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Blog Archive 14
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24. June 2020 - Aug 2020
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To keep the blog page a reasonable length the articles found within will be archived approximately every six months. To access older content, click the links on the left side of this page.
Forgetting the Truth:
As the summer of 1863 began, the residents of Pennsylvania were surprised to find their roads clogged with grey clad troops. General Lee had brought the war to the North. As his Army of Northern Virginia shadowboxed with the Federal Army of the Potomac, there was a chance encounter just outside the sleepy town of Gettysburg. After scattered troops began to converge there it grew into a full scale battle. By July 3rd both armies had already been engaged in two days of bloody combat with no decisive outcome to show for it. Lee would now risk everything on a single charge against the Union center positioned atop Cemetery Ridge. The primary task of breaking the Federal Line would go to the three divisions of Pettigrew, Trimble and Pickett serving under General Longstreet. General Pickett’s men, who had just arrived on the scene, had yet to see much fighting in the war, and their ranks were flush. Longstreet had expressed great reservations on the merits of attacking this strongpoint but Lee was insistent. After the initial Confederate bombardment had ended, the time came to order the attack but Longstreet could not even summon the words up from his throat. With a nod of his head the Confederate battle line stepped out from its concealment and began their long march across a mile wide field.
Though pot shots were taken, most of the Federal troops atop Cemetery Ridge held their fire until it could inflict maximum damage. Hundreds, then thousands of Confederate soldiers fell but their ranks were so heavily packed that their momentum could not be stopped. Instead of attacking across a broad front they had used a small clump of trees on top of the ridge to guide them into position, and now all brigades were converging on a single point. There they were met by canons firing double bags of canister and smoothbore muskets loaded with quantities of buckshot. By the time the charging Confederates reached the stone wall where the Union line was placed, their leading brigades were decimated. The reserve brigade under General Armistead was yet to come up, and when it did they broke through the now weakened Union defense and continued their rush toward the trees. If the Confederates could now roll up the Union line the Federal army might retreat in disarray. Lee might go on to capture Baltimore or Philadelphia. England and France in turn might then recognize the Confederate States of America. Perhaps a war weary North would finally call for a negotiated end to the conflict. This was the South’s best chance at achieving all of these goals. It was truly their high water mark. Well maybe, maybe not.
An hour after the 12,500 Confederates began their march up to Cemetery Ridge; nearly half were either dead or wounded with Union troops closing in on the survivors. Federal troops held in reserve had surged forward to meet this threat, more as a mob than in any cohesive formation. General Armistead was killed and most of his remaining men were taken prisoner. It may have been a heroic effort but there was never much of a chance for success. With a string of victories behind him, Lee had grown overconfident in his men. Pickett would never forgive him for the disaster. A heavy rain began to fall the following day, and the Confederates held their position waiting for a counter attack that never came. Their wagon train had already begun its long journey back south. The tide had seemingly turned.
While Gettysburg was a great battle in an epic war, these events took place well before picture postcards ever came into production. This fact alone might make it seem that there could be little connection between the two apart from some stray view-cards carrying contemporary images of the quiet pastoral landscape where the battle was fought. Postcards however are not as simple as that. They do not capture the reality of their times as much as the collective state of mind. They have thus been used to express our national myths, often drawing on past events that are either relevant to current ideals or that can be altered to suite them. Not all battlefields have meaning but Gettysburg certainly does, or at least it has been chosen to have meaning. Its meaning however has never remained static but has changed to fulfill both personal agendas and societies needs over time. There is no argument that the three day battle at Gettysburg was the largest in the American Civil War and that it produced the highest number of casualties, but its significance has always been open for interpretation. Postcards began being used to reinforce the Gettysburg myth a the turn of the 20th century, but to properly understand them they must first be given context. Neither the attitudes we hold today nor or those that existed when these cards were first publish represent those held in the decades immediately following the battle. Meaning was already being imposed upon this battlefield while the Civil War still raged, and it has continued to be an ongoing saga.
Our understanding of this great battle has largely come down to us through myth rather than fact despite all the genuine scholarship that has gone into its study. Our minds are filled with many fanciful stories because it is through them that we typically try to comprehend all things laid out before us. It is often difficult even for veterans to grasp the true carnage of war for its horrors tend to defy the world order we have created in our heads. Inconvenient truths are often ignored when they do not fit into our long held paradigms, and we create myths to fill in the gaps. Gettysburg is probably the first and perhaps only battle most of us can now recall from this ugly period in our history, yet we generally know little about it despite it being the most written about engagement of that war. This is largely due to our ability to filter out complicated facts that surround any event so we can exclusively place it within a simplified meaning that speaks to our current lives. When the first postcard of Gettysburg was published in the 1890’s it was no longer a place, it had become an icon.
One of the most overlooked aspects of the Civil War is the vital role that strongly held religious beliefs had over the struggle. This conflict was more than an argument over politics and even slavery, this was a war driven by theology. Various ethnicities may have been inclined to line up behind battle lines left standing since the English Civil War, but this was not the century’s old conflict between rival religions competing for supremacy. Clergy on both sides of the Potomac were rallying people behind a growing sense of nationalism until the dividing line between faith and patriotism was eliminated. Clergy everywhere were espousing the WarÕs virtues, turning it into a moral crusade with a blood sacrifice as its price. These arguments played a significant role in keeping up the war’s momentum by helping people explain away the disasters that befell them while encouraging false hope when facts on the ground did not support any. Every setback on the battlefield, every city burned became God’s way of testing moral resolve. Defeat became unfathomable to people of faith, so negotiation was unthinkable. Honoring the dead with monuments became not just a sign of respect for their valor and sacrifice; it served as a coping mechanism by helping to create meaning when explaining a loss. When faced with mountains of dead, the idea that they may have died with nothing achieved or for a bankrupt cause was as unacceptable then as it is now. Something sacred needed to be made of it. After the battle at Gettysburg there was a noticeable upsurge in religious observance, especially in the South as seen in the growth of revivals. With this new found religiosity grew a more pressing need to memorialize those who had fallen.
