Showing posts with label CW150. Show all posts
Showing posts with label CW150. Show all posts

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.

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, 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.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Halfway out of the Dark: Christmas 1863

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

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

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

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

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ngram 150th: Race, Sex and Big Data

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

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

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

Wait, what?

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

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

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

Look at that Ngram above.

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Child's Play: War, Toys and Avoiding the Trivial

This past weekend, I let my two hobbies combine. I spend a good chunk of my spare time doing incessant, weird and wild historical research. If you've read along on the blog for any appreciable time, you know the odd corners I've turned finding peculiar ans striking stories both here in Gettysburg and beyond.

But I have another hobby.

I am an Adult Fan of LEGO. If you spend any amount of appreciable time with me in person, you more than likely already know this too. Like HO or N scale railroaders or the folks who glue together Revell models of World War II airplanes, I obsess over tiny, realistic details rendered in a tiny artistic medium originally intended for children.

The community is chock full of geeks: engineers, computer programmers, IT professionals and (at least around DC) military wonks. I'm a lone wolf in our community. I'm an historian.

Military building has become increasingly popular over the past decade, with aftermarket parts (produced by companies like Brickarms) becoming ubiquitous, intricate plastic Panzer tanks have been rolling across bumpy plastic landscapes. Personally, I'm a purist, choosing to build only with parts produced by the LEGO company.

My good friend and fellow builder Gary proposed a wild idea: build Civil War dioramas in LEGO and display them at the Brickfair LEGO convention.

I'm not one for trivializing the realities of war. I've described some of our collective obsession with the Civil War as "torture porn" in the past.

Sometimes the displays of World War II violence at LEGO conventions bother me. Particularly, these displays seem to forget that war is a real thing. They are "drenched" in transparent-red LEGO pieces representing gallons of blood. Toy men are dismembered, tiny plastic arms posed flying through the air away from tiny plastic bodies.

But depicting war in a medium like LEGO was a fascinating prospect for me. Illustrating artistic impressions of war within an artistic medium that is principally a children's toy adds an amazingly deep layer to the possible meanings. Choosing to tell the story of this destructive war which has, at its heart, the violent ever-present American struggle over race through a toy that has one race (yellow) and perpetual smiles makes you ask, on some level, what are we teaching our children by presenting them toys with such unabashed violence? Will children mimic violence in their real life when their imagination is fed with glorious violence in toys, cartoons and other media?

So the challenge was to tell the story of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (because it is 2013 after all) with a toy and do it both respectfully and meaningfully.

I think it happened. Our vignettes filled out the tale of the entire battle. We had the requisite amount of tiny plastic men charging across fields and up ridges. Gary built an amazing vignette where a LEGO Joshua Chamberlain defended a LEGO Little Round Top from a LEGO William C. Oates. There were a few wounded men scattered about, but no transparent-red pieces, not cartoon blood exploding out of figures' backs as artillery rounds passed through tiny plastic chest cavities. And Gary's attempt to show the struggle of war without glorifying the flowing blood paid off: participants voted it best historical themed model in the show.

My entries in our collaborative build were bent toward taking the story beyond the battlefield. A model of the Evergreen Cemetery Gatehouse told the tale of Tillie Pierce's fears returning home. Tiny LEGO figures with brown skin exhumed the body of a dead Federal soldier, Basil Biggs standing by and making sure his crew did the job right. Federal soldiers retreated through the streets of Gettysburg, careening past the Fahnestock Brothers' store.

So did it work? Were people looking at our display and thinking about war, or were they simply glorying in its mass orgasmic bloodfest?

As I sat at the table during the public days, hundreds of cameras snapped photos of Gary's Little Round Top and my model of the Lutheran Theological Seminary. They certainly were popular.

"They froze that hellscape on glass,
developed it in their
wagon-turned-laboratory and
sold the photos to America. 
Now, people at home could
finally see the true costs of war
laid bare."
But I think people could see the difference. I think our lack of toy blood, our respect and our depiction of real, sorrowful violence started gears turning. Nothing tells me that more that it was working than one overheard conversation. Two kids, both about 7 years-old or so, stopped in from of Little Round Top. One was craning his neck to see the figures and the battle between the tiny LEGO trees.

He seemed upset and said to his friend, "Why don't any of these figs have just a smiley face?"

The other 7 year-old answered quickly, almost as if the answer should be brutally obvious to his friend: "Why would they? They're fighting. They're dying. That's not fun."

