Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Carriage Ride from Home

The Georgetown Pike Bridge, near where
the 87th Pennsylvania bathed in their own
blood. / PD LOC
Elias Sheads Jr. worked in his father's shop. They made wagons and coaches, some of the bedrock laborers in Gettysburg's society. In 1860, when census taker Aaron Sheely walked the streets of the borough counting heads and recording in vivid detail what Gettysburg looked like, Elias lived with his mother and father.

Gathered around their table were his brothers and sister. David and Louisa were a few years older than the 19-year-old Elias. Robert and Jacob were his younger brothers, 16 and 14-years-old, who likely helped out around the shop when they weren't studying.

When the war began, Elias leapt to the call. Literally in war's first moments, immediately after Lincoln put out the call for volunteers, Elias signed his name on a form and marched to Harrisburg to join the troops who would end the rebellion swiftly and decisively.

In 90 days, he was discharged and America was shown this might not be a quick war.

So Elias joined the army again.

While he was gone, most of Elias father's market for carriages had likely dried up. Did the family need that money now? Was it helping make up for the cash that no longer flowed from wealthy, carriage-buying slaveholders in the Shenandoah Valley? Elias, to some extent, was helping to destroy his family's livelihood while he marched in the United States army. The slave wealth of the South paid for the fancy carriages he built in a previous lifetime.

By July of 1864, the 87th Pennsylvania had seen blood. And as rebels again charged toward the border, they were detailed from Petersburg's defenses to head toward Washington City and protect it from the oncoming tide of Early's raid on the Capital.

Gettysburg knew just moments after the fighting stopped that a battle had happened at Frederick, Maryland. But who was there? Were they dead?

Did Mary Sheads frantically search the columns of the Compiler on the 11th or the Adams Sentinel on the 12th, looking for Elias' name?

Or by now had he been gone so long, been threatened so many times in her imagination, that it was a mundane slow finger rolling down those columns? After seeing the suffering of last summer in her own streets, was her search now simply for the inevitable, not the dreaded? Was war normal by this its fourth long, hot summer?

In a field south of Frederick, Elias Sheads Jr. suffered the inevitable. The 87th was standing astride the Thomas Farm, Georgians charging headlong into their lines. A fragment of shell sailed through the air and buried itself into Elias' shins. Both his feet were shattered, blown to pieces, sheared clean off.

Elias Sheads Jr.'s final trip home
ended here. / Find-A-Grave
Elias Sheads Jr. died a short carriage ride from home.

He had worked wood with his father, driven pins and nails, laid down leaf springs and set axles. He had built the wagons which easily rolled between Gettysburg and Frederick before this cruel war. He used to make the world smaller, the distances shorter. He and his father transformed a few days' walk into a few hours' ride. If only he could make that ride, leap into a carriage and just go home.

But he couldn't. Instead, he lay, bloody stumps where his feet used to hold him up as he worked. Just a stone's throw from his father and mother, from David and Louisa and Robert. A stone's throw from safety at home.

His body made that one last trip his conscious mind never could. Elias Sheads Jr. was buried atop Cemetery Hill in Evergreen Cemetery.

As soft earth was moved in Gettysburg, somewhere in the trenches around Petersburg, Elias' little brother Jacob stood in the ranks. The 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry, lately transformed into infantry, was moving back and forth along the line, preparing for fight after fight. Jacob, who went by James, was nearly 18-years-old.

Another of Mary Sheads' boys was just waiting for the inevitable.

Friday, July 4, 2014

One Year On: A Glorious Frightening Fourth

You can almost see the picnic
in the shade trees if you
wander Culp's Hill long
enough. / PD LOC
When in the Course of human events...

In the mottled shade of Culp's Hill's trees, Dr. Charles Horner read the words of the Declaration of Independence clear and loud. A year earlier, rebel troops surged past his home on Chambersburg Street chasing soldiers flying the flag of the United States crafted by that document. Cannon fire reverberated off of the walls of his home. And this morning, a year on, cannon fire again echoed off his walls. But today it was a salute fired atop Cemetery Hill. America was preserved.

We hold these truths to be self-evident...

In the shade of Culp's Hill, John L. Schick likely looked over the broad table set with a holiday feast with pride. A year earlier, he and his family emerged from their home to find disaster at every turn. The little they had hidden from the oncoming rebels under the floorboards of their garden shed, two barrels of flour, became food for more than just him, his wife and children. Dozens of soldiers found succor at his table, their very lives perhaps preserved by that makeshift meal. Now, a year on, there was plenty to be had on Culp's Hill for a celebration. The Nation was preserved.

...that all men are created equal...

Robert G. Harper, the Adams Sentinel's editor, was undoubtedly standing in the crowd. Parts of tomorrow's newspaper were already in the racks, ready to be printed. The article describing today's event was still unwritten. But last Thursday's news, to be printed on the 5th, was no doubt front and center in his mind as he listened to the speeches. The Senate of the United States had repealed the Fugitive Slave Law. A year earlier, the idea of slavery ending was still new. But now, a year on, it was all too real. Pennsylvania's Senators, one from each party, might have voted against the proposition, but bit by bit freedom was still being preserved.

...that they are endowed by their Creator...

Henry Louis Baugher had just finished his benediction as Dr. Horner began narrating the 88-year-old sacred text. Baugher was used to investigating sacred texts much older, much brittler than that promise of freedom. A year earlier, eighteen men suffered in the halls and rooms of his home. Those Federal soldiers wore the same blue uniform as his son Nesbitt had, who was sacrificed on the altar of freedom in 1862. Prayer and careful attention saved those men. And now, a year on, Baugher's own students were spreading throughout the South doing that same good work with the United States Christian Commission. Souls and lives, in spite of the horror of war, were still being preserved.

...with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty
and the pursuit of Happiness.

Dr. John R. Warner stood in front of the crowd, delivering a well-worn oration on the battle at Gettysburg. The borough had produced a cottage industry of battlefield orators, and Warner's experience as Gettysburg's Presbyterian Minister likely helped with the creation of a riveting eulogy to the battle's dead. A year earlier, the battle visited doom on the Reverend's doorstep. Warner's wife Jennie fell ill in the months after the battle, as did many other local citizens of the war torn landscape, with Typhoid Fever. Her fever rose, she lay in bed delirious. And then, in late September, Jennie died. Now, a year on, that grief was still raw for Dr. Warner, as it was for the families of thousands of dead men who lay buried over the hill. But life and the pursuit of whatever happiness life might give a grieving widower still needed to persevere.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Along the road in Petersburg (recently renamed York Springs), just over the northern border of Adams County, Governor Andrew Curtin rushed off a note to Send to David Wills. "You notice by the enclosed despatch," Wills read to the crowd on Culp's Hill, "that I must return to Harrisburg."

There might not be any reason to worry. The Governor was just being cautious. Rebel forces had been sighted on the Commonwealth's southern border. But it also could mean another invasion, another assault, another town becoming the blighted sorrow-filled land that Gettysburg found itself a year earlier.

"I regret that I must return without reaching Gettysburg," Wills continued reading, "as I looked forward to the celebration of the Anniversary of our Independence on the Field of Battle as an event of life."

The crowd was getting nervous. "After the dinner," Robert Harper recounted in the next day's paper, "the crowd formed into groups throughout the woods, and spent the rest of the day socially." But the topic of conversation was anything but congenial. Would Pennsylvanians need to defend their lives again? Hide away their fortunes once again? Have their honor and nerve tested yet again?

"Nothing occurred to mar the pleasures of the celebration," Harper closed, "but much anxiety was manifested on account of the rumors of the approach of the Rebels." One year on, war's destruction still loomed like a spectre in Gettysburg's imagination, ready to pounce yet again. Fear still reigned in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

One Year On: New Gettysburgians

How many new citizens were there in
Gettysburg who looked just like these
men and women, drinking in freedom
for their first July 4th. / PD LOC
It's been one year since freedom was preserved on a black man's farm.

