Sesquicentennial Observance: The soldiers’ experience was more than combat

Yes, the experience of the Civil War soldier was much more than days of battle.  We can all agree with that, right?  There were days spent marching.  Lots of camps.  Days of drilling.  Or days spent doing little else but just being in uniform and performing military responsibilities associated with being a soldier.

But our interpretation of the soldier’s experience is heavily weighted to the battles. Those days are the “main events” which receive most of the attention.  After all, it was on those handful of days on which the war turned, right?  Well… perhaps those are the places in time where we can best demonstrate where the war turned.  There were other, more subtle, points where the war turned.  But the nature of those activities are somewhat complicated to get across in a fifteen minute tour stop… or even a 1000 word blog post.  How can one explain that THIS place…

Winter Encampment 070

… was one where the soldiers in the Army of the Potomac rested, refitted, and reorganized in a manner which propelled them to victory over 1864-5?  I don’t know, it took me the better part of four months blogging to discuss that aspect of the war.  And in case you are wondering, that’s the site of the Alexander house outside Culpeper, and where Colonel Charles Wainwright composed most of his diary entries during the winter of 1864.  (And Culpeper in particular offers a wealth of opportunities to offer “now” and “then” photography.  Because of the Winter Encampment of 1864, Culpeper became one of the most photographed localities of the war.)

Beyond just saying “this was a turning point” of sorts, is it not important to relate that the life of a soldier was not simply a series of engagements in mortal combat, fighting to the death on the battlefield?  Indeed.  And study of the “stuff outside of the battles” makes the whole somewhat richer and relative to us today.  The soldiers were not merely one-dimensional beings which existed during battle.  There were more facets to their experiences, some of which tied into the important themes of the war.

That said, I think it a positive that during the sesquicentennial we saw a lot of activities associated with these “off the battlefield” soldier activities.  Specific to the location pictured above, the Friends of Cedar Mountain and other organizations in Culpeper hosted a Winter Encampment Seminar during the winter of 2014, at the Germanna Community College campus just a few hundred yards removed from Wainwright’s quarters.  And later Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield hosted a tour of sites related to the 1864 Winter Encampment.   And those sesquicentennial events are just two handy references I can make (tied to the place pictured above).  Across the country, similar events, some hosted by the National Park Service or state organizations, but more so by local, grass-roots groups, showcased the “other than battle” experiences of the soldiers.

I think we should point out that emphasis as a “success” for the sesquicentennial.

On the other hand, we might also point out, for the sake of those bicentennialists to follow, many missed opportunities.  For all of the focus in late June and early July upon Adams County, Pennsylvania, the public-facing programming left out exactly how those armies got there.  Almost as if the soldiers were suspended in time at Chancellorsville, then magically re-appeared, somewhat worse for the wear, at Gettysburg.  That’s just one handy example.  I’m sure we could demonstrate a few more worth noting.  The point to push home here is, again, that the soldiers were not one-dimensional, and their experience was more than combat actions.

This is somewhat odd, I think, given the current trends with a lot of noise about “new military history.”  Shouldn’t historians be seeking out those interpretive opportunities to discuss the life of soldiers beyond the battlefields?   But we often see tours, especially those focused more on the “education” function over the general “entertainment” functions, that simply hit a set of battlefield sites….

And I’m picking out Kevin Levin’s recent tour, with a group of students tracing the story of the 20th Massachusetts from the fall of 1862 through summer 1863, out of convenience here.  I know Kevin’s not a “bugles and bayonets” type, and is genuinely interested in MORE than what regiment was on the right of the line at a particular phase of the battle.  So, I also am very sure that Kevin related more than just the raw details of the battles during that tour.  However, outside of the list of sites noted on his blog post, I don’t know what other stops were made on the way.  So  I stand to be corrected, if need be.

There was certainly ample material for a stop discussing the non-combat experience of the 20th Massachusetts.  The regimental history includes a full chapter on events during the winter of 1863 (though I’m not sure how accessible the Second Corps’ campsites are today, compared to those of the Eleventh and other corps).  There are some observations recorded by the 20th Massachusetts as they marched through Loudoun, so perhaps Gum Springs would offer a location to reflect upon those words. Or perhaps the reflection of soldiers at Edwards Ferry as they crossed the Potomac downstream of Balls Bluff, their first battle of the war.

Would such stops have been appropriate? Well, that’s one best left to the tour leader and determined by what stops fit within focus.  Sometimes logistics is the ultimate governing factor on stop selection.  But I would offer there are ample opportunity stops during our “on the field” tours to flesh out the soldiers with more than the “battle” experiences.  Yes, the monuments are great places to stop… but it is important to consider what happened between those monuments along the way.

However, that said, I think the activities witnessed during the sesquicentennial went a long way to bring attention to the non-combat experiences of the soldiers.  We can point to a rounded interpretation of the soldier experience as a success for the sesquicentennial… and one we can hand over to the bicentennialists to improve upon.

3 thoughts on “Sesquicentennial Observance: The soldiers’ experience was more than combat

  1. Nice post, Craig. As you know, over at my blog, I’ve focused a lot on the winter encampments in Northern Virginia during 1861-62. The story is an often overlooked one, but a really incredible one when you think about it. In these camps, the Army of the Potomac took shape as a fighting force under the leadership of McClellan. Many of the boys got a real taste of what it meant to be a soldier outside of battle, from the monotony of drill and picket duty to the fraternization and unit bonding that occurred, not to mention the sickness and disease. I also have tried to pinpoint camp locations where possible, and that was just for the McLean area. There is much more ground to explore! And I was happy to see interest in the community and even outside the area in my writing on the camps. What you write is indeed encouraging for the direction of future studies and interpretation.

  2. Excellent thoughts, Craig. Your post spurred me to extend your thinking to lament the more general lack of good historical interpretation outside of NPS battlefields, especially at places where “new military history” topics appear in much richer forms than at battlefields. However, I hope that digitized resources and other technologies will enable a “golden age” of local Civil War history between now and the bicentennial.
    http://www.lancasteratwar.com/2015/05/interpretation-beyond-battlefield-and.html

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