Civil War Mythbusters: Grappling with the Lost Cause

Last fall, CWI Fellow (and now Gettysburg College graduate) Megan McNish ’16 shared this reflection on the experience of commemorating the Civil War in spite of having no family members who were in America during the conflict. A few hours later, we received a notification that someone had responded to the post. 

We receive many comments on the Gettysburg Compiler, and not infrequently do they come from adherents of the Lost Cause mythology. Few comments, however, have been as detailed and historically problematic as the one Megan’s post received. We invited the Fellows (past and present) to respond with their own comments to different parts of the argument, and now we are publishing their compiled responses along with the original comment. 

The text in the gray boxes below was originally published by the commenter as one long paragraph. We have divided it into sections (though maintained the original order) so that the Fellows’ responses could be inserted immediately after the sections to which they refer. We have also changed visible URLs into hyperlinks for the sake of aesthetic appeal. Apart from these tweaks, no edits have been made to the content, grammar, style, or spelling for either the Fellows or the original commenter. Not every possible critique of the comment is included below as each student was asked to hone in on one or two parts that they thought would most benefit from further discussion and context. 

Feel free to share your own impressions and reactions in the comment section. 

The comment begins:

I commend your passion on this subject and it is truly an honor to read about a youth that studies history. I would however like to set the record straight about the Civil War and the real reasons it was fought. This War just like many others throughout history were fought over greed. The South did not betray their fellow countrymen but rather the North oppressed the Southern states with unfair taxation and think about that for a moment UNFAIR TAXATION. Does that ring a bell think the Boston Tea Party.

Ryan Nadeau ’16:  What makes a tax unfair? Certainly, the case can be made for taxation without representation, as it was during the Revolution. By our standards of representative democracy, that’s just fine. However, prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the South had plenty of representation. In the Thirty-sixth Congress, which sat from 1859 to the opening days of 1861, the states of the Confederacy held twenty-four of the sixty-six seats in the Senate (two for each state) and sixty-six of two-hundred and thirty-eight seats in the House of Representatives. Admittedly, this number for the House seems unusually low– and it was. Had the South abolished slavery, they would have received significant increases to their political representation. The Three-Fifth’s Compromise, as outlined in the Constitution, recognized only three out of every five slaves towards the population of a state when accounting for representation. Continue reading “Civil War Mythbusters: Grappling with the Lost Cause”

The Mysteries of History and the Digital Age

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

My time as a writer for the Gettysburg Compiler is at an end—as is my time at Gettysburg College itself. It’s during endings and moments of transitions such as this where people tend to reflect and ask themselves questions like “what did this all mean?” and “what was I trying to accomplish here?” I’m going to try and answer those questions. To do that, however, I need to start somewhere else.

Over a year ago, in one of my first blog posts, I wrote that I did not consider myself a “Civil Warrior,” or someone deeply passionate or involved in the study of Civil War history, a status which separated me from many other fellows at the institute then as it does now. That was not to say that I dislike the Civil War—quite the opposite, I do find it very interesting—but that my main historical interests lie elsewhere.

Now, at the end of my second year as a fellow and somewhere around twenty blog posts in, I would still make that claim, with the additional, somewhat prideful one that the work I have done here has been great work and good history. This reflection is not meant to inflate my own ego, however: I won’t be sitting back and discussing how wonderful I think my work is. Rather, I want to use my own lack of expertise to try and prove a point: that anyone can do good history.

Tyson Brothers. "Pennsylvania College (1862)." 1862. Special Collections/Musselman Library, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Confessing not to be a “Civil Warrior,” Ryan quickly set himself up as a historical sleuth, with the goal of exploring and understanding parts of history that interested him but were outside of his area of expertise. In the post referred to below, Ryan explored the “Mysteries of Penn Hall.”

Continue reading “The Mysteries of History and the Digital Age”

Instruments of War: A Canadian Musician in a Rhode Island Regiment

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

Canada! America’s hat! Our friendly little brother to the north. The home of hockey and Tim Horton’s and your home, too, when that other political party elects their crazy candidate. All jokes aside, the United States has long had a close relationship with our northern neighbor, and the Civil War proved no exception. An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Canadians fought during the war, typically on the side of the Union due to their geographic proximity and cultural sympathies. Of that number, approximately 5,000 were killed.

