Thursday, December 26, 2013

Halfway out of the Dark: Christmas 1863

A note received any day letting you know a son is gravely wounded is horrible. Receiving it on the first day of December is particularly horrible. In this month of gathering together, hearing your son is suffering can't be cheering.

Two days before that news arrived in Cambridge, advent began. Advent is a time of waiting, and for Charles Appleton Longfellow's expectant family that waiting would be a peculiar type. While America waited for the joy of a holiday spent with family, the Longfellow family waited beside what might have been a deathbed.

Countless families during the war had sons die. Many sat at bedsides, holding hands, praying to some benevolent force to deliver their boy from harm. But this family was slightly different. Where others suffered in silence, one of the Longfellows could never be silent.

So, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Charles' father, took his pen in hand and scribbled down a poem as his son lay, perhaps dying, perhaps living, in a nearby bed.

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!

Christmas that year was pain. Longfellow was a Unitarian. Christ was not divine. Or if he was divine, his divinity was certainly not absolute and exclusive. Christmas' joy must have come from the warmth, from the hope, and from holding family's hands in the darkness of December.

Charles left for war the previous spring and, taking sick after Chancellorsville, missed the bloodbath at Gettysburg. The 1st Massachusetts Cavalry largely avoided that bloodbath too; they were posted as a guard to the 6th corps headquarters and sat out most of the battle's harshest fighting. But service in Meade's Army of the Potomac caught up to the cavalrymen, and Charles was wounded in Virginia in November 1863.

Christmas is joy and peace. But a bleeding son proved that America was anything but.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

So Longfellow penned a simple but powerful poem, like so many of his other works of verse. It remained private that year, only being published in 1865 after the war which nearly killed his son had ended. But in the cold final days of December 1863, they remained the unanswered plea of hope of a father. He was still in the dark, not yet through his trial. He begged the universe for leniency, for an answer to a father's prayer to save his suffering son.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Another Christmas classic borne of war. Sadness breeds so much hope, especially in those moments when we gather our families close and ward off the darkness. And at Christmas in 1863, Americans were halfway out of the dark.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tarnish'd with Ashes and Soot:A Classic Poem’s Dank Corners

He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight —
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

The legend is striking: Clement Clarke Moore, sitting with his children on a Christmas Eve in 1822, reading them a poem he has scrawled out that day, inspired by a winter shopping trip. Little Charity and Mary were likely entranced at six and three. Clement, a one-year-old, and Emily, a newborn, likely weren’t as enrapt by the lilting rhymes.

The poem for Moore’s children found new life a year later, published in a Troy, New York newspaper. And since then, A Visit From Saint Nicholas has been embedded in our culture.

But who is the man who wrote that poem?

Moore lived in the northern edges of a nascent New York City. His home was less than a mile west of what today is Herald Square, where Maureen O'Hara and Natalie Wood found their Miracle on 34th street. But there was no Macy’s (nor arch nemesis Gimbles) in 1822. The area was verdant fields, sprawling lawns, iron gates and palatial mansions.

The Clarke-Moore family manse was Chelsea. Moore’s grandmother Mary Stillwell Clarke left the home to his mother when she died at the turn of the 19th century. The family was rich and prosperous. Mary Clarke and her husband had built their land holdings and fortunes together. Her husband died just before the American Revolution, which was likely for the better. The family penchant was toward fierce loyalty to the Crown. The Clarkes, from whom grandson Clement Clarke Moore took his middle name, were stalwart Tories.

The Clarke conservatism was a strong suit in the bloodline. Clement Clarke Moore was born into a world at war and a dying breed. The day after he first breathed the sweet oxygen of Earth, American General "Mad Anthony" Wayne trounced the British at Stony Point on the Hudson. America seemed set on a path toward democracy; the newborn child was set toward ancient aristocracy.

The mansion at Chelsea wasn’t the only thing Moore’s grandmother bequeathed to her daughter and her, “heirs in fee,” upon her death. Samuel Patterson, in his 1956 The Poet of Christmas Eve helpfully reprints a portion of the will. Four slaves were left to Charity and Benjamin Moore: Thomas and Ann, a husband and wife, Charles and Hester. Another slave, Richard, was not yet, “of full age.” He was likely one of the slaves caught in the limbo of New York’s gradual emancipation law. When he reached 28 years-old, he would be free. Rachel, however, the sixth slave mentioned in the will, was to be sold outright. She was gone forever into the mists of the peculiar institution's icy grip.

Clement Clarke Moore was in his 20s when his family inherited the peculiar property. Slavery in New York might be dying, but it wasn’t dead yet. For two more decades, men and women were held in bondage throughout the state, particularly in the conservative New York City.

And when Moore wrote about how Saint Nicholas, dragged in his miniature sleigh across the sky by eight flying deer, shouted, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night,” that, “all,” was still a distinct, largely-white subset of the American whole. As he read his new poem to his children on Christmas Eve, as he nestled them in their beds, other families weren’t so lucky. Visions of sugar plums and other candied nuts might dance in the Moore childrens' heads, but Thomas and Ann, Charles, Hester, Richard and Rachel, wherever she was now after hitting the auction block twenty years before, likely were dreaming of something very different. While Moore could lazily muse about the fanciful flights of fur-bedecked elves, the slaves of New York could only dream of freedom, hoping it might come one day.

That dream came true just five years later in 1827. Slavery died in New York for good.

Moore’s poem soon became famed the world over.

By the time the Civil War raged, it was printed and reprinted countless times. But the Christmas of 1863 was the first Moore wouldn’t see since he penned those words. The aged conservative aristocrat, from his New York family of slaveholders, died that summer.

And just like the day after his birth, on the day after his death another battle raged: the black soldiers, freed slaves and freemen alike, of the 54th Massachusetts charged headlong at Battery Wagner on the outskirts of Charleston. They martialed their arms to destroy slavery once and for all, everywhere.

America, in spite of everything, still seemed set on a path toward true democracy.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

And With The Sound The Carols Drowned:
Captives in Bleak December

Christmas was coming, and a knot of officers of the 87th Pennsylvania suddenly found their December a bit brighter. Nine boxes had been sent along to the officers, packed to the brim with, "all kinds of necessaries and delicacies, such as will be conducive to our comfort and health while in our present condition." And the soldiers were pleased.

Any soldier would be pleased to have a pair of warm socks, a stack of stationary or a can of preserved vegetables from home. But these men were doubly pleased.

The letter of gratitude they wrote to the Gettysburg Compiler was mailed from Libby Prison in Richmond.

Having to celebrate the grand winter holiday in the field far from home is bad enough. The uncertainty of war is enough to make the holidays, a time for family and celebration, morose. But imagine being behind enemy lines, a military prisoner behind bars in a strange land. The future is not just uncertain, it's only as bright as the dank corners of your cell.

The folks behind the care package weren’t the typical crowd, either. Most of the letters gushing over socks and packages of delicacies that Gettysburg's papers printed lauded the kind men and women of Adams County. But these nine boxes came from the soldiers of the 87th Pennsylvania, entrusted to an agent of a Baltimore newspaper and carted into the very lion's den. These weren't citizens helping their men, their sons and fathers. These were soldiers helping soldiers, enlisted men supporting their captive officers behind enemy lines.

One of those boxes was cracked open by James Hersh. Hersh had been quartermaster of Company I back in June when the world went crossways. He and a cluster of the men of the 87th Pennsylvania were captured near Winchester, some of the first soldiers scooped up as Lee's army poured north on a quest that would lead it to Adams County. While Lee headed north, Hersh and his compatriots were shipped south to Richmond and captivity.

