Another Battle at Gettysburg?


Next weekend marks the 154th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.  It looks like Gettysburg will once again be a battleground, but this time the “war” is a cultural one, focused on modern debates about free speech, the Trump presidency, and Confederate monuments.

Read Dustin Levy’s piece at the York Daily Record.  Here is a taste:

The Gettysburg National Military Park has issued three special use permits for first amendment activities on July 1, according to a Thursday news release.

“As custodians of land owned by the American people, the National Park Service has a responsibility to make that land available for exercising those rights,” Bill Justice, acting park superintendent, said in the release.

“As with any First Amendment activities, Gettysburg National Military Park’s objectives are to provide for public safety, minimize impacts on historic resources of this park, and afford visitors an enjoyable experience.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans Mechanized Cavalry and Real 3% Risen will gather north of Meade’s Headquarters near 160 Taneytown Road from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The park expects 250 to 500 participants with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and 500 to 1,500 participants with Real 3% Risen, a Facebook group dedicated to protecting American freedoms.

Ski Bischof, of Allentown, helped organize the events with a Facebook event called “Support America and Her History.” Together, they are joining up with the other groups to form a united front against a group that might be there to protest against President Trump and/or the Confederate flag, according to the Facebook event page.

A third group, Maryland Sons of Confederate Veterans, consisting of about 20 people, is planning to march in formation from the North Carolina Memorial to the Virginia Memorial, with small ceremonies along the way, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The events came about, in part, because of unsubstantiated reports of an activist group coming to the battlefield on July 1. The allegations of this group’s intended activities have spread on social media the past couple weeks, infuriating many.

Read the entire article here.

Settling for Zachary Taylor

Last month the “Hall of Presidents,” a wax museum of American presidents in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, went out of business and auctioned-off everything in the museum.  I live about thirty miles from Gettysburg and I was tempted to drive down for the auction. I thought I might be able to land a life-size wax POTUS for my Messiah College office.  When I told my 15-year-old daughter about my plans she thought it was a little creepy.

Sadly I had a schedule conflict that day and could not go.  But I am glad that Late Night with Stephen Colbert was there:

The Author’s Corner with Steve Longenecker

Steve Longenecker is Professor of American History at Bridgewater College. This interview is based on his new book, Gettysburg Religion: Refinement, Diversity, and Race in the Antebellum and Civil War Border North (Fordham University Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write Gettysburg Religion?

SL: I noticed that a map of the election of 1856 depicted a stark divide between the northern North, which voted for Fremont, and the southern North, which went for Buchanan. It looked like a straight latitude line through the middle of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and I determined that a border North must have existed as a counterpoint to the border South. The border North went on my list of questions to investigate.

Years later I began the project at Gettysburg. I was on sabbatical and just for fun spent a few days investigating Dunkers/Church of the Brethren (my faith tradition) who lived on the battlefield. I found a great story and was hooked.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Gettysburg Religion

SL: The religion of Gettysburg and the surrounding region, the Border North, reveals much about larger American society and about how trends in the Border North mirrored national developments. In many ways, the Border North belonged to the future and signaled a coming pattern for modern American.

JF: Why do we need to read Gettysburg Religion

SL: I believe in my thesis and intend to contribute to scholarship, but mostly I hope that people read the book for fun. Gettysburg Religion has interesting detail and a new perspective on one of America’s most famous small towns. Gettysburg, for example, was surprisingly diverse with African Americans, Catholics, Dunkers, Scottish Dissenters, and recent immigrants in addition to the mainline fellowships. Additionally, the Border North was on the edge of bondage—Gettysburg was only seven miles from slave territory—and the region had surprisingly complex race relations. Gettysburg Religion also resurrects small town religion, including peculiarities that make human behavior so fascinating and congregational life, which was sometimes inspiring and other times irrational. The book, then, is unique not just for its point about the Border North but also for bringing back to life average persons in the small-town mid-nineteenth century.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? 

SL: I committed to teaching history when I was in the fourth grade. I realized that I really loved history and that it came easily for me, and teaching felt like the natural path to pursue this talent.