No, war is not fun. War has a true cost.

And maybe, just maybe, that cost can be respectfully rendered in my favorite artistic medium.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Birthday Party, Cheesecake, Jelly Bean, Boom: The Easy Sesquicentennial Ends

This brand of sesquicentennial doesn't
sell; there's nothing sexy about man's
inhumanity to man.  But of anything
in the war, it's the most important
thing to confront.
There's been a good deal of digital ink spilled recently over whether the sesquicentennial is over. A provocative question can erupt into a torrent of thought.

But those thoughts have been brewing in my mind for a while now, since the whirlwind here in Gettysburg died down to a dull roar from the fever pitch of a few weeks ago. The tourist tide has subsided. The streets are easier to drive.

But most importantly, the press inquiries have died away. Nearly every day of the anniversary week, I had an e-mail or a voice-mail asking me to help a reporter with a project here or there, reporters who were clambering for some way to cover the sesquicentennial from a unique and intriguing angle. It was an amazing feeling, to have my vocation suddenly in the spotlight.

But that stopped July 4th. The press stopped beating down the doors, stopped calling the college's press contact list. The story was over.

Is the sesquicentennial over? From one perspective, of course not. Brooks is right; there are still two years of war left to fight, to commemorate (hell, even to celebrate if that's your bean). The war is far from over.

But what is over then? Because this sure feels like over if ever there were an over.

The end of Gettysburg means the spotlight, that powerful beam shone by the collective national attention, is gone. From April of 2011 until now, we in the Civil War community have had the benefit of that bright spotlight of attention, as the whole nation has been (to greater or lesser extents) focused on the war. Media has been seeking out the story. Culture has been buzzing. Hollywood has been filming and premiering.

But the war after Gettysburg morphs into that long, bloody, messy slog across Virginia or Tennessee and Georgia. It changes from prisoner exchanges into prison camps and the bloodiest ground on the American continent. Politics gets ugly, as Peace Democrats make a true, concerted effort (and nearly succeed) at unseating one of modern America's most beloved historical figures. Battles become racialized, as men are massacred in battle not simply because of the color of their uniforms, but because of the color of their skin. The war gets ugly.

And ugly doesn't sell.

So, the Sesquicentennial is over. The era of the media or culture shining a spotlight on us is at an end, for the sheer fact that they know that what that spotlight will show is bound to be ugly.

Glory gets replaced by horror after
July 1863. But even 150 years after, is
America willing to choose to confront
Fort Pillow or the Crater?
That spotlight we had was an amazing opportunity to sell the relevance of the war in amazing and powerful new ways. We had the opportunity, with little to no effort, to help Americans see the war as relevant to their daily lives, to who they are as a people and to what their nation is today. We can debate whether we squandered that 2-year-spotlight or not, and likely will for decades to come.

But the fact is, the spotlight has likely been doused.

This doesn't mean the commemorations stop.

It simply means the work gets infinitely harder. Where before culture and the media were amplifiers for the message that the Civil War is relevant to the average American, now we're going to need to make our own megaphone. The new messages will be harder to spread; the new audiences harder to draw. But the world can still go on turning if you let it.

As for me, I plan on continuing to keep trying to help Americans, all Americans and not just the folks who already come to our Civil War sites, to find their own personal relevances in these places. That battle just becomes infinitely harder, and the odds seem set against us as the last few days of July fade away.

Sort of like it did for a 87-year-old nation on the brink of collapse 150 years ago.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Finding The Good: An Emotional Anniversary

I am an exacting judge of interpretive product. I realize this. My boss and I have had a few discussions about how both of our standards, sometimes, might be just a bit too high.

I still am not convinced that pure and utter excellence is not too much to ask for on every interpretive program. All too often, though, I don't find it.

When I do see amazing moments, it thrills me. I get outrageously excited. Through my entire experience as a visitor at the sesquicentennial celebration at Gettysburg, two programs stand out as verging on that sort of gleaming excellence.

The first one was on the afternoon of July 3rd. Standing at the wall, where fifteen decades before the United States was saved and slavery's ultimate demise was clinched, it would have taken effort to not offer up some meanings. They could have been rote, expected meanings. But what happened instead was something personal, something pressing beyond the simple bounds of battle mechanics and "boxes on a map."

