Friday, July 5, 2013

Gettysburg Reflections, or A Break From the Usual

Sesquicentennial.  It's a word that had been thrown about by committees, townsfolk, the college, and everyone else in between.  It's a word that had been used quite often to describe the distance between ourselves and the Battle of Gettysburg.  The Gettysburg Sesquicentennial by name alone referred to the removal from the event itself.

However, though the word aptly described the period of years between the current year, 2013, and the year of the event, 1863, and gave us all a tidy way of referring to "150 years ago...", sesquicentennial sounds like a removed event.  In reality, the events of the Battle of Gettysburg very much is an important event in United States history, as many would agree.  It was during July 1-3, 2013, nonetheless, that Americans probably felt closest to the history surrounding the Battle of Gettysburg despite the fact that the event was one that occurred 150 years ago.

Thousands traveled to the small, south-central Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg to commemorate, to learn, and to merely stand in the place that great Americans stood, and to look over the fields where armies marched.  In speaking with visitors on July 3, just before the commemorative Pickett's Charge walk from West Confederate Avenue to the ridge-line on Cemetery Ridge, quite a few of them spoke of a "draw" that brought them there.  Many had been to Gettysburg before, some had not, but all alike, they felt the need and the want to come to this place.  Is it duty?  Interest?  I'm not quite sure myself.  All I knew was that I would not miss the events and goings-on in my college town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  More to come (and hello again, my friends).
116th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment Monument along Cemetery Ridge.

To the rear-right of the Angle at Gettysburg National Military Park, the cannon remain as tangibles for visitors.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Perspective & the Tale of Mr. Crocker (part I)

     There is a certain power to having the opportunity to stand in a location at which one knows an important event or individual occupied in the past.  This feeling is often times referred to in the National Park Service as "power of place."  As simple as this may sound, it is that power a visitor feels when he or she stands in that spot that brings them to the battlefield.  They are drawn into past events in this manner, and most importantly, they then attach themselves with a stewardly interest to that spot or location.  When this inspired appreciation of "place" overwhelms the visitor, it is then evident that they not only understand the history of that location, but are ready to take a step further in their understanding.  They are now ready to consider narrative into their appreciation.
     There is no better way, it seems, to learn of something other than the opportunity to question someone who experienced it.  Obviously, such questioning is now impossible for Civil War historians.  However, the rich collections of individuals' narratives offer enthusiasts the privilege to discern eyewitness' emotions and experiences from paper and ink.  With the revolutionary push for education during what would become the antebellum years, more Americans than ever had the ability to read and write.  This thirst for literacy would not only advance the education expectations of the United States at the time, but also worked to prepare Americans to record what would become the bloodiest war the nation would enter.  One such narrative provides the perspective of a student who gained his all in Pennsylvania, but contained the heart of a Virginian nonetheless.  This is the tale of James F. Crocker.
     For many Americans of the antebellum period, collegiate education was also becoming even more popular.  Various educational institutions at which young men could master advanced studies in medicine and law, for instance, attracted pupils from across the nation.  Pennsylvania College, founded in 1832 just north of the small crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was a similar institution.  Having offered advanced studies in the humanities, some young men sought out Pennsylvania College as a place at which to prepare for careers in law.  James Francis Crocker, a native of Portsmouth, Virginia, was among the students studying at Pennsylvania College.  Crocker, a bright student, entered into the college in the class of 1850, and throughout his time there, would rise to the top of his class.  Though he found himself far from home at Pennsylvania College, Crocker felt welcomed in Gettysburg.  He not only knew the professorial staff at the college, but also was well acquainted with and on friendly terms with the townsfolk.  For James Crocker, his time as a student at Pennsylvania College would help him to develop a special admiration for Gettysburg.  Crocker was a successful student who's academic aptitude propelled him to become valedictorian of the Pennsylvania College Class of 1850.  However, his spoken farewells to south-central Pennsylvania as well as his departure from campus would not be the last glimpse Crocker would have of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  If fact, Crocker, in many ways, predicts in his address foreboding conflict.  In a reminiscence pamphlet first printed in 1904, he called to mind his feelings during the troubled pre-war nation:
James F. Crocker of the 9th Virginia Infantry, also called the 
'Portsmouth Rifles,' having been mustered out of the locale
of the same name.  Crocker, a former student at Pennsylvania
College, soon finds that his military service to his home state
will bring him back to his old college town.  (Photo:  Early 
Photography at Gettysburg, Frassanito.)

I had the honor to be the valedictorian of my class.  In preparing my address I took notice of the great excitement then prevailing on account of the discussion in Congress of the bill to admit California as a state into the Union.  Great sectional feeling was aroused through this long protracted discussion in the Senate.  One Senator dared use the word “disunion” with a threat.  The very word sent a thrill of horror over the land.  I recall my own feeling of horror.  In my address to my classmates I alluded to this sectional feeling, deprecating it, and exclaimed,     “Who knows, unless patriotism should triumph over sectional feeling but what we, classmates, might in some future day meet in hostile battle array."