JF: What is your next project? 

SL: I am examining the religion of Confederate chaplains after the war. Chaplains are legendary for their very public advocacy of the Lost Cause, but their personal faith and congregational life are less well-known. I have found that sometimes the religion of Lost Cause chaplains was more complex and more progressive than the simplistic, very conservative public faith they espoused as celebrants of the Cause of Lee and Jackson. Although the project is too new to speak definitively about the organization of the book, at this point the doctrine of the two kingdoms comes to mind: some chaplains (but not all) had one set of beliefs in God’s kingdom and another in the worldly kingdom. The project will interpret the Lost Cause as communal balm to justify the devastating cost and mistake of the Civil War rather than civil religion or a romantic, anti-modernist rant.
JF: Thanks Steve, sounds good!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Gettysburg’s "Copse of Trees"

We were talking about Gettysburg the other day in my Pennsylvania History course and I found myself referencing the infamous “copse of trees.”  Any Civil War buff knows what I mean by this phrase.  The copse was the focal point of Pettegrew and Pickett’s famous charge on July 3, 1863, the last day of the battle.  The trees are located within a short stone wall known as “The Angle” in an area of the battlefield often referred to as the “High Water Mark.”

In the middle of my lecture I stopped and referenced Keith Harris’s recent blog post “Is There Any Other ‘Copse’ of Trees?”  Good question.  None of my students had ever heard of the word “copse” being used in another context.  Here is a taste of Harris’s post at his really interesting blog “Keith Harris History“:
But why copse? Why not “patch” or “grove” or “thicket” or something like that? It seems that the word was selected for this particular growth of trees by historian/artist John B. Bachelder back in 1870 – in a book detailing a painting on the repulse of Longstreet’s Assault (at least that is the earliest reference that I am aware of). And the name stuck. As the Battle of Gettysburg ascended higher and higher again into American lore and legend, the copse became The Copse of mythic proportions.
So by my estimation, this little stand of trees has ruined the word for any other copses out there. That is all well and good, I suppose. I mean, no one really uses the word any more to refer to other trees…so what’s the trouble with having only one copse? Maybe other small groves of trees should go by the term “coppice.” It’s almost the same and such a reference won’t confuse any Civil War enthusiasts who happen to be nearby.

Gettysburg: Memory, Market, Shrine

It is Gettysburg week in my Pennsylvania History course.  I am devoting class on Tuesday and Thursday to the story and commemoration of the battle.  I spent a good chunk of the day yesterday with Jim Weeks’s Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and An American Shrine.  I can’t say enough good things about this book.  Weeks was a Pennsylvania historian who left us too early.  (He passed away in 2005).

Weeks makes five major arguments about post-1863 Gettysburg:

1.  Gettysburg did not become a “shrine by popular will.”  It was promoted that way.

2.  Gettysburg was never at odds with the marketplace.

3.  African Americans have “ignored Gettysburg” because they had never been part of the commemoration

4.  The idea that some features of Gettysburg (avenues and monuments) “transcended” the marketplace while others (observation towers and trolleys) “desacralized” the site is not true.

5.  The present-era at Gettysburg, defined by “heritage” and “authenticity,” is merely “the latest in a series of transformations driven by cultural, economic, and social change….”

Gettysburg Religion

Steve Longenecker’s new book, Gettysburg Religion: Refinement, Diversity, and Race in the Antebellum and Civil War Border North, just came across my desk today.  Fordham University Press did a really nice job with the dust jacket and it comes with endorsements from Ed Ayers, Ruth Doan, and Steve Woodworth.

I have been waiting for someone to write a religious history of Gettysburg and I know Steve has been working on this project for several years.  I smell a speaking gig at the new Seminary Ridge Museum.

Here is a taste from the jacket blurb.

