Category Archives: Battlefield Interpretation

Gettysburg 150 (from someone all but certain to love it)

Garry Adelman

Photo courtesy of National Park Service

What follows is a guest post from my good friend, Garry Adelman, who shares his thoughts about last week’s Gettysburg commemoration.

I had been looking forward to the Gettysburg 150th commemoration for years. I knew—all Civil War people knew–it would be a big deal. Some could not wait to go; some treated it like the plague. That is Gettysburg. Fascination with the place, and resentment about its status as the Civil War Mecca of sorts, date back to the war itself as Gettysburg increasingly took its place as the war’s best-known battlefield.

Being obsessed with Gettysburg, I try my best to take a historian’s look at the place I love—I don’t call it the most important battle in, or the turning point of, the Civil War. Pickett’s Charge was not the biggest, bloodiest, or most consequential attack of the war.  But nonetheless, almost like a cliché, the Gettysburg Battlefield remains my favorite place—and not just among battlefields. It is my favorite place of any sort. So, I was all but certain to have a great week. And I did. Thing is, it was much, much more enjoyable, meaningful, cool and enlightening than I ever expected. In an adult life full of great Civil War experiences across the country, the Gettysburg 150 week topped them all. I am giddy as I write about it. Continue reading

 

Should the Battle of the Crater Be Reenacted Next Year?

1937 Crater Reenactment

Thanks to those of you who commented on the last post about the appropriateness of large-scale battle reenactments. I laid out in broad strokes my reservations, which I’ve done consistently on this site from the beginning. I certainly don’t believe that my conclusion is the only one that can be drawn and I thank those of you for carefully laying out your own preferred view. As always, I find that I learn a great deal when forced to deal with competing ideas. With that in mind I want to take this discussion in a slightly different direction.

Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle of the Crater. I will be in Petersburg to give an address as part of the NPS’s commemoration. At this point I know of no plans to reenact this particular battle nor do I anticipate any effort to do so. In my book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, I analyze two previous reenactments of the battle, one which occurred in 1903 and the other in 1937. Neither reenactment resembles what we today would describe as a proper battlefield reenactment. The 1903 reenactment included some of the veterans of William Mahone’s Virginia brigade charging a position defended by military school cadets, who portrayed Union soldiers. The 1937 included a simulation of the initial explosion followed by a short recreation of the battle that was narrated by Douglas Southall Freeman. At no time was the division of black Union soldiers acknowledged and it goes without saying that no attempt was made to simulate the close hand-to-hand fighting that took place in the earthworks adjacent to the crater. The reenactments served specific purposes and were deemed a success by their respective audiences. Continue reading

 

On the Reenacting-Go-Round

reenactment Gettysburg

Donald Gilliland’s article about whether battlefield reenactments are appropriate is making the rounds. The author does a pretty good job of watering down Peter Carmichael’s thoughts in a way that reinforce some of the same tired and meaningless battle lines between academics and amateur historians/reenactors. Anyone familiar with Pete’s views on the subject can pinpoint what is problematic with Gilliland’s piece. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been misquoted or have spent a hour on the phone with a newspaper reporter only to find that he/she used a small snippet taken completely out of context.

Unfortunately, what Gilliland missed in his rush to frame this debate as part of our larger “culture wars” is that the National Park Service has been consistent in steering clear of endorsing battlefield reenactments from the beginning of the sesquicentennial and has made those reasons very clear. This stands in sharp contrast with its policy during the centennial commemorations during the early 1960s. Continue reading

 

Finding a Usable Past at Gettysburg

Pete Carmichael at Gettysburg

With all that is being written in newspapers across the country about the Gettysburg 150th most of the editorials have been just plain fluff. The battle is framed as a tragedy that pitted Americans v. Americans or as a crucial moment in the broader struggle for civil rights. Today the New York Times published a short editorial by Civil War Institute Director Peter Carmichael. For those of you who have heard Pete at various events in recent months there is very little that is new, but for those of you who haven’t this is well worth your time.

Tucked away on a hillside, hidden from visitors who descend upon Gettysburg every year, are the outlines of a Civil War burial trench. One of the thousands of Southerners scattered in shallow graves across the battlefield was North Carolinian Charles Futch, shot in the head while fighting next to his sibling John, who never left his dying brother’s side. After burying him in an anonymous grave, a semi-literate John poured out his tortured feelings in a letter home. “Charly got kild and he suffered [a] gratdeal,” he wrote, “[and] I don’t want nothing to eat hardly for I am . . . sick all the time and half crazy. I never wanted to come home so bad in my life.”

In the story of the Futch brothers are timeless questions about what it means to be a nation at war today. How soldiers cope with the trauma of combat, how poverty shapes the military experience, and how acts of mourning influence political loyalties are inquiries that make history engaging and relevant. Unfortunately, the 150th Commemoration of the Civil War has largely missed an opportunity to make the past usable. Too many historians have been afraid to ask hard questions, much of the public is seduced by the heroic view of war, and Congress has defunded the National Park Service (NPS). Continue reading

 

Retreat From Gettysburg

Gettysburg Storm Damage

Earlier today I returned from five days in Gettysburg for the annual Civil War Institute. Like last year, I feel rejuvenated and utterly exhausted. I had an incredible experience interacting with the participants and catching up with many good friends. Thanks to Peter Carmichael and the rest of the CWI staff for all the hard work. I can’t imagine the logistical juggling that takes place beforehand, but they seem to do it so effortlessly and that they do it in the name of history education makes it that much sweeter.

I donned a couple of hats this year. On Sunday I spend 90 minutes with an incredible group of high school students to talk about Civil War memory. We compared and contrasted Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with that of Wilson’s in 1913 with an eye on how memory evolves. That evening I hosted a small discussion over dinner about about the kidnapping of former slaves and free blacks by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during the Gettysburg Campaign. We used two chapters from Margaret Creigton’s The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle to help frame our discussion. I thoroughly enjoyed our discussion and I want to thank Al Mackey and Mike Rodgers for taking part. Finally, I took part in the final evening’s panel on the war in 1863. The panel also included Scott Hartwig, Robert Sandow, Judkin Browning, Jaime Martinez, Chris Stowe, and Peter Carmichael. It will be broadcast on CSPAN at a later date. Continue reading