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Posts from the ‘Confederates’ Category

Day 5 – Gettysburg

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, everyone thought it would be over in a matter of months. It ended up lasting four years. By the time it was over, the lucky ones – those who had survived – had certainly seen enough war to last a lifetime. And I’m sure they were all ready to go home.

As Thursday morning dawned, the 14 Civil War Study Tour students and I were nearing the end of our own Civil War journey. We were all pretty tired and looking forward to heading back to Pittsburgh that evening. In five days, we had seen Harpers Ferry, Richmond, Cold Harbor, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Antietam. Now we were at the final stop on the tour – Gettysburg – where many say the tide of the War turned for good, although it would continue on for another bloody two years.

Our day began with a two-hour bus tour led by Bruce Rice of the National Park Service. As we picked him up at the visitor center, throngs of middle school students were everywhere. Like us, they were here to visit the battlefield just before the end of another school year. I watched them running around the parking lot, laughing and fooling around and doing what middle-schoolers do, and I wondered if they could truly comprehend what happened here 147 summers ago.

Bus driver Bruce fired up the bus and drove past Cemetery Hill, home of Gettysburg National Cemetery, the final resting place of over 3,500 Union soldiers. Here, on Nov. 19, 1863, President Lincoln delivered the address that would immortalize him.

The bus snaked through the bustling town, which the Confederates controlled during the three-day battle, and which, in 1863, was home to around 2,400 people; today, more hand 8,000 live here.

We then drove up Seminary Ridge, one of the main parts of the Confederate battle line. Turning onto Reynolds Avenue, the immenseness of the battlefield suddenly became clear, as vast fields stretched out before us.

“We are now travelling along one of the first U.S. Infantry lines of the battle,” said tour guide Bruce, as he pointed out many of the regimental monuments that were placed here in the 1880s by their surviving members.

Next, we passed Gen. Robert E. Lee’s headquarters and then the Lutheran Seminary, one of the more recognizable features of the battlefield. During the fight, it was used as a hospital for both Northern and Southern wounded.

As the bus pulled off to the side and came to a stop, we filed off and stood next to the monument for the 11th Mississippi, where Bruce spoke of the incredible impact that the battle, and the War in general, had on thousands of communities throughout the country. “Entire towns were decimated,” he said. “If you want to try to comprehend what these casualty counts would mean today, comparing the size of the population then to now, just multiply the numbers by 10.” Using that math, if Gettysburg happened in modern times, there would be over 530,000 casualties; if you take the entire War into account, there would be over 6,000,000.

Continuing the tour, we crossed over the Emmitsburg Road to the Peach Orchard, site of some of the battle’s most furious and deadly fighting. Then we drove through the infamous Wheatfield and the Devil’s Den, where casualties were high as well.

Turning left, the bus slowly climbed up the rocky hill known as Little Round Top, where Col. Joshua Chamberlain led the 20th Maine on its legendary bayonet charge on the battle’s second day, saving the Union left flank and, effectively, the entire army.

It was a perfectly clear and sunny day, and as we looked out from the top of the hill, you could literally see for miles. The entire battlefield stretched out before us. Some of the students stood atop one of the massive boulders that dotted the hillside, the same ones that Union soldiers had taken cover behind almost 15 decades earlier.

Following the proper battle line of the Northern army, we made our way across Cemetery Ridge and past the massive Pennsylvania State Monument, the largest on the field. “More than half of the entire U.S. forces were made up of men from either Pennsylvania or New York,” said Bruce.

Our final stop was the spot known simply as “The Angle,” the focal point of Pickett’s Charge, which marked the climax of this three-day battle. As Bruce described the legendary attack, where some 13,000 Confederate soldiers marched three-quarters of a mile across an open field in the face of deadly Union fire, far off in the distance a group of middle-school students were retracing the steps of the Virginia Brigade. It was chilling to see them slowly approaching our position carrying a Rebel battle flag, and it made it all the more real.

In the actual battle, those few Confederates who were able to make it all the way to the stone wall at the Angle engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Union men in what must have been a terrible scene. Just ten minutes later, however, the fight was over and the Northern lines had held. In that fateful charge, Southern forces lost over 6,000 casualties.

We stood there for a few moments, looking out onto the field to let it all sink in. The students were uncharacteristically silent, which either meant they were in awe of the moment, or just really tired. Probably a little bit of both.

