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.

[Post Image: “Uebergang uber den Rappahannock” from Library of Congress]

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14 comments… add one
  • Ben Allen Mar 7, 2015 @ 17:51

    Don’t forget the uniforms. The 20th did have a distinctive uniform (see Don Troiani’s “Fire on Caroline Street”). Uniform literacy makes visualizing battles, not to mention the identification of pictures, easier. True, practically anyone who knows anything about the American Civil War is familiar with the generalization that Federals wore blue, Confederates grey (those who a little more might add butternut, grey, and everything in between). But all generalizations are false, and none more so than the aforementioned one.

    When you all are in Fredericksburg, come stop by the University of Mary Washington. The 20th Massachusetts was in the campus’ general area during the Second Battle of Fredericksburg. Also, we have a preserved lunette left over from the first battle, 🙂

    • Kevin Levin Mar 8, 2015 @ 2:24

      Good point about the uniforms. Unfortunately, we won’t have time to visit the campus.

  • Rick Frese Mar 5, 2015 @ 3:52

    Kevin, congratulations on your forthcoming course in Worcester. If you would like to add a one-day Concord component to the syllabus, let me know.
    Rick Frese
    Author, “Concord and the Civil War: From Walden Pond to the Gettysburg Press” [ History Press-2013 ].

    • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2015 @ 4:00

      Thanks for reaching out, Rick, and congratulations on the book.

  • msb Mar 3, 2015 @ 23:25

    I’m so envious, Kevin. School has certainly improved since I last went to one. Re Harpers Ferry, I just finished Terry Bisson’s novel “Fire on the mountain”, an alternative history of the area.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 4, 2015 @ 1:58

      Thanks. A trip like this involves a great deal of preparation, but it will be worth it.

  • Pat Young Mar 3, 2015 @ 19:55

    There were many more immigrants than there were “Harvard Men” in this misnamed regiment. 23 percent were Irish and 16 percent were Germans. The Germans were far more likely to be abolitionists than the Ivy Leaguers.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 4, 2015 @ 1:55

      Absolutely. And Captain Albert Dreher will be a wonderful case study for my students to consider.

  • wkerrigan Mar 3, 2015 @ 16:51

    Sounds awesome. I will be taking college students to all those places and more in May. We rent bikes from River Riders near Harper’s Ferry and do Antietam by bicycle (to the sunken road, then head back to the Visitors Center for lunch before driving over to Burnsides Bridge.) It is a good way to cover those few miles, see everything up close, and not have to be piling in and out of the van every 500 yards.

    At Fredericksburg do you start somewhere on the north side of the Rappahannock and walk over the river and through town?

    • Kevin Levin Mar 3, 2015 @ 17:11

      Haven’t worked out all the logistics, but we will likely start the tour at Chatham and then follow the crossing of the 20th Mass through the streets of Fredericksburg. Your tour sounds pretty interesting as well.

  • James Harrigan Mar 3, 2015 @ 15:47

    Wow, Kevin. What a treat your students are in for. Here’s hoping spring will finally arrive before you get here.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 3, 2015 @ 16:33

      Thanks for the vote of confidence and I couldn’t agree more. 🙂

  • Bob Huddleston Mar 3, 2015 @ 15:40

    I am sure you already are aware of it, but Col. Paul Revere of the 20th, the Patriot’s grandson, was mortally wounded at Gettysburg. And have you read Oliver Wendel Holmes, Sr.’s “My hunt After the Captain,” searching for his son, OWH, Jr. after Antietam?

    • Kevin Levin Mar 3, 2015 @ 15:42

      Yes on both counts, Bob. Students will read an excerpt from “My Hunt…” on the battlefield.

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