    Crocker knew well that his classmates came from various states in the country.  True to his understanding of contemporary politics at the time, he also realized that if war were to break out between the formerly United States, he, a southerner, would undoubtedly be pitched in some way against his former classmates, friends and acquaintances.  Nonetheless, Crocker returned home to Portsmouth after his graduation and worked and studied to begin a promising law career.  However, the long term period of practicing law that Crocker probably had planned and wanted would have to wait.
      The year is 1861.  Eleven years prior, Crocker was quite correct in identifying the mood of the nation at the time.  When war broke out that year over the question of the expansion of slavery, Virginia was soon incorporated in a new and self-proclaimed nation:  the Confederate States of America.  Crocker, patriotic to his state, was eager to join in the southern war effort, enlisted in the 9th Virginia Infantry Regiment in a company of men from Portsmouth the day the regiment was formed.  They adopted the name "the Portsmouth Rifles."  Of course, well known in Portsmouth as a scholar, Crocker not long after became the adjunct for the regiment.  The duties of an adjunct were to assist the commanding officer in matters of correspondence.  Given Crocker’s achievements in the world of academia, he was a natural choice and a good fit for the position.
       Nonetheless, as war mounted, and soon both Union and Confederate forces were deeply committed to the fight and their gruelingly determined causes.  The news of bloodshed shattered through towns and cities, and the country was on edge.  For southerners, it was not merely news of bloodshed that startled them, but rather the crack of musketry from within their fields.  The war effort tracked its way through the south, and most frequently through Virginia.  In an attempt to bring the war into the north and to alleviate the Virginia countryside, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was determined to move north and to win a victory on Union soil.  The Crocker and the other Portsmouth Rifles would make this journey north, over the Mason-Dixon Line, and eventually arrive in the area of a small, south-central Pennsylvania crossroads town. Crocker had returned to Gettysburg.

  • James F. Crocker, Prison Reminiscences (Portsmouth, Virginia: W.A. Fiske, Printer and Bookbinder, 1906).  Gettysburg College Special Collections. 
  • William A. Frassanito, Early Photography at Gettysburg (University of California: Thomas Publications, 1995).

Monday, July 23, 2012

Sgt. William T. Ambler: A last full measure of devotion

      At the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the layout of the grounds itself are meant to portray a sense of equality. These men, who may have not been equal in life – either in terms of wealth, character or honor – here, all are equal in death. The circular formation demonstrates this equality where no one soldier’s grave overshadows the rest. The Union Army, though it appears to us today as it had been a united fighting force, still had various fractures that separated these men along lines – ideologically, religiously, economically, and in principle. Together, the men of the Union Army unknowingly came together to create a microcosm of the society from which they came. For instance, while some men looked upon themselves as “gentlemen,” they looked at lower-class men as “scoundrels” or “roughs.” These men, who had lived quite differently as civilians, may not have held the same principles or the same notions of honor. However, one thing is for certain, here at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, all share a common place of honor.

       Lincoln’s words not only worked to calm a shattered community in south-central Pennsylvania, but also immortalized the struggles of the men who nobly advanced, and gave the last full measure of devotion. In recognition of their efforts, or in the least, the loss of life while in the uniform of their nation, work to immortalize an equality in death and a place of importance in the history of the United States of America. Lincoln’s words, these graves, and this cemetery work hand in hand to memorialize the lives snuffed out by the brutal warfare of this conflict. Among these young lives ended at the Battle of Gettysburg was Sergeant William T. Ambler of the 57th New York Infantry.

       William T. Ambler

       Sergeant William T. Ambler (Co. D, 57th New York Infantry) [Soldiers' National Cemetery, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania plot E – 91].  Ambler’s war story reads like so many young men involved in the American Civil War.   Having come from a close-knit and loving family, Ambler went off to war with fellow New Yorkers in order to restore the Union.  Before even the outbreak of war, the Ambler family and children suffered loss in 1851 when their father passed away at the age of 28.  During this time, William, the eldest of four children, was merely 6 years old, but was expected to then take on a position in the house as a young and responsible adult to help care for his siblings, aged 5, 3, as well as a newborn sister.  Since this time, William developed a loving bond with his siblings in helping to raise them with his widowed mother.  This love is evident in a letter he wrote to his sister, Harriet in the late winter months of 1862.  Telling her of a 5-inch-snow snowstorm, Ambler teased her that “I would like to be home and have a snow-ball fight with you first-scale.  I guess if you would let me make 5 or 6 snowballs ahead, I could stand you and Albert – yes and Lewis to for that matter, and make you all run!”  Approximately 8 months later, Sgt. Ambler would be killed on July 2, 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg by “a solid shot entering his right shoulder and passing through his left side.”  Ambler’s lieutenant wrote a sympathy letter to the family notifying him of their loved one’s death, assuring him that William was “in fair way of promotion,” and that the regiment “will always remember Willie as a true & fine soldier in the support of our glorious country.”