It's been one year since the rebel charge of men from North Carolina and Virginia crashed against Abraham Brien's stone wall and were repelled, since men from South Carolina and Maryland found their best laid plans for independence dashed upon the rocks of Emancipation and American Liberty. And in the intervening year, many of Gettysburg's black citizens, who had fled from rebel capture, have slowly returned.

Now it is the time in 1864 to celebrate that moment of victory, to celebrate American freedom. But Gettysburg's black population has changed as that celebrating began 150 years ago.

New faces milled in the street. Were Greenburg Madison or Jesse Nelson or William Hill preparing for their first July 4th in freedom? Each was a black refugee from the south. Madison and Hill hailed from Virginia, Nelson from Maryland. They are names in an 1864 draft register, exempt from compulsory service because the war would decide who they were. But if you asked any of them, would they deny being men? Would they deny being citizens?

James Royer was somewhere in Gettysburg too. He was 25 years old, working at a local restaurant or tavern as a waiter. In a previous lifetime, Royer had been a slave in Virginia. Now he was contraband in Gettysburg, his freedom hanging in the balance of the war. The gears were grinding slowly against slavery; the Senate was working to once and for all free Royer from fear. This year would be a true Independence Day for the young man.

William Wilson was a bit older. The 38-year-old man was born into slavery in South Carolina. He was married. And now he was a free man in the town where freedom had been defended, defined and ensured. Michael Fender was just like Wilson. He was a year younger, a lowly laborer, a runaway from slavery and a newly free citizen of Gettysburg. Contraband or not, July 4th would feel sweet this side of the Mason-Dixon line.

America is a promise. It's a promise penned by a secretive cabal of men in a hot, sticky room in Philadelphia in 1776. It's a promise proclaimed on the steps of that building a couple days later.

And after that promise was penned, John Adams, a member of that cabal declared that that promise would, "be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America." Adams believed, "that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty."

But it shouldn't just be a staid celebration. "It ought to be solemnized," he wrote his wife jubilantly, "with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."

If ever there were men who had reason to heed John Adams' advice, who should solemnize thorough tumult and exhalation, they were Madison, Nelson, Hill, Royer and Wilson. Freedom was real for perhaps the first time, one year on.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

One Year On: Preparing a Somber Holiday

Lieutenant Colonel James Alonzo Stahle,
whose brother managed Gettysburg's fiercely
Democratic Compiler, sometime before March 1864.
Newspapers are built by bits and pieces. Type is set all throughout the week, long before the paper in Gettysburg goes to press. July's first edition in 1864 was cobbled together in the last few days of June and the first few days of July. Dropping sorts into the frames must have been agonizing work. It was labor intensive, requiring the meticulous placing of each letter and every space into the plate for every single word.

But laying out the paper in those first few hot days in July must have been agony for reasons far beyond the raw labor. The words themselves were distressing.

In the neat columns of type sat a letter. Henry Stahle, the Gettysburg Compiler's editor had received it a few days before. Though it was signed simply, "Zoo-zoo," it was likely from Stahle's own brother, James.

Lieutenant Colonel James Alonzo Stahle fought with the 87th Pennsylvania. When war broke out in 1861, James Stahle organized a local milita unit, York's own version of the "Ellsworth Zouaves." By 1864, he had risen to the upper eschelons of the 87th, commanding men mostly from York and Adams County.

Zoo-zoo, that nom-de-plume of the prolific correspondent to the Gettysburg Compiler was an obvious nod to the flamboyant Zouaves. And Editor Henry J. Stahle reprinted the neatly set letters prolifically.

But dropping these letters into the frame, laying out these sorts, must have been harrowing for a loving brother. Zoo-zoo's letter in the July 4th edition was full of such palpable grief.

"The last rays of the sun are still glimmering up the evening sky," Zoo-zoo wrote, "faintly throwing their fading light upon the tall pines that skirt the borders of these swamps, whose dirty, sluggish waters find an outlet in the ever memorable Chickahominy." The cratered moonscape of Cold Harbor stretched before his eyes. "Looking toward the west, and strong strong earth-works, trenches and bomb proofs are all that meet the eye," he wrote. But turn around and the landscape changed. It was scattered with graves, the final resting places of, "many who yesterday were among the busy thousands that were battling for their common country."

Zoo-zoo knew that mothers across America, in Ohio and Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont were mourning. And he was mourning too.

"Among the hundreds of little boards that mark the simple graves, my eye rests on one that calls back to memory the face of one who but a few days ago was among us, in the full enjoyment of vigorous health and strength." That tiny board read, "Isaac Sheads."

Sheads joined Stahle's 87th Pennsylvania in September of 1861, after it was obvious this spat might last for not months but years. But most of the 87th's war was in garrison duty in Western Virginia, dancing around Harpers Ferry and Winchester for the better part of two years. It wasn't until 1864 that they began seeing war's cruelty in spades.

Sheads survived the raging fires of the Wilderness. Sheads watched as the other regiments from his Corps charged forward under Emory Upton in an awkward and new formation, forever changing warfare at Spotsylvania. War was becoming very real and very raw as 1864 crept on.

Then, at Cold Harbor, Isaac Sheads' war ended.

"Isaac Sheads was but an acquaintance of few years' standing," Zoo-zoo wrote to his brother the newspaper editor, "yet in this time he so endeared himself to many of us that an unbidden tear will spring up from the heart at the thought that he is no more with us." As Stahle and his pressmen transcribed the letter into lead type did they need to decipher ink through tear stains on that sheet of paper? What had this private, this invisible man in the ranks, done to endear himself to an entire regiment, to its Lieutenant Colonel?

Isaac Sheads avoided the fate of many from the
Cold Harbor battlefield. He has a named grave,
and was eventually reinterred in Gettysburg's
Evergreen Cemetery
. / PD LOC
"Brave and suffering hearts have been passing on stretchers since the sun rose this morning, and even now the battle goes on," Zoo-zoo wrote to his brother and the citizens of Gettysburg, "But amid all the noise and din of battle I pause to write this article, in memory of one who was dearer to me than all the rest."

Henry Stahle needed to keep going, needed to build this week's paper. But his brother's words must have at least given him pause, made him yearn to comfort his flesh and blood. It would have made any man's brother pause.

"Birds will warble their sweet matin songs," Zoo-zoo imagined amid the din of battle, "over no braver man than Isaac Sheads." Even in a blasted hellscape like Cold Harbor, as the final shots of a battle found their mark, a soldier's eyes could imagine a new dawn through bitter tears.

And as all of Gettysburg unfolded their newspapers on the glorious Fourth of July in 1864, everyone saw those tears and knew the costs of this cruel war.

The Fourth might be a memory of victory from last year, but war still raged on just shy of two hundred miles south to disastrous and heartrending ends one year on.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

One Year On: Obliterated By Degrees

Political Battlefield in July 1863;
Political Battlefield in June 1864. / PD LOC
The battle anniversary loomed in the waning days of June. And Gettysburg was preparing. Aside from the feasting in the Spangler Meadow on the 4th, the holiday would undoubtedly see tourists swarming the fields and hills where just a few dozen weeks before time had stood still and Death held a grand carnival.

But the battlefield they were visiting was already shifting and changing. The Soldiers' National Cemetery had hardly been filled to the brim and yet the grounds were already beginning to suffer from the elements and continual floods of curious Americans.

One visitor, as the anniversary came closer, hailed from California. Glancing at the neat rows of graves, the visitor noticed, the Gettysburg Compiler explained, that, "the names on the headboards of the soldiers from Indiana were becoming obliterated, they only having been marked in pencil."

Those men had been placed there weeks before, lovingly removed from graves scattered around the battlefield by Basil Biggs and his work crews of local Black laborers. But nature was doing her best to erase the scars of the battle from her landscape. Undoubtedly, in David Wills' law office these men from Indiana had already been catalogued, enshrined and recorded in Samuel Weaver's neat and scrupulous handwriting.