His mother and father were still in New Oxford on Adams County's eastern edge. Undoubtedly, the aged couple worried about their soldier. Hersh was only in his late 20s. He still lived at home. He was just a farmer. He deserved to be at home with his family during the cold winter months when families gather and feast. While men and women in Adams County joyously sang and greeted each other warmly, Hersh was in a musty cell.

Hersh and his comrades didn't list everything that was in their care package. But certainly, whatever was packed with care in those crates strengthened and bolstered them for the long Virginia winter nights ahead.

Hersh, thankfully, would be home by the next December 25th, when Americans again would light candles, sing ancient songs and hold each other close in the encroaching icy darkness. His war was finally over, a fact worth celebrating with carols and mirth.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Obsessive Digging in Carolina Sand and Baltimore Asphalt

Some heroes are buried here... and some aren't.
My parents moved to Wilmington, North Carolina a couple years ago. I have to admit, I am fascinated when I visit the South, for the sheer fact that it is such a vastly different environment than I'm used to. For one thing, the war happened there. For another, the war got very complex and interesting there.

Wilmington has caught my fancy in particular. The campaign to capture that place singled the death knell for Richmond and Lee's defensive line guarding Petersburg. In many real regards, Wilmington ended the war.

But it has also become my own personal United States Colored Troops landscape. Living in Gettysburg, I'm used to the lily-white Civil War, where the combatants were fighting over the fate of the black man in America but were not (save a few choice, irregular exceptions on the field) themselves black. Imagining a landscape with black men literally fighting for their right to be human is such a foreign and often entrancing topic for me.

Last year, it was standing atop Battery Buchanan where the rebel troops from Fort Fisher surrendered to black soldiers, a palpable moment where everything changed.

This year, I wanted to revisit the Wilmington National Cemetery. I'd been one time before, drawn in by the state highway marker posted out front. That first trip I went unarmed, uneducated, just exploring with no foreknowledge.

This time, I wanted to know a bit more. So I began doing a little digging. Using a couple of databases, I began pulling up men in the USCT who died near Wilmington, particularly after the Battle of Forks Road on February 20th, 1865. The 5th USCT began sticking out in particular. Free men recruited in Ohio fighting against slavery in North Carolina was just fascinating.

All of this led, after random probing and hunting into the wee hours as my parents slept off the turkey, to an itinerary. We were going to go where a few of those men were wounded, and then where they were buried.

The problem is that most of the graves of USCT at the Wilmington National Cemetery are unmarked. The Veteran Affairs database yielded only one of the men who died of wounds after the Battle of Forks Road as buried in the cemetery. The rest would be a goose chase.

So, with my parents along for the fun, we began our goose chase.

Turns out, the VA database is right. Most of the men didn't have a tombstone to kneel next to, photograph or leave flowers at had I brought any. These men from Ohio are gone.

One in particular though, was my own mistake. We were looking in particular for William H. Quan. Civil War Data lists that, "he died of wounds on 3/18/1865 at Wilmington, NC." By all rights he should have been in that cemetery somewhere.

Except the database is wrong. After we'd searched nearly every stone in the cemetery for Quan and come up empty handed, I kept digging at home.

Quan was sent out of Wilmington, transferred up the Atlantic coastline to the General Hospital at McKim's Mansion in Baltimore, Maryland. It was there, Army Surgeon Read reported in a letter in the soldier's Compiled Service Record, William Quan died on March 18th, 1865.

Unlike his Wilmington brethren, Quan's CSR even has a record of interment. Private William Quan, formerly of Fayette County, Ohio, aged 31 years, was buried on March 20th, 1865 in Laurel Cemetery at 10am. He left behind a widow back home in Ohio.

I got really excited then. This was my excuse to visit a graveyard in Baltimore. So I began to Google for directions to "Laurel Cemetery" in Baltimore.

And then I hit an even more horrifying truth.

William Quan's Grave Marker
Whereas his comrades who died in Wilmington have small marble cubes with numbers marking their graves, Quan's fate is much worse. In the late 1950s, in the height of severe racial tension in the City of Baltimore, the city and local speculators brokered a deal: Laurel Cemetery would be condemned and sold for real estate development.

Graves would be moved, carted away to a new plot of land in Carroll County. But of the between 5,000 and 7,000 graves which were in Laurel Cemetery when the deal was struck, only about 270 graves made their way to the new plot. William Quan isn't among them.

Quan likely lies buried where he was laid beneath the earth in March of 1865, in what remains of the Laurel Cemetery today: a parking lot. His body sits below the tarmac where shoppers park their cars to go to "Forman Mills" and "Dollar General."

It looks like I have one more obsessive trip to make, this time to Baltimore. Perhaps I'll bring along a chunk of board painted "William Quan, 5th United States Colored Troops, 1834-1865," and a bike lock. I need to leave some flowers at the grave of a true unknown and forgotten hero.

He died serving his nation, serving in the United States army, and fighting for the rights of men who looked just like him. And today he's buried under a parking lot.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Buckeye Blood Waters the Longleaf Pines

In the woods south of Wilmington, men in blue uniforms moved forward in a loose skirmish line. They were probing, trying to find General Hoke's last line of defense. Brig. General Charles Paine sent the men forward to develop the enemy. But in the pine thicket ahead, in a thin, ragged line, the bedraggled rebel troops likely had more to fear than bullets as those skirmishers probed and prodded on a February day in 1865.

The skirmishers moved through the sandy soil along Federal Point Road. Behind them, the entire third brigade commanded by Colonel Elias Wright was crashing through the woods. And the color of their skin was the greatest weapon of the war.

The skirmishers of the 5th United States Colored Troops found the enemy strung out in a thin single-file line. But the rebels' fire was strong, a last ditch effort to defend the Confederate capital's final lifeline. The rebels were commanded by Major General Robert F. Hoke.

Hoke, facing off against these black soldiers, must have felt some trepidation. The world was changing. At home in Lincoln County, his mother Frances owned six human beings as property, including two men who by 1865 were old enough to wield a gun for the United States and fight in a war of freedom and revenge. Those skirmishers were a familiar and frightening bogeyman for any southern man: slave rebellion on a grand scale.

When the war broke out, the population of the county where those men now marched was nearly half enslaved. Now, through the pine forests where slaves had once gathered resin, distilled turpentine and harvested straight timber, black men marched for freedom.

And they bled as the rebels opened fire.

John Byrd bled when a musket ball blasted through the flesh around his left knee. He stood, before his knee was mangled by a rebel ball, at 5 foot 8 inches tall, with a shock of black hair and dark eyes. He farmed a field somewhere near Wooster, Ohio before joining the army. And Byrd had never tasted the bitters of slavery. Yet he fought for men with skin the same color as his.

Edgar S. Wright was wounded as well. His finger was hit by a musket ball during the assault. The 19-year-old Wright was born in Fayette County, Ohio. He had already had one close scrape with rebels; just a year before in May, Wright was captured by rebel troops, but escaped their hands. Had he stayed locked behind enemy lines in 1864, he might have been enslaved. Not again, but for the very first time. Wright was born free, risking his safety so that others might be free as well.

The 5th United States Colored Troops was pushed back, one final repulse before Hoke's line gave up the ghost and retreated in the darkness a few hours later. And as the men poured back to the safety of their comrades' line, William Alexander was likely struck in the back by a hunk of hot iron. The 36-year-old farmer from near Hillsboro, Ohio was a slight man, standing only 5 foot 5 inches. He enlisted in August of 1864, and never received a single cent from the Federal Government. Yet still his black skin was good enough to bleed in the North Carolina sand for the freedom of men he had never met.