Of course, not all Canadians who partook in the war were there to fight. Among the number who volunteered in the Union army was a young musician by the name of Calixa Lavallée, who some two decades after the war became responsible for one of the most enduring symbols of Canada (at least as we perceive it here in the United States): the music of their national anthem, “O Canada.” Born in Quebec to parents of French descent, he was only sixteen when he traveled to the United States for the first time to join a traveling minstrel show based out of Rhode Island. Already an extremely versatile musician, he journeyed across the politically-tense nation to cities like New Orleans, Vicksburg, Richmond, Washington, Philadelphia, and New York to perform on tour. On 19 January, 1861, Lavallée and his troupe were in Atlanta when Georgia seceded from the Union.

Calixa Lavallée in his later years, defying typical post-war facial hair trends. Photograph via Wikimedia Commons.
Calixa Lavallée in his later years, defying typical post-war facial hair trends. Photograph via Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading “Instruments of War: A Canadian Musician in a Rhode Island Regiment”

Sons of our Founding Fathers:  Men of Renowned Lineage and the American Civil War

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

Political dynasties have always occupied a strange spot within the democracy of the United States. Though the argument is frequently made that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant, and that it is only the ability of a person which propels them through society, it is foolish to ignore the effects that a name can have how a person is judged by society—for better or worse. In the decades following the Revolution, when the descendants and fortunes of the Founding Fathers were still easily identifiable, this was especially true. When you possessed a name like Washington or Adams while their memory was still fresh in the young nation, you stood in the shadow of heroes.

Many descendants of the founders were thus member of what is often viewed as an aristocratic class in mid-19th century society. They lived on the plantations of the South and in the big cities of the North, inheritors of their ancestors’ wealth, social status, and political respect. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, they could have easily chosen to watch the conflict play out from the sidelines. After all, they frequently possessed the means to either avoid the draft or find no benefit to service altogether. Patriotism, though, motivated them beyond any economic interest: the desire to save their country from an existential threat. With the blood of revolutionary heroes flowing through their veins, and possessing perhaps a democratic equivalent of noblesse oblige, the decedents of the founders went to war. An illustrious name, however, would not necessarily grant them great success on the battlefield, as they soon discovered. Continue reading “Sons of our Founding Fathers:  Men of Renowned Lineage and the American Civil War”

Tactical Insight and Sick Burns from a Woman at War: The Diary of Nadine Turchin

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

On June 27th, 1863, while camped at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Nadine Turchin, wife of Brigadier General John Turchin of the Army of the Cumberland, wrote an irate entry in her journal. “Really, I think that the commanding general should take me as his chief of staff,” she began, “or at least as his personal advisor.” She went on to discuss the movements of her husband’s regiment as they campaigned in the west, criticizing the orders given to him by his superiors that had resulted in several deaths within the regiment and offering her own take on how they should have proceeded. “Oh, uncivilized beasts!” she concluded, in reference to the army’s leaders: “They are dedicated to sacrificing this unfortunate army.”

As I have previously written on this blog, Nadine Turchin was an extraordinary woman. Not only did she follow her husband to war (and by some accounts directly engage in the fighting), but she was highly articulate and possessed an incredible intellect. A multilingual Russian immigrant from an aristocratic background, Nadine was a unique observer of the Union army. She kept a diary while with the army, written primarily in 1863 as a writing exercise so that her mastery of French would not decay. In it, she recorded her frequently scathing thoughts on a variety of topics, including the rights of women, the conduct of the war, and the state of the country. She also used it to record her wartime observations, and it includes accounts of both the Battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, written from her point of view during the fighting.

The Battle of Chickamauga, witnessed by Nadine and described in her diary.
The Battle of Chickamauga, depicting the Union army Nadine Turchin believed only knew how to die, and the Union officers she believed to be incompetent. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading “Tactical Insight and Sick Burns from a Woman at War: The Diary of Nadine Turchin”

From Russia with Love: John and Nadine Turchin

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

In August 1856, Ivan Vasilievitch Turchaninov and Nedezhda Dmitrievna Lvow arrived in the United States. The two had been married for only three months, and were both natives of the Russian Empire. Ivan was descended from a family of Cossacks with a strong military background in whose footsteps he followed by attending military school in St. Petersburg. He had served as an army captain during the Crimean War, stationed in the critical port city of Sevastopol, and was part of the forces sent to put down rebellions in both Poland and Hungary. It was while stationed in Russia that he had met Nedezhda, a highly educated and articulate woman with ties to the aristocracy.