When the tour was over, Dr. Barr gave the students the afternoon to explore the town on their own. Elise and Matt walked right back to the battlefield to look for the monument for Matt’s re-enactor group – the 63rd Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, Company C. “We climbed over split-rail fences and hiked through knee high grass to get there,” said Elise. “It was awesome!”

Jordan, Rich, and Eric hit Lincoln Square and perused some of the town’s many Civil War relics shops. Eric purchased a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag to go with the cavalry sword he picked up in Richmond. Rich bought his own War memento – a leather-handled Confederate officer’s sword.

The rest just explored, got some lunch, or relaxed in the warmth of the spring sun.

I decided to do a little solo exploration and browsed through every shop I encountered in and around Lincoln Square. It wasn’t long, however, before I had my fill of Civil War relics and chotchkies. There’s just so many minie balls, rifles, bayonets, and sequined Confederate battle-flag vests you can look at in one day. (I’m not kidding about the vest, either. See the photo.)

As I walked around trying to find a quiet place to sit and have a cup of coffee, I realized just how loud it is in Gettysburg. No matter which way I went, I couldn’t escape the endless line of busses, trucks, motorcycles, and cars that passed through this busy terminus. In today’s Gettysburg, you don’t have to dodge bullets, but you do have to watch out for automobiles.

It was then when I thought of how ironic it is that the best thing that ever happened to Gettysburg was the terrible battle that happened here nearly 150 years ago. What would’ve become of this town, if not for the War? Would it still have thrived, or would it have faded into obscurity like so many similar small towns have?

As I sat on a bench in Lincoln Square, trying to make sense of it all, a semi slowly navigated the busy roundabout, hauling a brand-new, sand-colored tank. It’s a good thing Lee didn’t have any of those, I thought.

Just then, Jordan, Rich, and Eric, turned the corner and sat down next to me, all looking exhausted.

“All in all, I thought it was a good trip,” said Jordan. “But I’m ready to go home.”

I wonder how many of the soldiers who fought here were ready to go home, too?

After briefly walking through the David Wills House, where Lincoln stayed the night and completed writing the Gettysburg Address, the 16 of us walked the couple or so blocks back to the bus.

Our Civil War journey had ended.


The overall response about the tour was positive.

“This was by far one of the most educational experiences I’ve had at Robert Morris University,” said Elsie. “Being able to actually see where certain points in the Civil War took place was fascinating.”

“This trip was a new way for me to learn about Civil War history,” said Sara. “Being able to see the battlefields and better envision what the Union and Confederate troops were doing was a great experience.

“My favorite part was probably Fredericksburg. I liked how our tour guide tied in Revolutionary War history with that of the Civil War and even western Pennsylvania.”

Kristen summed it up the best.

“For me, history is like a vast jigsaw puzzle,” she said. “Everyone has gaps or holes in their puzzle, where the pieces are missing. One or more missing pieces can be pivotal, and are required to make sense of a whole event. This tour helped me learn about the Southern perspective, military strategies, geography, topography, civilian life, a soldier’s camp life, social customs, economics, river and canal systems, the lack of hygiene and mortuary services, and more. These are all major pieces that have fit together to form a vivid picture of the Civil War.

“It was like someone handed me a gift.”

–Valentine J. Brkich

Gettysburg, May 5, 8:30 p.m., Farnsworth House

We stood outside the Farnsworth House, which the Travel Channel called “One of the most haunted inns in America,” as we awaited our guide for our planned Gettysburg ghost hunt. This famed inn housed Confederate sharpshooters during the battle, one of whom was believed to have shot Jennie Wade, the only civilian killed during the battle. The south side of the brick house still bears the scars of over 100 bullet holes made by Union fire.

That was the extent of what we knew about the house as we awaited our guide, who would take us on a ghost hunt both inside the house and around the town.

While we waited on the sidewalk out front, I overheard Brie giving Gettysburg history lessons to anyone within earshot. After all, Gettysburg is, in her words, her “main passion.” Even before we arrived in town, as our bus drove north on Rt. 15, her excitement was obvious.

“Gettysburg 11 miles!” she called out at one point. Then, before our driver Bruce could even open the bus door at the visitor center, Brie was sprinting down the aisle to be the first one off. “I’d say I’m obsessed,” she told me. And I would have to agree.

