Over the Christmas holiday, my brother Phil – a Captain in the USMC – and his wife will be visiting from North Carolina. We’ve wanted to do an extensive tour of Gettysburg together for a while. During this visit, we’re finally going to do it.
You may think that winter is a bad time to go touring around a battlefield, but at least in the case of Gettysburg, it’s my favorite time of year. For one thing, there are NO crowds. Even at the “touristy” parts of the field like Little Round Top, you practically have the place to yourself. If you’re doing any walking around on the field, you also don’t have insects like gnats or ticks, or the ever-oppressive sun to deal with. Further, there are clear views of the terrain since the underbrush (which would not have been present at the time of the battle) has lost all of its leaves.
It should be a good time. Apart from sharing my passion with Phil, I’m really interested to see the field through the eyes of a modern infantryman. Hopefully, he’ll come with some good questions and I can really test my knowledge of 19th century tactics and how things would be different (and similar) today.
To get ready, I’ve been reading through the U.S. Army War College guide to the battle. Their suggested tour has quite a few more stops than my normal one, but I wanted to see how they portray the events for a military audience, so that I can make sure I don’t skip over anything that may be of interest to Phil. The book itself is really dry – even for being a work of military history. It’s basically just a collection of maps and quotes from the official records.
But there was at least one thing that caught my attention. In the “How to Use This Book” section, there’s a quote from George Macauley Trevelyan that really speaks to me:
The skilled game of identifying positions on a battlefield innocent of guides, where one must make out everything for oneself – best of all if one has never done it properly before – is almost the greatest of out-door intellectual pleasures.
The 48-page book starts off with an overview of the campaign – it doesn’t get to the first day of the battle until page 12 – and when it does, it does a pretty poor job of conveying the flow of the battle. It’s just panel after panel of guys in dialogue. Sometimes they discuss battle plans or results, other times the panels are telling a human interest story, but through short chunks of dialogue that aren’t well-explained. I know the Battle of Gettysburg pretty well, and I have trouble following what’s going on. There are 2 maps in the entire book, and neither one has any troop positions laid out on it. Maps are critical to understanding the flow of any battle, and aren’t comic books supposed to be for visual people?
The hastily-inserted human interest stories – things like Jennie Wade’s death, or Sarah Broadhead’s “mess of beans” – not only break up the flow of the battle, they make the whole thing read more like a collection of facts than an actual story.
And it gets worse when there are things that are suspect in those “facts”. For one thing, the book continues to perpetuate what Garry Adelman calls, The Myth of Little Round Top – we’re told in General Warren’s voice that it was “the key to the Union’s entire position”. General Sickles is portrayed – as is the popular myth – as being cool, calm, and collected after having his leg blown off. The somewhat questionable story of Lt. Bayard Wilkeson cutting off his own leg with a pocketknife is presented as fact. General Heth is shown expressing his desire to General Hill to go into Gettysburg looking for shoes – a story that he almost definitely made up later to make himself look better. And while it gets points for mentioning the oft-overlooked fight at the East Cavalry Battlefield, it completely misses the point of that struggle (it wasn’t because Stuart was supposed to secure the Confederate left – he was trying to attack the Union rear).
There are other things that are visually wrong. In the frame showing the leg story, General Sickles and his aide – both Union officers – are shown in grey coats. During the late-night council of war on July 2, one of Meade’s generals is shown wearing 3 stars (a rank which not only hadn’t been issued to ANY general at that point, but would have obviously out-ranked Meade himself). There is a woman wearing a 12-star flag with 13 stripes (starting and ending with white ones) on her blouse. Come on.
My favorite “typo” in the book comes during the description of the argument about whether to attack the Union position on Culp’s and Cemetery Hills that happens between Confederate Lt. General Richard Ewell, and Confederate Major General Isaac TRIMBLE:
I’ll admit: at first, I thought this was a mistake. I only knew of General TRIMBLE being present at the battle, but it turns out that I was wrong. After a little research on the Internet, I found out that there was a Confederate General Trible (even though his name is correctly spelled “Tribble”):
This is the junction where my Civil War nerd side starts to collide with my Star Trek nerd side. I deeply apologize that you had to witness that.
Seriously though, all of these seemingly little things come together to make the comic historically hazardous for the casual reader who knows very little about the battle. Something like this could be a great introduction for people who “don’t like history”, but instead it reinforces many misconceptions and muddies the telling of the story.
The only thing that keeps me from completely dismissing it is that, much like the old Gettysburg movie has for my generation, maybe there are a few people out there who would casually pick this comic up and have it spark an interest in the battle that propels them to learn more. I won’t hold my breath, though.
A few days ago, I posted about some old books I found among my grandpa’s things. One of those was a Ft. McHenry Visitor’s Brochure from the 1940s. It’s a really special artifact to me.
