Thursday, May 30, 2013

Born in Slavery: One Grave in Chambersburg

A simple epitaph with amazing impact: "Born in Slavery, Died Feb 15 1908." Those words speak and speak loudly. Thomas Burl wanted it to be known for eternity that he was a slave. And he wanted it to be known that he wasn't when he died. That label defined his whole life. It defined who he was when he had the name "slave" forced on him when he was born. And it again defined him through its absence after 1863.

Thomas Burl knew he was free, precisely because he knew the antithesis of freedom. And he died a free man in a free land.

And now, if you wander through Mount Vernon Cemetery in Chambersburg, Burl will still be standing there to remind you what freedom means: put simply, it is the utter absence of slavery.  That's all Thomas Burl needed to know.  He told us through his epitaph that that knowledge was enough.
Requiescat in pace et in libertate, Thomas.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Fire on the Mountain: A Forest Fire Ignored?

All that's left from an entirely different fire.
There was a massive forest fire on the South Mountain at the edge of Adams County. It ripped through thousands of acres of woodland along the crest of the ridge. The undergrowth went up like a match. The spring up to this point had been unusually dry. And a fire started.

A fire didn't just start itself. It was started behind David Goodyear's tavern and inn near the Adams County line. "Some rascal," congressman Thaddeus Stevens later wrote, started the fire which began scorching the mountainside.

The extent of the damage is unclear. The fire went, apparently, largely unnoticed in the local press. The South Mountains loom large on the horizon of Gettysburg, but no one took notice in the pages of the Compiler or Sentinel of a massive conflagration on the side of the peaks in mid-May 1863. Other things were on their minds.

But for Thaddeus Stevens, a fire on that particular mountainside meant trouble.

"I came up here yesterday," the congressman wrote his nephew Alanson Stevens, who was fighting with Independent Battery B, Pennsylvania Light Artillery out in the western wilds of Tennessee, "to see what a grand sight is a mountain all on fire." All told, Stevens alerted his nephew and ward, "it burnt more than 5000 acres of the furnace Land." In his May 22nd letter, Stevens explained that fire stretched from the mountain gap which sheltered Stevens' Caledonia Iron Works northward to Pine Grove and west, "nearly to Shippensburg."

In Gettysburg, the newspapers fixated on an invading army barreling northward just as it had the autumn before. Would they breech Pennsylvania? Was the Commonwealth safe? Fire held no candle to the threat of a marauding rebel army.

And yet fire raged in the woods atop the South Mountain range. "The loss to the young timber is very great," Stevens wrote his nephew. The forge it self, with its furnaces for refining iron blooms and iron bars, was intact. And business was good. "I am glad you remain well," Stevens wrote his nephew, "I think when you come home you will have to take the management of the works." If it weren't for a shortage of iron ore, a fortune was waiting to be made in the melting of the raw metals into something useful for man's desires.

Alanson knew well that iron was in demand. That past winter, his battery had thrown round after round of deadly ferrous missile sailing into the enemy ranks. And after the Battle of Stones River, Battery B sat at Murfreesboro, guarding middle Tennessee from recapture by the grey armies. Delivering iron was Alanson's trade, just like it was his uncle's.

"There is no knowing when this war will end," Stevens wrote to his nephew from the smouldering mountain surrounding his industrious iron works and dozens of employees' homes, "I am getting too old to enjoy it."

War was stretching into another summer campaign season. Two weeks later, safe in Lancaster, Stevens again wrote to his nephew that, "We are still unlucky in this war - which ought to have been ended by this time." That war, now dragging into its third bloody summer could be solved. "The slaves," Stevens astutely noted, "ought to be incited to insurrection and give the rebels a taste of real civil war."

Stevens didn't know it yet, no one in Southern Pennsylvania knew it quite yet, but they'd all be getting a taste of that war very soon. And fire would once again burn on that mountainside in Caledonia.


I am indebted to Beverly Palmer and Holly Ochoa's heavy lifting in compiling The Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens - Volume I: January 1814-March 1865 (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1997). They've put a good chunk of Stevens' writings and correspondence into one handy place. Stevens' 22 May 1863 letter to his nephew Alanson appears on p. 396.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Rewind: Good Morning to the Night

Today is a special day, a momentous day. It's a day I've thought about for a long time. A day for beginnings and a day for looking back.

So I'm looking back for today's blog, to one of my favorite posts. It's simple and meaningful to me. It's about a place that has changed my life so much. And today the ripples from that place are changing it again. And it's wonderful.

Here's a rewind to last June, with...