Brigadier General John Basil Turchin [120156]
Brigadier General John Basil Turchin.
The two shared a secret passion—aside, that is, from their love. Both were committed liberals, with connections to republican intellectuals considered subversive to the autocratic reign of the Tsars. And after Russia’s humiliating defeat at the hands on the Western powers in 1856, both were firmly tired of that autocracy. In April 1856, after Ivan obtained a one year leave of absence from the army, he and Nedezhda eloped to Krakow, then part of the Austrian Empire, and quickly fled to the United States, where they hoped to make a new home in a republican state. Neither spoke a word of English upon arrival, but they wasted little time Anglicizing their names. Ivan and Nedezhda Turchaninov became John and Nadine Turchin. Continue reading “From Russia with Love: John and Nadine Turchin”

Crack Open a Bottle of General Lee – A Second Course

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

Welcome back, fellow historical diners. Last time, you joined me in comparing a fine selection of Union generals to food. Today, we’ll be examining some of their southern counterparts. Let’s dig in!

Robert E. Lee – Aged, Fine Red Wine with a Side of Steak

Consider the following: red wines are often consumed with red meats such as steak. Steak can be enjoyed in any number of ways, from a backyard barbecue to the finest of dining establishments. In this sense, steak is the former Confederacy, ranging as it did from the most rural farmers to the opulent planters.

In memory, Lee is the Confederacy’s classic companion: the red wine to the red meat, though perhaps one better suited to a classier setting. A dish stereotypically and frequently associated with masculinity, paired with an emblem of class. When considering a general frequently held up as the ideal gentleman of the South, could such a combination be any more fitting? Continue reading “Crack Open a Bottle of General Lee – A Second Course”

Joshua Chamberlain on Mars: Chambermania and Beyond!

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to observe one fact about Mars: it has a lot of rocks. While each is typically given a name based on protocols of scientific classification, many are known by informal, often humorous names like “Grandma” and “Space Ghost.” And now on Mars, there’s a rock for fans of Civil War history—“Chamberlain,” named of course for Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is now on Mars.

Aileen Yingst, the NASA scientist who named the rock, is a resident of Brunswick, Maine—the southern Maine town where JLC notably spent most of his adult life. And to this day, his presence there is inescapable. In Brunswick’s old town center, one can find pictures honoring him in numerous nearby restaurants, including one explicitly named for him. A local ice cream store reminds visitors to recycle their dishes because “Joshua Chamberlain would.” A bronze statue of him stands in a highly visible location close to the gates of the local Bowdoin College—the institution which Chamberlain attended as a student, taught at as a professor, and later served as president. Continue reading “Joshua Chamberlain on Mars: Chambermania and Beyond!”

General McClellan is a Fruitcake and Other Tasteful Metaphors

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

GrantatoThe idea for this post was born from a comment I made while bored and generally sleep deprived on a road trip to the James Buchanan symposium earlier this fall. After some serious historical discussion with my traveling companions, including two other CWI fellows, I made a very non-serious observation. It went something like this:

“You know, I think Buchanan looks a lot like a soft-serve vanilla ice cream cone.”

After being met with some justifiably confused replies, I explained myself: in all the pictures I had seen of him he seemed to have a round and soft face with an upturned tuft of wispy white hair that reminded me of the machine-processed look of a soft-serve vanilla ice cream. I extended my metaphor beyond looks as well, saying that much like ice cream, Buchanan melted under the pressure and heat of the nation during his presidency, requiring Lincoln to come in and clean up the mess—politics and melted dessert both. Continue reading “General McClellan is a Fruitcake and Other Tasteful Metaphors”

The Clash of Storytelling and History

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

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.

The Confederate Memorial at Stone Mountain, depicting a heroic Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson: Heroes of the Confederate story, but of history? Photography courtesy of Jim Bowen, via Wikimedia Commons. 26 January, 2012.
The Confederate Memorial at Stone Mountain, depicting a heroic Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson: Heroes of the Confederate story, but of history?
Photography courtesy of Jim Bowen, via Wikimedia Commons. 26 January, 2012.

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”