In the borderland between freedom and slavery, Gettysburg remains among the most legendary Civil War landmarks. A century and a half after the great battle, Cemetery Hill, the Seminary and its ridge, and the Peach Orchard remain powerful memories for their embodiment of the small-town North and their ability to touch themes vital to nineteenth-century religion. During this period, three patterns became particularly prominent: refinement, diversity, and war. In Gettysburg Religion, author Steve Longenecker explores the religious history of antebellum and Civil War era Gettysburg, shedding light on the remarkable diversity of American religion and the intricate ways it interacted with the broader culture. Longenecker argues that Gettysburg religion revealed much about larger American society and about how trends in the Border North mirrored national developments. In many ways, Gettysburg and its surrounding Border North religion belonged to the future and signaled a coming pattern for modern America.

Weekend in Gettysburg and Lancaster

I started off the weekend in Gettysburg where I visited the brand new (July 2013) Seminary Ridge Museum.  This is a must stop the next time you are in Gettysburg.  The museum, which is located on the campus of the Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg, is housed in a building that played a pivotal role on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg and served as a hospital in the months following the battle.  The museum has three floors, covering the first day of the battle, the care of the wounded in the Seminary hospital, and the role of religion and slavery in antebellum America.  I am currently writing a more extensive review of this museum.  Stay tuned.

Seminary Ridge Museum
Has nothing to do with the Battle of Gettysburg, but I couldn’t pass this pic up.  It is a Lutheran seminary after all

General John Buford’s View from the cupola on the morning of July, 1, 1863

A better view from the cupola

On Saturday I was in Lancaster, PA.  My daughter was playing in the MLK Kickoff Classic, one of the largest volleyball events on the East coast.  During breaks from the games, while Allyson bonded with her teammates, I wandered around historic Lancaster.  Last December I participated in a conference on the Conestoga Indian massacre of 1763, but I did not get a chance to make it to the Fulton Opera House, the site of the jail in which the Paxton Boys killed several Indians who were being kept there under the protection of the government.  Here are few pics I snapped at the site:

Site of the second phase of the Conestoga Massacre–December 1763

On Monday, we were still playing volleyball.  Our site was moved to Thaddeus Stevens School of Technology in Lancaster.  Not much early American history here (the school was founded in 1905), but there was a cool statue of Thaddeus Stevens.

JFK at Gettsyburg

It has been a very full week for history buffs.  This week we commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  I thus found Diana Loski’s piece at The Gettysburg Experience particularly relevant reading on this Saturday morning.  She describes John Kennedy’s visit to Gettysburg in March 1963.  Here is a taste:

…Since Caroline was not as interested as her parents; and, in the days before seat belts and car seats were required, she grew restless during the drive. She was soon relegated to ride in the other car. The President and First Lady drove on, with their guide, down Seminary Ridge, and disembarked at the North Carolina Memorial near the site where many Confederates stepped off for Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863. The monument was one of Sheads’ favorites, and JFK took a moment to read the inscription on the block behind Gutzon Borglum’s magnificent sculpture. He commented to his guide that he hadn’t known that one in four of all who fell at Gettysburg was a North Carolinian.

The First Couple took a few moments to gaze across the mile-wide field of Pickett’s Charge, then returned to the convertible to continue on their tour. They also got out to take a closer look at the Virginia Memorial, also on Seminary Ridge, and took a long look at the statue of Robert E. Lee atop Traveller – on the spot where the general watched the famous charge at Gettysburg.

The Kennedys drove to Little Round Top, through Devil’s Den, and stopped at the Wheatfield – where the Irish Brigade had fought. Sheads showed the President where his ancestor’s regiment, the 28th Massachusetts, had placed their monument at the Stony Hill area. On the monument are the words “Faugh a Ballaugh!” the motto of the famed Irish Brigade. Sheads had recently learned the meaning of the Gaelic phrase and, ever the teacher, he asked the President if he knew the meaning of the words. “Sure I do,” Kennedy replied. “It means ‘Clear the Way’.” It is not known if Colonel Sheads told the President, but fighting against the Irish Brigade in the area was a Confederate colonel from South Carolina with the same surname. He was John Doby Kennedy from South Carolina, a colonel in General Kershaw’s brigade at Gettysburg. He survived the war, and, like the President, made a name for himself in politics.

