Star Wars, Syria, and Our Civil War: Bearing Witness to Atrocity and Suffering

Courtesy of Wookipedia.

By Kevin Lavery ’16

Bear with me on this one. We will eventually come to how the American Civil War ties into this conversation, but I have a lot of other things to talk about first. And I should also warn:  minor spoilers ahead.

I was moved to silence after seeing Rogue One, the first spin-off film of the Star Wars franchise. Even now, tears creep into my eyes as I remember how it shook me. I had heard reviews claiming that it was the first Star Wars movie to put the cost of war at the center of the narrative. I hadn’t expected it to be so true.

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A New Angle on the Freedmen’s Bureau: A Conversation with James Downs

Jim Downs
Jim Downs. Image courtesy of Connecticut College.

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the historians scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legacies. Today, we’re speaking with James Downs. Downs is an Associate Professor of History and American Studies at Connecticut College. He recently published Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2012), which tells the largely unknown story of the many former slaves who died at the moment of freedom. Dr. Downs has also published on the representations of slavery in museums and historic landmarks in the United States, England, and the Bahamas. He is currently working on two book projects—the first on the international outbreak of the 19th-century cholera epidemics, and the second on the history of sexuality. The recent recipient of a prestigious New Directions Fellowship, Dr. Downs is spending the 2015-2016 academic year on sabbatical as an Andrew W. Mellon fellow at Harvard University.

CWI: What was the Freedmen’s Bureau? Who operated it, and what purposes did it serve?

DOWNS: The Freedmen’s Bureau was a federal government agency that helped to ease former bondspeople’s transition from slavery to freedom. Established by Congress in 1865 as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land, the Freedmen’s Bureau negotiated labor contracts; established provisional schools; constructed schools and began the first-ever system of federal medical care—building over forty hospitals, employing over 120 physicians, and treating an estimated one million formerly enslaved people. Continue reading “A New Angle on the Freedmen’s Bureau: A Conversation with James Downs”

From Tragedy to a Christmas Carol: The Story of Longfellow’s "Christmas Bells"

By Jen Simone ’18

In times of intense despair, it can seem impossible to have any hope. All of us get caught up in the tragedies occurring all around us and begin to believe that life is a constant struggle without any good in it. Christmas time, though often a time of mourning for people who have recently lost loved ones, also is a time of restored hope for many.

Christmas carolers may arrive at your door this season offering to sing the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The carol tells of a man who is troubled by the hateful world, but then has hope restored as he is reminded of God’s power. Though two stanzas concerning the Civil War were removed for the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was based on the poem “Christmas Bells” written during the Civil War by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1868 with the beard he grew to cover his burn scars. Photography via Wikimedia Commons.

The poem begins with the peacefulness that characterizes Christmas:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Continue reading “From Tragedy to a Christmas Carol: The Story of Longfellow’s "Christmas Bells"”

Frederick H. Kronenberger: Attempting to be a Man

By Tiffany Santulli ’13

In her book War Stories, Frances Clarke outlines the importance of being seen as a man in Victorian society. For a soldier and his family it was important to know that if he should meet a tragic end, his death would be seen as a triumphant one. These concepts can be found in the story of Frederick H. Kronenberger, a young clerk who enlisted in the Second New Jersey Volunteer Regiment during the Civil War.


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Writing on the Operating Table Part Two: The Letters of James Langstaff Dunn, Civil War Surgeon

By Sarah Johnson ’15

After discussing the war letters of James Langstaff Dunn through the lens of Gerald Linderman’s Embattled Courage and challenging the idea of mass disillusionment among Civil War soldiers, it becomes necessary to revisit the Dunn letters to discuss a more helpful framework for viewing Dunn and his war experience. Frances Clarke’s War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North sets up the Civil War against a backdrop of notions of Victorian suffering. By using Clarke’s approach, Dunn is revealed as an individual dedicated to cultural notions of suffering and sacrifice for cause and country.
Continue reading “Writing on the Operating Table Part Two: The Letters of James Langstaff Dunn, Civil War Surgeon”

Writing on the Operating Table: Letters of James Langstaff Dunn, Civil War Surgeon

by Sarah Johnson, ’15 Gerald Linderman???s Embattled Courage defines the pursuit of courage as the prime motivator for Civil War soldiers. For men going off to war, idealistic notions of courage and duty caused them to rise above their fears and fig…

By Sarah Johnson ’15

Gerald Linderman’s Embattled Courage defines the pursuit of courage as the prime motivator for Civil War soldiers. For men going off to war, idealistic notions of courage and duty caused them to rise above their fears and fight for their cause. However, the last chapter of Embattled Courage, titled “Disillusionment”, argues that eventually Civil War soldiers developed a hardened and stoic indifference to the suffering around them. Linderman argues soldiers stopped feeling like a vital part of an important cause and more like a small, insignificant piece of a vain struggle. The letters of James Langstaff Dunn, volunteer surgeon of the 109th and later 111th Pennsylvania Volunteers, offer a different interpretation, one that copes with the death and destruction by a grisly determination to see the war to its end.


