Saturday, October 8, 2011

Harpers Ferry

By: Dennie Spence

After much contemplation, largely due to laziness, I have finally sat down to write the first of many blogs pertaining to the time spent in Gettysburg’s Civil War Era Studies program. It has been some three odd weeks now since the first of our fieldtrips to various Civil War battlefields. Our first trip was certainly a mix of emotions ranging from a bit of real concern to a fear of boredom. When we loaded on the bus in the early morning hours we seemed on the whole to be in a jovial, albeit sleepy mood. I must readily confess that for me, it seemed a bit like the emotions felt when a child walks into kindergarten for the first time. I was a bit concerned over how the tour would be conducted, how much was to be expected of us and to what degree would we be expected to retain any information that was given unto us.

As the bus pulled into the park, I was met with a certain comfort. This was not my first time in the park and indeed would certainly not be my last as both I and my fellow southerner Phillip Brown are interns at the park. Perhaps this was part of the nagging concern over the question of possible boredom at the park. However, we soon were met by Dennis Frye, and this quickly alleviated some of the anxiety. We would begin our tour with a trip to the lower town. Our morning was full of debates concerning who was this man John Brown who came to the very town we were now in, in October 1859. Mr. Frye would lead us through the story from the highs of excitement with the marines smashing in the door of the fire engine house to the very lows of one of the raider’s bodies being thrown to the hogs. We were met with questions such as why had this man John Brown attacked such a peaceful village. Was it only for the weapons? Could it be that he was one of America’s very first terrorists? Was this man, John Brown really such a martyr as we have made him to be, or is he simply a crazed fanatic? As our morning drew to an end, we all certainly had formed our own opinions of this man who made such an impact on such a beautiful community.

After dinner at the Anvil, we would resume our tour. However, now it was three years after John Brown and no longer focused on Lower Town. Now we would find ourselves standing atop Bolivar Heights imagining ourselves as both Colonel Dixon Miles and Robert E. Lee. We would have a raging debate over what we feel as though we might do in each man’s particular boots as it were. Many would feel that Miles should have done more even if it meant fighting on Camp Hill and in the streets of Lower town if it meant only one more day of engaging in delay, while others felt Col. Miles had done the best job possible with the men and orders given under his command. One thing we all would agree is that the night march executed by A.P. Hill was a thing of inspiring courage and fortitude and without a shadow of a doubt the nail that sealed the coffin for the siege of Harper’s Ferry.

In retrospect, I must say that none of my early morning anxiety was well founded. It was a more than average educational experience and never did it possess a moment of dullness throughout the day. My only concern is that I wish I could have stayed for just a while longer. I regretted in leaving that there was not enough time in the day to truly scale the cliffs and ravines as Hill’s men did, that we could not have marched over from the Kennedy farm, and that I could not see the views of the town as they would have so long ago atop Maryland and Loudin Heights. Even so, as our bus pulled in front of the Appleford, our beautiful home, I admit to a feeling of pride, shame, and accomplishment. The story of Harper’s Ferry then, and how it has impacted me now, is one of so many instances, emotions and people that one could never fully understand its beauty, both physical and historical.

Friday, December 10, 2010

"All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war." Abraham Lincoln, 2nd Inaugural Address, Concerning Slavery

We took our last field trip on Friday. Early Friday morning, we all loaded the bus one final time, and headed off for a day in Washington, D.C. It was a busy day, but one full of memories we will never forget.

Our first stop was at Arlington House at Arlington National Cemetery. As we topped the heights on which the house sits we began to understand Mary Custis Lee’s obsessive mourning for her childhood home; the view was breathtaking, a panoramic view of the Potomac River, a light mist curling around the banks, with the buzzing city on the other side the Capitol building just visible on the horizon was enough to bring us all to a complete standstill. We also toured the house itself where we were given a lesson in the trials of preservation and interpretation as we witnessed the reconstruction taking place within the house. Outside the house, we walked through the Civil War portions of the Arlington National Cemetery. Stopping at the original Tomb of the Unknown Soldier proved a powerful moment, reminding us of the anonymous deaths that marked the Civil War.

After Arlington House, we toured Ford’s Theatre. A new museum graces the ground floor of the still working theatre. The museum focuses not only on the assassination, but also on Lincoln’s presidency. It was probably one of the best museums I have had the privilege to walk through this semester. One of the most powerful moments arrived as we saw the box in which Booth shot Lincoln. Observing the seating, knowing that Lincoln spent his last moments in the box, reawakened the tragedy of the assassination that had dulled with so many retellings.