While our earlier battlefields dating from the American Revolution are also marked, these memorials were largely slow in coming. Many of the more grand examples we now recognize were not even constructed until after the Civil War. Now before the Civil War had even ended, monuments were already being erected on battlefields sites. For most of our history the United States was suspicious of standing armies, and when the Civil War broke out there were few professional soldiers to speak of. This became a war largely fought by volunteers and conscripts removed from civilian life, and because of this the public demanded greater respect shown for those who fell in battle. This became the first American war in which national cemeteries were created right on the sites of large battlefields when it became logistically impossible to ship all the bodies back home to their families. While thousands of bodies scattered across a landscape led to real health concerns, interning the dead had never previously been dealt with in such a dignified manner. Gettysburg’s first monuments were those placed at their new military cemetery. These were not designed to commemorate state won victories but aimed at the individuals who were sacrificed there. By erecting these monuments the dead were not just recognized and kept in public memory, the ground on which they fell was also sanctified and became open to implied meaning.
The Gettysburg Memorial Association was the first to make a concerted effort to erect monuments on this battlefield. Veteran groups who held reunions on site also raised money to purchase small plots of land and have memorials installed. This activity eventually came under the supervision of Northern veterans from the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Cities and even States soon followed suit erecting even larger more impressive monuments to memorialize their dead. Classical revival styles were typically used when designing public architecture of this time, and since monuments to fallen soldiers had also been constructed in ancient Greece and Rome, they became models for most Civil War battlefield monuments. There were the standard equestrian statues, tall marble columns, and the same sort of romantic statuary that began filling most of our rural cemeteries in the same years. While this classical style of marker would remain the standard for decades to come, the meaning behind them was already shifting toward the end of the 19th century.
The military cemetery at Gettysburg was dedicated four months after the battle on November 19, 1863. Massachusetts’s statesman Edward Everett was the keynote speaker who lavishly heaped laurels upon the dead. The battle was not at first perceived of as the great victory for the Union it would eventually become. While Lee was turned back and there was a fairly bloody follow up, his army managed to slip back into Virginia to fight another day. Even so, by the time President Abraham Lincoln rose to follow Everett’s benediction, he was already presenting the Nation with an interpretation of the battle that would provide the event with greater meaning. Within his short address were the words “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. 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.” Just a few weeks earlier he had issued a National Proclamation declaring the fourth Thursday in November to be recognized as a national day of thanksgiving. It was in part to “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it ...” but it was also declared in recognition that the North remained safe and strong after the South had played its best hand at Gettysburg.
It was through Lincoln’s words that the battle was already beginning to be portrayed as the turning point in the war, an idea that has only grown since and is now largely accepted without question. It was not so clear back then. Two unyielding belligerents still faced each other, and it would take almost two more years of fighting before the war drew to a close. After the war ended it was much easier to define the battle within its larger context, but retrospect is no guarantor of the truth. It is often cited that Lee was never again able to invade the North and he had to resign himself to playing a defensive role. While this may be generally true it does not account for the tactical offensives he continued to make or of his sending General Early back into Pennsylvania the following year from where he eventually attacked Washington. It can also be argued that the battle of Antietam fought during Lee’s first invasion of the North in 1862 was the war’s turning point for it was turned back with a great number of causalities that included so many officers that it permanently degraded Lee’s command structure. Likewise General Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in 1864 can be seen as the turning point for it not only deprived the South of its most vital manufacturing and rail center, the victory ensured the continuance of war by seeing to Lincoln’s reelection against the peace candidate. We tend to form the conclusions we prefer first and then search for facts to support it, but in a universe of interlocking events it is difficult if not impossible to ever point to a single decisive moment.
Those who first wrote of the war began to seriously popularize the notion of Gettysburg as its turning point. Without deeper analysis the reasons for this assessment were easy enough for anyone to grasp at a glance, and an easy understanding of events could draw a wider audience. Once the story became a staple of popular culture, the idea of a turning point began to assume the role of a true American myth. As this myth grew, Southerners who had ignored the battlefield for many years began to see that they could also write their own history into it. If it were truly the turning point then where was the exact point? The farthest reach of Armistead’s men just short of clump now referred to as the Copse of Trees was the perfect candidate. This then must be considered the high water mark of the Confederacy representing the zenith of their military power and potential. The fact that General Lee perceived this attack as a failure, a grave mistake that he blamed himself for was of little consequence. The fact that the important Mississippi River stronghold of Vicksburg fell the next day was ignored along with other military setbacks of that time. The battlefield as a whole could now be viewed not as a place where those in rebellion against this nation were defeated, but as a place of honor for the noble lost cause.
While many were reducing Gettysburg to a simple national myth through their writings, they were not all working on the same page. Those from the North tended to portray it as a great victory for the just and morale cause against slavery, which more than rankled those from the South who had not given up on their notions of white supremacy. Jubal Early, a Confederate General who fought at Gettysburg was insistent that the North’s explanation should not be allowed to stand, and that Southerners should start writing their own history. In a speech to the Southern Historical Society in 1873, Early assured his audience that “sooner or later, a just retribution will overtake the commission of the foulest political crime the world has ever witnessed the utter annihilation of the autonomy of eleven free, sovereign States, and the subjugation of the intelligent, virtuous populations of most of them to the rule of an ignorant and inferior race ...” He went on to state “It is a high and solemn duty which those who were part and parcel of it [the Civil War] owe to their dead comrades, to themselves, and to posterity, to vindicate the honor and glory of our cause in the history of the struggle made in its defense.” He wasn’t alone in these sentiments and many ex-Confederates revived the war through the pen.