Ranger Caitlin Kostic was offering up a moment in time. She tried to help us live as Hays' brigade, if just for a brief moment. She wasn't trying to "teach" anything. Her aim wasn't to have us walk away with knowledge, but with a feeling, a visceral moment of the fear that rippled through those men's hearts on the afternoon of July 3rd so many years before.

She helped that field sing in a way I have rarely seen displayed by LBGs, historians and rangers alike. Her short program was the embodiment of a future for military interpretation, not bogged down by excessive quotes and mechanics, but embedded in human experience and universal emotion.

By Thursday, I was spent. Monday had found me spending six solid hours leading tour groups across the campus of the College. Tuesday I wandered from site to site from noon to (literally) midnight. Then Wednesday was the sapping heat at the Angle.

But I'm a sucker for civilians. I am convinced, as I've said time and again, that the last great frontier of Gettysburg research lies in the experience of civilians and their interaction with the military landscape. So a tour focusing on the civilians, starting at the Brien Farm, was too good to pass up.

Ranger Jared Frederick led us on a short walk down the ridge line where Ijust had stood the afternoon before.

When I am on an interpretive program, my mind usually races in a continual internal monologue of, "what would I do." It can be amazingly painful when you see an interpreter tripping and missing the obvious meanings, missing the opportunities.

I leaned to a friend as Jared was speaking about the Bliss Family's farm burning on July 3rd. "That farm. The damage claim he's using covers the things you can replace, the crops, the fences, the barn. What about the family photos? The heirloom quilt?"

Then something happened that barely ever happens. Jared said nearly the same thing I had whispered. He described the Bliss' beloved collection of books and family photos, the things that when tragedy strikes can't be replaced.

My heart soared. Jared saw it. He saw where his audience could find themselves in the story, in the Bliss' experience. He put their life into terms we could understand. Not flank movements, not laundry-list damage claims, but sorrow and loss.

It happened again and again as Jared walked us down the ridge.

He let the landscape drag him around by the nose (or rather by the heart). Each place we were standing dictated the perfect story as he guided the experience. He pointed; he made sure he had things to point at. Not one of his stops felt jury rigged or awkward. Everything just fit.

Gettysburg came to life for me for a few brief moments on this most meaningful of anniversaries thanks to Caitlin and Jared. Brother and sister, you speak my mind.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Stewart W. Woods: A Peculiar Casualty at Fort Wagner?

There Be Squalls Ahead: This post deals with historical uncertainty and represents some research-in-progress. This story is still half-researched and needs some more work. Viewer discretion is advised.

Captured in the darkness of July 18th on a sandy beach in South Carolina was a native of Adams County. Stewart W. Woods, born in Heidlersburg around 1836, found himself in the hands of the rebels, among a handful of his compatriots in the 54th Massachusetts. The fighting of Woods' war was over and his fate was unclear. Stewart was a free man, born under the folds of the same American flag under which he now fought. At some point, he had drifted over the mountain range and called Carlisle home when the war erupted in 1861.

But in summer of 1863, Woods' native county was still stumbling bewildered, blindsided by the realities of war. Now Stewart Woods was blindsided by the realities of war too, far from home and excruciatingly vulnerable in the hands of the rebel army. In the 54th Massachusetts, Private Stewart W. Wood was an oddity, perhaps entirely unique.

Stewart W. Woods was white.

Are these the comrades of a white
enlisted man? / PD LOC
In his Compiled Service Record, Stewart W. Woods' complexion is listed as "white." His eyes were blue, his hair was brown. In the 1850 and 1860 census, although Stewart himself doesn't readily appear, there are no black Stewart households in Cumberland County.

One of the larger Woods families in Cumberland County in 1860 was headed by Richard Woods esq, a 56-year-old farmer. According to the shadowy and somewhat insubstantial world of the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, Richard Woods was purportedly a local conductor. Richard Woods' son Samuel was the same age as Stewart Woods.

Why might Stewart W. Woods have been marked down as "white?" Was his skin just very light? But it isn't marked as "light" in the CSR, but clearly "white."

Led away from Fort Wagner, Stewart Woods wasn't dragged to Andersonville or any of the other Southern prisons penning in hundreds of loyal American soldiers. Instead, he and his compatriots became the awkward nucleus of a truly weird set of legal circumstances, as he and his fellows were tried by South Carolina's governor that August for slave insurrection. The soldiers were stripped of their uniforms, treated as common criminals and held inside Charleston's City Jail, where forty years before Denmark Vesey and his co-conspirators had been held under identical charges.