My Hometown Paper Retracts Its 1863 Editorial on the Gettysburg Address

In case you have not heard, the Harrisburg (PA) Patriot-News, known in 1863 as the Patriot & Union, did not like Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  In light of tomorrow’s 150th anniversary of the address, the newspaper has decided to retract its editorial.  Here is the editorial:

A Voice from the Dead We have read the oration of Mr. Everett. We have read the little speechesof President Lincoln, as reported for and published in his party press, and we have read the remarks of the Hon. Secretary of State, Wm. H. Seward,all delivered on the occasion of dedicating the National Cemetery, a plot ofground set apart for the burial of the dead who fell at Gettysburg in thememorable strife which occurred there between the forces of the FederalGovernment and the troops of the Confederacy of seceded States.To say of Mr. Everett’s oration that it rose to the height which the occasiondemanded, or to say of the President’s remarks that they fell below ourexpectations, would be alike false. Neither the orator nor the jestersurprised or deceived us. Whatever may be Mr. Everett’s failings he doesnot lack sense – whatever may be the President’s virtues, he does notpossess sense. Mr. Everett failed as an orator, because the occasion was amockery, and he knew it, and the President succeeded, because he actednaturally, without sense and without constraint, in a panorama which wasgotten up more for his benefit and the benefit of his party than for the gloryof the nation and the honor of the dead. We can readily conceive that the thousands who went there went asmourners, to view the burial place of their dead, to consecrate, so far ashuman agency could, the ground in which the slain heroes of the nation,standing in relationship to them of fathers, husbands, brothers, orconnected by even remoter ties of marriage or consanguinity, were to beinterred. To them the occasion was solemn; with them the motive washonest, earnest and honorable. But how was it with the chief actors in thepageant, who had no dead buried, or to be buried there; from none of whoseloins had sprung a solitary hero, living or dead, of this war which was begotten of their fanaticism and has been ruled by their whims?They stood there, upon that ground, not with hearts stricken with grief orelated by ideas of true glory, but coldly calculating the political advantages which might be derived from the solemn ceremonies of the dedication. We will not include in this category of heartless men the orator of the day; but evidently he was paralyzed by the knowledge that he was surrounded by unfeeling, mercenary men, ready to sacrifice their country and theliberties of their countrymen for the base purpose of retaining power and

accumulating wealth. Hi oration was therefore cold, insipid, unworthy theoccasion and the man. We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and thatthey shall be no more repeated or thought of.But the Secretary of State is a man of note. He it was who first fulminatedthe doctrine of the irrepressible conflict; and on the battle field and burialground of Gettysburg he did not hesitate to re-open the bleeding wound,and proclaim anew the fearful doctrine that we are fighting all these bloody battles, which have drenched our land in gore, to upset the Constitution,emancipate the negro and bind the white man in the chains of despotism.On that ground which should have been sacred from the pollution ofpolitics, even the highest magnate in the land, next to the Presidenthimself, did not hesitate to proclaim the political policy and fixed purposeof the administration; a policy which if adhered to will require more groundthan Gettysburg to hold our dead, and which must end in the ruin of thenation. The dead of Gettysburg will speak from their tombs; they will raisetheir voices against this great wickedness and implore our rulers todiscard from their councils the folly which is destroying us, and return tothe wise doctrines of the Fathers, to the pleadings of Christianity, to thecompromises of the Constitution, which can alone save us. Let our rulershearken to the dead, if they will not to the living – for from every tomb which covers a dead soldier, if they listen attentively they will hear asolemn sound invoking them to renounce partisanship for patriotism, andto save the country from the misery and desolation which, under theirpresent policy, is inevitable.

A Civil Religion Vacation

Gettysburg: Hallowed ground?

