Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Gettysburg's Other Unknown Soldier

What happens when you don't die
clutching a photo of your kids? / PD LOC
We all know the name Amos Humiston. We know he was found on the first day's field. We know he clutched the image of his three children, an unknown soldier until his wife Philinda Humiston saw her children peering back at her from a copy of that picture. We know his drama and the agony of Philinda, we know the heartbreak and horror.

But who's buried next to him?

We know Amos Humiston, but the man next to him is a mystery. To the New York father's right is another man, another soldier who fought and died for the flag, for the nation, for the freedom of four million. He has a last name, partial information, a unit and not much else.

And searching finds relatively little on him. "Chamburg" of the 134th New York is a relative mystery. There are no Federal soldiers named Chamburg listed in the rolls of the Army of the Potomac. Not a one.

The 134th New York Infantry did have a Private Jesse P. Chamberlin who was killed at Gettysburg. The man buried next to the famous Gettysburg unknown is more than likely Private Chamberlin.

But who was Chamberlin, then?

In 1860, a Schenectady County census enumerator recorded the details of Jesse P. Chamberlain and his family. The 40-year-old laborer had a young 28-year-old wife, Hulda. Safe in their home in Duanesburg were twin 4-year-old boys, Arthur and Oscar, and a new 2-year-old daughter named Cornelia. And Jesse Chamberlain left them all behind when he enlisted in the 134th New York in August of 1862.

Moved toward the front just after the battle at Sharpsburg, stood in reserve at Fredericksburg and suffered only eight wounded men at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg would be their true baptism by fire.

News of the battle at Gettysburg began trickling into the Schenectady Evening Star and Times in the first few days after the battle. On July 9th the editor ran an excerpt from a letter written in the frantic moments after the battle. But the news was piecemeal. The friends and family of the 134th New York Infantry waited, fearing.

The next day, more casualties. More fear. Henry Teller wrote to the paper that the, "regiment went into the fight about three hundred strong, and came out with twenty-seven men and five officers." That simple sentence must have ricocheted in the minds of the men and women of Schenectady County. Did Hulda Chamberlain hug Arthur and Oscar tight to her side as she heard the news? Did she hope as she tucked Cornelia in to her bed that her beloved father was alright?

July 11th brought glad tidings. Lieutenant Colonel Allan H. Jackson had survived the harrowing first day of the battle, ferreted away in the town as rebels swarmed through the streets and, under cover of darkness, "by running through the rebel pickets got back to our army." It seemed anyone might have survived.

What does gripping horror in the
newspaper do to the folks back home
still waiting?  How many times do
they put their husband's face on
Jake Trask's body?
On July 13th, more news and a few more names appeared in the Schenectady Evening Star and Times. Orderly Sergeant William H. Howe wrote to readers back home that it was only, "through kind Providence I was spared to come out safe, without a scratch." As the 134th charged forward, "they fired grape and shell at us." Although they stood strong for a brief moment, the line buckled and, "they drove us and when we fell back they killed a great many of our boys." The friends of Jake Trask must have read in horror as Howe described how a shot passed, "through the breast and he laid right over and died in five minutes after. Poor Jake!"

Had Hulda figured it out yet? Did she know? Or did she still hope against hopes that her husband would return to his two sons and daughter?

All hope died on July 22nd, as a complete list of killed, wounded and missing was passed along to Schenectady by Colonel Jackson. There, in hard black-and-white, the only man listed as outright killed in Company H: Private Jesse P. Chamberlain.

All-told, 37 men were killed in the fighting on July 1st, Jesse Chamberlain among them. Arthur and Oscar would never see their father again. Cornelia more than likely wouldn't remember him at all. Another father among thousands buried beneath Pennsylvania's soil.

But unlike Humiston, whose grave eventually was marked properly and is venerated by thousands who come to meet the soldier who J. Francis Bourns made into an icon, Jesse Chamberlain gets no mourners. As visitors stand at Humiston's grave, do they ever wonder who "Chamburg" is?

