“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”– A. Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”
The American Civil War has been, and will always be, my historical topic of choice, one nearest to my heart. My research resides there, and my mentor Dr. Robert McGlone lived there with his writings about Abolitionist John Brown. When I visit a monument, memorial, or battlefield, I take the opportunity to explore and understand that historical moment. It makes sense then that I have visited Gettysburg, PA, twice during my life. While exploring those two travel adventures, this post will offer insight into my fascination with Civil War history and where it all began. Join me as I get personal, but with a pointed look at my core historical topic, and the trips that illustrate that tether, tied, and fixed by people, places, and time.
Academic Passion & Remembering My Mentors
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”– A. Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”
As I write this, it’s July 4th in America. I enjoy celebrating Independence Day, even though I am disappointed by court decisions that adversely affect women and their choice, as well as how a former President abused power and assaulted the Constitution. In these challenging times, I see hope, although darkness seems to extend forever. Voting, organizing, marching – I am grateful our freedoms offer us those opportunities. I am reflective of those groups who toiled and fought to ensure the country lived up to its constitutional promise. Today, I think about women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, Black Lives Matter, indigenous rights, immigrants, and supporting Asian people against hate. I am a historian, so I ultimately think of the Revolution, and the American Civil War, as those two political moments that defined the nature and character of the US.
Recently, I have felt quite stellar professionally, which is not something I regularly find myself saying. I am sometimes disappointed professionally. After crossing a milestone birthday and getting hired as an Assistant Professor, I am happier. This position has seemingly inserted fresh excitement into how I perceive my chosen path. Corinne and I have continued to bet on us. It seems with summer; I learned to let go, accept others, live, and do so happily. As a result, life has filled emotional voids with fulfilling connections. When I was content to remain an adjunct instructor, I received two full-time job offers, one close to home and the other a thousand miles away. I chose to stay, but it was a tremendous boost. While missing family and mentors, I spent a day with family in my hometown and ran into the man who inspired me to follow history.
In high school, I excelled at one subject and took only one honors-level course: history. My teacher, Mr. Carroll, was one of those teachers you don’t forget. Passionate and enthusiastic, he inspired me, although I wasn’t always confident. As I toiled over whether I could succeed, he offered guidance. Carroll believed in me as few teachers had. I had more good days than bad in that honors class, but I finished strong, and Carroll wrote me a college recommendation. Recently, at my hometown’s homecoming fair, I ran into Carroll. It was as if no time had passed. Twenty years later, you rarely tell the person who inspired you that they did. We hugged and talked, and I told him about my Ph.D. program in Hawaii, adjunct teaching, and my new job as an Assistant Professor. He and I laughed, recalling unique projects, without delay, I completed in class, and as we said goodbye, we took a photo together, something for my office.
If Carroll inspired me, Dr. Travers at the University of Massachusetts was who forced me to ponder what history I enjoyed most. I had always been connected to 1960s history, reading about John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and following my dad’s politically progressive perspective. Once at UMass, pursuing a degree in History on a solid path, I had multiple classes with Travers. New England Maritime history, 19th Century New Bedford, American Revolution, and Early American History – all dot the timeline of my historical interests that I credit Travers. As a New Bedford native, that 19th Century New Bedford History seminar, held on several occasions at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, was my favorite. I came to appreciate New Bedford’s abolitionist and maritime legacy. Travers’ course, and teaching energy, motivated me to focus on local history.
Dr. Robert McGlone is the third of my mentor triple triumvirate. I mentioned him in multiple posts, so I won’t reiterate the same points. Still, he guided me through my doctoral studies, helped me fine-tune my research focus, and defended me while I defended my dissertation. Like all my mentors, he saw something in me and, in vocally supporting me, helped me find a voice. Carroll inspired me to go into History, Travers motivated me to sharpen my historical pursuit, and McGlone inspired, motivated, and, without delay, helped me realize my passion. McGlone made me a better person and academic thinker and helped me become the historian and professor I am today. McGlone, sadly, died too soon. I wish I could tell him, nearly ten years later, how “our” journey impacted my life, not solely academically.
The Civil War as a Historical Field of Focus
“We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live.”– A. Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”
With the help of those historians, I discovered my historical attachment and claimed agency and ownership over my career. While I find myself dedicated to US history from colonial times to Present Day, I am drawn to and feel as close to my profession and mentors as I study, teach, and write about the American Civil War. Yes, it’s true, especially after the premiere of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Tony Award-winning sensation, Hamilton, on Broadway, many people might be inclined to select the American Revolution. Corinne’s academic background and historical passion are for studying the Second World War. While I find those topics and more, Atlantic history, Pacific Island history, and the Civil Rights Movement of marginalized groups, engrossing, I can’t shake the history of the American Civil War.