Our next stop took us to the Frederick Douglass House in Anacostia. Here we pelted our guide with questions concerning the memory of Frederick Douglass throughout history. The excellent preservation of the house itself was astounding to see, especially when compared to the condition of the Arlington House. Comparing the two made us wonder who is currently winning the war for memory, the Lost Cause adherents, or the Emancipationists?

Our next two stops shared certain parallels. First, we stopped at the Lincoln monument in Lincoln Park dedicated to emancipation. The kneeling slave at Lincoln’s feet sends a message of subjugation that is disconcerting to witness, especially immediately after a tour of the Frederick Douglass House. After the Lincoln monument, we proceeded to a little remembered monument, despite its massive size. The monument to Grant, towering in front of the Capitol building was originally meant to anchor the other end of the mall, directly across from the Lincoln Memorial. Unfortunately, in the battle for memory, Grant was forgotten in favor of Lost Cause heroes. His monument goes unnoticed for the most part today.

Our final stop was at the Lincoln Memorial. We arrived after dark, and as a result, the memorial was lit up with a bright white light. The moment was one filled with meaning for all of us as we stood in front of the giant statue of the Great Emancipator. It was a climactic moment for the semester as we sensed the greatness of the man depicted before us. As we left the Memorial, we left a bit of ourselves behind, a piece of memory to be visited in the years to come as we look back on this semester.

We returned home with a bit of sadness, realizing that we will never again return to the Appleford after a day of Civil War history. It has been a wonderful semester filled with laughter, learning, and family-like bonds of friendships. It will be heartbreaking to leave at the end of the semester, but we’ll return to our home institutions with new friendships and a deeper understanding of the war as a whole. Thank you Gettysburg College!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

"What General Lee's feelings were I do not know." General Grant on Lee at Appomattox Courthouse

Our last day in Richmond! We finished the military aspects of the Civil War today. As we ride home on the bus, it’s a little sad to acknowledge that our semester is drawing to a close. However, it was a wonderful day full of great interpretation.

We began our day with Jim Godburn at the High Bridge where Lee and the Confederate army retreated in April 1865 as they made their progress to Appomattox. The bridge was an impressive sight; the original pylons still stand in testament to the greatness of the bridge in the mid-1800s. Jim filled us in on the events that occurred during Lee’s retreat from Petersburg including the fall of Richmond and the Battle of Sailor’s Creek. As his presentation reached its conclusion I think we all felt a little excitement, knowing our next stop would bring us to Appomattox and Lee’s surrender.

At Appomattox, Mattea’s co-worker and friend, Bert Dunkerly gave us a tour of the town that saw Lee’s surrender. One of the most unreal moments came as we entered the McLean House whose parlor witnessed the final moments of the Confederacy. As we stood in the parlor where the surrender was signed on April 9, 1863 by Grant and Lee. I believe we all gave a small sigh, as we realized that the war was over. We have been so wrapped up in the Civil War this semester that we felt that something was coming to a close not only for the soldiers who had fought during the war, but for us as well.

Our last stop at Appomattox was on a lane at the far end of the park where the stacking of Confederate arms took place, marking the end of the Army of the Potomac. Here the infamous salute between Generals Gordon and Longstreet is said to have occurred, in some ways paving the road for the reconciliation that would in the years to come.

At the conclusion of our tour we loaded the bus once more for one last stop in Lexington. There we saw the tomb of Robert E. Lee at Washington and Lee College, in addition to the grave for Lee’s famed horse, Traveler. After Lee Washington, we stopped at the grave of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The lemons scattering the ground in front of his grave stood testament to the amount of people who still remember Jackson as a heroic figure to be honored.

We finally arrived back at the Appleford at 10:30pm, exhausted and happy to be back with our Appleford family. The weeks to come will find us frantically finishing our papers and making our final field trip to Washington D.C. It’s been a great ride thus far, and we’re all excited to see how it will end.

"No quarter!" United States Colored Troops battle cry at the Crater

What a great day! We woke up in Richmond and will be going to bed in Farmville. It was a whirlwind of a day, but amazing nonetheless!