Dunn’s early letters reflect Linderman’s analysis of Victorian ideals about courage. He wrote his wife on May 2, 1861 assuring her that “the boys are healthy and in good spirits, ready to do their duty.”[i] The 109th PA received their baptism of fire on August 9, 1862 at the battle of Cedar Mountain. In the aftermath, Dunn spent twenty-four hours in surgery with no food and little water. He performed twenty-two amputations of the thigh alone, and “a great many” on arms.[ii] Dunn would go on to be involved in Second Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg before being transferred to the west to Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain, Mission Ridge, and the Siege of Atlanta, in addition to other minor engagements.[iii]

Along the way, Dunn experienced, first-hand, the destruction the war brought. Stealing a moment to himself after Chancellorsville, he wrote to his wife assuring he was safe. The letter begins, “I have just one minute to write and I am writing it on the operating table.”[iv] Charged with putting broken men back together, Dunn was forced to evaluate the costs of the war and justify them to himself. The first patient Dunn lost haunted him. Lieut. Austin, a New Jersey cavalryman, was described by Dunn as “a handsome fellow, not over 21 or 22…I will remember his boyish looks and earnest appeals for help as long as I live.”[v]

A second incident that deeply affected Dunn was the loss of his hometown friend, J. W. Patton. Patton was hit by a shell at the top of the humerus, near where the arm articulates with the shoulder. The hit caused his humerus to fracture all the way down to his elbow. Dunn examined the wound and determined the arm could be saved, but after he passed on to treat another soldier, the arm was amputated by another surgeon.[vii] Amputation of the arm at the shoulder was a relatively simple procedure for an experienced surgeon, disarticulating the humerus at the joint with the shoulder was a natural place to separate and there was rarely a problem with controlling the bleeding. Three-fourths of shoulder amputees survived.[viii] Patton, however, did not. Dunn was profoundly hurt by what he deemed as an unnecessary loss of life; had not thought the arm needed amputation in the first place.

Dunn’s response to the trauma of war was not with disillusionment.  His war experiences reflect determination. Dunn’s letters reveal, instead of bitterness with the war, frustrations with the political wavering at home; he was a severe critic of Copperheads and Peace Democrats of the North. Dunn’s tirades against the Copperheads boiled down to a belief that the broken men on the field, bleeding and dying, deserved better than quasi-commitment at home.[ix]  Dunn’s 1864 New Year’s Resolution demonstrates his convictions and his justification for the costs of war:

Still, my life is spared. Tomorrow is New Years Day. I hope…that its end may see the close of this fearful War, to be crowned with garlands of a glorious peace in and undivided country, and with every man, black or white, enjoying the rights that God has given him. I know that some call this abolitionism, but it must come as the fruits of the many fearful sacrifices that have been, and are now being made by the best blood of the nation.[x]


[i] Paul Kerr, Civil War Surgeon-Biography of James Langstaff Dunn, MD, AuthorHouse, 2005, Letter to wife, Temperance, May 5, 1862, 21.

[ii] Kerr, Civil War Surgeon, Letter to wife, August 15, 1862, 63.

[iii] Kerr, Civil War Surgeon, 333.

[iv] Kerr, Civil War Surgeon, Letter to wife, May 4, 1863, 92.

[v] Kerr, Civil War Surgeon, Letter to wife,  May 12, 1863, 89.

[vi] Kerr, Civil War Surgeon, L
etter to wife, May 12, 1863, 89.

[vii] Kerr, Civil War Surgeon, Letter to wife, May 17, 1863, 94-95.

[viii] Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War, Volume X, Wilmington: Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1991.

[ix] Kerr, Civil War Surgeon, Letter to wife, January 27, 1863, 82.

[x] Kerr, Civil War Surgeon, Letter to wife, December 31, 1863, 153.

Photos from the National Archives.