I never did before. I'm a bit ashamed of that. How could I stand there and not obsess over who was buried in that grave?  But now I know I should kneel down at Jesse's side too and mourn along with Arthur, Oscar and Cornelia. I'll wipe away Hulda's tears 150 years too late. Then I'll move on to the next grave and do the same.

After all, that man died for freedom too. Just like Amos Humiston.

And Jesse Chamberlain.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Thinking of the Ending and Beginning of a War

My lecture in class this week focused on Reconstruction, the end of war and the continuing Civil War. So I've been thinking a lot about those final moments of the Civil War and the coming of the continued century worth of conflict. And that means this photo has been on my mind, the quintessential inversion of the rebel capital, as Lincoln is forever enshrined there, a constant reminder of how the war ended and how the war still continues with different means on different cultural fronts.

So a simple, peaceful image of a father and son for this Thursday.

But an image that portends so much more to come.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Loyalty: Democracy and Gettysburg's Union League

The Courthouse where Gettysburg's
nascent Union League met one night
in April, 1863. / CC zizzybaloobah
"The ball is rolling," the Sentinel crowed, "and it is no time now to faint or falter in the good and noble work of crushing rebels and traitors abroad and at home, and bringing back to its original glory our time-honored Union."

The Union would be saved, the Sentinel was sure, by the pure and sustained love and loyalty of her people. Gettysburg was showing her mettle in that department in the waning days of April 1863, as citizens gathered to follow the lead of others to the east in forming a Loyal Union League in the Adams county seat.

Like their counterparts in the cultural hub of Philadelphia, Gettysburg's citizens came to the call, bringing, "together a large number of warm, enthusiastic loyalists, who are going in, 'heart and soul,' for the Union." All told, 87 men pledged their names as loyal members in support of their nation.

Beyond the group of 87 who met in the Adams County Courthouse to form a Loyal Union League, other citizens of Gettysburg weren't as impressed. Quoting Christ's parable from Luke of the braggart Pharisee and the pious tax collector, Gettysburg Compiler editor Henry J. Stahle ripped into the Union League's public declaration of patriotism. "We desire to bring this lesson of the Great Teacher," Stahle preached, "to the notice of the very respectable gentlemen in broad-cloth and patent leather boots, of the sect of the Pharisees, who met in the Court House on Monday evening."

Those men, the Compiler spat sarcastically, "modestly arrogated to themselves all the honesty, intelligence, patriotism and christianity in the community."

In another article, speaking with words reprinted from the pages of Harrisburg's Patriot and Union, the Compiler urged Gettysburg and the nation in another direction. "If the people are anxious to go into a Union League under the idea that they can aid the nation in this critical period," the paper announced to Gettysburg, "let them go into the Democracy, and they will breathe the truest spirit of love for the nation and its laws." The Democracy, the Democratic Party, was the only antidote to war. "A man who is a genuine Democrat needs no Union League to inspire him with devotion to his country."

Still, Gettysburg's Union League proudly announced their stance, "to unconditional loyalty to the Government of the United States, to its unwavering support of its efforts to suppress the rebellion, and to spare no endeavor to maintain unimpaired the National unity, both in principle and territorial boundary." Perhaps it was a the Pharisee, loud, brash and only for public show.

Then again, maybe it was just political rivals, each in their own way damning the other for failing to, "bind together all loyal men, of all trades and professions, in a common union to maintain the power, glory, and integrity of the Nation."

As the Adams Sentinel begged for, "all of every race and creed, religious and political... to have a unity of sentiment and action in support of the war for the preservation of the Constitution and the Union," Gettysburg sat a borough divided, at war with herself. America sat a nation deeply divided, at war with herself. And it didn't require a single rebel boot on the American soil to drive that wedge deeper and deeper.