We started our day in Hollywood Cemetery where we saw the final resting places of Confederate soldiers, George Pickett, Jefferson Davis, and Presidents Monroe and Tyler. In the Confederate section of the cemetery, we were interested by the sentiments expressed on the various headstones and monuments. The Lost Cause ideas propagated by some of the memorials reminded us that the war for the memory of the Civil War is still raging. One particular instance stands out as we look back on the day. While in the officer’s section, Caitlin found a piece of paper held against a marker for an unknown Confederate soldier. On it was written the war record for a soldier from Virginia who fought for the Confederacy. Underneath was scribbled “You are missed and not forgotten.” Such a message illustrates that the Civil War is still very much in the forefront of the minds of some of the American populace.

We continued our day at the Tredegar Ironworks. There, Dr. Norman taught us about the controversy surrounding the 2003 erection of the statue of Lincoln at Tredegar. He mentioned that protestors compared Lincoln to Attila the Hun as a conqueror in his captured country. Inside the visitor center, Dawn enjoyed seeing the full sized pontoon bridge on display on the first floor while Mattea and Caitlin wandered the Richmond exhibit on the third floor.

After a hurried lunch eaten on the run, we dashed to Petersburg for our tour with Ranger Emmanuel Dabney. Over the course of the afternoon, Emmanuel gave us a look into the lives of soldiers during the nine month siege of Petersburg. Abe in particular was excited about the earthworks within the park. In one section, the National Park Service recreated the types of fieldworks that would have been in place during the siege. The intricacies of the field works put us in mind of those that would be used during World War I.

One of the most sobering moments of the tour came at the Crater where Emmanuel interpreted the atrocities that took place during the battle on July 30, 1864. The amount and methods of violence against the United States Colored Troops during the battle were sickening. Emmanuel’s program was enlightening and gave us a closer look at one of the most atrocious moments of the 1864 campaign.

Tomorrow we’ll start our day with a tour of the High Bridge and then it’s off to Appomattox to revisit the final moments of the war, and then home to the Appleford. For now, it’s time for bed to prepare for another exciting day in Virginia.

"Ah! these are my brave Texans. I know you, and I know that you can and will keep those people back!" Robert E. Lee at the Wilderness

This morning found us on the road to Richmond as our studies enter the third year of the war. We’ll be spending the weekend in Virginia to follow the events of 1864 and 1865. Today, we started with the beginnings of the Overland Campaign at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House with our guide, Jake Struhelka.

In the Wilderness, we started at Saunder’s Field where some of the first fighting took place on May 5. One of the most interesting moments during this stop came as we walked the field, following in the steps of the 140th New York that took 50% casualties within the woods around Saunder’s Field. As we picked through the woods, the difficulties faced by each army as they attempted to maneuver became apparent. The dense undergrowth slowed us and we didn’t have to worry about being shot by enemy fire. The intact Confederate earthworks were interesting and provided tangible evidence of the ferocity of the fighting at the Wilderness.

This afternoon we continued our tour of the Overland Campaign at Spotsylvania Court House. Personally, my favorite moment of the day took place when we studied Upton’s attack on the Mule Shoe. For the first time, we encountered a moment in which the Union army broke through a reinforced Confederate line. The attack was made without Upton’s hand picked men firing a shot on the Confederates as they charged. The bravery and determination required for such an attack was astounding. The intensity of the fighting in this area was also apparent just a few hundred yards away from the Mule Shoe at the bloody angle. The remnants of Confederate and Union earthworks stand a mere six feet apart, the trenches serving as an eerie reminder of the horrors of World War I trench warfare.

We finished the day at the Massaponex Church in Fredericksburg that was used as headquarters for both armies at various points during the campaign. A famous O’Sullivan photo of Union commanders was taken from the top of the church in May 1863. The inside of the church retains several original architectural structures. However, the most interesting part of the church is on the walls in the balcony. Union and Confederate soldiers covered the walls with penciled messages of hope, pride, and revenge. While the church whitewashed over the messages following the war, parts of the graffiti have been uncovered providing yet another insight into the hearts and minds of Civil War soldiers.

After investigating the Massaponex Church, we loaded the bus and made the final leg of the journey to Richmond to settle in for the night. Tomorrow we’ll continue our battlefield experiences in Petersburg, and see the sights of Richmond including Monument Avenue and the Hollywood Cemetery. Until then, it’s time for a little rest and recuperation before continuing our own Richmond Campaign.