But why would a white man undergo such torture? If Woods was white, might he have been in the 54th Massachusetts precisely because he was white? Perhaps as in the South for generations light skinned black men had attempted to pass as white for a measure of freedom, Stewart Woods attempted to pass as black (all it would take was 1/8th of your lineage) in order to fight in a unit truly fighting for freedom.

In August of 1863, a criminal trial was called and the captives of the 54th were charged under South Carolina law for conducting a slave rebellion. But the case fizzled; the court decided that the charges overstepped South Carolina's jurisdiction. The soldiers were marched back to the city's prison and held there like criminals for nearly another year and a half, no real trial or charges. And Stewart Woods got sick.

Whether Stewart W. Woods was a white man on a moral crusade isn't precisely clear. But that Private Stewart W. Woods was on some sort of moral crusade is clear. Just a month before he was captured, the 54th Massachusetts marched through Darien, Georgia. Though Robert Gould Shaw reportedly called the burning of the town a, "satanic act," Woods was content leaving a clear, proud calling card of who had torched the town in slave-holding Georgia. Woods plucked a book from some soon-to-be-charred shelf and scribbled his name in the cover. "STEWART W. WOODS, was born September 21, 1834... Hidlersburg [sic], Adams County, Pennsylvania. 54th Massachusetts Volunteers." He followed those lines with the name of the unit again, content with te flag he fought under and the men he fought beside: "54th regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers, of Col. SHAW." So proud was he of his commanders that he noted all of their names; Shaw, Pope, Higginson and Tucker all were mentioned in the inscription.

Then Woods left the book to be found by the citizens of Darien as they wandered back into their wrecked city, wood framed walls charred black like the slaves their state had brokered in for hundreds of years. The book became his calling card, the signature he wrote on the inferno-artwork.

Months had passed from that day when Woods proudly burned Darien, Georgia, set torch to sin. By the spring of 1865, he was a shell of a man, the swampy and insanitary conditions of a city jail cell in a tropical city did their worst. He and his compatriots were exchanged in March of 1865, but it was too little, too late. Just 10 days after coming back to Federal lines, in a general hospital in occupied Wilmington, North Carolina, Stewart W. Woods succumbed to typhoid fever.

Should one of these faces be white?
What else don't we know about the USCT?
Was Stewart W. Woods white? Was he the only white soldier in the ranks of the 54th Massachusetts? Did he do it for Abolitionist fervor?

He did seem to take glee from a town meeting the torch, a town in a nation fighting to enslave men who looked like those who marched beside him. And Stewart Woods, whether white or black, fought for the destruction of a cancerous institution which had, for centuries, been strangling the vital American organ: liberty.



Special thanks to Chris Barr from Andersonville National Historical Site for some clarification and fascinating info on the men of the 54th Massachusetts who were captured during the battle at Fort Wagner. Andersonville has been doing gangbusters work under leadership of Chief of Interpretation Eric Leonard. Check out their Facebook page later today for more about the weird and amazing story of all of the 54th's captured's odd journey to everywhere but Andersonville.

Undoubtedly, Stewart W. Woods will continue to bother my historian's brain until this story gets more solid evidence. There
is a mother's pension application at the National Archives submitted for Woods. Hopefully that application can help pin down more certain details about Woods' race, life and death. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Hopkins and Anthony: A Struggle Over Freedom

This piece is the original draft of a piece I wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which appeared last week as part of the paper's Gettysburg sesquicentennial coverage. Here's the full, uncut piece for your perusal:

Standing in the pleasant countryside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in the early summer of 1863, it might not have hit you just how quickly the world was changing. That blissful ignorance might have been doubly powerful if you were a young white man, as were the students of Pennsylvania College.

For decades before the Civil War, students from Pennsylvania had mingled with students from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and other southern states at Gettysburg’s local college. In classrooms and laboratories, sons of slave-owners studied right alongside the native sons of the Commonwealth, cradle of liberty and birthplace of Independence. The fact that many of those students from Virginia and Maryland were now gone, their educational endeavors the cruel victims of a terrifying war, was one bruise among many which Pennsylvania College bore because of its close relationship with slavery.