       The fact that Ambler's officers looked upon him as a good soldier designates the fact that he acted as he should in the ranks.  This understood sense of honor and manhood was something that Ambler, though quite a young man, seemed to have possessed.  From this letter, we do not know how this man acted in battle, or how he fared in the face of the enemy, but we can assume he had performed well habitually due to his being a sergeant, and the fact that he may have been promoted had he survived the battle.  In the words of Abraham Lincoln, Ambler gave the "last full measure of devotion."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Unfinished Work Continues

         The title of this blog, "The Unfinished Work" is merely an echo of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Lincoln offered,
" The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion."
         These are the words I live by. I think most historians or those interested in advancing scholarship in the public history community would agree as well. Truly our work as historians is "unfinished," as it will always remain as time continues to march forward into the future. It is our task to make known the efforts of ordinary people who do extraordinary things, as well as understand the lessons understanding one's history can provide so that we may better understand ourselves. With that, I believe "The Unfinished Work" here on the blog will serve as a fitting outlet to post, explore and share some quirky, inspiring and heroic findings in my research.I wonder what the men and women my colleagues and I spend hours with through research would think if they could see the United States today? We are connected through the Internet in ways that would have before seemed unimaginable, and yet the technology continues to advance!

         This democratization of the world through the Internet has allowed us to communicate in new ways, as well as have a flow of information always at our fingertips. Not only these, but it also allows for a college student to modestly hope strangers will find interest in her musings.

         Through my time thus far in undergraduate schooling, I have had the opportunities to read, touch, hold and hear the words of manuscripts, letters, diaries, photos, artifacts, and oral histories of veterans that all provide a direct link to the past. This summer, I was offered a unique opportunity to intern at Gettysburg National Military Park to further both my own knowledge of the Civil War, but also to advance public knowledge of a popular period in American history. This fall, I will continue my studies at Gettysburg College.

          And yet, there was something that it seems every history major discovers on their own with no instruction from the professor: research is a funny thing. It allows us to become close to perhaps an individual, or a group of individuals. Throughout the process of researching to find out who they were, and what the memory of their lives does for the historical community today, historians and historian protegee's alike, find themselves emotionally attached to these subjects of study come the end of the project.

Anthony McDermott of the 69th Pennsylvania
Infantry Regiment. McDermott, of Co. I, fought
alongside his fellow Philadelphians at the Batttle
of Gettysburg to repulse Pickett's Charge on July
3, 1863. (Photo from Today In Irish History.)
         Most recently, I have gained such a connection to the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. This American Civil War regiment was raised out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in order to answer President Abraham Lincoln's call for volunteers. These men, anxious to prove themselves as capable and patriotic men were also looking for the opportunity to prove themselves loyal and newly arrived Americans. Much of the 69th was comprised of Irish immigrants or those of such ethnicity, and because of this, their efforts and their very honor was in question. Studying the 69th's contributions at the Battle of Gettysburg has left me feeling quite close to these boys. I'm not sure why, exactly, but I suppose it has to deal with their effective stand on July 3, 1863 at the stone wall against the raging tide of Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble's men during "Pickett's Charge." The first hand accounts left behind by regimental adjutant, Anthony McDermott of Company I in the unit's regimental history drew a new perspective on the battle as a whole for me, and in the very least, I recommend coming to Gettysburg National Military Park to take a few moments at the 69th's monument along the stone wall at the High Water Mark.

         The Union Second Corps at Gettysburg is a new interest of mine, but I must deviate to the Third Corps for a moment, to the regiment formed out of my hometown of West Deer Township. The 63rd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment comprised of farmers and miners from the hills and mountains just north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, near the Allegheny River. One member of the regiment, Magill, owned a large bit of farmland in this area, as did many of the men and boys from the area. Approximately 80 years after Magill enlisted in the Union Army, fought at Gettysburg and would later return to his home, a housing plan would be developed on those very fields. 40 years after that, my newlywed parents would purchase a modest ranch home there. It was at this house I was raised, matured, and still call home. Little could I have imagined as an enthusiastic ten year old (who had at the time, recently memorized the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution and the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence), that 8 years down the road, I would be studying at a location at which the previous owner of the lands upon which I lived, had seen combat and friends killed in service to his country. Magill and I have passed the same deer paths and bridges, but it the scope of realizing the community effect caused by the Civil War is mind-boggling. To me, at least.

     Cheers in pursuing The Unfinished Work,

                    Val Merlina