The myth of the lost cause arose at the same time that private organizations overseeing the battlefield were petitioning the Federal Government to assume responsibility over it. Before this could take place the Northern veterans then overseeing the site were asked to give up the idea that this battlefield could only be interpreted as a great victory for the North and used as a rallying point for the Abolitionist cause. The entire reunited nation needed to be appeased and multiple definitions of its significance would have to be accepted. The site would have to honor the actions of Confederate soldiers as well. Through this revisionist outlook the troublesome notions still surrounding armed rebellion and slavery could be pushed into oblivion while the heroism in arms of Americans on both sides would be brought to the forefront. This would become not only the new myth of Gettysburg but also the entire war forming the foundation onto which the false notions of States Rights, Southern chivalry and Northern aggression would be built. Actual history would now be subverted to promote this new narrative, which was needed to unite the still divided nation.
While veterans of the Union army generally agreed that the valor of Confederate soldiers deserved recognition through monuments placed on the battlefield, they were vehemently opposed to any of them glorifying their deeds or making any reference to a noble cause. The great cost expended to put down this rebellion was still too heartfelt for them to compromise on the notion that this was anything less than a great military and moral victory for Northern ideals. Northern veterans also insisted that any work to be done on the battlefield be supervised by the War Department and not Southern veteran groups who they could see were already busy rewriting history in their favor. Despite the rhetoric to the contrary and moments of genuine reconciliation at veterans reunions, the war’s wounds had for the most part not yet healed and Southerners would still be perceived in the North as traitors for years to come. It would take some time for the terms of a government administered park to be agreed upon.
By the 1890’s there began to be a notable change in attitude toward the Civil War. This wasn’t just due to a softening of hard line stances but can be in part attributed to a new understanding of the conflict by the following generations that took no part in it. With no personal animosities to shape their beliefs, they became putty in the hands of those still settling scores through revisionist history. The institution of slavery may have been destroyed but few practical attempts to integrate blacks into the general society were made once Reconstruction ended in 1877. In fact in the 1890’s most blacks in the South lost their hard won right to vote and hold public office, and Jim Crow and other racist laws were taking hold nationwide. Revisionism had plenty of fertile ground to grow in. Even common terms like theWar of the Rebellion were now being dropped in favor of popularizing the more neutral War Between the States. Expressions of this new attitude took root at Gettysburg, which can be seen in the messages new battlefield monuments came to express.
Despite changing sentiments, one point of view did not replace the other, they more or less sat besides one another in an uneasy truce. This can most clearly be seen on postcards representing Decoration Day (Memorial Day) rather than those depicting real places. One of the largest producers of these cards was Raphael Tuck & Sons, who as an English publisher had no ax to grind, only costumers to satisfy. They produced many Memorial Day cards like the one above from 1907 with unyielding Union themes. It only depicts Union soldiers with American flags and reads “Nor shall their story be forgot, while fame her record keeps.” While the words are seemingly neutral, the depiction of Federal Troops and American flags alone sends the message that only those who fought for the Union are worth remembering. There is some irony here since the words come from the poem Bivouac of the Dead by Theodore O’Hara, which was meant to honor fallen troops from Kentucky in the Mexican War. At the same time Tuck also produced just as many cards honoring Confederate generals, flags, and their own Decoration Day that was celebrated as a separate holiday from the one in the North.
On the Tuck card above the mood is more consolatory with a Union and Confederate soldier shaking hands. It hods a quote by William Cullen Bryant “Ah! Never shall the land forget how gushed the life-blood of the brave.” While the card makes no direct reference to Gettysburg, it reinforces the notion that all Civil War battlefields have been sanctified by the blood of both sides spilled there. On the other hand only American flags are depicted so not to glorify the Confederacy but a united nation.
The first significant change in meaning to Gettysburg’s monuments was the result of the efforts by John B. Bachelder, an artist from New Hampshire. He had briefly painted military scenes during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, and then went home to sit out the rest of the war. When he heard of the great battle fought at Gettysburg, he found exceptional meaning in it and arrived there only days later, not to paint but to study and memorialize it. It seems that he was a man in search of a mission, and he found one at Gettysburg. While serving as Superintendent of Tablets and Legends he helped erect many traditional monuments. He also came to play a pivotal role in getting what was left of the Copse of Trees preserved. Where local farmers saw this stand as a source of firewood, Bachelder came to understand it as the pivotal point in the battle and thus the war. After many failed attempts he eventually secured the trees from souvenir hunters by erecting an iron fence around them but this was not nearly enough for a man of his ambitions. He envisioned an impartial monument dedicated to the high water mark but its realization was plagued by budgetary problems and design disputes for years. When finally completed in 1892 two cannon flanked a wide pedestal supporting a large book that was propped up by a pyramid of cannonballs. No narrative was engraved on its open pages; the public was only presented with the names of all Confederate and Union units involved in Longstreet’s assault of July 3rd. The open book design was already being used in cemetery sculpture to symbolize the recognized accomplishments of the deceased as recorded in God’s Book of Life. Now the high water mark was no longer just a concept but an actual place recorded on a map. Myth had become history enshrined in bronze. How could it be denied?
Our nation is covered with battlefields but they have never been treated equally. The sites of our largest engagements have been dutifully turned into parks brimming with monuments, but while this may seem appropriate there are many other sites that have nothing more than a single historical roadside marker or have been buried beneath suburban sprawl. It may be that they just exist in too great a number for all to be remembered, but are the men who fell there any less deserving? It seems that monuments are not raised from the presence of sanctified ground as much as from where there is need to project meaning. Many of these smaller battles and skirmishes had little to no consequence to them other than adding to mounting casualty lists; and when it became too difficult to attach meaning to a site it was generally poorly marked or even forgotten. Meaning of course is not intrinsic to a place; it is something that a society needs to find for itself. Historic fact may be altered when it does not properly align with these needs, and thus the memory of the event is altered. Places such as Gettysburg that have been given monuments over a long stretch of time have also assumed varying significance because of it. In this way monuments no longer function to help us remember the truth but are actually designed so we may forget it.