But their public memory, their stones and names, were evaporating. The Californian, out of deep pride in his Nation, "at once ordered new headboards, on which the names have been painted in a neat and durable manner." For a short row of men from Indiana, a commanding gaze of Cemetery Hill would be eternal.

But while soldiers began dominating the landscape of that low crest, other men were losing their grip on the promontory. Indeed, precisely because of those men from Indiana, because of the cemetery where they rest forever, David McConaughy saw the world tilting below his feet.

The local moderate Republican had seen his name atop the roster of officers of the Evergreen Cemetery Association since the first graves sprung up atop Cemetery Hill. He had commanded that cemetery, shepherded it to become the local burying ground for the most prominent and noteworthy local citizens. Doing so meant martialling political might and building a strong roster of local political enemies along the way.

But his latest harebrained scheme had begun his slow decline. Just after the battle, McConaughy's near-single-handed endeavour to build a battlefield park, centered around Evergreen Cemetery and a new soldiers' cemetery as its chief tourist attraction, had absorbed nearly every waking moment. McConaughy had spent his own money to enlarge the cemetery boundaries, gobbling up every adjacent tract of land in the final days of July 1863.

The obsession was too much, and the local citizens took keen note. While McConaughy feuded with David Wills over who would found a cemetery for the Federal dead, the grounds of the Evergreen Cemetery went to wrack and ruin. Bills went unpaid. Mconaughy, the Democratic Gettysburg Compiler almost gleefully mused, "receives all the monies coming in from the sale of lots, &c., and pays out (after he has sufficiently worried creditors with delays) on his own orders." The once beautiful rural cemetery was in shambles, and not simply for want of maintenance. "Not only have those beautiful grounds suffered by neglect, but the credit of the Cemetery company has been seriously impaired by the shameless mis mangagement of its financial affairs—in plainer terms, by McConaughy having charge of the funds."

Armies upend the natural social order,
and their impacts linger all too long / PD LOC
Henry J. Stahle, the Democratic powerhouse editor of the Compiler wasn't the only voice crying for blood. Letters echoing the request for McConaughy's head on a platter peppered his newspaper columns. "And I may say in this connection as an evidence of the arbitrary management of those having control, that in these ten years," one correspondent wrote accusatorially, "during which the revenue must necessarily have been large, not one dollar has passed into the hands of the Treasurer? Where is the money? What use has been made of it? The lot-holders wish to know."

McConaughy's hold on his seat as the Evergreen Cemetery's board was obliterated, just as nature had obliterated the names of a few men from Indiana. He lost his post running the crown jewel of Cemetery Hill.

But just below the call from blood in Stahle's paper, another notice ran. McConaughy would be serving as secretary on the board of in his newly crafted Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association. "McConaughy," Stahle mused, "is too heavy a weight for any enterprise to carry in these parts, be it ever so deserving." And Stahle had every reason for his reticence; McConaughy had hand-picked President Joseph R. Ingersoll for the top slot in the GBMA a month before the elections were ever held. Perhaps McConaughy was growing smarter, installing puppet regimes instead of drawing targets on his own back.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

One Year On: June 28th

A year ago, rebels swarmed the street. Now they don't. A year ago, the town was on edge. Now it's not. A year ago, time stood still. Now it rushes on.

"The arrangements are in process of completion," the Adams Sentinel trumpeted, "for a handsome celebration at Culp's Hill." The town was organizing a grand picnic. The moment wasn't simply for the people of the borough so recently made famous by fate and bad luck. "There will be many strangers here," the newspaper's tight print reminded Gettysburgians, "and we hope that every one of our citizens will have a pride in sending them away pleased with our town and its surroundings, as they did on the 19th November."

Shopkeeper John L. Schick was pooling the resources for the meal. A year ago, he had been staring at the empty shelves of his store in the waning days of June; any stock of value had been sent toward Carlisle, safely out of rebel hands. But this year, June was different. His store was filling up with donations from around the borough, just like it had filled up with donations from around the nation when the United States Christian Commission used it as a storehouse.

Somewhere else in town, a bevy of local Republicans were making plans for celebration on the battlefield. They promised pomp and circumstance. The Governor himself (undoubtedly helped along by the party affiliation of the organizing committee) would be speaking. "The ceremonies are expected to be," the committee announced, "of a most interesting and imposing character."

The nation too was slightly different since last year. Adjacent to the Sentinel's notice of the Governor's planned attendance was a short article on Maryland's new constitution. The southerly neighbor was finally catching up with the Keystone state, who had begun the process of destroying slavery in 1780 and finally placed it firmly into its well-deserved grave in 1847. The new constitution would read: "Hereafter, in this State, there shall be neither Slavery nor involuntary servitude, except in punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted; and all persons held to labor, as slaves, are hereby declared free."

Though slavery might linger in Virginia as long as war held out, Adams County was now assured that by year's end, she would no longer be the frontline of the ideological war over human freedom.

The prospect of what freeing the slaves might mean was shifting too. "I cannot resist the temptation to inform you of the bravery of the colored troops in this department," a soldier in the 2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery reported in the folds of the Sentinel. "Yesterday they were thoroughly tested, and the result was the capture of seven forts, seventeen pieces of artillery, and several hundred prisoners." They were brave and true, the type of hearty stock worthy of the title 'citizen.' And every rumor against the fitness of these black men to have that honorific, to be known as men, was false. "As to the report heretofore of them breaking and running from the enemy, I believe it to be a very great mistake, for I saw last evening that they were more desperate than any body of men put in action during this war."

A year before, as June 28th dawned, Gettysburg was still catching its breath from one rebel invasion. It was still worried about another which might come. But today, the world was different at its very core.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Slave Revolt at Battery Wagner

What drove these men to fight in
that sand fort in 1863? / PD LOC
The assault on Battery Wagner: we so often look at that tense moment on a beach in South Carolina from the eyes of the men of the 54th Massachusetts. They hailed from all over the United States. Some were from Pennsylvania, Massachusets, Connecticut - born free and willing to risk it all for the freedom of others. Some were from the American South, former chattel property who had seized their freedom of their own accord.

We rarely hop across that sandy embankment and try to get inside the minds of the men defending the works of Battery Wagner against assault on July 18th, 1863. Most of the infantrymen huddled in those sandy dunes, outnumbered by looming Federal forces, were sons of North Carolina.

Imagine sitting with those men, glancing over the battlements at the waves of companies of the 54th Massachusetts forming on the beach, preparing to charge. What is that image?

The 31st and 51st North Carolina hailed from all over low country North Carolina, a smattering of men from this county or that county making up each regiment. If you sat next to some men from Company A of the 51st North Carolina, who were from New Hanover County around Wilmington, the sight likely was a worst nightmare. Those men grew up in a county where 48% of the population was enslaved. When half the county are black men, women and children held in bond through force, a crowd of black men with guns is likely the boogeyman, the childhood fear lurking out behind the house or down the street.

Wander down to Company B or C, whose men were a melange of soldiers from Duplin and Sampson counties likely would have had the same fears. In both Duplin and Sampson Counties, the slaves nearly equaled the free white population. They were an army of disgruntled property, a few abolitionist tracts or a militant Nat Turner-type away from descending on the slave holders and their white friends.

Further down the parapet, the men of the 31st North Carolina glanced at those swarming black soldiers, likely with many of the same thoughts and fears. Their Lieutenant Colonel Edward R. Liles was barely in his 30s. When he joined the army and marched away from Wadesboro, North Carolina, he left behind his wife Helen and daughters Lillian, Inez and Laura. Joseph Wilson lived there with the family as well; his job was likely watching over their 15 slaves - 4 men and 11 women, ranging in age from 50 to 1 year old.