The 5th United States Colored Troops, formerly known as the 127th Ohio Infantry, marched into Wilmington a few days later. Byrd, Wright and Alexander didn't. The men of the 5th USCT saw, standing on the city's edge, "an aged colored woman," who cradled in her hands an American flag, squirreled away somewhere during the long years of war as a symbol of hope. The men cheered. In the streets, the black men and women swarmed the men of the 5th USCT. "Glory to de Lord," a white officer of the brigade remembered them cheering long after the war, "The blessed day ob salbation am cum. De good Lord bress Massa Linkum."

Byrd, Wright and Alexander likely heard little of the cheering; they were too busy suffering in agony from rebel lead and iron. Alexander had been shuttled back to Fort Fisher to be treated. He died 4 days after being wounded on the skirmish line. Wright and Byrd were brought into Wilmington, suffering in the general hospital in the newly liberated city for weeks. The two men died within hours of one another in mid-March.

And they're buried in sandy, humid graves now, far from their Ohio homes. Private William Alexander has a gravestone, a marker at his head. But Byrd and Wright have none.

The National Cemetery at Wilmington is filled with unknown graves, both white and black. And there, likely, the other two sleep. These men from the Buckeye state, who freed a city and a nation from man's inhumanity to his fellow man, gave all that that nation might live. Because in giving freedom to the slave, they assured freedom to the free - honorable alike in what was given and what was preserved.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Another Real Gettysburg Address, 50 Years On

From the Gettysburg Times, buried on page seven on November 19th, 1963:

The following address, “100 Years After Lincoln's Gettysburg Address” by E. Washington Rhodes, editor-publisher of the Philadelphia Tribune and president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, was delivered at exercises in the Gettysburg National Cemetery Tuesday afternoon:


PD / Abbie Rowe
“I consider it a great privilege to have been invited as a representative of the American Negro people to participate in an occasion of such national, historic importance, at this time of racial tension and unrest. This, then, is an historic moment of high honor and high drama, which will be forever cherished by the American Negro people, as they march with heads erect to the goal of full and complete equality of citizenship rights.

“One hundred years after the Battle of Gettysburg, 100 years after the Gettysburg Address, the anguished expectations and hopes of Abraham Lincoln for a united nation remain unrealized, unfulfilled in American life. The present, grave Civil Rights struggle attest to this melancholy, tragic fact.

Great Statesman

“The 'March On Washington' on August 28, 1963, ended at the Lincoln Memorial – at the knees of Lincoln – at the knees of a magnificent stone image. Today, as we evoke the living, breathing presence of Abraham Lincoln here at Gettysburg, we and the entire nation should become acutely aware of his great, compassionate heart sustained by a statesmanship unparalleled in his day. By nature, by instinct, Lincoln understood statesmanship, and became not only one of America's greatest statesmen, but also one of the world's greatest statesmen and is so recognized throughout the world today.

“It has been said that 'statesmanship is characterized by wisdom, breadth of vision or regards for the general welfare rather than partisan interest.' May God grant to us in unstinting measure both the determination and the will to substitute statesmanship for racial antipathies – statesmanship for political expediency and frivolity – statesmanship for educational, social and economic inequities – statesmanship for fragmented views of life – statesmanship for sectional hatreds – statesmanship for walls of hostile silence. Such positive, affirmative, imperative action alone can satisfy the great compassionate heart of Abraham Lincoln 100 years after the Gettysburg Address.

“House Divided”

"Abraham Lincoln prior to his election as President, quoting from Holy Writ, declared with the wisdom of the ages that 'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' He continued: 'I believe this government cannot permanently endure half slave and half free.'

“With all the vigor at my command and the great esteem which I have for my beloved country, I am respectfully urging my fellowmen to take note that this is as true today as it was centuries ago – a house divided against itself cannot stand.

“Second – class citizenship with all of its attendant evils must end. Unless men of substance and creative minds take positive action, move forward with alertness and stout hearts to remove this injustice, I fear that government of the people, by the people and for the people, will soon be endangered beyond repair.”

Rhodes visiting Kennedy's Oval Office in 1962.
PD / Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Scalia: A Real Gettysburg Address

USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas, as he introduced the most potent speaker in Tuesday morning's ceremonies at Gettysburg, called it a, "special day," both in the lives of the handful of men and women raising their hands to take the oath of allegiance and become American citizens, but also, "in the life of our country."

Gettysburg, this place I call home, is momentous. Sometimes we lose that fact when we drive through the streets to get a quart of milk or head to the office. What happened here 150 years ago was truly a special moment in America's life. And no one underlined that fact better than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

I don't agree personally with the Justice's politics. It's tough to imagine Scalia, a strict Constitutional constructionist, adequately commemorating a speech which declared that the Declaration of Independence, America's founding in thought, trumped the Constitution's founding in law. But that's exactly what he did.

His words were brief. But unlike much of what was belabored, prepared and read aloud Tuesday morning, Scalia's words were spontaneous and heartfelt. We live in an era of prepared and formal, vetted and predetermined. The heartfelt and spontaneous shines when it happens.

Scalia's remarks were powerful precisely because they didn't try to address Lincoln. They only glancingly addressed the cemetery and the dead.

But what Scalia did do was talk about being an American, about the promise of the very word. And Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is about nothing but the promise of being American, the necessity of preserving that promise and, most crucially, extending it to larger groups of Americans, new and old.

I'm not sure the Justice even realized what he was doing was perfect. Instead of spending his moments at the podium before administering the oath praising Lincoln, instead of revamping or rephrasing 272 words, instead of at great lengths dissecting a piece of pure American art, Scalia said something new for today, for us.

And the most crucial strength?

Scalia said, "I," and, "my." He spoke from his heart, he spoke personally. And in doing so, he captured the meaning of the day, of the anniversary, of being American.

You can watch a video of this morning's ceremony here (skip ahead to 1 hour, 17 minutes). Or read a transcript below:

The morning sun silhouettes
the Address monument.
Before I administer the oath, I want to say a few words of welcome to the new citizens. What makes us Americans, what unites us, is quite different from that which unites other countries.

There's a word, 'unAmerican.' We used to have a House unAmerican Activities Committee. There's no equivalent word in foreign languages. It would mean nothing in French political discourse to refer to something as unFrench, or in German political discourse to refer to something as unGerman. It is only Americans, we Americans, who identify ourselves not by our blood or by our color, or by our race or by where we were born, but rather by our fidelity to certain political principles.

That's very strange. It's unique in human history, I believe.

We are, as you heard from the Director [of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services] a nation of immigrants, who have come here mostly for two reasons. First, for freedom. From the pilgrims in the 17th century to the Cubans and the North Koreans in the 20th and 21st centuries.

And that freedom, of course, is not free, as the dead who rest buried here can demonstrate. The last line of our 'Star Spangled Banner' is, 'the land of the free and the home of the brave.' The two go together. Freedom is for the brave.

The second reason they came, these immigrants, was for opportunity. My father, who was the most patriotic man I ever knew, used to say that in the old country, if your father was a shoemaker, you would be a shoemaker. And in America, you could be whatever you were willing to work hard enough to be and had the talent to be.

And his son ended up on the Supreme Court.

My Grandmother expected me to be President; I didn't quite make that. (Audience Laughter) But it was possible. It is possible in America.

So welcome, my soon-to-be fellow citizens, to the nation of Americans. May America bring you all that you expect from it. And may you give it all that it expects from you.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Interpretation is Evolution: Whose History?