This was cool because I’m something of a collector of NPS brochures. Though I don’t have very many old ones, I always pick up a brochure when I go to a park. They always have some general overview historical information on them, and usually a map of the park with a driving tour. I have one from every park I’ve been to.
Some time ago though, I got a very special brochure: a Gettysburg one from 1961. I’m not even sure where I got it from – it may have been tucked inside a used book that I bought.
Either way, I’ve scanned it in so that we can all share in the fun.
I’m noticing something about these older brochures that I’m really liking, too – there’s TONS of text. The newer brochures focus on providing big maps and color graphics (usually photos of the people or artifacts associated with the park). It feels like the older ones were there to teach you something, not appeal to your senses. Maybe there’s something to that.
Just take a look at this one compared to what the NPS gives out at Gettysburg today. Talk about night and day, huh?
After the funeral, Grandma wanted to sort through some of the things Grandpa had kept in his office for years. He had an extensive collection of books, housed on shelves he made himself. The orders from Grandma were: any books that family members didn’t want were being donated to the library. Naturally, we all took a look.
My Uncle Tom from Canada wanted the Time-Life World War II collection. My dad and I split the Baltimore-related books (more on that in a minute). Near the top of one of the shelves, I found a collection of electrical engineering textbooks that I can only assume he used during his training in the Navy. They don’t seem like they’d be very old – they’re only from the 1930s – but one of the books admits right up front that we don’t really understand a lot about electricity, but that it is probably the result of a “tension or strain” in the “ether“. My how far we’ve come, huh? I had to take those.
I was also lucky enough to be given my Grandpa’s entire Time-Life Civil War collection. I had the Gettysburg one as a kid, and I really beat it up, but boy did I love that book. I haven’t dug too deep yet, but the rest of the collection looks just as good.
Apart from books, there were some other valuable items: ship models, hats, old liquor bottles, carved wooden masks, and lamps. Many of the gathered family members were able to find something that was meaningful to them.
My dad was looking for one thing in particular: the family records. I didn’t know what the big deal was. I have an Ancestry.com membership. Distant Cousin Bill Skillman has assembled a very complete family tree. What’s so special about these records?
I found out as soon as my Cousin Kyle found a box near the bottom of the closet with my dad’s name on it. Apparently, Grandpa knew that my dad would want to be the keeper of the records. Inside was a hand-written family tree (in pencil) on the back of Skillman Baking Company paper. I haven’t had a chance to really examine it myself yet, but it looks amazing. I have no idea who wrote it, but it has to be at least 100 years old.
Another box was labeled “Mother Skillman”. I can only assume that this refers to my Grandpa’s mom, Sophie (Jory) Skillman. This box had a ton of pictures and letters in it. I also haven’t gone through all of it – we left it with my Grandma in Lewistown. There were two things that I took from that box though, and tonight I scanned them so they can be preserved.
One is an old brochure from Ft. McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine. I’ve collected quite a few of these myself over the years, but none as old as this one. Based on the the fact that Harold L. Ickes is listed as being Secretary of the Interior, and Newton B. Drury is listed as the Director of the National Park Service, the brochure would have to have been produced between 1940 and 1946. I guess my Great-Grandmother must have gone down the avenue (she lived at 1604 Johnson Street in Baltimore) to visit the fort sometime during those years.
It’s a cool document. Admission was $0.10 back then. The cover features a 48-star U.S. flag (shouldn’t it always be a Star-Spangled Banner?). I’m amazed that both my Great-Grandmother and then my Grandpa decided to keep this brochure around for all these years. Why? Was this a memento of a special visit for them? Was it just a familiar reminder of Baltimore for my Grandpa? I’ll probably never know.
Either way, I created a high-quality PDF of the brochure to preserve and share it. Feel free to have a look for yourself. See what the past thought of the past.
The other item from the box is equally interesting. My Great-Grandmother kept a small book (it’s more like a pamphlet) of photos from the 1904 Baltimore Fire. As best as I can tell, the book itself dates from 1904. Obviously, this was a major event in her life. Looking at the photos, you can see that the devastation was almost unbelievable. This story isn’t much told – even locally in Baltimore. We should try to change that.
The cover announces that there was $175,000,000 of damage. That’s over $4.4 Billion in today’s dollars.
While we were cleaning out the basement last weekend, I came across a set of BSA Gettysburg patches from YEARS ago. I have no idea where I got these. I know that my old troop never took a trip to Gettysburg, and I never really earned these patches. I had to investigate what this BSA Gettysburg program was all about.
After poking around on the Internet for a little while, I learned that these patches were the product of the local BSA Council for that area, the recently re-dubbed New Birth of Freedom Council (and what a killer council patch they have, too!). The different patches correspond to trails you are supposed to go on. There’s a guide book, t-shirts, the whole deal. They’ve even updated the patches and tours back in 2009 since the Visitors Center changed locations.