Company D's men were no doubt turning to Captain Ruffin L. Bryant for inspiration and encouragement. The company commander was in his mid-thirties. His wife and three children were still home in Wake County. Whether his one slave, a 23 year old man, was still there isn't clear. Certainly glancing over the sand dune and seeing row after row of 23 year old black men, carrying guns and wearing the blue uniform of the United States government must have looked like all of slavery's sins returning with a vengeance. Somewhere nearby, James E. Todd was looking after his men in Company H. At home near Raleigh his father was still looking after the family's five slaves.

Company G's commander Julian Picot likely glanced at those massing troops and flinched. At home, when the war broke out, he owned seven human beings as property who looked like those men. They were just a handful of his 28 slaves in Hertford County, with still more children and women milling around his no doubt bustling home. And now, his property was returning violence against the soul with violence against the body.

Commanding the fort, looking out on his men and worrying about the odds stacked against him was Brigadier General William B. Taliaferro. The nephew of Secretary of War Seddon, Taliaferro was a distinguished Virginia statesman and veteran of the War with Mexico. He had attended both William and Mary College and Harvard University, but it didn't take an ivy league degree to work out the calculus of the coming battle. 5,000 men and 6 ironclad warships loomed beyond his walls.

Does violence beget violence? / PD LOC
And some of those men were former slaves. Were any escaped from Taliaferro's Gloucester County, Virginia plantations? Certainly some of those men outside the fort's walls looked like the men who he left behind in 1861. There were 17 young men on his plantation in Virginia of the prime military age. And likely every one of them had more than enough reasons to enlist in the United States army and win freedom for four million.

The Battle of Battery Wagner was not simply a battle in a simple civil war. It was, in many real and even more imagined ways, a kind of slave revolt. And for Taliaferro, slave rebellion was something he knew how to deal with well; the Brgiadier General had, just a handful of years before, commanded the militia in Harpers Ferry in the wake of John Brown's Raid.

Fear can be a powerful force in battle. And when the USCT were martialed in battle, the very color of their skin could only serve as a potent multiplier for that fear.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Broken Record. Broken Record. Broken Record.

Definitely not a face driven by
facts alone, eh? / PD LOC
Lately I've felt like a broken record.

I've been helping a friend workshop some posts for an upcoming anniversary (surprisingly for me, not a Civil War event but a deviation into the land of the Revolutionary War). And again and again, I find myself repeating some variation on a single nugget of interpretive wisdom. This is no fault of my colleague. I am often a broken record.

So what has my advice been? It's simple, really. My friend has been following the historian's impulse, trying to share a complete story. She's been trying to include vivid detail, lush explanation, full proper names of British Generals and American Privates alike. It's such a natural impulse, too. You've gone to such amazing lengths to gather knowledge, to amass expertise, to become a bonafide know-it-all on a subject, you just need to spout that knowledge like a perverse history fountain. When you cram too much stuff into your head, of course you want to let everyone know everything everyday.

But the fire hose is the cardinal sin of interpretation, the first pitfall which all interpreters are warned against. Interpredata, as David Larsen coined the concept, is not interpretation. It's simply chaining together fact after fact.

So what to do then? If you can't tell a complete story, what could you do?

My broken record chimes in: tell a meaningful story.

Those two aims, telling the whole story and telling a meaningful story, are so often mutually exclusive. The completist impulse leads towards overloading the visitor, overburdening them with facts, figures, names, places and dates. Overloading them with precisely why they hated High School history in their teens: lists.

But if you unlink the daisy chains of dates and the flow of events, if you pluck out small occurrences, tiny vignettes, little moments which can stand in for the whole, which typify the larger narrative, then you stand to begin helping visitors forge connections.

I've written before about Anton Checkov and his potent rule of narrative. And so you might see this moment as another leap into that same old groove of the record. Eliminating the superfluous helps drive more keenly toward meaning and away from interpredata.

But this is more than eliminating the useless facts and unfired guns. It's about even eliminating the semi-useful facts that might not have all too much bearing on the interpretive moment. Does a visitor need to know the unit a man served in? Maybe not. Do they need to know the Corps or name of the army his unit served in? That might not even have bearing.

Anyone who speaks to me for more than a few minutes about interpretation likely hears another of my favorite phrases, another broken record: good history is just true fiction.

I'm not advocating making things up. What I mean is that interpreters need to seek out stories and moments with the same potential impact as fiction. Using the tools of fiction, the construction of a narrative driven by suspense, drama, irony of situation and, above all else, vibrant characters.

In most good fiction, things don't just happen, people do them. But we so often describe an army's actions in a largely detached and massive way. Armies don't march though. Men march. Armies don't fight. Men fight. Armies don't die. Men die.

When I mention your favorite novel you probably don't remember scenes and actions as much as remember the vibrant characters who inhabit those scenes and make those actions happen. You likely remember who they are, how they think and how they bend when put under stress. And isn't that really a route to relevance moreso than intricate detail of 18th century combat's small actions? In the end (another broken record here), today's visitors will never need to command an army of a couple thousand farm boys from Connecticut and Massachusetts as they wield muzzle-loading smooth-bore French flint lock muskets against long neat lines of enemy force. Time doesn't move backwards; if it did, historians would be quickly out of a job.

But today's visitors can find inspiration in the thoughts of the people of the past. They'll likely be under stress, and can draw inspiration from how the people of the past bent or broke under immense stressors. If the interpreter builds real people, crafts real character and lets audiences get to know them personally, today's people might begin to care.

Remember, success in interpretation is not defined by, "did I include every last little detail?" Instead, it's typified by the question, "did they find a reason to care?" Education, if ever a goal of interpretation, is always a secondary impact rather than a primary motivation. Helping visitors find their own personal meanings in a landscape, to find a reason to love a place, to provoke them viscerally and emotionally within a landscape is the aim of interpretation.

So breathe. Just keep reminding yourself that you don't have to tell the whole story, you just have to tell a meaningful story. Everything's going to be fine.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Gettysburg's Tragedy in Virginia

The 138th's VI Corps fighting
through the Wilderness
Jacob and John Kitzmiller were brothers-in-arms, fighting through the thickets of Virginia with the 138th Pennsylvania. And spring of 1864 was one hell of a slog.

The two boys were the youngest members of their family. When the war erupted, their mother and father, Samuel and Jane, lived alongside their daughter Catharine. Jacob was an apprentice blacksmith in B.G. Holabaugh's shop. John still lived at home with his parents.

August of 1862, the brothers joined the army alongside dozens of other men from Adams County. Company B of the 138th was chock full of names which still bedeck Adams County's mailboxes and backroads.

But while battle raged at home in July of 1863, while rebel bullets threatened mother, father and sister, the Kitzmiller boys found themselves guarding quartermaster stores en route to Washington alongside the Potomac. While men proved their mettle in the streets where the Kitzmillers grew up, they were guarding crates of hardtack and shelter halves.

But the two brothers eventually found the war. The 138th Pennsylvania bounced around the Army of the Potomac, finally landing in the 6th Corps in time for the battle in the Wilderness in 1864.

The men from Adams County charged through a tight bramble just north of Saunder's Field, while the forest roiled with smoke and fire in the chaotic battle. And somewhere in the fray, the two Kitzmillers stood in line of battle.

Were Jacob and John near each other? Did they stand shoulder to shoulder, to brothers on an adventure. The blacksmith Jacob and his little brother John were somewhere in that hellish scene, the scent of brimstone from charred gunpowder curling through their nostrils.

Then Jacob felt a sharp pain in his strong left arm. That muscle which had steadied hot iron against an anvil, learning the trade of the noble blacksmith, dangled limp and shattered. Tragedy had struck.

Jacob lost his arm after being dragged to a field hospital. His war was over. But so was his life as he had imagined it.

And John fought on alongside the Bieseckers and McCrearys and Deardorffs. His brother was no longer there. Was it harder? Where did he find the strength to keep on marching forward? War had stolen his brother's arm. And here John stood, still on the front line.

He didn't have to fear for long.