When I try to explain to non-history people what my degree means, I used to hit wall after all. It was so hard explaining exactly what, "Applied History," really means. People understand, "History," but the idea of public history have a certain brand of special sauce added on top.

I used to say something akin to, "doing Park Ranger things," though that never really worked. When I had a group on an historical landscape, I'd often just say, "Public History is this."

It doesn't work. Those definitions aren't clear.

Shippensburg's peculiar name for the department helps a bit. At Shippensburg, the department's name of "Applied History" mimics a ton of other disciplines. Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics spring to mind.

Applied History, in my reading of the field, is just like those two: it concerns itself not with "pure" history, but instead with a study of the past firmly rooted in what it can do in a practical way for the modern world.

We aren't simply presenting "pure" history, fully-formed when we are interpreting. Instead, we are trying to offer a usable past for the present and the future.

And today is inherently different than yesterday. That's the way time's arrow works. This all means every day's interpretation must not only be about the past, but use the past to talk about who we are today, how we can draw inspiration or warning from the events of yesterday to forge better tomorrows.

Which brings us to the sticky situation of the actors of the past. The people of yesterday desperately tried to encode their meanings within the landscape of history as immortal and final. We seem hardwired as humans to seek immortality. My meaning for this artifact trumps all future meanings the people of the past seem to scream at us.

They built monuments to ensure mortality. They donated artifacts to museum collections to enshrine themselves in institutions for eternity. They tried to shape the future's perception of their today.

I don't care why they enshrined what they enshrined.

I was going to phrase that idea less harshly, but there it is. The actors of the past are long dead. Their agency departed with them into the grave. Their interpretations of artifacts, their specific desired enshrined meanings, mean naught when I'm helping the people of today find their own meaning in something.

Many in the Civil War community are decrying the merger of the Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center in Richmond. There are voices fearing how the collections of the Museum of the Confederacy might be used to tell the whole story of the war.

"That's part of the point," Christy Coleman, president of the American Civil War Center was quoted in an AP story about the merger. "They have an incredible collection that is absolutely Confederate strong, but there are a lot of artifacts that have not been able to be fully explored or used to relate to the African-American experience or immigrants or the role of Jews."

No rebel veteran ever foretold this.

Dan Sickles erected a monument to himself in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg in 1893. He intended it as a symbol of his importance. When I take people there, it is equally a symbol of his braggadocio and hubris. Does that pain me? Not a lick.

Rebel veterans donated artifacts to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the detritus of war, to create the core collection of the Museum of the Confederacy. To them they were sainted artifacts of a Lost Cause. But today, audiences need other meanings, other stories.

We are a broad racial tapestry still wrestling with the fruits of that war. What in the 1880s was a photographic artifact that a veteran thought told the story of two friends fighting through four years of war, today can be an image of racial power and the Stockholm Syndrome of Southern slavery. Did he intend for it to be used that way? No. Does that pain me? No.

If we let the people of the past encode what that past means, solidify it for all eternity, there would be no need for historians. Ever.

Reinterpretation, revision and rediscovery of the hidden elements of the past is what we do. We find the meaning of the present in the story of the past. History, and especially applied history, is evolution.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

It's OK to Giggle: Colbert's Gettysburg Address

Colbert recites the Gettysburg Address.
There hasn't been all that much righteous indignation from the lands of historians and the historically inclined public. I'd wager they just haven't noticed. I was a little surprised, to be honest. As soon as I hit play on Stephen Colbert's rendition of the Gettysburg Address, part of Ken Burns' Learn the Address marketing initiative for his upcoming documentary, I figured the flame war was inevitable.

Stephen Colbert, donning goofy stovepipe hat and faux-fur beard begins his address intoning like a cross between Atticus Finch and Royal Dano. Standing on his set, with animated American flag background, swapping between camera 1, 2 and 3, Colbert's audience doesn't quite know how to react.

He is mugging for the camera, shifting intonation in a way the audience can't help but giggle at. He turns and gestures, at one point employs one of my favorite sight gags: hold for laughs too long and check your watch. And at first glance, it seems entirely irreverent. One of the few YouTube commenters asks plaintively, "Why are people laughing?!?" Another demands that Stephen, "have some respect for the men that lost their lives."

Stephen Colbert's reading is unrelentingly complex, though. First you need to realize the raw fact of the matter: this is a man (the actor Colbert), playing a character (the pundit Colbert), playing the character's conception of a character (Lincoln). This is Colbert's imagining of how "Colbert" might imagine Lincoln.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is hilariously complex to the modern tongue and ear. The address is ten sentences long, and took the President about two and a half minutes to read, working out to an average of 15 seconds per sentence. That's a huge number. Most of Burns' readings clock in around a minute and a half, meaning Lincoln was far more deliberate than the politicos and famous who seem to be rushing through; sort of like Colbert is.

Lincoln's sentences weave and dart in true 19th century rhetorical fashion. I've never diagrammed the sentences of Lincoln's address (I don't really want to relive middle school), but I'd wager they are a sprawling nightmare of complex appositional tree branches.

Colbert deliberately tumbles through the phrase, "it is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced," which as beautiful as I've always found it, is an amazingly complex and labyrinthine phrase. It's a wonder anyone had enough breath to complete even one of those freight-train long sentences. Colbert lets that feeling through, as he intentionally runs out of breath on, "to which they gave the last full measure of devotion."

All of this is to say one simple thing: Colbert knows what he's saying. He understands its meaning and its message, maybe not fully and completely, but still understanding to a great extent what Lincoln meant.

He's not taking the Gettysburg Address lightly, just playfully.

Stephen Colbert had the good sense to read the Gettysburg Address before he recorded his version and didn't just try to do a cold reading like others in the series. I'm looking at you, Louis C.K. You shouldn't need Jerry Seinfeld to brilliantly explain what the Address means. Just read the damned thing and let it all sink in. The language might be dense, awkward and (as Colbert shows) potentially hilarious to our 21st century ear. But it's not that hard to feel.

It reminds me of those times I was a church lector back in High School. I made it a point to understand my readings. This didn't simply mean looking up the pronunciation of, "Melchisedec." It meant understanding the sentence, feeling the words roll in my mouth and the meaning roll in my mind long before I stood up in church to read those words. I wasn't simply reading cold; I was delivering the readings understood.

Colbert didn't read the Address; he delivered the Address. Delivering something, even in a comic presentation, means inherently you need to understand what it means.

And Colbert knew what it meant. I have no doubt.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Only Hindsight: Where are the Historian Futurists?

A friend who is planning a pie-in-the-sky conference (about which I'm super excited) texted me today with a quick question. "Who would be a good 'Historian of the Future?'" he asked, adding the bonus that I could dream big. "Money no object," the next text read.

I was at a loss for a few minutes. Who is the historian of the future? Who is trying to visualize that skill-set, categorize that life, read the trends of the past and plot the course of history yet to come?

My work with the NPS, and my penchant for soaking up Sci-Fi culture and fiction, has led me into contact with that interesting field known as Futurism or Futurology. No joke. It's a thing, look it up.

The revolution will be published...
just probably not on paper.
Futurists, in short, try to look to the future by studying the trends of yesterday and today. They are plotting out the probability lines for where mankind might drift.

I love this chunky sentence from the Wikipedia entry on futrists:

More generally, the label includes such disparate lay, professional, and academic groups as visionaries, foresight consultants, corporate strategists, policy analysts, cultural critics, planners, marketers, forecasters, prediction market developers, roadmappers, operations researchers, investment managers, actuaries and other risk analyzers, and future-oriented individuals educated in every academic discipline, including anthropology, complexity studies, computer science, economics, engineering, Urban design, evolutionary biology, history, management, mathematics, philosophy, physical sciences, political science, psychology, sociology, systems theory, technology studies, and other disciplines.