But rebel boots were coming to Pennsylvania. And soon.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Building the War One Brick at a Time

LEGO's latest Civil War dudes.
I've been waiting for this moment since 1996. Back then, when I was 11, My favorite toy came out with figures from my favorite era. The LEGO Western line was an amazing crossover of my love for history and my love for tiny ABS building blocks.

But an 11-year-old has no expendable cash reserves, which means I gathered a dozen or so Civil War minifigures with pocket money and Christmas presents. And like all LEGO products, the sets disappeared from the shelves in two years, never to be seen again.

Now, Civil War minifigures are making a return thanks to the new Lone Ranger movie. And I'm not an 11-year-old anymore. So I'm planning on stocking up on a company of men to carry tiny plastic rifles.

And I'm not alone. Some friends are interested in military history and LEGO, and we're in the planning stages of some dioramas depicting famous battle scenes to show off at the annual local convention.

One of my previous Civil War models.
I've written about Civil War violence being used as a sort of patriotic pornography in the past. In fact, "Civil War porn" is one of the strongest drivers of traffic to the site from Google. (Hello, all you nymphos out there!) I've had similar conversations with friends in my LEGO hobby about the penchant for military dioramas to be toy bloodbaths with pools of plastic ooze. It seems like a glorification of violence, a fetishistic obsession through the medium of a toy of real violence.

So now I'm contemplating the idea of crafting a few of my own dioramas of Civil War combat, using a toy as an artistic medium. And I want to make sure the violence doesn't become a fetish. I think I've got the solution. One of my dioramas will depict the reburial of the Federal dead in the months after the battle of Gettysburg. I recently found a sketch of Basil Biggs' crew digging burial trenches in the National Cemetery that I'm hoping to transform into plastic reality.

Hopefully a representation of the true cost of war, the real dead men represented by tiny plastic toys, will help place the battle scenes into a proper context. War, as Sherman said, is all hell. How to depict a meaningful little plastic hell that evokes real emotion is the true question.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Big Interp: Processing Massive Meaning

The past uses the future
to see the past.
There's been this term bandied about in the historical circles I've been running in of late: Big Data. As far as I've gathered, it's the byproduct of our information age, when more and more data gets fed into more and more machines and is accessible at the fingertips of more and more inquiring minds.

But I'm not a new social historian. I tend to aim for the micro-historical, not the grand and sweeping systematic conclusions. It means that much of what I produce is ignorant of this new boon for the historical profession. I make, as Brian Jordan lovingly put it once, "brick-in-the-wall histories." My work is the basis upon which, when joined with that of hundreds of my comrades, helps folks like the soon-to-be Dr. Jordan make broad structured conclusions.

I actually love that role. It means that what I do has deeper impact, but that I don't need to fuss with those broader conclusions quite as much.

But the follow on from my role as a brickmaker is that I understand the value of big data, I just can't understand the mechanics of big data.

But I am starting to imagine the scale of Big Data through Big Interp. What does an interpretive project look like when it grows into a massive, sprawling beast? I've been working on one of those projects for nearly a year and a half now. Imagine trying to figure out the inner workings of dozens of peoples' everyday lives 150 years ago, their comings and goings, their ideas, thoughts and beliefs, their fears and thoughts. It's impossible, but not. Tracing people on a landscape becomes far easier than you might think, trust me.

So the project is starting to coalesce. Big Interp, what it means to craft a highly complex web of meaning, which virtual visitors can "pluck" from any individual thread and see the reverberations, just might happen. If all goes well, you'll want to make sure you have a Twitter account by early May. You'll want to make sure you're ready to watch history unfold. You'll, hopefully, be able to relive the Gettysburg #invasion63 through a few curious observers' eyes.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Dark Town's Wealth: A 150-Year-Old Rock-and-Roll Concert Review

Reading history.
I have a lot of odd things scattered around my house, weird ephemera and bric-a-brac that I've picked up here and there as I've studied history.