In 1895 the War Department finally assumed stewardship of the land purchased by veterans at Gettysburg and established a battlefield park where strict rules were set up to guide the placement of monuments. The Gettysburg Memorial Association already had rules set in place, which led to countless arguments. It was decided that monuments dedicated to individual regiments and brigades should be placed where they stood in line before the battle started. This was palatable to Northern veterans for markers were placed where most fought in defensive positions. Southerners on the other hand became resentful for their markers would be divorced from where much of the actual fighting took place. There were also monuments already situated on site that now had to be moved, which occasionally led to litigation stirring up even more bitterness. If the fog of war did not cause enough confusion then fading memories did. There was little consensus among veterans as to where and when events took place. Three different Confederate regiments all claimed that they had penetrated the Federal lines the furthest. Many other units engaged also insisted on more recognition than they deserved. Having one’s name attached to notable wartime achievements was coveted because it often led to postwar gain. The right military status gave an edge to anyone writing memoirs or running for public office. All history may be a matter of interpretation, but monuments in particular are subject to the juggling of personal ambitions and the vagrancies of politics. In the end they tell a story but one that usually muddies the facts.
It wasn’t always the contenders that fought over descriptions of battlefield events. For decades the attack toward the Corpse of Trees on the third day of Gettysburg was referred to as Longstreet’s Assault, and it is written as such on the High Tide Monument. Today this name is nearly forgotten, replaced by the more popular Pickett’s Charge. This change was not the result of a single decision but speaks to the power of myth and how unrelated factors change the way history is often recorded. More than anyone, General George Pickett did not want his name associated with this failed attack. His battlefield report describing the incident was so bitter that Lee told him to burn it. Despite this Pickett had in fact received good press from Virginia newspapers, who may have not been so concerned with his performance as in placing blame for this defeat on troops from other States. While this helped promote him into a popular figure, it was only when the battle of Gettysburg was eventually reinterpreted as a shrine to Confederate valor that his association with the assault became a positive one. This connection was then endlessly promoted by his widow, which gained momentum the more Longstreet fell out of favor with his former Confederate compatriots, especially after he turned Republican.
The legacy of the Civil War is a prime example where history has continually been written and rewritten to suit various agendas. This was particularly true at the turn of the 20th century when the last surviving veterans of the Confederacy sought to alter their legacy from being perceived of as traitors to that of defenders of a noble cause. Despite these efforts the uncomfortable truths concerning the war had not fully disappeared from the public consciousness. This proved a problem where they collided with commercial enterprise dependent on positive narratives. Myths were always the prime mover of tourism and those who stood to gain from it exploited and manipulated them with skill. For some the motive was all profit but others truly thought that these myths could also help unify a still divided nation and saw good in fostering them. From this idea the See America First movement was born, which was followed by similar nationalistic tourist campaigns. Out of these endeavors rose two central myths; that of colonial New England as the birthplace of America and its values, and the pioneer spirit found in the opening and settlement of the American West. These efforts did help bring about a stronger national identity but it largely did so at the expense of truth. Because of unresolved problems concerning the Civil War and slavery, the South was largely written off by the promoters of national tourism and would largely be ignored in accounts of American History as well. It is no coincidence that the number of view-cards produced depicting Southern States are far fewer in number than those from the North or the West. This may be partially attributed to the location of big cities that generated a lot of customers but it is also a result of how the American myth was then defined and national tourism promoted. This however opened a door for Southerners to redefine themselves.
Once the popularity of postcards grew, publishers began producing images of almost everything to satisfy the country’s insatiable hunger for them. Scenes of overgrown fields and anonymous dirt roads were suddenly raised in status by local publishers when they turned battlefields, long ignored by historians and barely even marked into postcards. Every community wanted to show off something unique about them, be it an old building, an odd shaped rock, or just a memory of an event that occurred there long ago. Although individual publishers may not have been trying to alter public opinion or create a new history, they often employed myth to enhance sales and inadvertently did much to disseminate them. Many postcard images were so non-descript that they would attract little attention without the proper written or implied narrative. For any marketable item, sales are imperative and thus it was prudent for publishers to play to the comfortably held beliefs of their customers rather than risk profits by challenging them. The audience for most postcards was decidedly White, and so cards spoke the language that had the most receptive ear.
Postcards depicting the Gettysburg battlefield were some of the earliest ever produced and they would go on to be made in great numbers. For the most part they depicted gleaming white monuments and flowing fields. Some reproduced snippets from famous paintings, especially the Cyclorama by Paul Dominique Philippoteaux erected right on the battlefield. While this painting captured much of the battle’s drama, little of this was carried over to the poor quality postcards derived from it. Overall all these cards seem to have little interest in conveying any message at all but in the end their subject matter is loaded with meaning that cannot be avoided whether intended or not. Some monuments had more to say than others; some literally when narratives were added to the card. While these captions may seem little more than descriptive and sometimes boastful on the surface, they did much to support the new myth of Gettysburg. They did not have to be overtly political; they could get their message across with just a few carefully chosen words. Their effect is so subtle that it is difficult to understand them as instruments of propaganda when we are unfamiliar with the entire story. We may not find anything striking about a single brick, but enough of them put together can create a formidable wall.
One of the most popular subjects to be placed on Gettysburg postcards is the High Water Mark monument, which just happens to be the most weighted in meaning. A card published by Rotograph from 1905 states “Here the successful tide of the Confederacy was turned back, here one of the most gallant charges in history terminated, and it is the point farthest north reached by the Confederates.” While the publisher may have had no agenda to promote, the language on the card is meant to appeal to the sensibilities of the tourist perusing through a postcard rack. By adding the superlatives most gallant and farthest north, the history that has already been distorted is distorted further in an effort to promote sales by making the image more important than it actually is. The term furthest north is meant to invoke the visual image of a rising tide and thus a high tide mark. In actuality Pickett%rsquo;s charge was made from west to east while other parts of the battlefield lie well to the north of it. Parts of Lee’s army had moved much further to the north prior to the battle and only turned back south to meet the Federals who had placed themselves between his army and Washington. Lesser known incursions would also bring Confederates much further north. They no doubt generated superlatives of their own that conflict with the Gettysburg account, but then again postcards are not as much about conveying history as they are about presenting myths.