Historians are on that list, buried in there with their brethren sociologists and anthropologists. But where I see the sociologists trying to puzzle out the future, where I see the anthropologists attempting to see where man might move next, I don't see historians practicing futurism as futurists, simply as historians of futurism. A quick Google survey confirmed this inkling.

On one level, it makes perfect sense. Historians are chiefly concerned with the word of the past. We hunt sources and documents, read ancient letters and granite monoliths as texts left behind by a race often long gone, sometimes by decades, sometimes millennia. Historians, though, taken as a group, tend to be wholly retrospective. We look back at closed systems, oftentimes ceaselessly complex systems, but still inherently closed with a finite amount of data in play.

The best historians play those systems off of the modern era, helping to use the complex system of the past to show that where we are today makes sense, that all the effects have a cause somewhere.

Even when we are studying the field of history, we section off the past into eras and epochs. The Dunning School, though it may express itself in dribs and drabs today, was the 1910s to the 1950s. It is a fixed point in time, with impacts on the present, but often simply studied as an event like every other chunk of history.

Futurism has had an influence on the field of history, but seemingly that influence has been mostly epistemological and functional. Asa Briggs summed up his view of how futurism might influence the historian's craft in a very good 1978 article as, in essence, a framework to investigate problems in the past, using the thought processes of the futurist. But that's not quite what I mean either.

So many books on the history
of the Civil War. But so few
among them about the theory
of the history
of the Civil War.
And even fewer on the future
of the theory of the history

of the Civil War. Dizzy yet?
So what am I hunting, then? Futurists use the trends of the past and present to outline where the future lies. Where we have a great dearth of work among historians, particularly in the Civil War field, is in applying futurism exactly as it is wrought, what I would term Historiographical Futurism.

OK, I just made up a useful concept, but play with me for a moment before I layer yet more frosting on the funky cake.

Where is the study of history, where are the trends and (to put it in a vulgar sense) fads which express themselves today heading? What might the act of studying the past 5 or 10 years from now functionally look like? How might technology and shifting social structures alter how we study the past next year, next decade, next century? What is the future of history?

These are the futurist's questions about history, not within the flow of history. To put it quite succinctly: whither the craft?

OK, on to that added frosting.

If there are inherent questions framed around Historiographical Futurism, then there can also be those revolving around Public Historiographical Futurism. Where is the practice of history with the public heading? What might the act of interpretation 5 or 10 years from now functionally look like? How might technology and shifting social structures alter how we interpret historical resources with the publics next year, next decade, next century? What is the future of public history?

And there we his this funky wall. Historians are very busy living in the present, crafting understandings of the past today. I'm not quite sure, in either ends of the historical house, we're very concerned with the future of our profession, only it's base, short-term maintenance.

There are glimmers of hope.

Ed Ayers, now the president of the University of Richmond, was very big in envisioning public usable pasts and vibrant databases, trying to chart the course to a future not yet created. The Valley of the Shadow project was truly earth-shattering when it hit the web in early 1990s, thanks to Ayers' inspiration and the work of the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia. Ayers has hopped into one future of history in co-hosting BackStory, one of few historians leaping on the podcast train in an engaging and meaningful way.

Nina Simon, too, is piloting the future, both with her physical work as director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and her virtual futurist way-finding work at Museum 2.0. Some of her ideas are amazingly precient, and the shifts she's made in her museum's offerings have shown real changes in numbers and participation, data validation that perhaps some of her visions of the future might be feasible.

Larry Cebula rounds out my list, prof. at Eastern Washington University and editor of Northwest History Larry talks shop in nearly every aspect of the future of the field, particularly virtual visitor experiences and digital archiving. I first met Larry when I bummed around the OAH conference in Milwaukee last year, where he was pimping the Spokane Historical app.

Those were my three names for my friend when he asked, "Who would be a good 'Historian of the Future?'"

When there are only three prominent names in the field which immediately float to mind for someone in the thick of public history and interpretation, perhaps we have a problem...

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Her Bright Blazon Forever Unstained

Just a few lyrics today, nothing more, nothing less. Lyrics of joy. Lyrics of home. Lyrics of who we are as a nation. Might we never forget who we are again.

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
-Francis Scott Key, 1814

When our land is illumined with liberty's smile,
If a foe from within strikes a blow at her glory,
Down, down with the traitor that tries to defile
The flag of the stars, and the page of her story!
By the millions unchained,
Who their birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave,
While the land of the free is the home of the brave.
-Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., 1861

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Martin L. Stoever: Moving His Abolition Needle

Two letters appeared in the Lutheran and Missionary in the late summer of 1864 signed, "M.L.S."

The summer session had ended at Pennsylvania College. The campus was quiet, the classrooms were empty. For professors at the college, the brief breaks between semesters were a much-needed respite from the daily grind of professorial life. Any sane professor would use the few brief moments to unwind.

But for Martin Luther Stoever, who had begun the war as a simple professor of Latin, Literature and History, too much had gone by to sit idle. Witnessing the work of the United States Christian Commission in the month after the battle of Gettysburg, operating out of the vacant store on the first floor of his home, Stoever saw firsthand how Christian precepts might ease the pain of the suffering soldier. By 1864, Stoever was heading up Gettysburg's new local chapter of the Christian Commission, organizing supplies and coordinating donations.

But in the summer of 1864, he might have done more.

During Pennsylvania College's break that summer, an aid worked arrived on the outskirts of Petersburg, Virginia. "You will no doubt be surprised to receive a letter from me at this point," the correspondent opened. "I have been here for some days, among the wounded and the dying."

Martin Luther Stoever had seen suffering on a battlefield before. In the months after the battle at Gettysburg, Stoever moved from field hospital to field hospital, aiding the wounded and praying with the dying.

The letter in the Lutheran and Missionary noted all of the valorous shows of courage by the Federal soldiers as they suffered after the assault on the Weldon Railroad. TIn their sufferings, these men were, "showing the spirit of our noble soldiers who are willing to endure so much for the cause of freedom. It is a costly sacrifice. Many victims are required to secure the end. But it is only through tribulation, that great results are achieved."

Before the war, Martin Luther Stoever made a last ditch effort (as did many Americans) to stave off war. He signed a set of petitions from citizens of Adams County supporting compensated emancipation and forced colonization. America's sundry colonization societies were the most lackluster of abolitionist, believing that black shouldn't be slaves, but also shouldn't be Americans.

But something shifted for Stoever as the war dragged on.

In 1864, the correspondent to the Lutheran and Missionary noted he was, "very much interested in what I saw of our colored troops. They are noble, brave men, their hearts earnestly in the work, and many of them sincere Christians." One he met was from nearby Hagerstown, Maryland and knew some of the author's friends. When questioned whether he was afraid of battle, the black soldier responded resolutely, "No! God will take care of me. When I started in defence of my country I determined to stand by her till I died."

"This," M.L.S. noted, "is the spirit which I have seen exhibited by many of these men. God, in his wondrous providence, is doing marvellous things by means of this war... One of the results will be the elevation of the African race, in the confidence it has isnpired in themselves, in making them, as well as others, feel that they have capacities, that they are immortal beings, that they can accomplish something for the good of their fellowmen."

The following year, when Abraham Lincoln was murdered by a bloodthirsty zealot, Professor Stoever confessed in a eulogy to Lincoln that, "we must now admit, even if we did not before, that there is a barbarism in slavery."