Gettysburg’s carriage industry drove the ties to the South’s peculiar institution. Fine carriages made in local workshops rolled south into the palatial stables of wealthy planters in the Old Dominion and further south. In turn, the South sent her sons and tuition dollars northward for a fine Lutheran education.

As the nation seemed to shudder and crack in 1860, during the tumultuous election that would see Lincoln ushered into the White House and South Carolina and her friends ushered out of the United States, North Carolinian William D. Anthony sat at his desk in Pennsylvania College studying Latin, Greek and analytical geometry. America was fracturing over the question of slavery as he sat in Gettysburg alongside classmates from Pennsylvania, Maryland and the capitol at Washington City.

Back in North Carolina, John B. Anthony, the toiling student’s father, preached the gospel of love in a Lutheran Church outside of Charlotte. At home, he had a wife and five other children. He also owned one human being who worked around the family's home: a 45-year-old black woman.

In the College Edifice in Gettysburg, William Anthony could have glanced out the window and seen John "Jack" Hopkins working in the grove of trees surrounding the school’s buildings. Hopkins, the college’s janitor, and his family lived in a small home on the north edge of the campus. Whether Anthony paid heed to Hopkins, noticed the man at all, is unknown. But in just a few years Hopkins and Anthony would be set at odds, opposite ends of a convoluted and dangerous spectrum.

The college has a yearbook from the 1860s in its historical collection, still available to view, touch and leaf through in the library’s special collections department. Underneath Jack Hopkins’ picture is the smiling hand-written notation, “Our Vice-President.” A joke to us because the janitor of a college almost certainly could never become this college’s vice-president.; a joke in the 1860s because an African American almost certainly could never become any college’s vice-president.

Who exactly wrote the joke, be they southern son or local Pennsylvanian, is not exactly clear. But that joke would shortly be upended. War was coming and the gears of a mighty machine of progress would be set in motion that would mean men with skin the hue of Hopkins’ could be the leaders of colleges, businesses and even the United States itself.

And the war came. William Anthony returned home to the south.

When Confederates invaded Pennsylvania in June of 1863, Anthony came along with them. He was astride a horse, the bright yellow chevrons of an Ordnance Sergeant on his shoulder. In charge of dolling out weaponry and ammunition to the soldiers in his regiment, William D. Anthony rode back into the Keystone state along with the 1st North Carolina Cavalry.

As the horses and wagons of the Confederate Army poured over the border into Pennsylvania, Gettysburg saw an exodus. Hundreds of black citizens from the town and surrounding countryside disappeared. They ran for their lives. The oncoming Confederate tide meant capture and slavery, it meant never seeing home or family or friends again. It meant torment and maybe death at the hands of the South’s Peculiar Institution.

“Among the most forlorn and pitiable of the victims of the recent invasion,” a Lutheran newspaper in Philadelphia reported, “were many of the colored people, who fled from our border towns and took refuge in our city.”

Somewhere in the forlorn and pitiable throng escaping Gettysburg and running for safety to the north or east were Jack Hopkins and his family. The janitor was perhaps one of the wealthiest black men in the entire town. But his prestige could not save him from the oncoming tide of rebel troops. His skin color was a giant target drawn on his freedom. So he ran.

Both Anthony and Hopkins would survive the invasion unscathed. Anthony survived the campaign, fighting on July 2nd at the Battle of Hunterstown only five miles from the desk where he had studied Greek and plane trigonometry a few years before. The 1st North Carolina Cavalry limped back to Virginia along with the rest of Robert E. Lee’s battered army.

Jack Hopkins and his family returned home after the rebel tide subsided to find their home on the college’s campus in shambles, but their lives together in freedom safe and intact.

And as the smoke drifted away from the battlefield at Gettysburg, America continued changing. The machinery of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ground slowly, deliberately away against the institution of slavery. A war to save the nation, “a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as Lincoln would phrase it that fall, was welded onto a war to destroy slavery once and for all.

And even viewed from the now blood-soaked fields of Gettysburg, that war was obviously changing. Jack Hopkins’ son Edward would join the United States Colored Troops that winter, heading south to fight the army that had invaded his hometown and threatened his family’s freedom. And America took one more tenuous step forward on the long road toward equality.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

To My Great Great Grand Uncle - On the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of your Death

To: My Great Great Grand Uncle
From: John

On the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of your Death

Dear William Henry,

I'm writing this standing near the spot where you died, exactly 150 years ago nearly to the second. Im typing on a tiny screen, a technological marvel that lets me share the stories of men like you with the world instantly.