Brie’s especially obsessed with Jennie Wade, who I’d heard her talking about since day one of our trip. “She’s one of the lesser-known stories of the battle,” she said of the battle’s only civilian casualty. “A lot of these stories are left out. And learning about what happened off the battlefield brings it closer to home.”

I asked her what her thoughts were as we got ready to go on our ghost hunt. “I’m excited to hear what the guide says and to hear some good stories,” she said. “But hopefully we won’t see a ghost.”

Erin, a senior elementary education major from Pittsburgh, was obviously anxious as well. “I’m actually kind of nervous,” she said. “I’m prepared to run, screaming.” She showed me her sneakers.

Some, like Elise, were looking forward to the hunt. “I’m super excited!” she said. “I hope we find one” – a ghost, that is.

Sara was scared, too. But for different reasons altogether. “I’m a little bit anxious,” she said, giggling. She wasn’t afraid of seeing a ghost, however. Rather, she was scared of operating the ghost-hunting equipment. “I’m afraid I’ll break it,” she said.

Finally, after more than an hour of waiting, our guide, Dave, arrived on the scene and immediately led us into the Farnsworth House, where we would begin our ghost hunt.

We entered the house through a side door and winded our way through its claustrophobic hallways. Beth and Erin clutched each other as we made our way down to the dimly lit basement, where we would learn how to operate the ghost hunting equipment. The basement door, much like the hallways, was also unusually small. “This is like ‘Alice in Wonderland’,” said Beth. I was the last one down the steps, and for some reason, I kept looking behind me as I went.

The basement décor was disturbing, to say the least. Off to the left, a wicker casket stood empty, waiting. Spooky black-and-white photos adorned the walls. A stone gargoyle sat ominously in one corner. In front of us, a black, wooden casket containing a disturbingly realistic fake corpse was the centerpiece of a macabre, 19th century funeral scene. Behind me, a large piece of slate featured a quote from Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine: “In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays.”

If that wasn’t enough to give you the heebie-jeebies, Dave then went into the history of the house. During the battle, the very room we were sitting in was used for body storage, as were many of the other basements in the town. At one point, there were as many as 21 bodies piled right where we were sitting. What a pleasant thought.

Dave then spent the next 15 minutes or so explaining how to use the various pieces of ghost hunting equipment we would be using. These included an EMF detector, a digital surface thermometer, divining rods, an infrared viewfinder, a night-vision monocular, and a digital voice recorder.

After that, he started sharing stories of encounters he had had in that room over the last seven years as a ghost tour guide – some of them funny; others more disturbing. And it was one of the more disturbing ones, about an angry Confederate ghost who lived in the house and who had a particular disdain for women, which pushed Brie over the edge.

“I want out of here,” she said. And she was deadly serious. Dave led everyone but me, Brian, Matt, and Matt P. out of the basement and out onto the street. The rest of us remained to try to make contact with something, or someone.

Minutes later, Matt P. was standing in the middle of the room when he felt the temperature drop. Suddenly his knees buckled as he felt something, or someone, brush against him. “Was that you, Jeremy?” he asked, referring to the 8-year-old boy whom Dave had told us had died in this home. “If so, can you run into me again?” A moment passed and then Matt’s legs buckled again. And then again.

Right before we exited the room to join the others waiting outside, the other Matt swore he saw something resembling a ball hovering in the corner of the room. “It was like a ball or a globe,” he said. “I’m telling you, I saw it as plain as day. It just…appeared.”

It was then 10:30 or so, and Dave led us away from the house toward the middle school football field, which was built on some of the battleground from the fighting on July 2, 1863. Stopping near a copse of trees behind the field, he told us the story of the Louisiana Tigers, a group of Confederate death row inmates who had attacked the Union front line in this very spot, and most of whom had died as a result.

Dave led us into the woods, which were so dark that we could barely see where we were stepping. “Stop right here,” he said. “You are now standing where a mass grave containing 200 bodies of the Louisiana Tigers was found.”

Right then, my left side became noticeably cold. But before I could tell anyone, Matt P., told me to hold still. “It’s your left shoulder,” he said, pointing a digital thermometer at me. “There’s something there.” Other students converged on me as I felt my left side grow colder and colder. EMF readers were going off the charts. And then, as suddenly as it came, it was gone.

Next, Dave led us to the site of another mass grave that was found during the digging of the foundation for the football field’s bleachers. Here, 59 bodies were found lined up side by side. He also told us of a mysterious unknown general who had been seen many times riding his horse across the field of play – even during games.