Slavery, made incarnate in the rebellious Southern nation, had, "showed its real character in the various atrocities committed during the war, in the heartless treatment of our prisoners, in the brutal massacre of our colored troops, in plotting arson, in attempting to diffuse malignant disease, in commissioning its secret emissaries to burn and pillage our large towns and cities, in striking at every thing that opposed its progress and perpetuity, and crowned its wicked career in the perpetration of a crime unknown in our history," the murder of the President.

Stoever was quite clear on how America could best remember their fallen chieftan:
It is a duty, then, we owe to the memory of the illustrious dead, that this evil be utterly eradicated, that the letter and spirit of the Emancipation Proclamation, be fully acknowledged and faithfully executed; that domestic slavery be forever obliterated from American soil, that the great principles which underlie our Government be vigilantly guarded, that hereafter all, who live beneath the folds of the American flag, be protected in their inalienable rights and treated as freemen, and every human being occupy the position assigned him by his Creator."

Something made that historian's mind shift and change, morph and progress. Perhaps that something was a trip south in 1864, and an opportunity to see black men fighting valiantly for their nation, and kindly shake their hands.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

America's Pastime: Base Ball's Battlefields

Somewhere in a field just north of the Pennsylvania College campus, a hurler threw a ball to a striker. The air was undoubtedly crisp. Novembers in Gettysburg can be cool. The local papers were already predicting that the winter of 1865-66 would come on early and bitter. Standing on the bases, men readied to run home and score another point for their team.

Beneath their feet, the frosty ground certainly crinkled and cracked. The game was the last of the season between the Aurora Base Ball Club and the Gettysburg Base Ball Club. The bat swung, wood connected with leather, and the run was driven home.

On the horizon just to the west of campus loomed Oak Ridge, where Federal troops had stood against a North Carolinian tide. To the north rose Blocher's Knoll, recently renamed Barlow's Knoll after the young commander whose men had retreated off of the soft hill. Exactly two years earlier, the President had arrived in town and Gettysburg rejoiced all night long. Now that President was dead, the intractable war was over and a new struggle over civil rights was emerging.

But today all eyes were on the game. Strikes and misses were called by local attorney A.J. Cover. The game continued and the score mounted. In the 3rd inning, the Gettysburg Club bested the Aurora boys, students of Pennsylvania College, 3 runs to 2. Last week's game had been a rout; Aurora beat Gettysburg 55 runs to 40.

The local citizens intended to put up a fight against the college kids today.

If a stray foul ball rolled back toward the College Edifice it might have hit a few mounds of earth or a wooden board, remnants of the battle fought there just a couple years before.

Would it have knocked into the last earthly reminder of Lieutenant William Cornelius Austin? The Lieutenant marched into battle at Gettysburg alongside his men in the 18th Virginia. Austin was struck in the left knee and foot by enemy fire on July 3rd, 1863. He died shortly after and was lain beneath foreign Pennsylvania soil behind the college's main academic building.

Perhaps the ball would have rolled to a stop above the mouldering bones of Daniel Wilson Partin. The private took a round to the left arm, just above the elbow on July 3rd while fighting in the 14th Virginia. Sheltered in the College's halls of learning, Partin lingered until the 23rd of July when he breathed his last. A wood board was carved and placed at his head bearing simply the misspelled inscription "Porton."

The crusty November ground saw grounder after grounder, run after run pound across it. The townie Gettysburg club and the student-led Aurora club fought valiantly for nine solid innings.

South of town, work progressed on a massive monument to the battle and the nation's dead at the center of the National Cemetery. And in the nearby Evergreen Cemetery, frozen earth was moved by pick and shovel for even more sainted dead. Each week pine coffins arrived in town in rail cars, native sons making the last trip back to Gettysburg. The Monday after the fierce base ball contest was ended, just two days away, two more coffins would arrive. One held the body of Isaac Sheads, returning home sealed in a wooden crate, never again to rise.

Sheads met his fate at the battle of Cold Harbor on the outskirts of Richmond in June of 1864. The 49-year-old carriage-maker died fighting alongside his comrades in the 87th Pennsylvania. The cold ground would fold over his rotting corpse just a week after the base ball game.

Behind the College buildings, the Gettysburg Base Ball Club was fairing well, mainly because of one star player: Theodore C. Norris. Norris pitched a decent game, giving up only 12 runs (the previous week's pitcher had given up 40 runs).

But more importantly, Theodore Norris crossed home five times, never being tagged or caught out through the whole game.

Norris had only been back in Gettysburg for five months. In late June, he began a long journey northward from New Bern, NC. The 28-year-old Gettysburgian spent most of the war serving in the 87th Pennsylvania. At Cold Harbor in 1864, he helped lead his company into action. Lieutenant Norris survived to play base ball with his friends in Gettysburg; Sheads was killed and buried in some godforsaken tangle of brush in Virginia.

America was a land changed. Soldiers brought a new game back home, a game which would infect the American soul. Some of the scars of that war which had killed over 600,000 souls would fade. Some were more permanent. Base ball, it seemed, was one of those permanent reminders of the war.

The Gettysburg Base Ball Club and the Aurora Base Ball Club walked off the field after nearly 3 hours of combat. They knocked the frozen soil from their shoes. The students from the college had bested the team from the town in gentlemanly combat.

As they walked to their warm homes along Gettysburg's streets or cozy rooms inside the College Edifice, they left behind those frozen Confederate bodies beneath the campus' ground. Somewhere rolling north in a cold boxcar, Isaac Sheads' body wended its way home. South of town, a monument to the valiant men who perished on a hot July day stood frosty and incomplete.

America was a land forever changed; Gettysburg was a land forever changed.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Echoes on the Gettysburg Battlefield

Back at the beginning of the summer, I was asked by the College to write a piece on the history of the battle and its many resonances for what turned out to be an obscure periodical and not the actual USA Today. That means next to no one got the chance to read the piece, which I was quite happy with. So I wanted to share that piece with all of you.

How does Gettysburg's unique history echo backwards and forwards?

CC / Wikipedia
On the afternoon of July 1st, 1863, an artillery shell passed through the upper floor of Dr. Henry Huber’s house in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It sailed in to the brick wall, punching a clean hole near a window and shattering glass as down in the streets below Federal soldiers retreated from a horde of onrushing Confederates. Plaster fell to the floor inside the home. The shell kept flying, piercing another of Dr. Huber’s walls, driving back through another brick wall and sailing on its way. The Huber family saw war pass through their home in the guise of a steaming, speeding hunk of iron.

War changes landscapes. It is what war does first and foremost. Whether it is a beach in Normandy morphed from quiet seaside to hellish, pockmarked moonscape or a peaceful library reduced to jagged rubble in Sarajevo, war destroys. It destroyed a few bricks in a wall and some window glass for Dr. Henry Huber, local doctor and Pennsylvania College instructor, in 1863.

But war touches more than buildings. War touches people.

The Huber family had felt war before. Their son Frederick, a promising young man who hoped to be a doctor, was killed a year earlier fighting with the United States army at Fair Oaks on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia. “It is only when we see those who left us… returning with mangled form,” Huber wrote of his son, “or stricken down in the prime of life, that we can realize the horrors of our war.”

Gettysburg, at its heart, is the story of America. It is the story of who we are as a people and how we’ve moved through the rivers of time. Sometimes that tale is about sorrow, like that felt in Henry Huber’s parlor in 1862. Sometimes it is about joy, hope and opportunity. As with anywhere in our grand narrative, there are heroes, there are villains and there are those men and women who you can never quite categorize. Gettysburg seems like it is a place stuck in time, forever trapped in three days in July of 1863.