While there had been token efforts at reconciliation during early Gettysburg reunions, changing perspectives toward the meaning of the war had resulted in a notable shift in attitude when the 50th anniversary of the battle was commemorated in 1913. President Woodrow Wilson, though known as a progressive and moralist also happened to be a devout white supremacist. He had embarked on a campaign to rid the Federal government of all its Black civil servants. Even the Navy in which Blacks and Whites had served together side by long before the Civil War took place was now facing segregation. In his battlefield anniversary speech Wilson pronounced “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgottenÑexcept that we shall not forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each other’s eyes.” In his eyes we were one nation once again united through the valor expressed on this battlefield. It was easy to believe for there was no mention of the disenfranchisement of our Black population or even a nod even given to their existence. As a supporter of Eugenics he envisioned a better world with no people of color in it at all. There would be no monuments placed here that brought up the divisive nature of the Civil War or the arguments that could not begin to be settled without the spilling of oceans of blood. There would be no mention of slavery at Gettysburg; here the institution that brought us to war was erased from our history.
While the cause of the Civil War was rooted in slavery, this explanation has become too general of a catch phrase that through its lack of nuance misses the point. The real issue that shrouded this war was that of white supremacy; slavery was just a manifestation of this concept. It allowed even the poorest dirt farmer who owned no slaves or little of anything else to support the institution because at least this elevated him above the status of being Black. After slavery was outlawed, racist feeling didnÕt dissipate, they only became more widespread. In a speech to the United Confederate Veterans in 1904, Mississippi Senator John Sharp Williams claimed that the lost cause wasn’t truly yet lost. “There is no grander, no more superb spectacle than that of the white men of the South standing ... determinedly, solidly, shoulder to shoulder in phalanx, as if the entire race was one man, unintimidated by defeat in war, unawed by adverse power, unbribed by patronage, unbought by the prospect of present material prosperity, waiting and hoping and praying for the opportunity which, in the providence of God, must come to overthrow the supremacy of veneered savages, superficially Americanized Africans - waiting to reassert politically and socially the supremacy of the civilization of the English-speaking white race.” With the help of President Wilson, much of the SenatorÕs remarks had born fruit by the 1920’s. In this new climate membership in the Ku Klux Clan rose to its highest levels and lynching became all too commonplace. Southern States finally felt comfortable enough to start erecting substantial monuments at Gettysburg. It was now their battlefield too.
After White Republicans abandoned Lincoln’s notion of a new birth of freedom, Blacks started to noticeably leave the Party around 1910. Though President Wilson did nothing to gain their trust, Black leaders threw their hats in with the Democratic Governor Franklin Roosevelt when he first ran for President in 1932. While he seemed sympathetic to their plight there were still politics to play. He would only help Blacks in a roundabout way by helping all poor Americans, but he would turn a blind eye toward their specific needs once he became President. By largely ignoring the issue of civil rights Roosevelt managed to carry all former Confederate States in all four of his Presidential campaigns. This compromise also helped him get much of his New Deal agenda through a Congress that was hostile to progressive ideas. When Gettysburg’s 75th anniversary rolled around in 1938 President Roosevelt would be there to dedicate the newly erected Eternal Peace Light Memorial. This monument, funded by all the States was planned for years though construction did not get off the ground until after the National Park Service assumed control of the battlefield in 1933. Its purpose was to celebrate the end of regional divisiveness. Its inscription reads Peace Eternal in a Nation United. An enduring light to guide us in unity and friendship. The myth had changed little in twenty-five years; we were one nation with all Whites united while Blacks remained excluded from the American identity. Finally on the eve of World War Two President Roosevelt realized that we could not make a moral argument against the Nazis, for the single national myth of unity that all seemed to agree on couldn’t be further from the truth. All saw that at least some reforms had to be made to end Federal segregation policies and the continuation of slavery through imprisonment that continued to fuel the Southern economy if our own anti-racist rhetoric was not to be turned against us.
Despite the turmoil of the era, postcards of Gettysburg published through the 1930&rsquo:s and 1940’s were largely directed toward the growing number of motor tourists passing through. Any card that could make an association with a familiar event had an edge on sales. The linen card above depicting the plaque dedicated to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is one such card. Not only is Lincoln’s speech a well known part of American mythology, the card further attracts our attention with the superlative, America’s Greatest Shrine. While the words of the short address are all there, they are almost too small for us to read. They are of course not meant to be read because an understanding of them would contradict the simpler prevailing myths of the times.
Another linen card reproduces a painting dating from 1870 by Peter Frederic Rothermel depicting Pickett’s Charge. Various publishers had used this image on their cards in previous decades, but now its bright attractive colors overpower the chaotic carnage of battle. Printed over it is a long list of meaningless facts like the mileage of park roads to further distract us from giving any real thought to what had actually taken place here, and more importantly why.
Yet another card put out by Mobil Gas uses an image of the Gettysburg battlefield to represent the State of Pennsylvania. Despite its depiction of McPherson’s Ridge, which was only fought over on the 1st day, part of its caption deploys the myth Where the tide of the Civil War turned... Despite their absence of substance, all three of these cards contain loaded images from which meaning can be drawn regardless of the publisher’s intent. To do this however the viewer must draw on his own knowledge of events, which may be lacking, and so meaning is often reduced to cliché.
When Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke at the 100th anniversary of the battle, our nation was deeply embroiled in the civil rights movement and the backlash against it. Johnson was a very different man from Wilson and he gave a very different kind of speech. Most of his words revolved around our unfulfilled promises to the Black community and the work ahead of us to find a solution. He ended with “Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact. To the extent that the proclamation of emancipation is not fulfilled in fact, to that extent we shall have fallen short of assuring freedom to the free.” Here were the seeds to a new myth, one that picked up where President Lincoln’s words left off. Postcard publishers however would continue to avoid controversy in favor of assuring sales. They would not promote this new paradigm and pretend nothing had changed.
The postcard industry of the 1960’s was quite different from that found during the golden age of postcards. The number of publishers out there was dramatically reduced and with them expired a multitude of viewpoints. More importantly the role of postcards was also dramatically changed. Pictorial magazines had long since replaced them in being the primary way that printed imagery was now disseminated to the pubic. The new medium of television was also consuming much of the nation’s attention. Even so, postcards still played an important role within tourism and their sales remained high. In general these new larger publishers shied away from anything controversial producing cards depicting pretty but bland views. This trend had already been going on for decades. In their efforts to provide the public, or at least White tourists, with what they wanted they let the status quo stand. While few cards exposed any overt agenda, neither did they raise needed questions posed by their times. Postcards of the High Water Mark monument continued to provide their customers with the same myth that was popular fifty years earlier. Publishers had silently taken a stand through their own complacency. The cards they produced might have been modern chromes but the only thing new about them was the technique in which they were printed.
The postcard above, a linen published by Marken & Bielfeld, and the one below, a modern chrome published by the Gettysburg Battlefield Park, both depict the High Water Mark Monument. Though they were printed decades apart, they both contain identical captions on their reverse side. This point marks the end of Pickett’s Charge and from it the defeated troops fell back and never again made a successful stand. This unique and artistic memorial signifies the termination of one of the most gallant offenses recorded in history and it was here that the tide of success of the Confederacy turned. This is no anomaly for countless other cards either contain the same phrase or something close to it. It appears they are all based on a quote from John Bachelder. “It was her that one of the most gallant charges recorded in history terminated, here that the tide of success of the Confederates turned.” While the inclusion of Bachelder’s words may be appropriate, he as the designer of the monument is not an unbiased party in deciphering history. Though a Yankee, his inspiration for the monument came out of conversations held with Confederate veterans, particularly Col. Walter Harrison, one of General Pickett’s staff officers. Though the Gettysburg myth is propelled by deep underlying issues, the casualness of our pop history often has shallow roots. Though we should not expect to learn our history from postcards, it is still unfortunate that they are more valuable as a consumer product when they only espouse the messages we want to here. Despite the growth of the Civil Rights Movement, it like all popular social movements only engaged a very small segment of our population. Publishers had to speak to a broader mainstream audience if they were to make sales and profit.
About twenty-five of the last surviving veterans of Gettysburg attended the 75th reunion in 1938. It would be the last time they gathered there but the legacy of revisionism they fostered was already ingrained into our society. After their demise the National Park Service saw no need to make any changes and continued to pander to revisionist attitudes that were now commonly held. No political or social concerns would be addressed on Civil War battlefields, only descriptions of the military actions taken there. While it is difficult to assign motive, the decision to maintain the status quo was probably similar to that of most postcard publishers; they just didn’t want to rock the boat. Issues of slavery and race still proved too difficult to tackle and any attempts to do so became less appealing as demonstrations and riots filled our streets. This of course was not a neutral stance as opponents to change like to claim; the Park Service had chosen sides through their complacency. President Johnson may have tried to redefine the national myth but he only managed to reach a segment of our society that was willing to listen and open their eyes. He may have been unable to create a new myth but he put a chink in the old one and its power began to wane.
The 1980’s saw an upsurge of interest in the American Civil War, inspired in part by mass media programming. Many scholars took advantage of this new found attention and wrote new volumes on its history, which added much to our understanding of this conflict. This interest also spilled over into popular culture as can be seen in the increased production of related postcards. A prime example are the cards featuring the work of the historical illustrator Mort Kuntsler. The quality of these cards is a far cry better than those printed earlier in the century but in some ways they are very similar. In the example above entitled High Tide, the typical generic battle scenes found on early cards has been replaced by a carefully rendered narrative that is also highly attractive. Its appeal lies in its ability to bring history to life while still stirring romantic notions about war and the Civil War in particular. Regardless of its accuracy, history is reduced to the glorification of familiar popular clichés that add nothing to our greater understanding of the conflict. We must remember however to place these cards in context. The artist is primarily functioning as a businessman, not a historian, and as such he has carefully provided the myths that his audience has come to expect.
It was not until 2000, after Jesse Jackson Jr. introduced legislation to Congress insisting that the Park Service present a broader version of history that any changes began to be seen at Gettysburg. Congressman Jackson felt that the limited approach to history presented so far was denying Americans of the facts they needed to truly appreciate these historic sites. Without proper context, battlefield parks did not live up to their potential as instructive instruments. Over 2,000 postcards were mailed to the Park Service by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to protest these changes. They insisted that the mere mention of slavery “does a great disservice to the military strategists and to the soldiers who sacrificed their all at these important battlefields.”
This summer the battle of Gettysburg saw its 150th anniversary commemorated, only without the usual presidential speeches. Our first Black President was notably absent from the ceremonies, off in Africa on his own diplomatic mission. Though we were presented with great spectacle as thousands of Civil War re-enactors came out to publicly relive this event over a ten day period, it was more an act of entertainment than one that might ask us to ponder the battle’s meaning. Though nothing is more important to the commercial news stream these days than the revenue generating power of spectacle, little of this anniversary saw more than token coverage. What little could be found was generally reduced to brief generic sound bites with an emphasis placed on the economic impact of additional tourist dollars. Was this neglect due to the usual taboo regarding any real discussions on race or does this mark the battlefields loss of resonance in carrying myth?