The students fanned out and began using the ghost-hunting tools, hoping to make some kind of contact with a spirit from beyond. At one point, several of them converged on a spot that had their EMF readers flashing off the charts and their divining rods moving voluntarily. The entire time, they remained respectful of whatever and whomever was with us at that time. The joking around that I had expected never materialized; they were just way too into the moment.

Around 11:30, Dave led us back to the Farnsworth House, where we bid him adieu and started back to the hotel.

Note: You may be wondering why there aren’t any photos included in this post. Well, I took quite a few photos on my cell phone, which I was hoping to upload to the post. But when I went to do that, I saw that all of my photos had been erased somehow. Freak accident or supernatural hi-jinks? You make the call.

Tomorrow, it’s on to the Battle of Gettysburg…

— Valentine J. Brkich

DAY 2 – Richmond, Virginia – The Capital of the Confederacy

What happened here?
Richmond served as the Confederate capital and a main source of munitions, armament, and weapons, for the Southern armies. Here, the Tredegar Iron Works produced vital munitions during the war, including the 723 tons of armor plating that covered the ironclad C.S.S. Virginia. Union armies made several unsuccessful attempts to capture the city during the war before it finally fell to the Federals in April 1865.

Legacy and Aftermath
Five days after the fall of Richmond, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. Today, the city still embraces its Confederate legacy, as exemplified by Monument Avenue, which features statues of J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.

It took the Union armies four years to make it to Richmond; we did it in 45 minutes.

After filling up on a complimentary breakfast consisting mainly of an egg-like substance and coffee-flavored water, the RMU Civil War Study Tour participants and I loaded onto the bus and hit the road to Richmond – the one-time capital of the Confederate States of America.

“Wait ‘til we get to Richmond,” Dr. Barr told me as we rumbled down I-95. “They have an entirely different way of looking at the Civil War.”

I started to understand this as soon as we arrived at The Museum of the Confederacy and I saw the big carp out in front painted with a mural of Confederate generals Lee, Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart (see photo of RMU students around the Rebel fish). Also, in the same plaza, and somewhat more apropos, was the anchor from the C.S.S. Virginia, the legendary ironclad fought to a draw with the U.S.S. Monitor during the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862 (see photo).

Once inside, we were free to tour the three floors of the museum, which featured hundreds of paintings, photos, and artifacts from the war, including some of the actual uniforms worn by Confederate soldiers. Brie, still wearing the same flip-flops she wore to climb Maryland Heights a day earlier, asked Civil War trivia questions to the other students as we viewed the displays.

In the souvenir shop, Ashley, a freshman secondary education major from Republic, Pa., was surprised to find a miniature figure depicting a Zouave – soldiers who adopted the flamboyant, North African–inspired uniforms of the 19th century French infantry.

“You don’t see that very often,” she said.

And she would know. Last March, she took part in the “Military Through the Ages” event in Jamestown, Vir., as a reenactor with the 3rd Regular U.S. Infantry.

Ashley has been interested in the War since the 8th grade. Now she’s hoping to better understand it from a Confederate perspective. “I never really learned about the war from their point of view,” she said. “But this is definitely helping.”

The museum gift shop had everything a Confederacy enthusiast could ever want: Confederate Christmas stockings and ornaments, Confederate breath mints, and even “Johnny Reb Natural Beeswax Lip Balm,” mint julep flavor, which I just couldn’t pass up. Dr. Barr bought a wooden slingshot carved in the likeness of Robert E. Lee (see photo). They even had a Bobby Lee nutcracker.

Next, we walked over the White House of the Confederacy, which sits right beside the museum. Built in 1818, it’s a beautiful, stately home with towering pillars on the back side. Jefferson Davis, his wife Varina, and their children moved into the house in August 1861 and remained there until the evacuation of Richmond on April 2, 1865. The house then became the U.S. Army’s headquarters and remained so until 1870. It first opened as a museum in 1896.

Entering the house from the back, we were first brought into a small staging room in the basement with white brick walls, a brick floor, and two large photographs on the walls: one of Davis and one of his wife. There, our spirited tour guide for the day, Dean Knight, gave us a quick run-down of the tour and politely asked us to not take any photographs and not to touch anything.

Minutes later, he politely reprimanded me after I temporarily forgot the rules and touched the wallpaper.