I love the new set of patches. The main one in the center (with Lincoln on it) is earned for doing a tour of the Visitors Center & National Cemetery and answering a few questions related to the experience. The “Historic” patch at the top is earned for taking a guided 3-mile hike through downtown Gettysburg that hits a few of the key landmarks. On the left, the gray Confederate soldier is earned for completing the “Johnny Reb” trail: a 3-mile hike around Cemetery and Culps’ Hills. The blue Union soldier on the right is earned for completion of the big one: the 10-mile “Billy Yank” trail that winds through the main part of the battlefield, from Meade’s headquarters, down to Devil’s Den, across to the Confederate line, and finishing up in a hike across the fields of Pickett’s Charge. Finally, the 5-star patch on the bottom is earned for visiting Dwight D. Eisenhower’s home west of the battlefield.
Since I’ve done all of those things before (without really knowing that I was fulfilling requirements) I don’t feel guilty about having been given that patch set years ago anymore.
Since I found out about the existence of this program in my web research, I decided to read up on the route and requirements so that I can put myself out there as a volunteer guide for any BSA Troops that want to make a trip up to Gettysburg. I called up to the Council office in York and ordered a set of trail guides and patches.
I have to say, the tour is a pretty solid one – very similar to one that I used to do on foot with friends (although mine was a shorter 7-miler). BSA collaborated with the NPS in developing the materials. The guidebook lists several stops that they want you to make and includes a paragraph-worth of story / background for each location.
A few months ago, I read Bowen’s biography of Sir Edward Coke (the greatest lawyer of all time), The Lion and the Throne. While it wasn’t an easy read, and seemed to focus much more on the events around Coke than on Coke himself, I thought I’d give her take on the events surrounding the Constitutional Convention a shot. I’m glad that I did.
She does a good job of setting the stage quickly and getting right into the details of all the politics involved in the convention coming together. Some of the more prominent personalities – Hamilton, Franklin, Washington, and even lesser-known James Wilson – are the central characters. Madison gets his thoughts in as well, but since he kept copious notes on the convention proceedings, he ends up playing the role of narrator in Bowen’s telling.
Some of my favorite parts involved the struggles of the different personalities trying to get their way. Patrick Henry, as the leader of the Anti-Federalists, ends up looking like the “bad guy” in retrospect. I think we tend to forget that not everyone in the room agreed that the Constitution was a good idea – or even that creating a Constitution was a good idea. Some of the ideas that were floated, from having a 3-person committee act as the executive (because we were so freaked-out by the idea of monarchy), to the “revolutionary” idea that elected offices wouldn’t come with a religious or property-ownership requirement, seem really strange to us today but were all concepts that were experimental at the time. It’s good to remember how far we’ve come.
There is an odd section in the middle where she talks about the people and history of the different sections of the country at that time, including the western frontier. It was good info, but it really felt like it killed the flow of the book to me.
This is a solid history of the personalities and politics of the Convention. I really highly recommend it.
This book came up in an article I read on one of the libertarian blogs I read frequently. You have to love the idea of investigating some of the stranger parts of the Constitution, and if the author is the kind of guy who would put Christy’s classic painting of the Convention (with the addition of a few random woodland creatures Photoshopped in) on his book’s cover, you know you’re in for a fun ride.
Wexler doesn’t disappoint. This is a great combination of serious Constitutional scholarship, fascinating historical trivia, and joking-around. It’s quite brilliant.
He does a good job of remaining neutral throughout the book, too. You can just barely detect his own liberal slant on issues in the writing. He does end up going a little nuts in the final chapter though – I suppose he can’t help but rip into the concept of Substantive Due Process (although he does admit that this mechanism also gave us Roe v. Wade).
One of my favorite passages is in the chapter about judicial powers. Wexler imagines the justices operating like a trial court, arguing about whether to let in a certain piece of evidence. Of course, the court splits 4 – 4, with everyone turning to Clarence Thomas for whether to uphold or overrule the objection. He just sits silently. Maybe that’s only funny to SCOTUS nerds.
Overall, if you can tolerate the occasional liberal outburst, this is a really fun book. And you’ll learn a ton in-between laughs.
This one is not regularly published. The church self-published this collection of essays – I found it in a book shop in Gettysburg.
Christ Lutheran Church is an old historical church in Gettysburg just west of the center of town. It quickly became a field hospital the morning of July 1, 1863 when the fighting started on the ridges west of town. The church does a weekly program (on Saturday nights, I think) where they tell the story of the church as a hospital and they sing period music, and read period poetry. This book is basically the take-home version of that show.
As a collection of essays, its a little disjointed and scattered. While it begins with an overview of the history of Christ Lutheran itself, it doesn’t focus exclusively on the church, but tells the story of the wounded and those who cared for them in the downtown area. There’s also a collection of 19th century poetry at the end for character.
This was a really brief read. I’m no speed demon, but I finished in about 2 hours. While the information is good and somewhat interesting, this is hardly a deep treatment of the subject of the mess left behind after Gettysburg.