Almost as an afterthought, in the Compiler in the first few weeks of June, the notice ran. "A letter just received from Lieut. Earnshaw, of Co. B, 138th Reg., states the casualties in the company as follows: - Killed, John Kitzmiller."

Just two years earlier, Kitzmiller's death might have warranted a full column of text, a eulogy for a young man destroyed in his prime. It might have called for fanfare, for pomp and circumstance. But reality had struck Gettysburg with a vengeance. For a town which had witnessed the deaths of 10,000 men, who had watched as three times that many others limped or rolled through their streets, what was one more lifeless form to be added to the grotesque pile?

But the two boys weren't just lifeless forms. They were a son shattered and a son killed. For the Kitzmiller family in Gettysburg, 1863 may have been tough. But 1864 was an absolute tragedy. One insignificant name in a newspaper, hearing your son has lost his left arm, is enough to shatter a mother's heart, leave a father crippled with grief. Worrying over that young man, now missing his trade and writhing in pain in a Washington City hospital must be sheer agony for a mother. And agony becomes inconsolable when a second name, dropped nonchalantly by a typesetter in a newspaper office on Baltimore Street, reaches the Kitzmillers' eyes.

Gettysburg might have been deadened to tragedy, but that didn't stop tragedy from squeezing its way through the tough exterior to shatter heart after heart in 1864.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Pride Overcometh

Sorry, there is nothing on earth that screams "America"
louder than Ben Franklin and Mark Twain having
a discussion on the torch of the Statue of Liberty
at daybreak.
A couple weeks ago I got the chance to wave to Ben Franklin and Mark Twain. They waved back from the stage as the curtain dropped.

Jess leaned in to me. "I didn't realize that this is what history is to you," she said, with a bit of derision in her voice.

I understand my wife's derision. Disney World is not the first place that comes to mind when most people think of powerful and meaningful history. But for me, it is where I began to find the magic in history.

I say magic because that's what history is. History is that moment you can wave to Benjamin Franklin and he waves back. It's that moment you can watch Mark Twain softly knock ashes off of his cigar.

When I was a kid, that was embedded in my psyche as the ultimate expression of what history can do. And it's fundamentally what I try to do through my study and interpretation of history. I don't build animatronic figures or construct massive theme parks. But I do try to breathe life into the past for fleeting moments. Those moments are too often so fleeting, tiny whiffs of what the past might have been like. But when the stutter of the authentic experience, the reality of yesterday, seeps through, it's magic. Like waving to Ben and Mark.

And it's not all antiseptic. Ben and Mark, their pneumatic actuators wheezing as they loll in a rocking chair or walk into Jefferson's loft, have a few tricks up their sleeves for the interpreter. The American Adventure raises some very potent moments of introspection for the American interpreter.

At an early moment in the show, Mark Twain quips to Franklin, "Well, listen to the proud elder statesman."

And Franklin replies with, as you'd expect, an apropos aphorism: "Mr. Twain, pride is one of our national passions. Even those who overcome it, are proud of their humility."

My gears have been turning since I heard that line again. I must have heard that line in that very theatre at least a half-dozen times in my life, at different stages and ages. But it still gets me. The complexity of that moment in the script, when an imagineer chose those words for that pseudo-Franklin, is amazingly powerful to me.

Americans are proud. It is almost the single most powerful defining element of our national character. Americans are a proud people.

But what does pride mean? And what does pride do? Can it poison the story, tilt it? Does pride cause us to trivialize history?

Maybe. Perhaps our pride clouds our collective perceptions of the past. Americans have good ideas, make good decisions, craft good inventions. Might our pride make us less likely to investigate the ideas of our forebears? Might pride make us less likely to doubt the wisdom of the decisions our ancestors made? Might that pride mean we embrace outdated innovation simply because it's our own ingenuity? Does pride mean we are inherently biased from the start?

It has always boggled my mind that many of the same Americans who embrace and display the Confederate flag proudly and (sometimes) defiantly also underline their stalwart patriotism and pride in the Stars and Stripes. Perhaps even love of the Confederate Flag, a symbol of the very antithesis of the United States, is borne of American pride. We are proud of the decisions of Americans. And it was, afterall, an American decision to attempt to dismantle America itself.

The Confederate flag argument is a facile one, I know, but it points to the large bias we don't always address. Can Americans ever interpret America, or is exceptionalism always going to haunt our forays into meaning-making because it is embedded in our cultural DNA. Interpretation is about multiple perspectives playing off of one another. But when you have a horse in the race, can you really be an honest broker of all of those opinions?

Denying women the right to vote:
another of the sins of the past we must
rededicate ourselves as too good to repeat.
But maybe there is hope. Remember bionic-Franklin's Americans who are, "proud of their humility." What if we can harness our belief in exceptionalism and use it as our very window of investigation?

Ultimately, there is a major difference between these two types of pride. One, the facile pride of blind flag waving, is simply asserting that America is so good, we could never have made a mistake.

But imagine churning the pride into something else. Imagine a pride that says to each American, in their heat, that America is so good that we must, as a society, acknowledge, publicize and atone for every moment we've made mistakes in the past. We can shift pride from a blind reaction to a powerful moment for healing and adventuring into a better future.

It's the reason we should never forget crimes like American slavery or Indian removals. Each generation must relive those sins, from now until eternity, precisely because we should be a better nation than that. We should strive to be better than that. We should be proud of a nation that can overcome yesterday's sins today, and avoid them tomorrow.

Afterall, we aren't making a nation for today. America is the promise of tomorrow. Or as Ben says perched atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty as the sun rises in the east:

"I may have invented these bifocals I'm wearing, but I can assure they are not rose-colored.
Mr. Twain, the golden age never was the present age, but with human liberty we can fulfill the promise and meaning of America. To everyone a chance, believed Thomas Wolfe, to all people regardless of their birth, a right to live, to work, to be themselves, and to become whatever their visions can combine to make them. This is the promise of America!"

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Name Calling: It's What's Not There That Matters

Perhaps Lincoln left behind some
sour grapes at the Wills House in 1863.
The article in the Adams Sentinel May 17th, 1863 was innocent enough.

David McConaughy, prominent local lawyer, moderate Republican and progenitor of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association was passing along a simple request. "I am very anxious to have a collection of trophies and interesting relics from the Battle-field of Gettysburg," Margaretta Meade wrote to McConaughy. The famed General's wife was appealing to Gettysburg to create one of the central attractions for the Great Central Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia that summer.

"I am sure," Meade continued, "that you will agree with me in thinking that a collection, coming from a place, which will always be memorable in the history of our country, will be an object of great interest and curiosity."

And Gettysburg responded.

McConaughy traveled the town. Reading his list of signatories in order is like walking Gettysburg's streets door to door. First, McConaughy climbed Seminary Ridge and had Dr. Schmucker and Dr. Krauth at the Lutheran Seminary. Then he returned to the center of town, rounding the Diamond and garnering support from aging tavern owner John H. McClellan, shopkeepers John L. Schick and George Arnold along with newspaper editor John T. McIlhenny. Down Baltimore Street, McConaughy met the Fahnestock Brothers. Ricocheting across the town, the journey ended on the campus of Pennsylvania College, where professors Huber, Muhlenberg, Stoever and Jacobs signed their names.

Through that journey across the borough, gathering the names of nearly every upstanding moderate and Republican town leader, one name was conspicuously missing: David Wills.

A missing name might not seem earth shattering at first. But there might be more to the omission than simply missing Will's door, forgetting a street in town. McConaughy after all lifted the heavy knocker on Joel B. Danner's front door, spitting distance from Wills' home and office.

The date of Margaretta Meade's request and McConaughy's response shed a bit more light on the question. The wife of the great hero General of Gettysburg wrote McConaughy on April 1st; the local lawyer replied with his attached list of supporters almost immediately. But the note wasn't published in the Sentinel until May 17th.