Over at The Christian Century, Lutheran pastor Benjamin Dueholm describes his “civil religion vacation” to some of America’s most “sacred” places–the Statue of Liberty, Gettysburg, and Hyde Park.  Here is a taste of his reflection on the trip:

Christians have always had a complicated relationship with nations and with the whole project of peace and prosperity. St. Augustine, whose biography I happened to be reading at the time, understood the peace of the Roman Empire as ultimately false when measured against the peace of the City of God. People in my line of work have always struggled to re­mind our patriotic faithful that the nation, however great, is not to be worshiped. We have imagined that Christian­ity embodies something both below the nation, in the poor and marginal who have always been left out of the great stories, and above the nation in virtues and hopes that civil religion cannot produce or explain.

Lincoln would later be reasonably accused of making the nation into a sort of church. Augustine’s earth was hallowed by the martyrs, while Lincoln’s ground was consecrated by the soldiers who strove for a new birth of freedom.

And yet the bone-deep longings and halfway triumphs of our own bloody national history are not lightly transcended, as one might move from Billy Joel to Chopin. The breaking of chains, literal and figurative, is an event full of religious meaning—as both Old and New Testa­ment in­sist. The wall-sized painting of Washington crossing the Delaware—“Whoa,” my son said when we came into its gallery at the Met—is grandiose and inaccurate in the manner of any icon. Which is to say that it is trying to express a truth that goes deeper than appearances.

In taking this trip with my family, I was trying to escape briefly my own hallowed piece of earth and my own high-minded vocation. Instead we found ourselves on ground littered with relics, hallowed with a liberal mixture of blood—and alive with all the memory and meaning we could bear.

A Battlefield Guide Reflects on the 150th Anniversary Celebration at Gettysburg

Garry Adelman is an author, licensed battlefield guide, and Director of History Education at the Civil War Trust.  It sounds like he was pretty busy last week commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.  He reflects on the experience at Civil War Memory.  Here is a taste:

I thought that the July 3rd Commemorative March would be cool and had hoped that it would include the requisite 12,000 people. It did. The NPS estimates that some 15,000 were on Seminary Ridge with even more on Cemetery Ridge. As the March started, I was atop the Pennsylvania Memorial with about 100 others. I narrated what happened historically as it was happening in front of us. This was wildly cool. I have told the story of Pickett’s Charge countless times and have done my best to paint the picture, to bring it to life. Obviously, seeing that many people crossing that field was exceedingly instructive.  I was struck at the impossibility of capturing the March with my cameras. It was simply too big.  Even from atop Gettysburg’s largest monument, I could not see the whole thing and I found no single place where I could. I have not seen a single photo, even panoramic, that encapsulates the breadth. It was also incredible how small the individual people were as they crossed. The mob looked large but the individuals were much smaller than I had expected.

As the March continued, I moved toward the Angle to the occasional cannon blast and Rebel Yell. As the “troops” arrived, they stretched from the Bryan farm to the U.S. Regulars Monument. Again, hard to take in, harder to explain. You simply had to be there. The “opposing” forces remained separated as a bugler played Taps. Then another. As the next one started, I started shooting a video as I walked, hand on heart, southward, capturing the last seven buglers. I am not aware that anyone else walked along for this many, let alone shot a video of it.  The personal meaning bestowed by the successive performances as some 30,000 people stood in silence caught me completely off guard. It was awesome, and for perhaps the first time, I am using this word literally. Check out the video here, if you care to.

Gettysburg vs. Gettysburg

Jesse Smith, writing at The Smart Set, discusses the historic tensions between the town of Gettysburg and Gettysburg National Military Park.  Smith respects the attempts to keep the battlefield “sacred ground,” but also enjoys the kitsch of the town.  She writes: “any town with a Victorian photography studio, Civil War wax museum, multiple ghost tours, a fireworks superstore, and the General Pickett’s All-You-Can-Eat Buffet is a town worth exploring.”

Indeed it is.  While I can fully understand the need to restore the battlefield to its original 1863 state, Gettysburg also provides a wonderful laboratory for exploring the relationship between historical memory and consumerism.  Whenever I give a tour of the battlefield I take my students to General Pickett’s Buffet for lunch and offer them a short lecture (usually in the parking lot) of how it is hard to separate commercialism from these so-called “sacred sites.”

The best book on these issues is Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine.