But it simply is not. Gettysburg is as much about who we are and where we are at today as it is about men suffering, fighting and dying in some godforsaken farm field one hundred and fifty years ago.

Just down the street from Henry Huber’s house, on the campus of Pennsylvania College (modern day Gettysburg College), president and professor Henry Louis Baugher felt war too. His son Nesbitt was wounded in spring of 1862 at Shiloh in Tennessee. The college president rushed to his son’s side, only to watch helplessly as his son took a turn for the worse, and now the, he later wrote, “the soldier is once more in the battle field, and it is his last.” Nesbitt Baugher died in May of 1862, and his father brought his body home to Gettysburg to be laid to rest.

Everywhere you turn in Gettysburg, you find these stories. They are the stories of people who lived through extraordinary times. Even without a massive battle that would see nearly 9,000 men killed and 30,000 men wounded, Gettysburg had seen suffering as the war entered its third year.

The landscape is maggoty with tales of heartache and sorrow, much as the bloody ground was maggoty in 1863 for entirely different reasons. And if you walk too far for too long across this battlefield or through this town, you will run into the ghosts of the past. This is not the hokum and humbug of the local cottage industry of ghost tours; this is finding the real people of the real past still echoing in this place. Your mind begins to paint them into the picture even without your asking.

Though it is long since demolished, the home of Jack Hopkins rises again in the imagination, a squat structure behind the imposing Pennsylvania Hall on the Gettysburg College’s campus. Hopkins was the college’s janitor. The joshing students loved their Jack, a character and fixture among the hundred or so young men who teemed across the campus when war broke out. They even called him, penned in neat letters in a yearbook, “our vice president.” A joke, of course, because the janitor could never be vice president of Pennsylvania College. A double joke because the students could never imagine an African-American man as vice president of their beloved alma mater, or anything for that matter. Hopkins’ skin became a target in the lingering months of spring 1863. As Lee’s army marched northward, they snapped up and sent south the free black population of southern Pennsylvania. Jack Hopkins and his family ran for their lives from the oncoming Confederate juggernaut and the prospect of spending a lifetime in slavery.

But it is not simply the ghosts of men like Hopkins or Baugher who haunt these fields. Other men and women linger here, impelled by the battle in their own era, but throwing stark light on its changing meanings for our eyes today.

From 1925, ghosts in white sheets march into our streets once again: the knights of the Ku Klux Klan, come to Gettysburg to rally and unite on the fields where just over 60 years before the best men of a generation of North Carolinians bashed their heads against a powerful United States army. If you squint hard enough, you can see their Model-T Fords chugging down the street into town, the words, “Klan to Gettysburg,” painted on the sides. You can also squint hard and imagine Harry Viener locking up his shop along York Street early on that Friday, heading home to celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the denizens of hate, against not only African Americans, but Jews and Catholics as well, streamed through his town’s streets.

That next day, September 19th, 1925, the streets were filled with white hoods, American flags and cheering throngs. One contingent of Klansmen stretched a flag across the street; spectators dug into their pockets and hurled dollar coins into the folds of Klan-lofted the red, white and blue to show their support. Near the edges of the crowd, some students from Gettysburg College scoffed. “Anyone who can stand by the avenue of Klan parades and watch docilely the stars and stripes used as a promiscuous coffer to catch coins,” one student later groaned, belonged, “to a land where national respect and self-respect are a grotesque hallucination.”

CC / Christopher Rice
In that field where the Klan met in 1925, just a few years later, another massive group of men and women gathered in that place again precisely because it was Gettysburg. The 75th anniversary of the battle brought thousands of veterans and their entourage to the small-but-noteworthy Pennsylvania burg. They were there to dedicate a new memorial, nestled at the crest of Oak Hill on the first day’s battlefield: the Eternal Light Peace Memorial.

But across the ocean in Europe and Asia in 1938, peace was anything but eternal. It was obvious to anyone paying attention that war had already been in progress for more than a year, with an invasion of China on one front and Hitler’s voracious hunger for Lebensraum in the other. America would need to once again defend freedom; even the most bumbling of politicians could see the pressing need.

In Gettysburg, they dedicated a monument that looked like it was ripped from Berlin’s recent Olympics, a monument to peace eternal in a land that knew quite clearly that eternal peace was not assured. President Franklin D. Roosevelt stood at a podium to accept that granite and limestone shaft topped with a gas flame, a monument atop Oak Hill where just a decade before the Klan had burned crosses in a rally of pure Americanism.

The President spoke of his own day, when, “a conflict as fundamental as Lincoln’s,” would be fought, “not with glint of steel, but with appeals to reason and justice on a thousand fronts.” In Europe, Hitler was making it quite obvious that words were not his tools of choice. And across Gettysburg College’s football field, Civil War veterans watched the latest military technology roll in a grand parade of military might and bombastic pomp. “We are near to winning this battle,” FDR told the crowd on that hill. But it would mean another 70 million open, festering graves like those that had been dug at Gettysburg to ensure a shaky peace at best.

But the stone shaft has a more important and powerful element than the flame at its top or the carved pseudo-Egyptian figures on its face. The foundation of the monument, the grading of the land it sits on, stands as a hidden monument all its own.

To plop the Eternal Light Peace Memorial on top of that hill meant grading a new roadbed, leveling off the slope and readying the plot for its new streamlined tower. And in the economic disaster that was America in the 1930s, this meant that the Civilian Conservation Corps was the prime candidate for the job.

The spirits of these workmen are just as palpable walking the fields surrounding Gettysburg, particularly near their camp at McMillian Woods along the former Confederate battle lines. Gettysburg’s CCC camp was quite unique within the service. Where other camps typically had leadership that was lilly white, regardless of the color of skin of the laborers who worked there, Gettysburg was one of only two places in America which had a CCC camp with both black labor and black leadership. The hands that leveled the ground for this new monument were black, the same color as the hands of the men and women over whose fate the Civil War had been fought.

The Civilian Conservation Corps did more than simply make room for new monuments. They made sure that the old ones survived for us to see today, perpetual landmarks on a landscape of carnage. No place is that landscape’s blood more palpable than in the National Cemetery perched atop Cemetery Hill, the key ground around which hinged the entire battle.

In the 1930s, frost and shifting earth had taken their toll, and the neat rows of adjacent headstones were a jagged and gap-toothed mess, unbecoming of a simple churchyard let alone the resting place of thousands who, “gave their lives that that nation might live.” The black workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps undertook the herculean task of hoisting each segment of headstone from its hole, regarding the ground beneath and leveling the stone once again above the sainted deads’ final repose. Black laborers who, in their work were honoring the men who in 1863 fought for the freedom of four million men and women with the same hue of skin.

It was not the first time that black labor had worked in between those neat rows of graves. The CCC laborers had the ghosts of their forbears right by their sides. As the blood was still drying on the field in the late months of summer 1863, plans were underway in town to create a cemetery to house all of the loyal sons who had died in the battle. Like all good Government contracts, the award went to the low bidder, who used local African-American men as his workmen. The black crew’s foreman Basil Biggs netted a small fortune from reburying the Federal dead through the fall and winter of 1863. For him and his fellow workers, each shovelful of dirt and rough pine box with its soldier’s identity nailed to the lid meant real, honest opportunity. These mens’ death literally offered Biggs the right to rise up the ladder of society; he went from poorer tenant farmer to honest-to-god property owner nearly overnight.

Just over the crest of the hill from where Biggs and his crew reburied the men who fell in the battle sits the town’s own burial ground, Evergreen Cemetery, from which Cemetery Hill garners its name. And in that graveyard lie the original cast of characters from the drama that was Gettysburg in the harrowing months after two armies descended on her streets.