Some of them are treasures, like CDVs of long-dead College professors and original pieces of decking from the USS North Carolina. Some are less treasures and more, well, junk. Most folks toss old newspapers within a few days of reading. In the Civil War Era, I'm sure many a page of newsprint went to start an honest mother's hearth in the morning or a pile of moist kindling in some godforsaken camp.

But I've accumulated some of those scraps of newspaper that didn't end up in a campfire or under a cooking pot. I love reading them. To flip open, sometimes quite literally, the pages of the past is an amazing feeling.

In New York, 150 years ago this morning, newsprint was still drying on a page I hold in my hand today. And the news was fit to print and, more importantly, fit to be read. Filling the front page of the New York Tribune that April the 11th was news of Charleston Harbor. Inside the editor recalled that, "it is the anniversary of the attack on Sumter - two years today since the Rebellion broke into open War." Those two years had been, "crowded with events, brilliant with victories and saddened by defeats, but ennobled throughout by a fortitude which no suffering could weaken, and a determination which no disaster has been able to shake."

The war continued.

And so did life. New York, as she always is, was abuzz with culture. In a tiny piece in a far right column of one page, the Tribune reported on a concert in Irving Hall, in the neighborhood of Union Square. "Mr. Gottschalk, whose name is talismanic to draw crowds of admirers, has been giving two concerts this week, to brilliant audiences," the paper crowed. And tonight would be no different, as he showed once again, "the taste and skill which have made him equally renowned in Europe and America."

If ever there was a quintessentially American product in the 19th century, it was Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Born in New Orleans in 1829 to a Jewish businessman and a Creole mother, Gottschalk grew up in a largely integrated family in a largely integrated city. The household even included Gottschalk's mulatto brothers and sister, the product of a series of encounters his father had with a mistress of another race.

New Orleans, that odd amalgam of cultures which seep together, ebb and flow, oozed its way into Louis Gottschalk's soul. And those cultures oozed out once again as his fingers touched the ivory keys of his beloved piano. Where Europe had piano virtuoso Frédéric Chopin, whose work mirrored his classical roots and mimicked Bach and Beethoven, America got music from Gottschalk's fingers that was an offspring of our weird cultural mix. Part a product of the independent spirit of the nation, part borrowing, stealing and lovingly appropriating the black rhythms and culture in which he was brought up, Gottschalk's image of classical piano was decidedly bent.

Syncopation, atonal pairings of chords, crazy grace-notes and quick staccato moving lines all suited Gottschalk. He was shifting music, injecting a new soul of black folk where there had been an absence before.

In his Bamboula (Danse des nègres), Gottschalk literally injected the black musical voice into American (and world) musical vernacular. In doing so, Gottschalk set America on a path to Jimi Hendrix.

From Gottschalk's ivories, quite obvious when you listen to any of his pieces played today, was born nearly fully-formed that quintessential of American musics, ragtime, and its king, Scott Joplin. And from Joplin and the commercialization machine of Tin Pan Alley, America found a new taste in rhythm, where driving beats, quick tempos and jarring syncopation were commonplace. Gottschalk beget Joplin. Joplin beget Ragtime. Ragtime beget Jazz. Jazz beget that strong rhythm section and those chord progressions we still hear infesting our radios today. Add in a dose of folk and hillbilly guitar to the mix, stir, and Rock-and-Roll isn't far off. Without Gottschalk there is no Elvis Presley. There is no Chuck Berry. There is no Motown. And there is no Jimi Hendrix, shredding on a guitar on Purple Haze to a driving back-beat to which Gottschalk himself could have jammed right along.

So my newspaper isn't just a relic of the past. It's one of the very first Rock-and-Roll concert reviews. Louis Gottschalk beget the musical world we live in today.

Whether Gottschalk played Bamboula or not, the paper doesn't say. It doesn't record whether or not The Banjo was on his set list. We don't know what he played. But we know that in a crowded music hall just a few blocks off of Union Square Park, Rock-and-Roll was played, 150 years ago tonight.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

On the Battleground at Gettysburg: A Journey to Remember

I was very pleased to be one of the two speakers at Sunday night's inaugural "Journey to Remember" event sponsored by Gettysburg College. A group of students and community members trekked up the hill from the campus, resting on Oak Hill at the base of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial to hear myself and Janet Riggs, the college's President and a fellow alum. The student organizers asked me to place that place into historical context.

