Following the 20th Massachusetts From Antietam to Gettysburg
It’s that time of year again. In three weeks students at my school will spend time outside the classroom setting engaged in a broad range of activities. Last year I helped lead a group of 40 students on a civil rights trip from Atlanta to Memphis. It was an incredibly rewarding experience for everyone involved.
This year I will lead my own group of 12 students on a Civil War battlefield tour that will explore the war in 1862 and 1863. We will visit the battlefields of Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg as well as the town of Harpers Ferry. The time frame of the battles will give us the opportunity to explore a number of issues, including the relationship between the battlefield and home front and the gradual shift in Union policy toward emancipation.
To give the trip a local feel we are going to follow the men who served in the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which was also known as the “Harvard Regiment” owing to the number of officers connected to the school. It’s an ideal regiment in many ways. First, it included a diverse group of men from the highest ranks of Boston society to recent immigrants and a wide range of blue collar workers. The unit also saw heavy action at each of the sites that we will visit. Students will have packets that include profiles of a select group of men as well as samples of their letters and diaries, which we will discuss along the way. This trip will focus primarily on the soldiers experience and the transition from volunteer to veteran.
Our specific stops each offer unique opportunities:
At Harpers Ferry we will discuss the coming of the war and the importance of slavery at a site which speaks for itself. While on their way to the Virginia Peninsula the 20th Massachusetts bivouacked at Harpers Ferry. I have a number of personal accounts that paint a vivid picture of the landscape and offer thoughts about John Brown’s connection to the town.
At Antietam we will meet up with Garry Adelman of the Civil War Trust to discuss photography. My students are in for a real treat as Garry is an expert on this subject and does a wonderful job of connecting past and present through some of the most iconic images of this battle. The 20th Mass. saw heavy action in the West Woods during the early phase of the fighting. A number of key figures in the regiment were wounded, including future Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes.
At Fredericksburg we will explore the intersection of the battlefield and the civilian experience. This is an ideal location in which to do so. We can follow the crossing of the 20th Mass. on December 11, 1862 and their brutal fighting in the streets of Fredericksburg along with the sacking of the town which followed. We will also follow the regiment’s approach to Marye’s Heights. Finally, students will have read selections from John Washington’s narrative of his life as a slave in the city. I can’t wait to hear a student read aloud Washington’s vivid description of his river crossing to freedom on the actual site.
Our final stop will be at Gettysburg, where we will spend a day and a half. We will tour part of the battlefield with Peter Carmichael of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. Pete is going to take us to the shallow burial pits on Culp’s Hill, where I hope we can have a discussion about death in the Civil War. If time permits we will also talk about battlefield monuments and how they help us to understand how veterans remembered their experiences and whether they may hinder our own ability to understand the horrors of battle. We will walk Pickett’s Charge on the final day and explore the 2oth’s role in repulsing the Pickett-Pettigrew Assault. The regiment has a wonderful monument along Cemetery Ridge that is essentially a large piece of “Puddingstone” pulled from the Boston area.
Throughout the week students will also be considering the importance of preserving these historic sites. Garry Adelman is going to help us to think more deeply about these issues while at Antietam and students may even have the opportunity to do interviews as part of a Civil War Trust video. This promises to be an incredible experience for everyone involved. Of course, I will do my best to post photos and commentary on the Civil War Memory Facebook page and Twitter. Given the weather in these parts I am really hoping for some warm temperatures and blue skies.