Last spring, my friends told me that it was the perfect time to get into Civil War reenacting. “The 150th is over,” they said, “No one is going to care about the Civil War anymore, so everyone will be selling all their stuff.” Somehow, this bit of insider trading information meant more to me than just bargain brogans and frock coats.
For many, indeed most, the Civil War ended when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9th, 1865. For reenactors and amateur historians today, the Civil War ended last April with the 150th Appomattox events or maybe even last May with the 150th anniversary of the Grand Review in Washington D.C. And then it was over. The four year frenzy concluded as if the spring of 1865 was the end of America’s great 19th century identity crisis. Yet in a broader sense, the Civil War lasted much longer than its affixed truncation date of April 1865, and its sesquicentennial commemoration should likewise project well into the next few decades. Victories like the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments and the Civil Rights Bills of the postbellum era should be celebrated just as much as the victories at Gettysburg and Antietam. Likewise, the tragedies of the Colfax Massacre and the founding of the Ku Klux Klan should be remembered just as well as the assassination of President Lincoln.
This winter, the Gettysburg Compiler will be releasing weekly posts as part of a Mercy Monday feature that will cover issues of medical history, gender and race relations, historical memory, and other themes depicted in the new PBS series Mercy Street.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Lisa Wolfinger, the executive producer and co-creator of Mercy Street. She kindly agreed to be interviewed by the Gettysburg Compiler about her work on the series. Wolfinger also participated in a recent conversation on local public radio station WITF’s Smart Talk program alongside the CWI’s Jill Titus and Ian Isherwood. You can hear their discussion online at WITF’s website.
Lavery: What got you interested in working on a historical drama like Mercy Street?
Wolfinger: I majored in European History at Sussex University in England and have always been passionate about history. Fact is often more dramatic than anything we could invent. Early in my filmmaking career I was given the opportunity by History Channel to produce documentary specials about early American history and had little to no visual material to work with. So I had to find a new way to tell these stories within the confines of a documentary format and fell back on what I knew and that was drama. (I was very involved in theater in college.) Continue reading “Lisa Wolfinger, Executive Producer of PBS’s Mercy Street, Talks History and Memory”
Throughout the sesquicentennial, I have often found myself wondering what the end of the 150th anniversaries and the surrender at Appomattox would bring to present Civil War memory. What lessons do we take away from that small stuffy room in the McLean House, with the fate of the nation hanging in the balance?
I was fortunate enough to attend the 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9. Purposely decked out in all Gettysburg College and Civil War Institute attire, I eagerly awaited the many discussions and debates between me and fellow visitors. I had imagined the historic site to be crawling with Lost Causers and neo-Confederates. But to my surprise, as the crowd began cramming in front of the stage at 1 o’clock, the time when General Lee had arrived exactly 150 years before, the focus shifted to the importance and overall historical context of the ground on which we stood. As Robin Snyder, the Acting Superintendent of Appomattox Courthouse National Historic Site, took the stage, she made the connection between 1865 and 2015 in one word.
If you were in Gettysburg during the summer of 2013, you surely encountered the ubiquitous 150th Gettysburg logo branded on everything from promotional materials to souvenirs. The latter – tacky at best and irreverent at worst – filled the town to the point of excess, making some of us wonder how many people completely missed the point of the sesquicentennial. Anniversaries exert a powerful force on the American historical psyche, but it is dubious whether Gettysburg’s celebration exerted an appropriate one. The sesquicentennial was a wonderful opportunity to refocus on the events of July 1863, but sadly many businesses in Gettysburg seemed unable to look past their profit margins.
Two summers ago, huge crowds of tourists flocked to Gettysburg in order to experience reenactments, tour the national park, and engage with our sacred past. But the stench of unrestrained consumerism wafted incessantly from the heart of the town, threatening to draw these pilgrims away from hallowed fields and reverent ruminations. Who could concentrate on such abstract ideas like Freedom, Equality, Justice, and Patriotismwith shelves of useless merchandise beckoning from just a few miles away?
A question to the reader: have you ever visited Gettysburg? Presumably most of the Gettysburg Compiler’s audience will answer in the affirmative. A follow-up question: have you ever purchased a souvenir from one of the town’s abundant gift shops? Perhaps it was a kepi or a cork gun for your child? Or maybe a bottle of “Rebel Red” wine? Or some tacky trinket or faux antique?