So I did. In about 10 minutes, I tried to bring that ground back to life with the fascinating tales of when students acted.

Rather than let the words die in the aether, I wanted to preserve them. So I share them with you, many of you who couldn't make it out to Oak Hill on Sunday night for the paramount event of the final event of Founder's Day weekend. Maybe they'll help bring that place to life in a new way for you too.

Pennsylvania College: Imperfect Peace

In the early fall months of 1925, planning was underway in houses all across the town. A celebration was in the works. Gettysburg’s Jewish community was readying to celebrate the high holy days. Rosh Hashanah is a time of celebration, a time to blow the shofar and gather with family for a meal of sweet apples and honey.

Others in Gettysburg were planning for another gathering on the weekend of September 18th, 19th and 20th. Bunting was being hung, flags were being put outside of homes and shops. The town was infested with a carnival atmosphere, welcoming guests from across the state.

Rosh Hashanah weekend aligned with the Pennsylvania Ku Klux Klan Reunion in Gettysburg. Friday night, as Jewish shop owners locked up their stores and turned to go home to their families to celebrate the happiest of New Year’s, Model-T Fords streamed through the streets of town, white hoods peaking from their convertible tops, paint on the sides reading “Klan to Gettysburg.”

They gathered right here, in these open fields where just over 60 years before Confederates had made charge after charge forward to strike a blow for a new nation, a revolution to protect white supremacy. Now the Klan was gathering once again, trying again to strike a blow for white supremacy. This time, though, they had a parade instead of a battle.

Through the streets of town, the men in hoods marched. Some of them were dressed as colonial soldiers, carrying signs reading “Spirit of 1776.” Others were dressed like soldiers from World War I, less than a decade past. Another group carried, taught across the street, an American flag. And the people on the sidelines, the spectators and townsfolk and visitors, dug deep into their pockets for dollar coins and tossed them in the air to be caught in this American flag.

One group in town saw this for what it was: travesty. The students of Gettysburg College. The students of Gettysburg College saw the Klan’s actions for what they were. The students saw the Klan as the antithesis of America, the antithesis of what these very fields they stood on mean.

You can read The Blister thanks to
Gettysburg College's GettDigital project
preserving campus (and other) history.
While the Gettysburg Times published a special Ku Klux Klan edition, some students of the college used their own publication, The Blister, to speak out against the fraternal order. “Unless cultural educative processes are set in motion concerning the work, make-up, practices and theory of the hooded order, itself repugnant to the idea of Democracy, America will suffer,” the students announced. “Anyone having the least spirit of America,” the students chided, “anyone who reveres the grave of the ‘Unknown Soldier’ who represents the ‘full measure of devotion’ for the national emblem, 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… and can remain unmoved belongs to a land where national respect and self-respect are a grotesque hallucination.”

That, “full measure of devotion,” that the students spoke of, that sacred death of man for nation, happened right here in these fields. Those words, joyfully stolen from Lincoln, were first heard by, among others, students from our college.
Lincoln chose Gettysburg as the place to link these dead of the civil War, these men who loved and felt, hated and sorrowed, laughed and dreaded, to a larger goal. In a little under 300 words, he made this place about extending freedoms to ever increasing groups of men. Dead men littered the ground where Pennsylvania College students had captured butterflies just a year before. The war quite literally came to our college campus. And as students stood listening in 1863, Lincoln's words made that war change.

The war changed on our campus, the nation bent in our midst. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” One of the places that we can see that bend is here. Ten-thousand men died in the fields in which we run and play, in which we meditate and read. A battlefield seems a terrible place, sometimes, to even begin to contemplate peace.