Here is a taste of Smith’s excellent piece:

Gettysburg the Park has been trying to kick the kitsch factor of Gettysburg the town long before it developed a new master plan in 1999. In 1959, Kenneth and Thelma Dick opened a children’s amusement park named Fantasyland Storybook Park one mile south of Gettysburg’s downtown and close to the site of General Meade’s headquarters. Fantasyland offered attractions based on fairy tales, plus puppet theaters, live animal shows, and Indian “attacks.” The site boasted that presidents’ children and grandchildren made repeated visits; it described itself as “truly a ‘must’ for discerning families.”

The Park Service disagreed. It would decide what discerning families truly must see and experience at Gettysburg. In 1974, it bought Fantasyland but allowed the Dicks to continue operating the site. Fantasyland finally closed in 1980. The Park Service also allowed the Dicks to stay in the house they owned there. Thelma did until last year, when she died at 93 . Then the Park Service demolished the house. 

Seminary Ridge Museum Now Open

Have you visited the Seminary Ridge Museum yet?  If you are in Gettysburg or planning a trip there soon I strongly encourage you to check it out. (It is located on the campus of the Lutheran Theological Seminary).

I hope to make my visit once the crowds die down a bit, but I have heard good things about it so far from director Barbara Franco (who I worked with when she was the head of the Pennsylvania Historical and Musuem Commission) and two of the its early interns–Katie Garland and Josh Adams (both students of mine at Messiah College).  See our earlier posts here and here.

Here is a taste of a nice write-up on the museum’s opening from Religion News Service:

Today, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Schmucker Hall, located on the campus of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, reopens as a museum reflecting on the epic battle, the costly war and the complex role of faith. 
Seminary Ridge Museum will take visitors into the minds of those who fought and explore their conflicting ideas of freedom.
Some 750,000 soldiers died during the Civil War and many of them carried and quoted from the Bible. But they read it in divergent ways that still reverberate in a polarized America.
“People have found it comfortable to find a way to think about the Civil War in terms of valor and heroism,” said Barbara Franco, executive director of the museum. “We want to really look at these other parts of it—causes, consequences—and leave people thinking there’s more to this than just the simple answers.”

Black at Gettysburg

What was it like to be an African American at Gettysburg in 1863?  As Kevin Levin points out, many of them, like Abraham and Elizabeth Brian, were not present during the battle.  The Brians and their family fled the town when they heard that Lee and his army were approaching.

Read Levin’s essay about Gettysburg’s African Americans at the History News Network.  Here is a taste:

Four months later Abraham Lincoln paid a visit to Gettysburg to dedicate a new cemetery for those Union soldiers, who “gave the last full measure.” His brief address called on Americans to see the war through to its end in the name of a “new birth of freedom.” By then a number of black residents from Gettysburg and the surrounding region had returned and like others struggled to put the pieces of their lives back together and return to some sense of normalcy. Others chose not to return at the risk of what might happen if Confederates chose to push north again. An unknown number never returned to the area. The feint echoes of their voices should serve as a warning to those of us who in the early afternoon of July 3 will gaze out on the undulating fields between Cemetery and Seminary Ridge with a child’s imagination of what might have been. We would do well to remember that the ebb and flow of the two armies leading to and from Gettysburg rippled through the surrounding countryside. For the unknown number of African Americans rounded up by the Confederate army, who called Gettysburg and the surrounding region home, Union victory mattered little. For them a new birth of freedom would have to wait just a little longer. 

Gettysburg’s 150th: A Re-enactor Weighs In

Culp’s Hill, Gettysburg, PA

What would the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg be without reenactors?  