The letters appeared May 17th, long after the call and long after shells need be collected. But it did appear just 7 days after the Adams Sentinel briefly announced that, "Persons having articles for the 'Great Sanitary Fair,'" could drop their wares and goods at, "the general depository for the county." And that depository just so happened to be, "at the house of David Wills, in the Borough of Gettysburg."

McConaughy would not be outdone. Wills had his laureled Cemetery; McConaughy had his prestigious Memorial Association.

And if David Wills' wife was grasping for the honor of coordinating the county's support of the war effort, McConaughy would at least leave a breadcrumb trail of evidence that he too deserved some of the accolades and credit.

Even a simple request for help, a fundraiser to support the troops, can get perverted by petty local politics.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


My kin.
I study the Civil War because of my mother. It's a simple truth.

My Mom, more than anyone else in my life, taught me to be the historian that I am. She is present in so much of what I do when I process the past.

I lovingly refer to her as my idiot-filter. She was a theology major in her undergraduate training, studying comparative religions. I've never read her thesis, I know it's in a cupboard at my parents' house, but I vaguely remember that it was centered around comparing Christ with the other messianic figures of his era. She looked at the world as a game of measures, sizing up one thing and another, looking for the moving parts, seeking the humanity in what we call the divine.

She taught me to look for people, not heroes. She taught me to look for people, not villains. She kindled in me the light of that quest for finding the humanity if the past.

It started in elementary school. She signed us up for an afterschool activity, they called them clusters, about genealogy. Like most genealogy primers, it was taught by a dedicated local amateur. We dabbled. We played. We learned about microfilm and the Mormon Church, about tracing who was who when, and what they did with their lives. We sought out ancient obituaries for lists of survivors, fathers, mothers and places of birth. We combed for evidence.

But the best piece of evidence was right under our noses the whole time. There is a family bible, nestled on a shelf in their house as well, with the classic inscriptions penned neatly in the cover. The words caught both of us: "William Henry Francis - Killed at Gettysburg, 2 July 1863."

It's amazing what that one word, "Gettysburg," can do to the heart of an American fourth grader whose mother is a not-so-closeted Lincoln devotee. A sliced out signature, bought by my parents on some long ago trip to that sainted town, reading, "A. Lincoln," hangs on their wall. Lincoln, and with him a handful of words he spoke in that Pennsylvania town, loomed large in my upbringing.

When I was a baby, my Mom didn't know any lullabies. She sang me to sleep with the piece of classical music she loved most: Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. I have war (perhaps of the cold and Napoleonic stripe) somewhere in my roots.

We went searching. We dug hard for William Henry. We traveled all across New York's Madison County, digging through clerks' records and musty old books. We found him again, in the Union (now Walker's) Corners Cemetery. But the headstone there reads something different: "Buried at Gettysburg."

That led to more digging, new skills. We discovered how pensions work. We found out that just because you were from New York, that didn't mean you fought for New York. We found the 14th United States Regulars, we pinned down where William Henry Francis fought, bled and died for his country.

Then the trail went cold. We tried again and again, I tried again and again. We could never find his grave. William is missing forever. I have no stone to lay flowers on 150 years after he died alone and forgotten in a muddy stream-bed.

So I just kept right on digging. If I could never resurrect William Henry Francis, flesh of mine own flesh, I could do it for dozens, hundreds, thousands of others. I could bring back the whole human, not just the caricature. I could show the whole person, not just the portraits we hang on walls. My Mom taught me that life today is messy. Why did was assume that the past was messy too?

So then we come to Monday. My fiancé and I were both jarred from bed this morning by ill tidings. My Mom was sick.

I had already taken off of work. Jess and I were getting our marriage license. I would set out for North Carolina to check on Mom right after we finished that paperwork at the County Court Clerk's office. We drove down off of Seminary Ridge and into Gettysburg, the town where my Great-great-grand-uncle died, the town where my Mom's Abraham, the man she dreamed of and conjured in her imagination, spoke. It was different than the clerk's office where we found a cemetery register that led us to Union Corners over a decade ago.

Jess and I swore an oath. The woman recording our information asked us for our vitals. Our information needed to be 100% correct, but if we were unsure about our parents, we could, "get it close."

But it was important to us. The woman asked my Mom's birthplace, her maiden name, her profession. I answered, "school teacher." I could have said she was a ballet dancer, a war protestor, a theologian, an historian, a sage, a patient editor or a devoted friend. But school teacher seemed like just enough.

As the woman typed in the information, I leaned to Jess. "A hundred years from now, some snot-nosed historian like me is going to use that information to track us down, to reconstruct today." We will forever reside in the Adams County Courthouse, on view for any future genealogist who wishes to come poking.

Mom with the 14th U.S. Regulars monument,
November 19th, 2012.
I streaked down the highway to Durham, to Duke University Hospital. I held my Mom's cold hand, whispered, "I love yous," in her ears. She was sick. It was bad.

She coded. The entire ward's staff rushed to her bed. My Dad and I watched as the heroes pumped her chest. They worked her heart incessantly, trying to breathe life back into her for eight minutes. It was an eternity.

It didn't work. My Mom died Monday night, 149 years after that bearded man she loved almost as much as her devoted husband. She's gone cold, like everyone I study, I resurrect from the past. Practical necromancy might be possible, but perhaps it's slightly less practical than I had thought. I can bring her back to life easily enough, but I'll never make her live. This scar is here always.

I don't know how to end this. Maybe that's because there isn't an ending yet, only a different sort of beginning than we all expected. Mimi Francis Rudy is enshrined in a database, a tiny scrap of paper in one archive in one county courthouse in a town known the world over for what they did there and what he said there.

Her great-grand-uncle might not have a grave, but she will soon. And I'll put flowers there for her and for him.

And my Mom will live on, another of the real human in my catalogue. She's likely the most important one of all, really. She started this whole mess.

Now it's up to me to finish it. Oh, that I may have her strength, or at very least a fraction of it.

Don't worry that it's not
Good enough for anyone
Else to hear
Just sing, sing a song.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Everyday Sesquicentennial: Ghoulish Capitalism Takes Root

Nothing was happening in Gettysburg in the spring of 1864.

The Sentinel's editor Robert Harper was
obviously impressed by Danner's handicrafts.
That's not quite true. There was tons happening in the first few weeks of April 15 decades ago. But that "tons" was not massive or earth shattering. A dozen men and women died. Another handful of men and women found new lives in each others' arms. Life continued in this place just as it had a year before. It continued on in spite of the new cemetery, in spite of the war, in spite of the rebel arms and heads poking out of gardens alongside the budding spring flowers. Life was normal.

But it wasn't normal. War changed this place fundamentally. Gettysburg was shaken to its very core by the battle. Torment, suffering and death warped the landscape and its denizens.

Joel A. Danner was one of those poor souls warped by the hellscape of three days in July. The teenager was named for his father, and consequently went by his middle name: Albertus. The Danners lived on the Diamond at the center of Gettysburg, a massive family wedged into a modest brick home. When Lee and his armies invaded Gettysburg, Albertus was about 16 years old.

War is adventure. War is excitement. And for Albertus, war was opportunity.

What kid hasn't, on some ungodly hot day, tried to set up a card table by the roadside and sell lemonade? Capitalism is such a natural laboratory for the precocious young kid, turning lemons into lemonade, and then quickly into pocket money.

But Gettysburg was warped and twisted by war. No part of life wasn't melted in that massive crucible.

Albertus brought his own wares into Robert Harper's newspaper office. When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade. But what about when life hands you the detritus of the greatest mass bloodletting on the American continent?

Harper's notice is typical enough, praising the "enterprising young neighbor," for his commercial pursuits. But these aren't refreshing drinks Albertus is selling. Instead, the teen presented the editor with, "a match-holder prepared from a shell found upon the battlefield." And it wasn't his only handicraft. "He has a number of articles, both useful and ornamental, made from relics of the battle."

Battle forever changed Albertus. He made
his living selling relics in one of the
first local museums. / CC Gettysburg Daily
War warped the childhood of every young man and woman in Gettysburg.