I can’t say for sure when I became interested in Civil War history, but I do know when its importance first overtook me. I was in middle school, probably 6th grade, and we watched Glory, the “1989 historical war drama film directed by Edward Zwick about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the Union Army’s earliest African-American regiments in the American Civil War.” It is a beautiful film, although not without flaws. Still, performances by Mathew Broderick, and Denzel Washington, who won Best Supporting Acting, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, and Cary Elwes make this film nearly perfect. I watched the movie in the library and was transfixed. I was angry about the inhumanity of slavery, inspired by the struggle for freedom, and cheered the Union’s fight for abolition. I have watched this film numerous times; it is equally impressive today.
Films like Glory, Gettysburg, Lincoln, and Cold Mountain, to name a few, have assisted me in my inspired academic devotion to Civil War history. While books about the Civil War and subtopics written by McGlone, David Blight, and James McPherson have educated me, there is a documentary that has done more than any Hollywood film, or academic book, to spur my historical pursuit. The Civil War from PBS, created/directed by Ken Burns, is a masterpiece of documentary cinema. Incredible narration, a score that exudes emotion, and a style of documentary that is stunning and pleasing, if at times distressing and historically angering. I have watched the series countless times and adopted it into my courses. My favorite episode, and one of the more powerful moments from the Civil War, is about Gettysburg.
I am not a war historian. I am more interested in the social history of the Civil War era. The fight to end slavery, the meaning of nation and freedom, and the steps towards disunion are incredible to lecture on, making the actual war secondary. I agree with American Revolutionary and second US President John Adams, who once said, “What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people.” The same is true for the Civil War. The war itself was how the nation restored the Union and destroyed slavery. Yet, the path toward abolition was led by Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, David Walker, William Loyd Garrison, Sarah Grimke, Frederick Douglass, and radical John Brown. The Civil War isn’t merely battlefields; it’s much more.
Battlefields are where soldiers, Union, and Confederate, fought. One side forced the nation to recognize its commitment to principles inscribed in the Declaration of Independence. The other side sought to preserve the injustice of slavery and its continued quest to destroy the ideals the Revolution created. Of all the Civil War battles, I am fascinated with the Battle of Gettysburg. Maybe it’s ironic that the Union victory concluded one day before Independence Day. It might be that in the aftermath, the Confederacy, while not destroyed, suffered a stinging defeat it couldn’t counter successfully. It could be that four 1/2 months later, Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, went to Gettysburg to dedicate a new Union cemetery. His address on November 19, only 272 words, summed up the meaning of the war in ways few could understand at that time.
As someone who has participated in public history, whether as research or employment, I love historical sites. Lincoln’s home and Presidential Library in Springfield, Salem Maritime Heritage Site, Pearl Harbor National Memorial, The Freedom Trail of Boston, the Whaling Museum in New Bedford and Nantucket, The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Bunker Hill, Fort Phoenix State Reservation in my hometown, and the Lyceum on Nantucket where Frederick Douglass spoke publicly for the first time, are all a small sample of places I visited and grounds I walked with an emotional swagger. A wonderful family friend named Dennis, who died several years ago, inspired me to visit Civil War sites. While passionate about history, my understanding was in its infancy when Dennis shared stories of trips to historic sites of national importance.
A Solo Trip to Hallowed Ground
“It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground.”– A. Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”
Until 2004, I hadn’t traveled far unless to Walt Disney World in Florida. I didn’t fly in an airplane for the first time until 2003. I was very inexperienced in terms of travel. But, after writing about an abolitionist for Travers’ New Bedford History seminar and presenting it at a conference, I sought more data. The central abolitionist figure of my paper resided in a cemetery in my hometown, so I decided to visit the place of his birth, in New Jersey, not far from Delaware Bay, where his home remains. It was an adventure, including me getting lost but ultimately succeeding in finding his home and meeting wonderful people along the way. I drove on a whim and found that I didn’t simply love history but craved seeing places of historical significance. While on this trip, I took a detour to Gettysburg, PA, and observed the battlefield that changed the trajectory of the war.
I can’t recall every detail from my first trip to Gettysburg, nor do I have any pictures to help kickstart my memory. With no iPhone or cell phone camera, I had a manual Canon camera with a superb lens, which I never learned to master or appreciate. I had plenty of film, but with no skill at developing them myself, I had to go to Kmart, costing me significantly. I have since lost all my photos. In my possession was a paper map since I didn’t own a satellite navigation device like TomTom, which first hit the market in 2004. I also printed out directions from Mapquest. Technology was in its infancy, or that’s how it seems today. During my adventure, I looked at the map, saw how close I was to Pennsylvania, and said, “let’s do it,” and threw caution to the wind.