But this landscape can be a place of peace in its vivid depiction of the breach. On the morning of July 1st, 1863, a 15 year-old student of the College’s preparatory division woke to find a war going on just over the ridge from his school. His father was away in the army, and now Frederick Lehmann wanted his chance at joining history. So he wandered off the campus. On the way, he found a wounded soldier and plucked his musket from his shoulder. He found another who didn’t need his cartridge box any longer. As he wandered toward the sound of the cannons, cannons booming right down this ridge, within our sight, he transformed himself from a student to a quasi-soldier and began firing away at the enemy.

Frederick was captured in the heat of battle, in the midst of making war. He nearly suffered the consequences. A rebel officer was ready to treat him like any other prisoner. But the stakes were even higher. Frederick was a civilian, he was a simple young man like any of you. Picking up a gun, he began to blur the line between army and citizen. If some enterprising Southern officer had felt vindictive, upon finding Frederick, he would have had every right to burn the town to the ground as a hive of insurgency.

They didn’t. Frederick Lehmann was let go instead. A Federal officer plead for Frederick’s release, and he was placed in the care of one of the College’s professors for the rest of the battle. On July 3rd, as the last shots of Pickett’s Charge were echoing away, Fredrick’s curiosity got the better of him. He wandered into the street, where a rebel sharpshooter found him and drilled a hole through his leg with a bullet. Frederick Lehmann walked the rest of his life with a limp, a constant reminder of what war does.

And we are immensely lucky here. We don’t need a bullet hole in our leg as our reminder. This place is a reminder to us, surrounding and enveloping us. For some of us, it’s only 4 years that we experience this horror and sorrow. For others, we are doomed to live in the midst of war’s fruits for our lives, drawn by its tale like a siren song.

But before you leave this place, if you have the luxury after your 4-years’ time to leave this place, wander these fields. Meet the men who fought and bled here. Meet the men and women who suffered through months of horror nursing men back to health or consigning them to their graves. They are still wandering this field like ghosts. And every so often, we see their echoes. Sometimes they come as phantoms in our imaginations as we try desperately to imagine the horror of war. Sometimes they are white-sheeted denizens of hatred marching through our very streets and defiling our sacred flag. Sometimes they are the images of bleeding women and men and children on our televisions as we peer across the oceans into another more modern war-zone.

Talk to them. Understand what war is. Because in understand war, you can understand why peace might be a better answer.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

We're Not Important: Historian in an Operating Room

No one dies on these
battlefields anymore.
Sometimes, historians (both public and academic) seem to have this oddly overblown sense of self-worth. I'll admit that I'm prone to this every so often. I'm wont to note that historic sites are temples of democracy, that interpreters ultimately are in the business of creating citizens and saving America and that in defining the past we find the present and chart the course for the future.

I believe all those things fully.

And yet.

And yet I know that in the grand scheme of things, historians are not the most important functionaries in everyday society. We are cogs in a social wheel. We are chroniclers of that which has happened. We enrich lives, but those lives would continues sans enrichment. We pluck the strings of hearts, but those hearts would go on beating sans plucking.

If every historian, public and academic, disappeared in a flash tomorrow like a weird episode of Life After People, the rest of society would barely notice. No planes would plummet from the sky. No one would find their banks unguarded and unattended. No one would die on the operating table.

In short, what we do doesn't immediately matter in the realm of modern society.

I realize this in my day-to-day life quite often. I work for the Federal Government in my day job, and for a private highly-selective liberal arts college in my night. By day, I am a professional public philosopher, paid, in essence, to think. By night, I am a professional private philosopher, again paid, in essence, to think. The thinking I do is skilled labor in the fact that I have developed a mental acuity toward thinking within certain parameters (and breaking outside of them a healthy amount of time). But thinking is technically a form of unskilled work. Anyone can think.

It's one of the beautiful concepts that has been with us since Carl Becker spouted it in 1931: "Everyman His Own Historian." Anyone can delve into the philosophical world of history. Everyone has the proper skills, because largely there are no special skills.