For Joel Albertus Danner, war turned that simple impulse we all have, the impulse to experiment with our own hands and the market economy. into something slightly more sinister. When Albertus excised that childhood rite, he was selling tools of death, quaint reminders of a battle and the objects that helped end men's lives.

War changed Gettysburg. Some might say it made the men and women who lived here callous to the reality of battle. War is about death. War is fundamentally killing.

And maybe Gettysburg, even a century and a half later, hasn't quite recovered from the trauma of 1863.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Postage Due: Stewardship, Stamps and a Watch Pocket

I've been gone a while. My brain has been telling me these last few week it's not just "a while," but it's in fact "too long." I'll likely explain the whys of the hiatus soon.

Regardless of the why, the short word is this: the drought is over. I can't be abjectly silent anymore. What exactly this blog is and its future is still milling around in my brain. But I need to write and think aloud; it's in my DNA. Anyways, on to today's post...


The Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument
in Syracuse, NY, forever how I will
envision the ideal Civil War
monument. / joseph a CC
Why do we forget that people are human? I've been asking myself that question more and more lately. Partially it's driven by a laundry list of things happening in the world, vitriolic attacks on humanity, both strangers and friends. I just see cruelty looming sometimes, particularly over the lowest in our society.

But those we malign are so often the kindest hearts.

Back in high school, I was active with our Civil War roundtable in Syracuse. We met at the Onondaga Historical Association's museum each month in downtown. Like every Civil War roundtable, ours was a motley crew of local history buffs, reenactor-types, war aficionados and those desperately looking to belong to a community. To some extent, that last category covers the whole lot.

We had one stalwart figure who was at nearly every meeting. He lived at the YMCA. Syracuse is a burned-out shell of a city, a hollow form that is crumbling and dying. I suspect he came to every meeting partially because it was something to do in the evening. I also suspect that the Y being just right down the street had something to do with it too. Somewhere inside I know he was interested. During every presentation he was engaged and "there." But I suspect that we offered what we offered to any of the misfits who came through the door: community.

Our Roundtable helped to restore Onondaga County's Civil War flag collection, including the 149th New York's banner that was shattered and pummeled on Culp's Hill in 1863. We specifically adopted the headquarters flag of Greene's Brigade of the XII corps. We were determined to restore it to its former glory. And, as with every huge restoration project, there were fundraisers.

Our plucky little roundtable harnessed every event we could hitch our star to. On September 2nd, 2001, the city of Syracuse rededicated its Civil War monument, in the heart of Clinton Square just steps from where the Erie Canal once flowed.

We set up a few tables. My mom and I were helping sell postal caches. The little stamped and cancelled envelopes were a few bucks each. Sue Knost, a postmaster from Albany helped many nearby roundtables pull off these sorts of fundraisers; she was a great woman, a dedicated philatelist and a rabid Civil War nut. The cancellation was a line-drawing of Sergent William Lilly mending the flag at Gettysburg.

I remember when that man who lived just a few blocks away at the YMCA came up to our table, pushing his cobbled-together and lovingly repaired bicycle along with him. He dug around in the watch pocket of his jeans and came up with a handful of wadded up dollar bills. He bought two of the cachets and thanked us, then wandered back into the crowd.

I looked to my mom. "Do you know what that meant for him?" I asked in hushed tones. She was crying. I was too.

I have no clue where my envelopes are now. They're likely in some unloved box in my parents' attic with the rest of my stamp collection.

But I will bet you every dollar in my watch pocket today that he still knows where his are.

That's stewardship.

It's also why I keep my money in my watch pocket. Every time I dig into that tiny pocket on my right hip, it's my reminder to myself that I have so much and others have so little. I remember that day and that postal cachet. And I remember that those who have so little still somehow care so much.

About the only evidence I can find on the internet that this ever happened.
This scan of a newspaper print of a photo of the cachet is from my friend
Sue Greenhagen's excellent "New York State and the Civil War" website,
as much a wonderful compendium of the history of the Civil War community
in the 1990s and 2000s as it is a chronicle of curiosities from the 1860s.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Confederates in the Swimming Pool

I was swimming last night and thinking about dead Confederates. Someday, it's utterances like that which are going to see me involuntarily committed to an asylum. But it's true. I swam and thought about dead Confederates.

My pool is on Seminary Ridge at the YWCA Gettysburg & Adams County, just down the street from our house. That likely starts to explain why I was thinking of dead Confederates. Here, on the slope of Seminary Ridge, the YWCA sits just adjacent to the Seminary Campus. It's been there for quite a while, that pool was dug in 1980. Before it moved to its new home on Seminary Ridge, the YWCA was downtown, in the home where the Danner family weathered the storm of battle on the Diamond in town.

So, as I tread water in the deep end of the pool, I thought about the space I was occupying. It is water now, but in 1863 it was dirt, the fields behind a school dedicated to peace which saw too much war. And, with dead bodies trickling out the door of the Seminary hospital, those fields began filling with the stiffened bodies of men.

I was swimming, likely, in a grave last night. I pencil-dove as deep at I could, trying to get down to six feet, trying to dive down to those graves.

But as came back to the surface, I realized six feet was an unknown luxury in 1863. Rushed comrades dug as deep as they could. But hundreds were scattered dead across those fields and there just weren't enough hours or energy.

So I headed toward the shallow end of the pool. In three feet of water, I touched the tiled floor of the pool.

But even that was too deep.

I tend to sit on kickboards in the water when I'm lazing in a pool, hovering on the foam core chunks like a swing with no ropes. And it was at that moment I realized that was the perfect depth. I was sitting on the floor of a grave in the pool, just deep enough to cover over some poor soldier's face.

Time changes places, it has changed that ridge in small ways here and there. And one of those changes helps visualize the past, even if by mistake.

So I swam where Confederates (and likely many Federal soldiers too) once lay.

Was I swimming where William T. Watts was once buried? The 26-year-old man was wounded on July 3rd in the left foot. Surgeons in the Seminary Hospital took a chunk of the flesh and bone away, removing a few toes and metatarsals. But infection set into what was left of his foot, and he died on the 29th of August.

That past December, Watts fled the 4th Virginia Infantry for a few months, deserting the army, but returning by February of 1863. As he lay in the Seminary dying in agony, you can't help but wonder if he wished he had never returned, wished he hadn't come back, wished he'd stayed somewhere safe instead of having half his foot hacked off in some godforsaken house of God.

So now, when I go swimming, I'll be thinking just a little bit about William Watts and his comrades. When I sit on a kickboard, I'll probably remember I'm sitting on the floor of his former grave. I just can't help but think of these things. When I'm swimming, it only makes sense to think of dead Confederates' graves.

Because history is a disease of the mind, and I'm sick.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

For Gods' Sake, Copy-edit that Textbook on the Wall

The Stuka in Question. / CC nathanm
So, my social streams flooded on Monday with an article from the Denver Business Journal, a weekly Colorado publication with a circulation rate of about 16,000 issues. The internet is an amazingly powerful force for magnification. It can make a rant from one irate museum goer with very-close-to-nihl circulation seem like a meaningful and broadly held opinion.

In his ramshackle screed, and there's very little else it could be called, David Sneed, owner of a fence construction company in Denver, rants about the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

But after all that waiting, most visitors didn’t even notice the Stuka... because they were too busy smashing their pudgy hands against a filthy red button to hear the T-Rex roar.

I understand on one level Sneed's frustration. From a few photos I've gleaned online, the main transportation hall where the Stuka hangs seems to have little in the way of interpretation or context, the German dive-bomber hanging awkwardly beside a Boeing 727's fuselage and a steam locomotive.

The problem is much the same as I have with the Enola Gay's current berth at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA, where, stacked like cord-wood atop other planes of the World War II era, it loses all context and meaning. I much prefer (unlike the members of the VFW) the 1995 exhibition and its original script delving into what that plane did for and to the world.