Let’s face it: we live in a consumer society in which there is nothing too sacred to profit from. And, sadly, the Battle of Gettysburg is no exception.
Followers of the Compiler may remember a piece I wrote in the early autumn of 2013 on the last stand of the 16th Maine Regiment of Volunteer Infantry on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. As I am living in Gettysburg this summer while I work as a Brian C. Pohanka intern in Gettysburg College’s Special Collections, I of course could not miss the chance to hike up to the location of that stand on Oak Ridge to pay tribute to those boys from Maine.
As I crested the ridge just north of town, I was struck by the historical dissonance of the panorama in front of me. So much has occurred in 151 years. Ribbons of tar and asphalt stretch across the gently sloping hills; great mechanical beasts wind their way around mute stone sentinels; the chatter of children lurks ever in the background.
Emmanuel Dabney, one of the Civil War Institute Summer Conference speakers, is a park ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield. At the Summer Conference, “The War in 1864,” he will give a lecture titled, “Catching Us Like Sheep in a Slaughter Pen”: The United States Colored Troops at the Battle of the Crater. In anticipation of the Institute, Emmanuel Dabney answered questions on intepretation, Petersburg, and the future of the Civil War. This is part two in a three part series. Click here to read part one.
Though my own musings have led me to doubt the traditional interpretation of the Battle of Gettysburg’s military importance, I still hold Gettysburg to be the greatest battle of the American Civil War, without question worthy and deserving of continued study. In order to reconcile these two points of view I pondered further, attempting to unearth other, less-thought-of reasons for the importance of the Battle of Gettysburg to the course of the American Civil War.
Again my thoughts turned to the summer I spent at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. As one of my duty stations that summer had been Spotsylvania Court House, the second battle in Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, I had gained much experience explaining the concepts of this crucial campaign. The most famous aspect of Grant’s series of south-east movements in the spring and summer of 1864 is, of course, his unswerving determination to keep moving towards Richmond, no matter the cost. Grant’s fearless use of the North’s superior manpower and industrial capacity to defeat the waning strength of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia has become legendary in American history. Yet mention of this war of attrition in the American Civil War only truly begins to rear its head in the context of ending the war with the opening of the Overland Campaign. Though Grant and his generals may have been the first to integrate attrition into their strategies, the attrition of Southern armies began almost as soon as the war started. Though victorious at nearly every battle, Robert E. Lee continually lost a higher percentage of his men than did his opponents, and it is this idea of Confederate losses that brings me back to Gettysburg. It is estimated that, out of a total of approximately 70,000 effective soldiers at the start of the campaign, Lee’s army suffered a total of around 23,000 casualties, fully 33% of its force. Among those casualties lurks a second, even more devastating fact. This same percentage of losses was reflected in the Army of Northern Virginia’s officer corps, with at least a third of them becoming casualties over the course of those three days in July, 1863. In an army which has, rightly or wrongly, time and again been lauded for its superior leadership, the loss of so much of that leadership can only have been devastating to the continued performance of the army. In light of these figures, could it not be better to think of Gettysburg as one of the greatest disasters for Southern arms not because of the defeat itself, but due to the cost of any battle so bloody, be it a victory or a defeat?
Gettysburg, the first three days of July, 1863. An epic clash of titans sways back and forth across the fields and hills of this small Pennsylvania town. The two armies who fought here left in their wake over fifty thousand men broken in three days of combat, and the significance of their actions to the course of the American Civil War has rarely been doubted. The Union’s victory at Gettysburg put a halt to Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the North, an invasion that could have broken the Northern civilians’ will to continue prosecuting the war. The crushing repulse of the Confederate charge on July 3 shattered the myth of Confederate invincibility, delivering the first major Union victory in the Eastern Theater. This battle has widely been heralded as THE turning point of the American Civil War, the battle that permanently ended Confederate hopes of victory and set the Union on the road to victory. My experiences of the battle’s sesquicentennial commemoration and of a summer spent working at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park inspired me to look deeper, however, and upon closer inspection, cracks began to show in this traditional view of Gettysburg’s paramount importance. Continue reading “Examination: Reflections on the 150th”
There is nothing quite like residing in the town of Gettysburg during the years leading up to the sesquicentennial of the great battle fought here in 1863. As a devoted student of that great internecine conflict known as the American Civil War, I had applied to Gettysburg College in 2011 with the full knowledge of what was to come only two short years in the future, and could not have been more excited for it.