Knight led us to the formal dining room, where a large painting of George Washington hung on the outer wall. “The Confederates lost no opportunity to draw parallels to what they were doing and what Washington had done nearly a century before,” said Knight. “To them, they were fighting the second Revolutionary War.”

After walking through the rest of the house, Knight took us outside for a walking tour of the town. About a block up the street, we paused near the Valentine Richmond History Center (a wonderful name, in my opinion), which once held the eclectic collection of Mann S. Valentine, Jr., the independently wealthy creator of Valentine’s Meat Juice. Doesn’t that just sound yummy?

Next, we strolled over to Capitol Square, where the 60-foot-tall George Washington equestrian monument stands near the Virginia State Capitol and the Virginia Governor’s mansion (see photo).

“Washington’s my boy,” said Brian, a senior secondary ed. major from Bethel Park, with a particular interest in the Revolutionary War. “That’s my homedog,” he added.

After admiring Brian’s “homedog” for a few minutes, we walked a short distance to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where both Lee and Davis attended services during the War. Davis was here attending services on April 2, 1865 when he received a telegram from Lee that the Union army had taken Petersburg and that Richmond would be next. He immediately left and headed over to his official office in the former U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit building, which overlooks the Virginia State Capitol (see photo).

Along the way, we passed by a somewhat out of place statue of Edgar Allen Poe, which Elise, a junior business management major from the North Hills, was rather excited to see. “I was born on Poe’s birthday,” she explained, “which is also Robert E. Lee’s. I guess that’s why I like Lee so much. We’re B.F.F.’s.”

Elise believes so many Americans are still obsessed with the Civil War because of the major impact it had on our society. “It changed the history and structure of our entire country,” she said.

I asked her what she thought of the day’s tour thus far, and she said she liked hearing about Davis’s retreat from Richmond. “I didn’t know all that,” she said, “and I liked getting a different perspective of things from the tour guide’s point of view.”

A little later, eating lunch at an Irish-themed restaurant, I asked Brian what he thought of the Museum of the Confederacy. “I really liked it,” he said. “There was a display of some of the pipes that the Confederates made and used to smoke tobacco. That was cool. That’s a part of the War I never really thought about before.”

Just then, the bartender brought over a bottle of (GASP!) Hunt’s Ketchup for Brian’s fries. “This is an outrage!” he said. “Man, that’s treason.” What else would you expect from a Pittsburgher?

Following lunch, we walked about a mile or so over to the Tredegar Iron Works, the South’s main industrial center during the War, which today houses The American Civil War Center. Our guide was Mark Howell.

“Tredegar was, by far and away, the largest industrial complex in the South,” Howell explained, as we stood among the ruins (see photo). “That’s one of the main reasons the capital was moved here from Montgomery, Ala.”

Howell told us that, much like the foundries in Pittsburgh, Tredegar was built near the water to supply power and as a way to transport coal and other materials to the site. Also, before the start of the War, much of the coal used there to make iron was brought in from Western Pennsylvania for of its higher quality.

After touring the museum, we loaded back into the bus and weaved through the back neighborhoods of Richmond to Hollywood Cemetery, the final resting place of over 18,000 Confederates, including President Jefferson Davis, Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, and Gen. J. E. B. Stuart. The cemetery also holds the remains of Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler, three children of General James Longstreet, and approximately 2,000 casualties from the Battle of Gettysburg.

The most striking memorial in the cemetery, however, is the 90-foot, granite pyramid that, in 1869, became the first memorial in Richmond to the Confederate soldiers (see photo). An imposing structure, the pyramid was constructed entirely without mortar and sits on top of a mass grave that holds the bones of thousands of unknown Confederate dead.

Our final stop of the day was the remains of the Cold Harbor battlefield. Here, between May 31 and June 12, 1864, Union forces suffered anywhere from 10,000 to 13,000 casualties, with nearly 2,000 killed; Confederate casualties numbered around 2,500. In his memoirs, Grant said that he “always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made,” and that “no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained.”

As we stood between two cannon overlooking the field, Dr. Barr went through the chronology of the battle to give the students a feel for where they were standing (see photo). Then we followed the park trail, which winded through the woods where most of the fighting took place.

During the walk, students paused to read signs that pointed out the many still visible trenches where soldiers from both sides took refuge during the battle. It was a somber walk for many, who paused in silence to visualize the bloody, two-week battle that took place over this wooded landscape 146 years ago.

Next stop, Fredericksburg….

— Valentine J. Brkich