Good Morning to the Night: Requiem for My Battlefield

"It's got a lot of songs to sing
If I knew the tunes I might join in..."
The fireflies have started to appear around Gettysburg. We have a new sliding glass door in the kitchen that I can press my face against and see them. I did it the other night when Jess mentioned they're out there.

I live up on Seminary Ridge, now. The right flank of the final Confederate push on the afternoon of July 1st flushed right across the postage stamp lawn out my front door. The next night, young men from Virginia and North Carolina milled around, eating and singing and readying themselves for the pain of the next day.

I look out my windows, or I wander these streets or these fields, and I see ghosts. I don't mean the pretend, "boogity boogity," ghost tripe they peddle in town. I mean the resurrected dead who wander in my mind. If I squint out the window, between the fireflies, I can see the forms of men swilling Pennsylvania whiskey and chanting out rebel tunes from hoarse throats.

This field swarms with more than just fireflies. It swarms with living memories.

After grabbing an ice cream, Jess and I went driving on the south end of the battlefield last night. She flipped off the AC and rolled down her window. On the radio, John Lennon was singing the last few lines of, "In My Life." "Though I know I'll never lose affection," the ill-fated Beatle sang, "for people and things that went before." The song's last strains faded and Elton John began singing, "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters."

"They know not if
it's dark outside or light..."
I turned to Jess and asked her if we were the only people who did this. Everyone else tooling around the field was squinting into the growing darkness and desperately trying to listen to their auto tape tour. They were trying desperately to read the last few lines of this wayside or that monument in the dying sunlight. But we were intently listening to the King of Pop (yes, I went there) sing about his undying love for a place and her people.

That field means so much to me, but that meaning goes so far beyond the phantoms of the dead wandering through my mind. They're always there. But there's a cleanness on the landscape, a centering calm and a beautiful quiet. It's mournful and celebratory all at once. Sort of like Elton's song.

When I squint at that field, I don't just see soldiers floating across it. Phantom trolley cars cruise down long-rotten rail lines. On the fields north of town, a legion of white hooded ghosts appear and disappear in long clouds of hate-filled mist. On a rostrum in the cemetery, the ghostly voice of a Vice-President demands, "together."

But that's not all. I can squint and see Tim and Garry giggling gleefully as they dive headlong into photos and parade around in front of PCN cameras. Somewhere on Culp's Hill, a crowd of Civil War Roundtable members still clips away at the pricker bushes incessantly in my mind. And now, in the valley of death, I'll forever hear Elton John singing, "And I thank the Lord for the people I have found, I thank the Lord for the people I have found."


Last week, while we were sitting in a meeting with a visitor to the building, the interpretive training staff was talking about how we all live in different places. One of my co-workers lives right in Harpers Ferry. My boss lives across the river in Maryland. I drive an hour to and from work each day from Gettysburg.

The woman we were talking to asked me the simple but loaded question, "you're looking to move down here though, right?"

The answer fell out of my mouth before I could close my lips. If my mind could have kept up, it would have said something judicious, something measured. Thank god it couldn't.

"No, never."

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Hearing His Voice: What Does "War" Have to Say?

     What carnage and sorrow will the next few weeks bring?  Is the sacrifice worth it?
Can the nation be saved? Can the slave be freed? The next two months will help to
answer those questions.

     Lee is formulating his plan to move northward, to invade Federal territory once again
and lean on the United States' popular will to fight. And War will see the fruits of that
decision. He'll see it all.  And we're still working to tell his tale, bit by bit.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sockdologizing: Finally Laughing at the Lincoln Assassination

I've taken solace in the fact that Abraham Lincoln died laughing. Sarah Vowell, in her riveting and powerful Assassination Vacation, speaks about how, "it is a comfort of sorts to know that the bullet hit Lincoln mid-guffaw. Considering how the war had weighed on him, at least his last conscious moment was a hoot."

But Vowell expresses confusion at that laugh line, which Booth made one of the most momentous of all theatre history: "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap."

For years, I thought it was all lost in translation. That funky word "sockdologizing," getting in the way of our modern understanding of this apparently hilarious one-liner.

A few weeks ago, I tried to explain the joke to my class of college students. After delivering the line, prefaced with a warning that it's the biggest laugh-line in the play, the students stared back with blank expressions. I didn't blame them. I grasped for words.

"It's an insult; it's like insult comedy. It means she's a conniving woman. It's like a great line from a bawdy big-budget Hollywood frat-boy comedy today."

My students looked unconvinced. Frankly, I was unconvinced. The line just isn't funny. And it began bugging me. It began really bugging me.

The line haunts me every now and again, I think because I've never understood it. My mind works like this weird melange of pop culture and history, with things swimming into my consciousness unbidden more often than not. I'll be walking down a hallway, when I hear my lips mumble, "sockdologizing old man-trap," and not know how those words got there.