But sometimes we overestimate ourselves. We denigrate the democratization of the historical craft. We liken ourselves to the true skilled craftsmen of the 21st century, perhaps the cardiac or neurosurgeon, and our craft to the intricate work of their hands.

If we let Everyman enter our trade and try their hand at history, there is no true damage done. It is nothing like throwing open the doors of an operating room and allowing the Average Joe off the street a turn with the scalpel. We flatter ourselves to think our lot in life that important.

When those real heroes and real craftsmen of the health profession make a mistake, oftentimes, someone suffers true, immediate and everlasting consequences. It's why we train them so long, we treat them so kindly and pay them so well: society places lives (sometimes our very own) in their hands.

No one dies when citizens undertake history. There. I said it. Slipping with history's scalpel doesn't kill anyone. The Pawn Stars aren't in charge of making sure your heart keeps beating. Mike and Frank of Antique Archaeology don't swap out your IV bag.

If Everyman gets a fact muddled, or makes a poor conclusion, or draws the wrong meaning from the facts in a primary source, the worst thing that happens is that a few folks draw an erroneous conclusion. That's it. Their conception of the past might get just slightly skewed.

In the end, no one dies because of a slightly skewed conception of a fact about the past.

So don't just begrudgingly let Everyman be an historian; truly celebrate it. Because, frankly, there's no harm for them to do.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Wilmington: A World Turned Upside Down

Fifes and drums from Tennessee play
The World Turned Upside Down.
There's an old myth that, as he ordered the flag brought down and the post at Yorktown surrendered, General Cornwallis ordered his fife and drum corps to play The World Turned Upside Down a traditional British Christmas song written in protest of the aristocracy outlawing raucous celebration. In its lyrics, the paupers are made kings and the kings made paupers. The song was more than likely not played during the surrender. But myths are often potent and always telling.

I've been thinking of that tune lately. And I've been thinking of Wilmington, North Carolina. The number of times I've watched (and listened to) Spielberg's Lincoln is now up into the teens. Each run through I'm noticing more and more. I'm now to that stage where you mouth lines along with Mr. Slade and anticipate the coming scenes viscerally.  And the carnage at Wilmington sits central to that film; it's a lynchpin of the plot that embeds itself deeper each time I watch.

Wilmington's also been on my mind because I've made two trips down in as many weeks to see my parents in their new adopted city.

Back in November, when I visited for Thanksgiving, we took a trip over to Fort Fisher. It was an odd site, an odd tour and an interesting experience. We wandered the site with a state park ranger, who was quite folksy and nice. We ended up talking more about Gettysburg than Fort Fisher (the curse of mentioning you're from Gettysburg is that every Civil War person wants to talk about your home rather than theirs), but I picked up enough of the vibe of the place to understand.

Before we left, I told my Dad we needed to visit Battery Buchanan. It was the final fallback position of the retreating rebel forces. It's where the battle at Fort Fisher ended. It's where the world turned upside down.

Dad stayed in the car; rain was beginning to fall. Mom stayed at the wayside; the remains of Battery Buchanan were too steep for her. But I needed to climb it. It's a simple mound of sand. But it was deeply powerful climbing up the dune.

At the top, I looked out. The words of Chaplain Henry Turner still rang in my mind from the fort's museum exhibit: "Indeed, the white troops told the rebels that if they did not surrender they would let the negroes loose on them." The white rebels cowered behind the Battery as the blue soldiers swept in toward them. Behind the sand dune hid a world which was dying. On the other side stood triumphant a world turned upside down.

The rebels from Fort Fisher surrendered to a federal column led by the 27th United States Colored Troops. They were black. Just a few years before, they weren't citizens in the eyes of the law. Now they were soldiers. And they were men.

And if cats should be chased
Into holes by the mouse,
If the mammas sold their babies
To the Gypsies for half a crown,
If summer were spring,
And the other way 'round,
Then all the world would be upside down.