Likewise, there the Stuka hangs mute. It, as far as I can tell, doesn't tell its own story very well.

OK, so Sneed has a point. The Stuka isn't all that striking.

But that's about the only point he has which is sustainable for the future of public history. A sustainable future requires one key thing: helping everyone find a reason to care about the past. Everyone needs an access point. And access points which work for the largest percentage of "everyone," which, in the terms of interpretation, strike toward the universal, are the best investment.

What would Sneed replace the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry's interactive weather and dinosaur exhibits with? "I want a museum that bores the children and scares the old people," Sneed muses, "Learning takes time and effort; it’s boring; and kids should know that from conception."

If this Stuka had an audio track, and dramatic
lighting, and a bright red button to push
putting that frightening diving prop into action,
then it might strike fear into everyone's heart.
/ CC H. Michael Miley
Learning is not painful. It's not boring.

It can be boring. It can be torturous. It can be a process of pouring facts over the stifled and cuffed captive, like water over the nose and mouth of a victim of water-boarding.

And God knows I've been in plenty of exhibits where that's the case. I call them, as do many of my colleagues, a textbook-on-a-wall. They're those exhibits which stretch on interminably, taking literally hours to read ever bit of text. The designers decided that every fact, every detail, every nugget of minutiae needed to be printed on a panel somewhere and slapped on the wall. And once you've already paid your admission (or ridden the Metro for an hour), you feel almost honor-bound to bang your head against each and every panel until blood trickles from your furrowed and overstuffed brow.

This is Sneed's answer to the accessible museum: make it tortuous for everyone. And what will that yield?

No one will go.

When I say, "no one," I specifically mean, "not everyone."

Museums and historic sites are tasked with being relevant to everyone, not simply the already interested. If we preach to the choir, the choir can never grow.

So what is my answer? I want a museum that scares the old people, scares the young people, scares the middle aged. That's something that happens from visceral experience, not exhibit text. I want a museum that helps everyone understand the fear of a Stuka, not because of a textbook's worth of text, but from the object's placement, from the way it's lit, from the soundtrack playing alongside it.

I want a museum that makes people laugh like a soldier reading a comic in Playboy in the rice patties of Vietnam, just before a firefight erupts. But old, young and middle laugh at different things. The important learning moment is not getting the specific joke in that 1960s era magazine, but feeling that tough-to-replicate feeling of giggling in the midst of abject terror. So make them laugh, then shock them. Give them the feeling. But an exhibit panel doesn't do that, whether it's a 4th grader or a 80-year-old reading it. Experience does that.

In short, museums need to become more experiential, not less. Learning is not something we suffer through. We, as a species, have learned best from experience since the first man discovered fire. No matter that his wife told him, "hot," he only learned when he singed his own fingers.

Damning museums for trying buttons and sound effects is not productive. Lauding them and pushing them to do better is.

A thumbnail example: when my mother and I first visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, I was barely old enough to go through the exhibits (back when they had an age limit). I remember getting in the elevator, dimly lit with heavy, riveted walls. She leaned into me and with real, palpable fear in her voice whispered, "it's a gas chamber," as the attendant pushed us into the elevator and it rumbled up.

It was that moment the holocaust became real to her. The text we read for the next three hours was unnecessary.

Intentionally wanting history to be boring is elitist and antithetical to what our profession is meant to do: unearth the past to make the present a better place.


(And before some pedant comes along, yes, I know the difference between copy editing and general editing. But I also know what makes a catchier title, and something with four syllables rings better than two.)

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Bloody January: Adams County's Own Fall

On a cold 10th of January, in the dark early hours of the morning, more disaster struck. Cole's Cavalry, the 1st Potomac Home Brigade Cavalry had seen nothing but disaster since January began. Cold air stung their noses, snow and freezing rain pelted their stand collars and soaked their saddles. Finally, the found rest in a camp atop Loudon Heights, with vast panoramic views of the Shenandoah and Potomac from the crest of the hill.

Around 4am on the 10th, while Cole's men huddled together in their tents for warmth, dark forms stirred on the edges of camp. "Precisely at half past four o'clock this morning," a soldier wrote to the Adams Sentinel, "Moseby's Rebel Battalion, himself in person at their head, avoiding our pickets on the roads, crossed the fields and dashed into our camp." Around the tents, the horsemen pranced and pawed, shouting demands at the suddenly roused but still canvas shrouded men. The rebel soldiers fired their pistols and revolvers blindly through tent flaps, then, with the obvious upper-hand, "a demand for instant and unconditional surrender made."

You can imagine the bleary-eyed confusion in those tents, as soldiers rolled over to peak out and see the Grey Ghost standing outside their abodes. Then, like a flash, the, "demand was answered by a shout of defiance from our boys, as they rushed from their tents, half-naked, in the midst of their assailants, and with their trusty carbines and revolvers drove back the astonished Rebels."

A few hours later, after the firefight drove away the enemy, a soldier sat in his tent and scribbled his note to the Gettysburg newspaper. The rebel, "Captain William R. Smith called out to his men," the soldier recounted, "'Give the damned Yankees no quarter, but secure the arms and horses.'" But as the word "horses" escaped his lips, a bullet drove through the southern Captain's breast and knocked him from his saddle, dead. That cold morning, no one felt like breaking the frosty ground with a spade. "His dead body now lies in its white winding sheet of snow on the spot where it fell, a few feet from the tent in which I write." Nearby, "in a pool of his own now frozen blood, the body of Lieutenant Colston, of Baltimore," sat solidifying in the chill air.

The scene must have been ghastly. It would have turned the stomach of even the most seasoned soldier.

But for a few of Gettysburg's soldiers, the scene was nowhere in sight. They had been plucked away from their comrades as prisoners. Just a few days before, a disaster had befallen Company C, the "Keystone Rangers," on a New Year's Day scouting expedition gone awry. Of 75 men on patrol in Loudon County, 57 were killed or captured. The grim news hit Gettysburg's papers on the 12th of January. Missing, presumed prisoners, were Sergeant. J. E. Gibson and Bugler M. J. Coble. Privates Jacob Hartzell and E. C. Wenschoff were among the casualties.

George Shriver as he appeared in life, from the
Shriver House Museum's Blog.
And along Baltimore Street, in a brick home built by their patriarch, a family's heart shattered. The Shriver's Father would not be coming home. George W. Shriver joined the war early, enlisting in 1861. He lasted so long, nearly long enough to kiss his wife and hug his children again. But on New Year's Day, 1864, likely as his family took visitors in their parlour and wished each other well on the holiday, George Shriver fell into enemy hands.

His trip would take him southward, deep into the heart of the Confederacy. He found himself in a tiny crossroads town named Andersonville, and a resident of a new prison camp, Camp Sumter, being established there. Among the first prisoners through the gates of the tall wooden stockade of Andersonville was Adams County's George Shriver. At home, Henrietta and her two children must have held out hope their beloved protector would survive.

But George walked through those gates, never to leave again. Hettie wept; George was dead by August.

We who study this war, at one point or another, pause to imagine how lucky we are that we never have to witness the human carnage of somebody lying in a pool of his own blood, slowly congealing on a crisp January morning. We are blessed that we will never witness that technicolor carnage firsthand. A cold, clinical and heaven-sent 150 years seperates us from having to witness wholesale evil of the devil's 4-year carnival known as the Civil War.

But would George Shriver have felt blessed, destined as he was to lie forever in grave number 6816, far from his wife and children in Adams County? Was he blessed to be headed to a grave in the Georgia mud, rather than having to see his friends and enemies alike wrapped in their palls? Maybe even the carnage of war could be a form of relief when thrown in stark contrast to the alternative.

Seeing a frozen pool of blood on a January morning, seeing some poor man who will never make it home to his family, at least means you might, perhaps, make it home to see yours.


Back when Jacob was writing for the blog, he penned a terrific review of the Shriver House's interpretation. Head on over and give it another peek.