That night, after class, it lingered in my mind. Why was it so funny?

At about 3am, I sat bolt upright in bed. I don't know if I had been attending Our American Cousin in a dream, or if I had been Lincoln in a dream or if it had just taken that long to process.

Mrs. Mountchessington's not the butt of the joke, I explained to myself, finding the words in my mind before I forgot the dream revelation, It's Asa Trenchard who's the butt of the joke. That one revelation is enough to slot everything else into place. The joke lives in the setup, not the punchline.

MRS. M: I am aware, Mr. Trenchard, you are not used to the manners of good society, and that, alone, will excuse the impertinence of which you have been guilty.

ASA: Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal—you sockdologizing old man-trap.

There stands Mrs. Mountchessington, played that night by Helen Muzzy, telling Harry Hawk's Asa Trenchard that he is definitely, "not used to the manners of good society," as a boor of an American transplanted into the depth of prim and proper English manners. This is Asa's moment, his opportunity to show her up.

And he definitely wants to. Asa shouts back, directly to Mountchessington's face that accusatory question. But then it all goes off the rails. Asa steps into Mrs. M's beartrap of a taunt. And it snaps around his leg.

The meaning of, "sockdologizing," doesn't matter. It's all in the setup. Asa's been accused of not knowing the manners of good society, and then proves in one line he not only doesn't know them, but doesn't know he's being judged at all.

Analyzing a joke is the best way to kill it, I know. But I'll now always laugh at that hilarious line, just like Lincoln did right before Booth eased his finger back on the trigger in April of 1865.

And then I'll cry.

Friday, May 10, 2013

From a Place of Fear: Death, Slavery & Stonewall

Earlier this spring, I sat in Gettysburg at the "Future of the Civil War" conference and listened to an intern talk about how he had been scared to interpret. He was afraid of his visitors, afraid to tell them about a place.

It was the "Jackson Shrine" at the Chandler plantation "Fairfield." And the one crucial fact he didn't know how to share was that Thomas Jonathan Jackson died in an office on a plantation, an office used to manage human chattel labor on the 740-acre plantation. He was afraid, intimidated, to say the simple sentence: "Before Jackson came here, this building was used to manage the plantation's over 60 slaves."

Being intimidated by the idea of interpreting is fine for a college student. It's a tough, scary world when you first start out. Intimidation is one healthy reaction. Talking about what James Loewen called, "the tough stuff of history," is tough and rightly should be. We're talking about, at its heart, a 250-year societal sin. Those types of wounds should still hurt.

But talking about our sins is the way we overcome them, make amends for them and avoid them tomorrow. We find solace in confessing and doing penance, it is a balm to the soul.

So, this afternoon, while many are thinking about Stonewall Jackson's death in a small overseer's office adjacent to a farmhouse on a Virginia plantation, I'll be thinking about other folks too.

I'll be thinking of the 60 human beings who Thomas C. Chandler owned in 1860. I'll be wondering who the 56-year-old man was, what the name of that 40-year-old woman was. Did that 4-year-old girl grow up to be a mother? A wife? Did their wounds ever heal.

By 1863, most of them were gone from the Chandlers' farm, suddenly finding freedom when a blue army descended on Fredericksburg and a new life was only a stone's throw away. They left behind small tokens underground that remind us they were there. But their journey had taken another step forward, from a place of toil and chains toward a land of freedom.

And as Stonewall Jackson lay dying in the small wood-shingled office where the man who had whipped those men and women and overseen their toil had kept his records, freedom marched forward. Because of Jackson's death in that very room, the death of slavery was just a little bit closer to being realized. His last gasp was one more last gasp on the road to destroying the peculiar institution.

Jackson's death did mean freedom, just not the kind he or the men he led ever intended.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Semester Ends, The Semester Begins

It's finals week at Gettysburg College, but in another time, it was just the beginning of the
oddest session of college just over 100 students would ever experience.  Some would join
the 26th PEMR, some would run home from the oncoming rebel hordes, and others would
remain in Gettysburg, sitting in the cross-hairs of the war as the slowly rested on
Adams County.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Virtual Sesquicentennial: #Invasion63 Goes Live

I teased this project a short while ago, and now that May has arrived history has begun coming back to life. Over the next three months, the men and women who walked Gettysburg's streets and crossed the Pennsylvania College campus will reenact their lives in the last few moments before Gettysburg changed irrevocably. As May creeps along, more characters will rise from the grave and begin reliving the past.

But this reenactment isn't about goofy clothes. It's not about marching around and pretending to shoot at one another in a grotesque weekend fantasy. It's not about action at all.