After leaving New Jersey, I drove to Gettysburg, planning to get to town early, go straight to the National Park and stay the entire day. I would try and see everything I could with the sun’s placement in the sky as my timer. I arrived before lunch, even after managing to get lost. Crossing into town, I felt like I had traveled through time, as the homes, shops, and architecture were simple and quaint. I am from New England and lived in Salem and Boston, whose founding dates to the 1600s. Gettysburg felt different; I found it uniquely fascinating. The Gettysburg National Military Park and its Museum and Visitor Center emotionally impacted me. I quickly found parking and hurried to see my options for tours, exhibitions, author talks, and more. The Park Service had not yet built Gettysburg National Park’s central hub nor designed its attractive characteristics.
The massive museum costing 2 million dollars from the Gettysburg Foundation, offering the most extensive collection of Civil War memorabilia, “including the Gettysburg Cyclorama, America’s largest painting,” wasn’t built. It opened in April 2008. While my visit in June of 2008 allowed me to experience the public history spectacle, in 2004, I met a small center adjacent to the massive National Military Park battlefield, but not without historic character. I didn’t know any better, so I was thrilled with the gift shop, cafe, and help the Park Rangers offered me as a doe-eyed young traveler from New England. The enthusiasm they presented inspired me to want to do what they did. Making tourists, history buffs, historians, and all travelers feel welcome was infectious. Ten years later, I was employed at a National Park, wearing the famous uniform, hat included.
I didn’t join a tour; instead, I purchased a 2-CD booklet for my car that included a professional 2.5-hour audio tour of the entire Gettysburg National Military Park. It was all-encompassing and didn’t disappoint. I anticipated staying the whole day, and sure enough, as dusk approached, I was driving around, listening, and taking photos, all I developed, none I still have. No matter what I saw, monuments, memorials, and sites of tragedy and bravery made me feel deeply reflective. I don’t wish to glamorize war. Instead, I am in awe of its complications and contradictions. The Battle of Gettysburg was significant to the survival of the United States, its experiment in democracy, and the destruction of slavery. We must recognize these facts and honor those who forced the country and its people to change, pass new laws, and protect the freedoms of black Americans.
I started my driving tour at McPherson’s Ridge, the first of 16 specific stops illustrating each day of the 3-day battle, July 1-3, 1863. It ended at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, which included the Soldiers’ National Monument and an area dedicated to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Some highlights were driving through Pitzer Woods, climbing the Observation Tower overlooking the Peach Orchard, and surveying Warfield Ridge a short distance from the Devil’s Den and the Little Round Top. Little Round Top is where Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine protected the Union flank on day two, holding the high ground and saving the Union. Walking around Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, and the Peach Orchard was emotionally draining, considering the historic devastation that occurred and the lives lost.
Gettysburg is known for its monuments and memorials, all included, to present historical context, not necessarily to praise, although it’s a slippery slope. Historians, and those employed in public history, must recognize how/why monuments are used and ask for guidance from those most affected. That day, I observed anything related to the Confederacy from a logistical and historical lens, recognizing where lines were and who led assaults. I examined the High Water Line, reflecting on where the Union line bent but didn’t break, repelling the Confederate attack. This trip to Gettysburg was meaningful. The monuments inspired me to focus on how we, culturally, remember the past and inform about historical events. My photos didn’t come out well, a sign of the time, but I was grateful for this adventure. Still, I felt like I didn’t get to experience all of Gettysburg, so in 2008 I returned, and Corinne came with me.
Going to Gettysburg as a Tourist & Historian
“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.”– A. Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”
When Corinne asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday, I said, “go to Gettysburg.” God bless Corinne; she was immediately supportive. Luckily, in 2008, we had better phones, a better road plan, and a TomTom GPS navigation device to help avoid any driving confusion. I was far more prepared for this trip, and Corinne kept us on task. She booked a fabulous hotel and found fun things to do and places to eat, besides spending a few hours at the Museum and Visitor Center and revisiting the National Military Park. With a fun itinerary created, we drove the six hours to Gettysburg. Our weekend lodging, the Gettysburg Hotel, was established in 1797 and “is located in the heart of downtown Gettysburg, within walking distance to the Gettysburg battlefield, historic area attractions,” shops and restaurants. We stayed at a historic hotel, one with a reputation as haunted. Take that for what it’s worth, but the hotel had every amenity one could need, including an upscale restaurant, One Lincoln.