"Well, it is all over now. The battle is lost, and many of us are prisoners, many are dead, many wounded, bleeding and dying." George Pickett

Today John Heiser and Scott Hartwig gave us our last tour of Gettysburg. It was an exciting chance to get to know the town we’ve lived in for a semester a little bit better. The morning began with a tour of the town from John Heiser, historian at Gettysburg National Military Park. We walked with him from the Appleford up to the train station that saw President Lincoln arrive in November 1863, for the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. It was powerful to stand in the same place where Lincoln stepped off the train while he most likely thought about the address he would give the next day. As we toured the town, John pointed out the old GAR post and the various buildings that had been used as hospitals during the battle. His tour gave us a whole new look on the town we thought we knew so well. Throughout the morning I marveled at how we are surrounded by our nation’s history while studying at Gettysburg.

John also took us on a tour of the myriad of barns that still stand on the battlefield. As he pointed out the features that marked each barn, John impressed upon us the importance of good research as a part of historic preservation. At several barns, most notably the Snyder farm, John gave us examples of preservation efforts that had gone horribly wrong even though the preservationists involved had the best of intentions. It gave us an interesting glimpse into the world of historic preservation.

We ate lunch at the famous Pickett’s Buffet which was an experience all to itself! As soon as lunch was over, we hiked across the road to Brian’s Barn to meet historian Scott Hartwig for a tour of Pickett’s Charge. The tour was a look at both the military and memory issues that tie our nation to the event that occurred on the third day of Gettysburg. Scott walked us out to the Virginia monument, approximately where the charge began and walked us all the way back in the same route the Confederate soldiers took on July 3. These soldiers belonged not only to Pickett’s Division, but to the divisions of Pettigrew and Trimble as well. While marching down the same path as they did almost 150 years ago showed us how difficult that march would have been for the soldiers. I was amazed that they could stay in straight battle lines in order to perform various maneuvers against the enemy.

We finished the tour at the Bloody Angle where we tried to imagine the close quarters fighting that took place on both sides of the wall. Scott urged us to look at the monuments dedicated to those regiments at the Bloody Angle and consider what such monuments symbolized and what they meant to convey to visitors to the area. Through the High Water Mark monument to the 72nd Pennsylvania monument, we saw again the importance of memory when studying the Civil War.

It was a cold day, but a fascinating one that left us a little forlorn that we’d finished the battle of Gettysburg. But next week it’s off to Richmond for a weekend which will surely be full of great memories with wonderful friends! On to Richmond!

"It did not seem possible to withstand another shock like this now coming on. Our loss had been severe." Joshua Chamberlain

Today we continued our tour of Gettysburg by following the second day’s events with our guide John Archer. Throughout the day, John focused on the human element of the battle that can sometimes get buried under the specifics of troop movements and regimental numbers.

The most poignant moment arose as we stood in a portion of the Wheatfield. John showed us a Gardener photo that had been taken in the same area about a week after the battle. Standing in the same spot where those men had died sobered us all as we looked about the peaceful scene surrounding us. I know I at least wondered what the families of those who had died would have felt upon receiving the news of the loss of their loved one. I could not imagine the pain of receiving word that my brother, father, or friend had fallen at Gettysburg. Even more horrifying would have been seeing photographs of their dead bodies littered across a pasture like an animal without anyone to witness his last moments.

Another interesting moment came during our afternoon on Culp’s Hill. Amazingly enough, some of the breastworks used by Union soldiers during their defense of Culp’s Hill on the second day are still intact. Their use of traverse lines was intriguing and serves as another tie to the modern warfare of World War I. John once again brought the human element to the forefront as he described the fighting that took place between Union and Confederate Maryland troops. The emotional trauma that would have been added by fighting men from the same state must have been tremendous on those soldiers. Interestingly, the only Confederate monument on the field is a Maryland monument on Culp’s Hill on the Union battle lines. John noted that behind the monument in the woods was a Confederate burial site. Although the bodies were re-interred elsewhere, the dip in the ground is still visible from the path.

Our second day at Gettysburg ended once more on East Cemetery Hill as we discussed the use of artillery on the second day. At the conclusion of our tour, we returned to the Appleford with a more in-depth understanding of the second day’s battle. Next week we will finish our tour of Gettysburg with a look at the town itself and Pickett’s Charge.