In one neat grave is buried Michael Jacobs, mathematics and science professor at Pennsylvania College during the battle and meticulous 19th Century mind. Before Lee and Meade decided to duke it out around and through the streets of Gettysburg, Jacobs had exerted his painstaking nature to the recording of atmospheric conditions. As shots rang out in the streets, his fidelity to his thermometer was undeterred. At 2pm on July 1st, as the Eleventh Corps fought less than a mile from his house, Jacobs recorded that it was 76 degrees Fahrenheit, with cumulostratus clouds covering the whole sky. By 9pm, after the frantic retreat through town, a soft 12-mile-an-hour breeze blew from the south.

But after the battle, Jacobs set to work on another painstaking effort at recording the what and where. He became the first historian of the battle of Gettysburg, with the first published history of the sanguinary conflict. Working through J.P. Lippincott in nearby Philadelphia, the college professor was selling his history of the conflict by October of 1863, only months after rebel troops paraded in front of his home on Middle Street as they moved toward a beleaguered Federal army.

As he stood at the National Cemetery’s dedication on November 19th of that same year, Michael Jacobs’ heart must have swelled with pride as the day’s speaker, Edward Everett of Massachusetts, endorsed him and his book in his address. “The highly valuable ‘Notes’ of Professor Jacobs of the University in this place, to which I am greatly indebted,” Edward advised the crowd as he began to launch into an account of the battle, “will abundantly supply the deficiency of my necessarily too condensed statement.”

In that same cemetery where Jacobs now finds his eternal rest, another of Gettysburg’s citizens lays entombed. Under a broken gravestone, shattered and sad looking, lays the body of Frederick Huber, the promising young man who Dr. Huber and his family saw off to war, never to return. Frederick had studied at the college under Professor Jacobs. Now they lie together in the same churchyard, citizens of another, undiscovered town from whose bourn no traveller returns.

But even death could not protect the studious Huber. As he lay in eternal slumber in his grave in 1863, above his moldering face the boots of war trampled the ground. His comrades had come to his hometown; their enemies were here too. And sometime during that battle, as shot and shell plowed through the air and tore into flesh, an errant shell collided with the brittle marble of the young soldier’s gravestone. It shattered under the sheer power of that flying iron bolt.

Even in death, war is inescapable. It shapes who we truly are, who we’ve truly become and where we are truly headed. And at Gettysburg, that truth lingers around any corner you turn.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ngram 150th: Race, Sex and Big Data

Data is powerful in the right hands. Aggregate data is even more powerful. And Google is data.

One of the odder tools in the Google arsenal is the Ngram viewer a search engine which charts trends within the folds of Google Books' database. Punch in anything. I mean it. Try anything in the Ngram search engine and start falling down the historical trends rabbit hole.

Cross the power of big data with where my mind has been drifting of late here in Southern Pennsylvania, and you can start to see the birthpangs of modern racist dogma.

Wait, what?

With the Ku Klux Klan once again threatening to protest something or other here in Gettysburg, I've been thinking of that perennial bugaboo wielded by racists like a cudgel: miscegenation.

The argument is simple, especially when the Klan or other white supremacists employ it. In essence, and put in kind words which hate-mongers would likely pepper with expletives and slurs, any non-white man will defile the white daughters of America. In this upcoming protest, it looks like the boogieman will be Latino immigrants.

But the source of this age-old scare tactic might be something pure, something lovely, something fundamentally good: the Emancipation Proclamation.

Look at that Ngram above.

As racists and bigots grasped for straws in the aftermath of Lincoln's Proclamation, desperately trying to find a reason black men shouldn't find freedom, they played on an innate fear. What man doesn't want to protect his wife? His daughter? His sister? If the black man was made free, the nascent argument grew in a sharp spike in 1864, insatiable lust for white women would take over.

Sex sells. And the argument employed by Copperheads in 1864 and 1865, the argument employed by the opponents of the Radical Republicans throughout Reconstruction, was pure sex.

It was at its core a stupid, bigoted argument. It was the last resort of a group of destructive bigots doomed to failure. And yet, that hasn't stopped the term "miscegenation" from climbing steadily up the Ngram ladder since 1863. 150 years of the last resort argument, still alive today.

Emancipation brought freedom. But freedom meant continued struggle. And the struggle continues today.

Welcome to the sesquicentennial of the advent of modern hatred; that's one anniversary I surely won't be celebrating.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Things Never Change: Piecing Together College Life

Sometimes you stumble on something on eBay you just can't pass up. It's that $6 buy that is awkward, odd and just a little out of your scope. But it's only $6. If you'd buy a burger for $6, you shouldn't pass up an original letter from 1835.

Every letter has a story. And each of those stories has its own drama, its own meaning, its own power. The mundanities of human life can be just as powerful as the battles and charges.

In the waning days of August 1835, George Heilig set pen to paper to send a message off to his brother William. His motives were two-fold. His pastoral duty called him to let a local Gettysburgian, a man named Buehler, know that his sister-in-law was in dire straights near Norristown. A widow and her two children suffered in destitution without their husband and father. But George wasn't quite sure how to contact Buelher. "I could not for certain tell," George wrote to his brother William, "whether he was a black smith, or Dr. or Bookseller or what." William's task was simple: "see to it that he may get the letter in calling upon him & asking him whether he has rec'd an epistle from me."

But George seems to be practicing pretense; he didn't mince words to his beloved brother William. "Why don't you write to us," George pleaded to William, "as an affectionate brother who has more time to engauge in such matter than we."

William Heilig was away at college in Gettysburg, studying at the newly minted Pennsylvania College. His school wasn't north of town; it sat smack dab in Gettysburg's bustling streets at the corner of Middle and High streets. Pennsylvania Hall and the sprawling campus where decades later soldiers would suffer were all just a pipe dream of delusional Lutheran church fathers.

And like every young man far away from home, he forgot to write. "I have been looking for a letter long since but in vain," George told his brother. And news from Gettysburg back toward Philadelphia's outskirts was important to George, pastor of a congregation in Centre Square. "I'm always pleased to receive some intelligence from your place since it is the head quarters of our Lutheran Zion."

That Gettysburg was someone's Zion long before a battle was fought here is hard to imagine. Pilgrims make annual hajjes to the sacred shrines scattered across the town's fields like lost words. They genuflect at altars and offer supplication to violent and, perhaps, Christ-like sacrifices.

Before the Lutheran Theological Seminary and Lutheran College were hospitals and charnel houses, they were the heart and soul of the Lutheran church in America.

Before the violence, before the blood, before the Civil War Zion, there was the Lutheran Zion.

George Heilig walked to the post office to mail his brother the letter. He entered and paid the 12 1/2 cents to mail his letter. The clerk mentioned he had a letter for Heilig, perhaps he said it as he neatly penned the postage rate in the letter's corner. The pastor tore open his own letter, one from Mr. Buehler in Gettysburg. Enclosed was cash for the widow and her orphan children.

His pretense foiled, George asked for his letter back. He ripped open the wax seal and grabbed a pen, scribbling hurriedly. He explained that the letter was unnecessary, that the Buehler's were sound. William needn't bother the blacksmith or doctor or bookseller but to give him the family's thanks.

Then George Heilig carefully resealed the meaningless letter to his brother William and handed it back to the clerk. It traveled the long road to Gettysburg.

Perhaps George never cared about the Buehlers at all. Perhaps news from Lutheran Zion didn't matter. Perhaps he only longed to hear from William.

Perhaps we all have Williams who we long to hear from.