As for the Gettysburg Hotel itself, our room was on a high floor, with a decent view, and ultimately comfortable. Although, at the time, it had a dated interior, this added to the hotel’s historic charm. I consider it like the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem. Another landmark hotel, its rooms, lobby, and restaurant match its historical legacy, not unlike the Gettysburg Hotel. It made sense to stay in such a place if seeking to make this trip memorable and somewhat like a step back in time, albeit not a giant leap. As we settled in, we enjoyed a leisurely walk around downtown, visiting an old train depot and several gift shops, boutiques, and a coffee house, for a caffeinated local brew. That evening we had dinner at a nice restaurant. Although we had a hectic day, the following day, my birthday, that evening, after our dinner, we decided to do something unique; we joined a ghost tour.
After nearly a decade living in Salem, MA., observing the spectacular haunting happenings in October, and having been privy to such tours during my time in Newport, RI, ghost tours are generally not my thing, nor are they for Corinne. Don’t get me wrong, I love spooky things, and Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, but an organized ghost tour; that’s a stretch. Living in Salem, I often watched ghost tours with a sense of humor and nostalgia as I recalled my experience. One of the most popular tours in Gettysburg, non-history related, was the ghost tour, so Corinne and I thought, why not? It would be fun to walk around town and do so with a guide who entertained us with unknown spooky stories. We were correct; the ghost tour offered an entertaining way to enjoy a beautiful summer evening in Gettysburg.
Upon meeting at the storefront of Haunted Gettysburg Ghost Tours, we proceeded to a nearby landmark and started our tour. Led by candlelight through downtown Gettysburg, the ghost tour prides itself on including “spooky ghost stories along with some history” that they state, “will transport you back in time to the days of the Civil War” and make visitors “wonder if the spirits are tagging along.” It was a delight and allowed us to see more of Gettysburg than we had considered before, and we did so on a beautiful night. A guide led us with candlelight, who, sure, narrated ghost stories that were more fiction than fact, but we accepted our experience. Again, this wasn’t something we would typically do, and I can’t say I would do it again. Even so, a Gettysburg ghost tour fit our request for a touristy opportunity, although we didn’t see any ghosts, probably for the best.
The following day, Corinne and I had a delicious breakfast in the hotel before heading to Gettysburg National Military Park. We drove to the park, within walking distance of the hotel. Our first stop was the newly built Museum and Visitor Center, which was terrific. The new space acted as a centerpiece of the sprawling park. I was interested in the “Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War, “featuring items from one of the world’s largest collections of Civil War relics, available for viewing during regular center hours. With 22,000 square feet of exhibit space, the museum features relics of the Battle of Gettysburg and personalities who served in the Civil War, interactive exhibits, and multi-media presentations that cover the conflict from beginning to end as well as describe the Battle of Gettysburg and its terrible aftermath.” The museum didn’t disappoint.
Corinne and I spent a good portion of our morning walking around, taking it all in, and watching the “20-minute film, A New Birth of Freedom,” narrated by Morgan Freeman, “about the Battle of Gettysburg,” as well as observing the Cyclorama Painting. Breathtakingly beautiful, the Gettysburg Cyclorama Painting is on “canvas that measures 377 feet in circumference and 42 feet high,” the oil painting, “along with light and sound effects, immerses visitors in the fury of Pickett’s Charge” on day three of the Battle of Gettysburg.” We had coffee and lunch in the Battlegrounds Cafe before we headed into the National Military Park. We spent several hours driving around observing monuments and memorials. We watched re-enactments and joined several guided tours. After a day filled with emotional moments and tons of history, Corinne and I had dinner at One Lincoln, thus ending our stay in Gettysburg.
“The Arc of History”
“That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”– A. Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”
These profound journeys awarded me historical currency, a hands-on understanding of the past, its moments of tragedy, and greatness. I have traveled for fun and broadened my historical knowledge of the world. It’s taken me a long time to get to a place where I feel at ease, seeing history through the same eager eyes as I have at public places of history, whether that be a National Park, a military cemetery, or an epic museum. I love history, and I love teaching. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Life is funny; I felt I was ready to give up, but then I attained the role I sought. After signing my contract, I reunited with the first teacher who believed in me and paved the way for what was to come. I am excited about what’s to come and eager to share my historical experiences with students who sit in front of me, eager as I once was to understand the American past. Let’s toast the future, no matter how scary it might seem or how unsure of it we are, without losing focus on how we got here.