Some of you will remember “Lewis Norman,” our soldier’s correspondent from the Civil War.  Norman has taken us through the battles of Bull Run, Ball’s Bluff, McDowell, and Chancellorsville and in the process has offered some reflections on “living history” (reenacting) as a form of public history.
Today we have a piece from Willie P. Mangum. (Not his real name). Willie is a Ph.D candidate in American history and a Confederate reenactor.  I hope you enjoy his piece on living history and race at a Culp’s Hill reenactment.  Enjoy!  –JF
I have reenacted the Civil War for over twenty-five years and cannot escape the boyish joy of material culture, hanging with friends in the woods, and playing army. At the same time I am an academic historian very aware of the hobby’s limitations in the modern historiographical landscape. Because of this bifurcation of my historical interests, reenactments like the one I participated in last weekend at Gettysburg are filled with satisfaction, anger, and uncertainty. Let me explain with one example.
On Saturday evening our small group of Confederates assaulted the fortified Union position on “Culp’s Hill.” The actual “fight” went so much better than the highly choreographed and completely dull and misleading scripted scenarios the spectators see in the open fields. Our lines went up the wooded and rocky hill in repeated waves, double-quicking through the thorny brush and just as quickly falling back before heavy Federal fire. As one line fell back, another pushed through it to the front. 
I challenged my friend to see who could make it further to the top amid the confusion. Like most Confederate soldiers at Culp’s Hill, I eventually “took a hit.” This meant that my exhausted legs faltered, I stumbled on rocks, I lost my balance, and fell to the ground in a twisted lump. At least it was several yards ahead of my friend.
We lay “wounded” just yards from the Union position. My friend and I gave ourselves over to the Yankees as prisoners and their guards corralled us with others in a huddled circle behind their lines. I wasn’t particularly trying to be in character aside from just acting defeated. I sat with my arms crossed before my knees and my head down.
Others, however, attempted to express the recently-captured experience by being loud and defiant. Maybe they were correct in their portrayal, but the efforts to protect their officer from separation or help a wounded friend was hindered by poorly performed stage drama that made me want to get away from it all.
We eventually did, but before that I witnessed an extremely unique and complicated scene. As we sat in our prisoner pile, an African-American gentleman walked into our midst and began rifling through our haversacks. (I recognized this man from other events and know him to be a high-quality living historian, but I don’t know him personally.) He took all the food and bags of tobacco he could find.  This was unusual for a number of reasons. All of our gear and possessions are considered personal property and usually a scenario involving theft is followed by a return of the “stolen” goods. But as far as I could tell, he kept everything. I liked that, probably because I didn’t wear my haversack for that scenario and thus lost no food or tobacco.
But the more intriguing aspect of this “theft” was how his actions represented the seriously inverted power dynamics present in the later years of the Civil War. This man walked among us with an air of impunity, not even stopping to acknowledge the men he pilfered. I recalled the many historical instances of newly freed black men and women who exerted personhood and independence by haughty and contemptuous treatment of former masters. I never see this at reenactments and here it was happening before me. What a thrill. 
What elevated his actions even further was the reaction of some of the prisoners who resisted this freedman with impotent epithets of outrage. This improvised moment was a rather sophisticated and fascinating look into the evolving racial realities for Confederate soldiers and black men as slavery fell apart.
While I observed this, I also cringed. In hindsight I am certain the prisoners who reacted were doing so “in character” and did not harbor any actual animosity toward an African-American reenactor (who they might well have known). But this hobby is full of people who are not shy about expressing modern opinions about race and racial politics that liberal academics like me consider uncouth, at best. While I watched the interactions, I feared that the wrong word might get aired or a genuinely insensitive sentiment might have been uncovered. I prayed that it would end before one did.
As the scenario wound down my friend and I prepared to depart the area. As I left, I saw the African-American gentleman. I had to say something about how much I appreciated his portrayal and what he had just done. I croaked out a quick “that was good, thank you” in passing. Unless I missed something, I don’t think he acknowledged me. As I slunk back over the breastworks toward our own line I wondered if he harbored the same uncertainty about me as I did toward the prisoners he had just agitated. I was, as we academics say, troubled.

More Gettysburg

If you are unable to make it to Gettysburg this week (or if you have deliberately decided to avoid the crowds), the Civil War Trust  is tweeting all the events of the Battle of Gettysburg over the next few days.  Here is a taste:

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    Soldiers await battle as the armies move into position.Learn about the opposing generals
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    US Gen. George Meade fortifies Cemetery Ridge, Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. Lee plans to strike all 3. Map: