Tag Archives: Civil War


I love Christmas carols and I would have a hard time choosing my favorite, but as a historian—and a specialist on the American Civil War, particularly—I have always been deeply moved by I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. In its original form it’s not heard too much these days, although several contemporary Christian groups have performed variations on it.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

The carol is based on a poem written at the height of the Civil War by the renowned American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A native of Maine and long-time resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the fifty-six-year-old Longfellow was an American celebrity by that time, famous for works such as The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and most recently, Paul Revere’s Ride. (At his death in 1884 he would become the first American to be memorialized by a bust in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in London.) The glow of celebrity was offset by personal tragedy, however. In 1861 Longfellow’s wife Fanny died horrifically in a fire, and Longfellow himself was permanently disfigured in his efforts to save her.  Then, in November 1863 the poet’s oldest son, Charles—a nineteen-year-old lieutenant in the Union Army—was severely wounded in fighting in northern Virginia. Still mourning for his wife, and far from certain of his son’s recovery, Longfellow sat down at his desk on Christmas morning, 1863, and penned a seven-stanza poem he called “The Christmas Bells.” Seven years later his poem would be set to music, although in its carol version several of the original verses are rarely sung.

“The Christmas Bells” opens with the now familiar passage from which the carol takes its name:

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good- will to men!

In verses 2-3 the poet reflects on how the angels’ message would repeatedly resound around the globe as the “world revolved from night to day.” But then in verses 4-5 the chaos and heartache of contemporary events crashes in. Few modern hymnals include these verses, which refer directly to the war raging a few hundred miles away:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!


A scene from the field at Gettysburg, five and a half months before Longfellow penned “The Christmas Bells”

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

A mass grave at Chickamauga, four months before Longfellow penned "The Christmas Bells."

A mass grave at Chickamauga, four months before Longfellow penned “The Christmas Bells.”

In December 1863 the American Civil War had already lasted far longer and exacted a far greater price than almost anyone had anticipated two and a half years earlier. After the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had issued a call for volunteers to serve for only ninety days, and yet northern newspapers had castigated the president for his pessimism. Everyone “knew” that the dust-up down South could not possibly last that long. Zeal and a heart-wrenching naivete were the order of the day, and all across the land young men donned uniforms of blue and gray and rushed to the front, fearing that the war would be over before they could experience its glory.

Thirty-two months later all such innocence was gone, bloodily obliterated on battlefields with names like Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga. Each casualty statistic on a regimental return represented a husband, son, brother, father, or friend and—as Longfellow knew from experience—a household “made forlorn.” The poet’s anguish in verse 6 is palpable:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!”

But the poem doesn’t end there, of course. In the poem’s seventh and final verse, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow preaches the gospel to himself—and to us:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

In these final lines we find not a cry born of wishful thinking, a blind insistence that all is right with the world when that is palpably untrue. We hear instead a faithful declaration from one who sees the reality of hatred and the pervasiveness of suffering and yet finds hope in a Redeemer who would leave the glory of heaven to dwell among us.

May that hope be ours this Christmas.


Does the name “Thomas Nast” ring a bell with you? Specialists in U.S. history know him well, but otherwise he’s not much remembered today. But even though we don’t recall him, his influence is all around us at this time of year. I think of Nast every time I pass a mall Santa or tune in to yet another Hallmark movie focused on the North Pole. The reason is simple: Thomas Nast is the artist who showed us what Santa Claus really looks like.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902)

Thomas Nast (1840-1902)

Born in Germany, Nast came to America as a child in the 1840s and quickly showed an aptitude for art. By his early twenties he was working as an illustrator and cartoonist for several prominent national publications, most notably Harper’s Weekly, the self-described “journal of civilization” which as early as 1860 had a circulation upwards of 200,000. Nast was first and foremost a political cartoonist, and he quickly became widely known for his cartoons attacking municipal corruption–most notably his campaign against New York City machine boss William Tweed, who fell from power in 1871, in no small part due to Nast’s devastating campaign against him.

I know Nast best, however, for his cartoons pertaining to the politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Here are a few of my favorites that I have long used in my classes dealing with that period of U.S. history:

nast-chicago-convention“Compromise with the South” appeared in the September 3, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly.  Less than a week before, northern Democrats had met in convention in Chicago and declared the war a failure.  The party platform called for an immediate ceasefire to be followed by negotiations with the Confederacy with the goal that “peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union,” a roundabout way of communicating the party’s willingness for the southern states to return to the Union with slavery intact.  In the center of the cartoon, Confederate president Jefferson Davis clasps hands with a maimed Union veteran to ashamed to raise his head.  Davis’s boot rests squarely on a Union grave marked by a headstone which reads, “In Memory of Union Heroes who have Fallen in a USELESS WAR,” while “Columbia,” meant to be seen as the female embodiment of America, weeps beside the grave.  A staunch Republican, Nast was ridiculing the Democratic platform as a betrayal of Union soldiers and an abandonment of southern blacks.

Nast1“This is a White Man’s Government” appeared in the September 5, 1868 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The title was inspired by the motto of the Democratic ticket in the upcoming presidential election pitting Governor Horatio Seymour of New York against the Republican nominee Ulysses Grant. Determined to portray the Republican Party as radical in its advocacy of civil rights for former slaves, Democratic campaign ribbons proclaimed “This is a White Man’s Country: Let White Men Rule.”

Nast was insinuating that Democratic rule would be built on an unholy triumvirate of objectionable elements. Numerically the largest consisted of ignorant northern Democratic voters, most of them semi-civilized, uneducated recent immigrants who had opposed the war. (Nast’s portrayal of Irish individuals in his cartoons is almost always grossly demeaning. The Irishman on the left, wielding a club labeled “The Vote,” has all the features of a monkey.)

Second in number would be southern white Democrats, almost all of whom had been disloyal to the Union during the late war. (The figure in the middle is supposed to be former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, first imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.)

The third and smallest element is here represented by a New York City financier named August Belmont, a behind-the-scenes power broker in the Democratic Party. Belmont stands for Fifth Avenue types who had gotten rich during the war and who were willing to buy up the votes of the urban rabble to promote their nefarious schemes. (Notice that Belmont is clutching a wallet stuffed with cash for that purpose.)

Underneath the three lies a prostrate black Union veteran, dressed in uniform, clutching the U. S. flag, and reaching out for the ballot box. Nast was arguing for black civil rights by reminding readers that thousands of southern blacks had risked their lives in support of the Union, in stark contrast to the pillars of the Democratic Party.

Harper's Weekly,  October 24, 1874

Harper’s Weekly,
October 24, 1874

Much the same message comes through in this untitled Nast cartoon that appeared in Harper’s Weekly in October 1874. The phrases at the top of the cartoon are all pointed references to the Democratic Party. “The Union as It Was” was a popular slogan of the 1864 Democratic presidential campaign of George McClellan. “This is a White Man’s Government,” as we have already seen, became the primary Democratic rallying cry of the Seymour campaign four years later. “The Lost Cause,” just above the skull and crossbones, refers to diehard former Confederates’ conviction that their cause had been just.

The two white figures that frame the cartoon (labeled “White League” and “K.K.K.”) stand for two white supremacist organizations that terrorized former slaves in the wake of emancipation and Confederate defeat. These contrast starkly with the central focus of the cartoon, two grieving African-American parents weeping over their slain child.

A spelling book lies on the ground near spatters of blood, and in the background are scenes of a lynching and a burning school house. In describing the scene as “worse than slavery,” Nast was telling readers that a Democratic victory would mean the end of Reconstruction and the abandonment of four million former slaves to virtual re-enslavement.

But Nast wasn’t always so sympathetic in his portrayal of African Americans. To be sure, the artist shared the predominant Republican position that the former slaves would be exploited and even brutalized if left to the mercies of the southern white Democratic majority. But as time passed Nast became increasingly disillusioned by political corruption in the Grant Administration and increasingly disenchanted with Republican efforts to install black officeholders in the white majority South.

The drawing below, entitled “Colored Rule in a Reconstructed (?) State,” appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly the same year as the previous Nast cartoon (March 14, 1874). It purports to illustrate an alleged episode in South Carolina, the one former Confederate state where, if only for a brief period, African Americans constituted a majority in the state legislature. However much southern blacks might deserve federal protection from white terrorism, Nast seems to be saying, they are far from ready to participate fully in their own government.


But Nast didn’t only produce cartoons about politics. His association with Harper’s Weekly lasted from the early 1860s through the mid-1880s, and during those two-plus decades he also contributed thirty or so drawings of Santa Claus. It was only after their favorite cartoonist had brought him to life that Americans agreed on what Santa looked like.

Of course Clement Clark Moore had described “the right jolly old elf” in his 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Readers had learned from Moore about Santa’s twinkling eyes and merry dimples, his soot-tarnished clothes, and–how to put this delicately?–his less than rock-hard abs. And yet it was the cartoonist Nast who translated Moore’s poetic lines into the visual image we take for granted today.

"Santa Claus in Camp" (detail), from the cover of Harper's Weekly, January 3, 1863

“Santa Claus in Camp” (detail), from the cover of Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863

But first Nast had to figure out for himself what Santa looked like. His initial attempt came in 1863, at the height of the American Civil War. In “Santa Claus in Camp,” Nast sketched Santa as a large man decked out in red, white, and blue and delivering presents, not to sleepy children, but to Union soldiers. (I call this version “Yankee Doodle Santa.”) In an early post-war rendering (the 1866 cartoon “Santa Claus and His Works”), Nast portrayed Santa more in keeping with the description in Moore’s poem. This Santa is clothed in a dark suit and is literally the size of an elf, so short that he had to stand on a chair in order to reach the stockings hanging from the mantle.

As the years, passed, however, Nast’s Santa grew in stature and exchanged his brown suit for a red one. The 1880 sketch below is probably Nast’s best known Santa and is still reproduced even to this day.

This Nast illustration circulated in Harper's Weekly during the Christmas season of 1880, although appearing on an issue postdated as January 1, 1881.

This Nast illustration circulated in Harper’s Weekly during the Christmas season of 1880, although appearing on an issue postdated as January 1, 1881.


A week ago this morning I was seated on a folding chair on the grounds of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery adjacent to Gettysburg National Military Park.  I had come to Gettysburg thanks to an invitation from Gettysburg Presbyterian Church to deliver their annual “Gettysburg Addresses Lincoln” lecture, but I had most of the day to kill before my 4:00 p.m. talk, and I took advantage of the free time to join the audience of two thousand or so who attended a commemorative program observing the 153rd anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  It was an absolutely glorious morning—the sky was a bright clear blue, the thermometer registered sixty degrees, and a smattering of autumn color still decorated the cemetery.  I soaked up the sun and took notes on how Americans remember their past and draw hope for the future.  For a U. S. historian interested in popular memory, this was better than a day at the beach.


Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 19, 2016

Gettysburg has been commemorating the anniversary of Lincoln’s most famous speech since 1938.  It would be interesting to research how the ritual has changed over time.  By definition, historical commemoration exists at the intersection of past and present.  We gather, in theory, to remember the past as it actually was, but because we look backward through contemporary lenses, what we see and how we respond to it says a lot about our own day. This was surely true of last Saturday’s ceremony, although the specific ways that it was true would be clearer if I could compare it with previous celebrations.

At any rate, I am doubtful that the crowd who gathered in 1938 was full of Civil-War reenactors—men and women, boys and girls decked out for the occasion in elaborate period costumes.  The whole town was crawling with them.  Gettysburg has become a mecca for reenactors, and thousands make the pilgrimage every November 19th.  They crowded the sidewalks, filled the restaurants, and added considerably to the waiting lines at the public restrooms.  As I found an empty folding chair near the back at the cemetery commemoration, I found myself next to a near eighty-year-old Union private.  He left halfway through the program and was replaced by two senior citizens in hoopskirts and bonnets.  (Note, one of the many ways in which Civil War reenactment is historically inaccurate is in the age distribution of participants.  One half of the American population was under twenty years old when the Civil War erupted, and half of Civil War soldiers were twenty-five or younger.  The audience in the cemetery was considerably more “experienced,” and the gathering had a bit of a 19th-century AARP feel to it.)

"Abraham Lincoln" working the crowd before the program began.

“Abraham Lincoln” working the crowd before the program began.

I also doubt that the 1938 celebration opened with a Buddhist prayer, as last Saturday’s did.  As our society becomes more and more religiously diverse, it becomes increasingly difficult to acknowledge our religious pluralism without trivializing our religious differences.  If you believe that all religious belief systems lead to God, then there is no problem.  But if you think that the substance of our faith convictions matters—as the adherents of most of the major world religions have always insisted—then it can be hard to make sense of a program framed by a Buddhist “invocation” and a Presbyterian benediction.  I’m not sure what I would have done had I been in the organizers’ shoes, but I think I would have recommending dropping the prayers altogether.  When the military cemetery was dedicated 153 years ago, the program opened with a prayer by the Reverend T. H. Stockton (four times longer than Lincoln’s remarks), but almost no one remembers that today.

Even in the absence of formal prayers, there would still have been a religious feel to the gathering.  One of the things that struck me most was the number of times that the various speakers on the platform used religious language in describing the final resting place of those who fell at Gettysburg.  “We are gathered together in a holy place,” observed the Buddhist sensei.  Welcome to “these hallowed grounds,” said the military park superintendent.  This is a “sacred place,” intoned the president of the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania.  The language of civil religion—equal parts inspirational and blasphemous—was ubiquitous.

Then came the keynote speaker.  It is one of the hallmarks of contemporary America that we conflate celebrity with authority and expertise.  The featured speaker in 1863 had not been Abraham Lincoln but Harvard professor Edward Everett, one of the foremost scholars of his day.  The featured speaker 153 years later was actor Levar Burton, known for his roles in Roots, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and PBS’s Reading Rainbow.  In fairness to Burton, I thought his address was the highlight of the 90-minute program.  Burton began by warning the audience that his heart was heavy, and that he had come to Gettysburg “to share the discomfort of my soul.”  “The promise of America has yet to be delivered to too many” Americans, he lamented.  “We are indeed a house divided,” confronting a “crisis with the power to rend us asunder.”  The actor then went on to speak with great feeling about his mother’s heroic sacrifices on his behalf, and her tireless efforts to prepare him for life as a black male in America.  “What part of ‘all men are created equal’ have we failed to understand?” he asked the audience.

Burton was followed on the stage by George Buss, a.k.a. Abraham Lincoln, who gave a far too rapid rendition of Lincoln’s 272-word Gettysburg Address.  (“Speak very slowly” was Lincoln’s main advice to public speakers.)  Once “President Lincoln” had taken his seat, a bass soloist bellowed out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and then, in one of the most impressive moments of the morning, fourteen candidates for U. S. citizenship took part in a naturalization ceremony.  After taped remarks from President Obama, the Gettysburg High School band played “God Bless America,” a Protestant pastor offered a closing prayer, and a lone bugler played “Taps.”

As is often the case with historical commemorations, the program was better at inspiring the audience than at making us think.  The exception to this rule was Levar Burton, although he still pulled his punches, and the loudest ovation he received came with his concluding “God bless America.”  Once the last strain of “Taps” had faded, the crowd rushed to grab lunch before a 1:00 parade featuring thousands of Civil-War reenactors.



I have shared already my misgivings (here and here) about the whole reenactment phenomenon.  My day in Gettysburg mostly reinforced them.  For much of the morning, the audience had listened as Levar Burton talked about the persistence of racial injustice in America, heard again Abraham Lincoln’s call for a “new birth of freedom,” and listened to a popular anthem—penned by the wife of an ardent abolitionist—imploring Union soldiers to give their lives to make others free.  The audience listened politely, clapped heartily, and adjourned to watch a parade of thousands of almost exclusively white reenactors who have little place for race in their memory of the Civil War they are supposedly recreating.


[This week marks the 153rd anniversary of the three-day-long Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the American Civil War and the largest military engagement ever fought in the western hemisphere.  With the anniversary in mind, I am re-posting  a series of four essays that I originally penned two years ago after my first visit to the battlefield.  The first was a kind of tourist’s report; the remaining three–including the concluding below–are  more properly styled meditations or reflections.  My goal in these was to explore what it might mean to remember that bloody conflict through eyes of faith.]


One of my favorite quotes about the value of history comes from historian David Harlan, who reminds us that, “at its best, the study of American history can be a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.” Not many academic historians hold to that view anymore, and we’re the poorer because of it. I was repeatedly reminded of this as I walked the ground at Gettysburg–the opportunities for life-changing conversations abound, if we have ears to hear. “Hear” is the key verb, because the conversations that I have in mind require above all that we be willing to listen.