They've put up a monument to you and the 17 other men who died along with you along the banks of Plum Run creek. We call this place "The Valley of Death" now. I think you among all people who have walked this green earth would understand why.

I mourn your death. I don't rightly understand why, to be honest (no offense). You've been dead a century and a half, anyone who ever loved you and hugged you and lectured you and scolded your transgressions and looked up to you as their honest son or brother is long gone.

I never knew you. And yet I mourn.

I stand in front of this cold slab of marble and bronze and I can't help but cry. I still can't tell exactly why.

God, how things have changed since you died. No, not simply since. Because you died. Men walk free because you died. Out nation is whole because you died. I can stand here and mourn you today a free man in a free nation that is always trying to extend that freedom to the darkest corners of our own nation and the globe because you died.

I wish I had known you. Not a day goes by living in this town I don't wish I could have met you. I live just up the road from where you die; your blood in this soul brought me to plant my feet here.

I am who I am because of you.

I don't know why you fought. It pains me that I don't know. Maybe it was to free 4 million men held beneath the cruel yoke of a terrible and deadly institution. You certainly grew up in a hotbed of progressive thought on who in America should be free an why we all should fight for that freedom. Maybe not.

Maybe it was because you wanted adventure. You certainly found it here, a terrible, horrific adventure from which you couldn't escape. A British author, in a children's book he wrote long after your blood mingled with this dust, wrote that, "to die will be an awfully big adventure." Maybe it was.

Maybe it was to defend your nation. You did, after all, join the U.S. Regulars, not some fly-by-night volunteer unit from Madison County. I've always thought that meant something, like you had more of a dog in this fight than just defending home or hearth. You defended that Constitution, that Declaration, that beautiful flapping flag.

I do know you wavered. I've read your private letters, and for that I apologize. Hopefully you won't mind the prying eyes of a nephew descendent glancing at your words. I know you thought about desertion in 1862.

I respect you all the more for that. Fear is natural. It's the right reaction to war. I'd be more worried if you weren't fearful, weren't scared, didn't have trepidations.

The flag I put on your monument on Memorial Day is gone, someone plucked it from its perch here. Memorial Day is the day we've set aside to honor you and all the other sainted dead who have died defending our nation.

I forgot to get a new one at the store, so I visit flag-less today. I hope you don't mind. I'm here. I hope that's enough. It's beginning to rain, big salty drops on the screen of my phone and I don't think they're coming from the clouds, but they're making it very hard to type.

So I will close for now, thanking you for everything you gave that this nation might live.

Your nephew,
John


Sunday, June 30, 2013

Just Fields: 30 June 1863

Just a field; just a fence.
South of Gettysburg as midnight chimed on June 30th and the calendar flipped over to July, a quiet peach orchard sat at the corner of a narrow lane and the road to Emmitsburg. It was just a peach orchard.

Across the road from that orchard, a large wooden barn stood stocked with hay, wheat and other precious agricultural products from the fields of the Sherfy family. It was a sturdy barn, built to last decades. It was just a barn.

Down that narrow lane, John Rose's wheatfield swayed in time as wind gusted by, the small kernels the fruits of a farmer's hard labor. It was just a wheatfield.

In town, in the darkened streets after the streetlights were extinguished, shutters hung on a massive brick house on the square and cast shadows of stark lines across the red bricks as the Wills family slept inside. It was just a house.

North of the square, students doused their lamps and pulled their covers over their tired frames, a hard Tuesday's work done with more classes, worship and studying to look forward to on Wednesday morning. It was just another Wednesday.

The night dissolved into morning. Light peaked over the eastern horizon and cast a hazy glow through thick clouds on the town. When daybreak came that morning of July 1st, Gettysburg was just a town.

Nothing more.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

There is Still Time: Contingency And History

...and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave...

This *did not* air on WGAL in June of 1863,
for obvious reasons.
William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust has that beautifully evocative passage that anyone worth their salt contemplating a Pickett's Charge program has considered including in their ebb and flow. Faulkner was a master of language, and his passage about, "every Southern boy fourteen years old," is a particularly artful.

But it points to a particular ability of the child's brain that we seem to lose as we grow. The past is mailable in our minds when we are young. It might be because our imagination is so powerful as children. A stick can become a Springfield Rifle, a pile of branches against a tree trunk can become a fortress, a gust of wind can become a charging line of rebel infantry.

So what happens when we get older? Does our imagination fall to pieces?

We stand at the crossroads of war in late June, 2013, looking backwards 150 years and knowing the outcome. We know that battle is coming to Gettysburg. We know that 50,000 men will be killed, wounded or go missing over the course of three bloody days. We know how the story ends, we've read the last page of the book.

Which is a dangerous place to start from.

The men who splashed across the Potomac into Maryland in June of 1863 didn't know they were headed to Gettysburg. They didn't know they'd repel Confederate forces in a wheatfield, or rampage across some farmer's peach orchard on their way to slaughter Federal infantry. They knew battle might come, but when and where, even if, was up in the air.

John T. McIlhenny didn't know a battle
was coming. Otherwise, why even bother
laying out July 2nd's newspaper?
A battle at Gettysburg was not a foregone conclusion on June 25th, 1863. The Star and Banner boasted in its folds that, "This giving too much credence to mere rumor has done a great deal of mischief." Gettysburg was scared, but it was far from predestined a battle would come to its streets.

Nor was it foreordained on June 26th, when students of Pennsylvania College were stampeded from fields west of their alma mater back to the safety of Harrisburg.

June 27th or 28th or 29th? Still not destined. And the people of Gettysburg thought the worst was over. "Although the rebels have come and gone, (so far as our town is concerned,) we may expect to hear all sorts of rumors," the Star and Banner wrote in it's doomed July 2nd edition, "The big fright seems to be over, but it is natural to expect many little ones to follow." Gettysburg expected to see a few rebel stragglers, but the citizens were cautioned not to, "magnify every little squad into a regiment," and sound a needless alarm.

And on June 30th, with troops looming in the Cashtown Gap and cavalry swarming into Adams County? Sure, it looks like it's all planned ahead of time, but even on the eve of battle, there's nothing certain.

Gettysburg didn't have to happen like it did. It didn't have to happen at all. It wasn't advertised. It was a relative surprise.

That doesn't change the fact that it did happen. But it needs to color how we envision the campaign. These armies weren't heading toward Gettysburg. They would simply end up there by chance, happenstance and the eventuality of war.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Stormclouds Gather on the Horizon


The first few stanzas of a poem by Howard Glyndon from the folds of The Lutheran and Missionary from late August of 1863:

The days of June were nearly done;
The fields, with plenty overrun,
Were ripening 'neath the harvest sun
In fruitful Pennsylvania!

Sang birds and children — "All is well!"
When sudden, over hill and deil,
The gloom of coming battle fell,
On Peaceful Pennsylvania!

Through Maryland's historic land,
With boastful tongue and spoiling hand,
They burst—a fierce and famished band,
Right into Pennsylvania!

In Cumberland's romantic vale
Was heard the plundered farmer's wail;
And every mother's cheek was pale,
In blooming Pennsylvania!

With taunt and jeer; and shout and song:
Through rustic towns, they passed along—
A confident and braggart throng—
Through frightened Pennsylvania.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Meanings: Where This Is All Headed

Human tragedy, human triumph and continuing struggle, each of its own epic
proportions.  One convoluted war holds inside the tripartate meanings of sorrow
for 620,000 lost, joy for 4 million saved and the uneasiness that
the struggle for freedom would still continue 150 years later.

I've started to see the giddy reaction across the internet as June's dates fall off of the calendar and July looms. Folks are excited about the guns, the battles, the tactics, the camping, the reenactments, the fun, the festivities and the revelry.

But we, a community of people who all find a fascination in this awkward and cumbersome truth that we call "the Civil War," need to remind ourselves that it all had meaning, it all had a higher purpose and a greater outcome that hung in the balance.

Let's not let the fact escape us this time that battle doesn't happen in a vacuum. Armies don't appear out of thin air. They are things that are formed with a purpose and goal. That goal can shift and change as a war progresses, which is a key thing to understand as well. Events need context, and not just the context of the battle before and the battle after. They need placement within a narrative flow of history, the "why should I care?" of the present must meet the "you should care because" of the past and the two need to cogs must mesh. If we can't help America find that sort of real, personal relevance, preserving the special places of the Civil War will always be a game of diminishing returns.

For me at least, this time, 50 years on, must be about meaning and not simply memory. But more on that distinction (as well as Bill Clinton, Medgar Evers and Robert E. Lee) next week.