put himself on the map with his Spot Resolutions speech. The speech was far from an unmitigated success, as it provoked a political firestorm that both failed to stop Polk’s war in Mexico and largely led to Lincoln’s defeat in his reelection campaign. It became such a memorable strike against Lincoln that in his debates with Stephen Douglas more than a decade later, the “Little Giant” would ask the audience its thoughts on Lincoln’s efforts “to dodge the responsibility of [the Republican Party] platform because it was not adopted in the right spot” and refer to him as “Spotty Lincoln.” Yet, the wide range of reactions from across the United States demonstrated that Lincoln had the power to craft his orations in such a way that they left a mark on people, an ability that proved highly useful in his later political career. The Spot Resolutions were thus integral in the making of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps ironically so for a man who would later preside over the most catastrophic war in American history. The elevation of his name into the national consciousness as a man of great ability and conviction at such an early point in his career set the stage for his eventual meteoric rise, culminating in his election to the presidency. As such, Lincoln’s Spot Resolutions speech deserves greater recognition among Civil War historians and enthusiasts alike.


Sources

DeRose, Christopher. Congressman Lincoln: The Making of America’s Greatest President. New York: Threshold Ed., 2014.

Fisher, Louis. “The Mexican War and Lincoln’s ‘Spot Resolutions’.” Washington: Law Library of Congress, 2009.

Greenberg, Amy S. A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2013.

Merry, Robert W. A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.

Marching in Step:  USCT Veterans and the Grand Army of the Republic

By Ryan Bilger ‘19

This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead:  Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.

USCT Veterans on Parade, Easton, PA. Postcard. Black veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic were, like their white counterparts, very active in the realms of commemoration and politics. “Decoration Day,” the precursor to our modern Memorial Day, officially started with the GAR in 1868, and served both purposes. Courtesy of Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

For many United States Colored Troops, remembering the Civil War and their comrades who fell in it became an important part of their post-war life. One of the primary opportunities for public expression of remembrance was Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day. African Americans played a critical part in the creation of this holiday. On May 1, 1865, the newly-freed black residents of Charleston asserted their place in Civil War memory by leading a parade to a recently constructed cemetery for Union prisoners at the city’s horseracing course. The procession heaped flowers upon the graves of the honored dead, after which ministers from the town’s black congregations gave dedicatory speeches. This event, known among some in the North as the “First Decoration Day,” exemplified African American interest in perpetuating the memory of the Civil War. However, the resentment of white Southerners at the time towards this instance of black agency led to the marginalization and eventual forgetting of the event in the mind of the public at large.

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Donald Trump, Andrew Jackson, and the Civil War: A CWI Fellow’s Response

By Ryan Bilger ’19

In an interview for Sirius XM Radio released this Monday, May 1, President Donald Trump made some intriguing comments regarding the reasons why the American Civil War took place. He started by describing his beliefs on how 7th President Andrew Jackson would have influenced the events leading up to the Civil War:

I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that he saw what was happening, with regard to the Civil War. He said, there’s no reason for this.

Donald_Trump_official_portrait
President Donald Trump. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading “Donald Trump, Andrew Jackson, and the Civil War: A CWI Fellow’s Response”