While statesmen of high status oversaw all previous major anniversaries, the keynote address in 2013 was given over to Doris Kearns Goodwin, an author whose qualifications were apparently her penning of a popular historic novel on President Lincoln. Her remarks however were centered on the 1960’s civil rights movement and those of us who still face bigotry. In a land still filled with neo-Confederate rhetoric, picking up where President Johnson left off cannot necessarily be deemed out of place. This newer paradigm however was not the one her audience expected and it drew ire, though those who stayed politely sat there in silence. They had not come to hear about a job undone, they wanted to be comforted by familiar words describing success and valor and how great this battle made us. They wanted her to make them feel good. While I do not wish to defend her failings or even her appropriateness as a speaker, the vitriol this has brought up does expose a nation in which at least many are still unwilling to give up their long held myths.
What most people today think they know of this great conflict has little to do with fact. We have lived so long with falsehoods that too many are now unprepared to even consider the truth. We are like children who believe meat comes from a store, completely naive to the ugliness of slaughterhouses. It is all the more comfortable to keep our hands clean. Even so many of our old myths are no longer working as well as they once did. While they still provide comfort to many individuals they no longer speak to a more inclusive society as a whole. Gettysburg no longer works as a focal point representing a united country because the White America its myths exclusively pander to is no longer so White. As minority voices have come to be heard, a new louder divisiveness has arisen pitting those who seek a new narrative against those who have entrenched themselves in myths of imagined glories. As I write these words we are also in the midst of another anniversary, the 50th of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Its goals to see Blacks reach economic equality still needs to be met but at least the speakers there implored their audience not to become nostalgic, to realize that freedom is never just given to any of us but must be continually fought for. It was also a reminder of what can be accomplished when we work together. The struggle for civil rights should have been a natural extension of Gettysburg’s legacy from the start. It may be some day, but only if the competing paradigms that drove us to war a century and a half ago loosen their grip on us.
There is nothing inherently wrong with myth making. It is so engrained in human nature that it can probably never disappear. In many ways we are all richer for this trait as it allows us to convey understanding when other words will not do. It can however also imprison us if we are not careful about what we chose to believe. We tend to behave like deer in a forest that follow the same path over and over every day because of the comfort they find in believing it’s a safe route. It is only safe however until it is not, when the habit is discovered by a hunter who then lies in wait. Our myths may define who we are but we need to see when they no longer protect us. As we have already seen, the battlefield at Gettysburg has no intrinsic meaning. It will however remain significant as long as it retains the power to generate myth, whatever that myth may be.
This latest anniversary is responsible for a new generation of postcards, many depicting scenes from the great reenactment of the battle, but they do not challenge us to think about Gettysburg in a new light or invite us to perceive it in a broader context. For the most part mainstream publishers have been able to stick to their old habits by directing their tired messages toward an ever decreasing niche audience. While narrative continues to be sought out in pictures, too many are content with or actually prefer engaging in romantic sentimentality rather than true discourse. Postcards were never leaders but followers of public sentiment, but they have played a crucial role in propping it up. Even with their diminishing relevance they still have power, and so their content should not be taken lightly. Lincoln stated “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.” If we can’t confront our problems in a new way, obsolete myths will live on regardless of their consequences; Lincoln’s vision of one nation united in a just, and lasting peace will remain elusive. Even if Gettysburg’s power to define us is waning, it still seems that the Sesquicentennial was a lost opportunity to generate a new myth, perhaps one that would help teach all of us how to live together in spite of our differences.
While we now celebrate a variety of holidays in the United States they were long in coming. In a Protestant dominated society where the virtues of hard work were lauded, all holidays smacked of the endless wasted feast days that flooded the Papal calendar. While efforts to keep our nation free of such heresies waned as we became a less homogenous society, we still have far fewer days of celebration, at least officially, than found in most other places. This can often lead to confusion when as collectors we find postcards depicting rites and festivities surrounding some holiday that we are not familiar with. Sommersonnenwende is just one of these events that few Americans familiar with unless they have close family connections to where it is still celebrated.
This is not as obscure an event as the name might make it sound to the ears of English speaking people. In German Sonnwend is the solstice, and sommersonnenwende is of course the summer solstice. On the celestial calendar it marks the end point of lengthening days accumulated during the year, which is followed by the slow return of ever shortening days that lead to the winter solstice in December. Most of us are very familiar with celebrations around the winter solstice because the Catholic Church has transformed popular pagan observances of it into Christmas. The summer solstice however should not be given short shrift even if it is not as well known today. This celestial event associated with fertility, was once so widely marked that it was considered a serious contender for the placement of Jesus Christ’s birthday on the Roman calendar. Perhaps this celebration was so ingrained into pagan society that the Church was afraid it would lose ground competing with it. When the Church placed Christmas on December 24th, June 24th was made into the feast day of St. John the Baptist as all that was known of his birth was that it took place six months before that of Christ. The celebratory dates are now shifted from the actual celestial solstice on the 21st because it still usually follows the old Roman Julian calendar. In some places where it is an official holiday, the observance has been distorted even further by moving it to a Friday so that a three day weekend can be conveniently created.
Many of us are more familiar with this holiday as Midsummers Eve, but it goes under many different names in many different countries. In Sweden we find Midsommar, in Finland Juhannus, in Denmark Sankt Hans Aften, and in Norway Sankhansaften. There are also many references to St. John in the naming of this day but sometimes duel Christian and pagan names coexist as in the Baltic Nations. In Latvia it is called Jani and Ligu, and in Lithuania it goes by both Joines and Rasa. Many contemporary pagans now celebrate this day as Litha. While Midsummer celebrations can be found in warmer climates like those of Brazil and Spain, they seem to grow in popularity as one heads north. Today it has its strongest presence in Scandinavia and the Baltic States, but even in Quebec, Canada it has been a legal holiday since 1925. So then why have I entitled this essay with a German name?