This reenactment is all about thought, particularly the thoughts of men and women 150 years ago. What was their life? What did they experience? And how would they have shared that had an iPhone been in their hands in 1863?

This is a virtual reenactment of Pennsylvania College's battle.

And it all began when Adams Sentinel editor Robert Harper joined Twitter 150 years too late:

@AdamsSentinel kicked things off with a few headlines.
Then Lieut. James F. Crocker of the 9th Virginia Infantry came back to life to celebrate Robert E. Lee's victory at Chancellorsville. And then he and the 9th Virginia began a march northward from Suffolk to join Lee in #Invasion63.

@real_JCrocker jumped on celebrating Lee's victory at Chancellorsville.
As the month goes on, professors will complain about too many faculty meetings, students will look forward to their graduation in August and one Gettysburg citizen will tag along as Pennsylvania College's students march off to war. Classes in the summer session of 1863 begin next week. Stay tuned to Twitter, both via the hashtag #Invasion63 and the master list of #Invasion63 accounts hosted by Pennsylvania College's official Twitter account.

Tweet along with history.

Because the past will haunt your keyboard this summer, but only if you let it.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Pennsylvania at Chancellorsville, But Headed Back Home

With the anniversary of the battles around Fredericksburg this week, the Civil War world's eyes seem to be turned toward Chancellorsville and the battles there. Almost as a reflex, my mind has gone there too. I've been thinking about Simon Stein Wolf, the Gettysburgian who faced death at Chancellorsville only to find it terribly displayed in the days after. So today another excerpt from my manuscript, to start re-conceptualizing Chancellorsville through the eyes of a Pennsylvania College dropout:

Far to the south of Gettysburg, in the tight thicket of trees and underbrush outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia, First Lieutenant Simon Stein Wolf, his younger brother Private Henry Wolf and the rest of Company A of the 148th Pennsylvania Infantry faced a maelstrom. Surrounded by enemy firing, with smoke billowing from every direction, the regiment fell back across a field north of Chancellorsville, rebels hot on their heels.

Dulce et Decorum? / PD LOC
The 23-year-old Simon Stein Wolf had spent a year at Pennsylvania College in 1860 as a sophomore, studying Cicero and Plato, Conic Sections and Analytical Geometry. But college life had not fit him, and he returned home to Rebersburg toting his books in his hands. Among them was an autograph book, packed with the signatures of the friends he made in that one short year of life in Gettysburg. In the book’s pages Professor Charles F. Schaeffer transcribed a passage from 2nd Timothy in German, which Wolf could have easily picked his way through hailing from deeply Deutsch Centre County. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; the professor wrote, Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time. Sacrifice and the potential for sacrifice was on the lips and minds of everyone in Gettysburg that spring. Fellow student Joseph Potts Blymyer of the class of 1863 penned a simple Latin phrase from Horace’s Odes, a key text for the Sophomore class, “dulce et decorum est propatria mori.” Death for country would soon leave the realm of the poetic and drift into the real world.

The bawdiest of all of the small inscriptions in Wolf’s cherished book was left by Thomas Duncan Renfrew, graduating senior in the class of 1861 from nearby Fayetteville. Quoting a stanza from Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem The Lady of the Lake, Renfrew mused that although, “Our vicar he calls it damnation to sip / The ripe ruddy dew of a woman's dear lip,” that his friend should, “whoop, Jack! kiss Gillian the quicker, / Till she bloom like a rose, and a fig for the vicar!” The passage, a licentious and devilish song, is piped in Scott’s poem by a soldier.

Both Renfrew and Wolf would soon find themselves standing in Scott’s fictitious soldiers’ all-too-real shoes. Each of the young men joined the fight against the rebellion in the fall of 1862. The following May, the two Gettysburgians were desperately fighting at Chancellorsville as Federal forces streamed back toward United States Ford in front of Robert E. Lee’s dominating army. The Army of the Potomac has been crushed and bloodied. Lee took the opportunity to invade Lincoln’s union.

As the smoke of battle subsided and May crept toward June, each man would return to his native Pennsylvania. Thomas Renfrew and the rest of the 126th Pennsylvania Infantry were mustered out of service by the end of the month. The young man went home and became a teacher in Fayetteville. Simon Wolf’s war would continue through the summer, but his younger brothers’ would not. Henry Wolf died on the 28th of May, 1863. Simon accompanied the lifeless body of his brother home to Centre County, but quickly returned to his unit as Lee’s army began moving northward into Maryland and Pennsylvania. War, it seemed, was coming home, both in the guise of painful pine boxes and in living, breathing Confederate armies.