While my research into this matter has not yet been extensive enough to be conclusive, Midsummer does not seem to have ever been a large card producing holiday. This however seems a little odd considering its widespread importance and the great numbers of other holiday postcards that were once published. While the current scarcity of Midsummer cards may be a true indication of their limited production, it could just as well be a reflection of current postcard distribution among dealers and collectors. I’ve leaned that the types of cards modern collectors can now find do not necessarily reflect market conditions a hundred years ago. While I have seen some Midsummer cards from Sweden and Latvia, the vast majority of cards seem to come from Germany where early chromolithographic Sonnwende postcards begin appearing in the 1890’s.
This was a time of growing German nationalism and a search for identity. Bismarck’s formation of the Second Reich had been a disappointment to many of those who were expecting more than the mere creation of a nationalist state. The movement to unite many small Kingdoms into a German Empire had been a spiritual as well as a political pursuit, and for some its achievement should have yielded near Messianic results. These more esoteric ideals began to be transferred to occult groups that were just then making their presence known in Germany at that time. Many others who were suspicious of the Church turned to earlier pagan traditions in their search for a Germanic identity. Germany, as with much of Scandinavia, was just moving into the industrial age and their largely rural population was more prone to carry on peasant traditions. All this fostered a climate in which traditional rituals and holidays not only grew popular, they began to be seen by the State as a way to further unify and strengthen the new Empire. Pagan traditions that encourage greater nationalist feelings soon began to be officially promoted.
Germans embraced these trends through the Nazi era, and are still encouraged by neo-Nazis today. The reasons remain the same; Sonnwende could be seen as a true German holiday free of foreign influence. Its celebration reinforced the idea of German exceptionalism and the uniqueness of the Volk. Many Midsummer rituals were given a particularly German flare and were often politicized. The Nazis even took on an ancient sun symbol in the form of a swastika (sun wheel) to represent their Party. Despite this the production of Sonnwende postcards seems to have largely ended by World War One, but this may be reflective of the decrease in general postcard use after the Great War. Though the Austrian Empire has a related but different history, they also had a large segment of their population that was sympathetic to Pan-Germanic ideals. If they did not manufacture any of these Sonnwende cards themselves, they certainly used them in large numbers as their postmarks can attest.
Despite the seemingly localized distribution of these cards, their symbolism was more universal. This holiday filled with singing and dancing always seemed to entail the building of bonfires (sonnenwent) and the ritual of jumping over them. Supposedly devout Christians even celebrate the Church holiday of St. Johns Day with bonfires. Bonfires are the most common theme to be found on Sonnwende cards, either alone but most often in combination with dancing.
While most Sonnwende postcards may seem indecipherable to the uninitiated, some card evoke much more mystery than others. There are cards depicting gothic ruins or even ancient temples illuminated by fires in the night. Sometimes postcards will illustrate views of entire night landscapes dotted by many distant fires. If their association with Sonnwende is broken, these cards can be difficult to interpret. They can look more like tragic disasters than festive events.
Spoked wheels representing the sun are also found on many Sonnwende cards. These sun wheels were often rolled about the fields on this day to represent the turning of the year. They were also sometimes set ablaze at night and rolled down hills. Those more ambitious erected them upright on their axle to represent the celestial axis of the World Tree. Flowers would be strewn about their base and bonfires lit atop them. Afterwards the potent ash would be thrown out into the fields to nourish the crops. It is interesting to note that Christian roadside shrines in Lithuania that were also set up on poles are often caped with the symbol of Saule, the pagan sun god.
Lighting torches from these fires and then waving them about in the fields or by water is another common theme on Sonnwende cards. This like all the other fire related activities were meant to honor the life giving sun, but they were also a means to drive away the evil spirits that began retuning once the days began to grow darker. This harkens back to ancient fertility rites that were used to encourage bounty as well as protect crops from misfortune.
While Midsummer festivities are a celebration of the sun, they like most pagan rituals spring from the earth. This means that the connections between the two are emphasized in more earthly than esoteric ways. For instance old groves and ancient trees have long been the spiritual focal point of many pagan religions. This broader association can also be found on Sonnwende cards that sometimes depict dancing around a tree along with or in place of a fire. Oak trees, which have been long revered are the most common to be found on postcards, but there are even more modern examples that incorporate other types of decorated trees that could easily be mistaken for Xmas cards if not for the celebrants summer attire.
Magic was seen to be at its most powerful on this special day. This was not only to be taken advantage of through ritual but through the earth’s bounty. Herbs picked during this time were believed to be at their greatest potency, and so Midsummer became an important time to harvest them. Not all plants were used medicinally as many became part of rituals themselves. Men engaged in festivities took to wearing wreaths of oak and women wreaths of flowers and sometimes little else. Houses, barns and even livestock were dressed up this way, a tradition that still continues in places. In modern Latvia they now place twigs of oak on their cars during Midsummer. While we tend to look at these connections today solely in a symbolic manner, they were actually meant to have a real effect on events. The life energy found in plants, especially at Midsummer, was seen as a power that could enhance magic. As this day of song and banquet draws to a close these flowers and wreaths are typically sacrificed to the waters of river or sea.
As with most major holidays, we can trace the origins of Sonnwende back to much earlier times. This provides us with clues to many of the more arcane facets that surround contemporary rituals that have lost some if not all of their original meaning over time. Some of the holiday’s meaning has been lost to us do to constant attempts by more mainstream religions to purge these pagan beliefs from our society. This however is only a part of the story for even though Midsummer has been forgotten in many places, it is still the pagan rites that are more commonly carried out on this day than the Christian ones. The changes we find in both ritual and meaning has less to do with ideological purges or forgetfulness as much as evolution. Holidays are created to fill a need within society, and as these needs change so does the nature of the holiday. While used to help unify Germans in the early 20th century, the Soviets outlawed Lithuanian Midsummer activities in 1960 because they fear it was being used to encourage independence. When looking at all Midsummer postcards we must remember that they do not just represent a pagan holiday but the needs and aspirations of the era they were printed in.