Sometimes in such conversations the figures from the past interrogate us. The first conversation that I was drawn into was of this sort. It began as I tried to envision what happened there a century and a half ago, when over one hundred and fifty thousand soldiers in blue and gray clashed in the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere. I have previously noted the chasm that separates us from the men who fought there, and yet it is almost impossible to walk in their footsteps without imagining what it was like to be in their shoes. And as I clambered among the boulders at Devil’s Den, peered through the trees on Little Round Top, and ascended the long, gentle slope of Cemetery Ridge, the questions running through my mind began to change. When the conversation began, I was the one doing the asking–posing safe, academic questions about troop movements and tactics. But then as I tried to imagine what these men experienced, much more personal, far more disturbing questions came to dominate my thoughts.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

“Could you steel yourself to do what these men did?” I found myself wondering. “Could you endure what they endured?” More importantly, “Could you witness such carnage and still believe in mankind? Could you help to inflict such destruction and still believe in yourself? Could you experience such suffering and still believe in God?” Above all, “Are you devoted to any principle, any cause, any person, any Master enough to give, in Lincoln’s words, “the last full measure of devotion?”

The short answer to all of the above is, “I don’t know.” I pray to God that my faith would not falter, but I just don’t know. What I do know about myself is not reassuring: I too often struggle with even the most trivial acts of self-denial, the most mundane expressions of laying down my life that pale in comparison to the price paid by so many who fought here.

Sometimes our conversations with the past involve listening in on a discussion among historical figures and trying to learn from it, trying to glean wisdom as to “what we should value and how we should live.” I was also drawn into this kind of conversation as I walked the ground at Gettysburg, particularly as I contemplated the nearly fourteen hundred monuments that are sprinkled across the landscape. As I’ve noted before, Gettysburg National Park is arguably the world’s largest statuary garden, and as such it speaks not only to the battle itself but also to its aftermath.

As with tombstones in a cemetery, we read in the ubiquitous inscriptions two kinds of testimony: testimony about the doings of men, and testimony about the longings of mankind. That is, their words speak not only to what happened here, but also to how the soldiers who are commemorated, as well as their descendants, yearned for significance and wanted to believe that their lives mattered. In this sense, the monuments at Gettysburg are best understood as part of an ongoing conversation about the meaning of what happened there, and that conversation is, in a sense, merely a small part of a universal human dialogue about why, or whether, our lives matter at all.

As I noted in my last post, in their language the vast majority of Gettysburg’s monuments are mundane. Like Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times, they care for nothing but “the facts.” The company or regiment in question fought on this spot at this time for this objective. It sent this many men into battle and suffered this many casualties. But not all are so reticent. “It’s not enough to remember what these men did,” the exceptions seem to say. “Subsequent generations must also know why these men fought, and why we should venerate them.”

Modern-day historians such as James McPherson and Chandra Manning have read literally tens of thousands of pages of Civil War soldiers’ diaries and letters in an attempt to understand why men fought in the Civil War. The words they have pored over were not chiseled in granite but scribbled in pencil. In their unguarded moments, Civil War soldiers revealed a broad range of motives. Some voiced ideological motives. Speaking in terms of duty and obligation, they professed to have enlisted in order to defend liberty, or democracy, or union, or states’ rights, or republican government, or the legacy of 1776 (however they understood it). Others enlisted for less exalted reasons: to escape boredom, find adventure, prove their manhood, see the world, impress girlfriends (or potential girlfriends), increase their income, or avoid the draft.

The Gettysburg monuments that speak to the larger meaning of the battle see only what was noble. The prototype in this regard is one of the oldest and largest monuments on the field, the so-called “Soldiers’ National Monument” that rises from the heart of the national military cemetery just north of Cemetery Ridge. Dedicated in 1869, its primary inscription consists of the closing lines of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with its ringing references to a “new birth of freedom,” “government of the people,” and those “who here gave their lives that [the] nation might live.”

Most of the monuments erected at Gettysburg honor specific military units or particular individuals, but many of the states that were represented at Gettysburg eventually built state monuments as well, and these larger monuments regularly make claims about the object and meaning of their sons’ sacrifice. A sampling of state monuments tells us that Pennsylvanians fought for “the preservation of the Union.” Michigan troops were champions of “liberty and union.” Soldiers from Indiana–a state with more than its share of opposition to emancipation–fought for “equality” and to “advance freedom.”

Southern state monuments were often (understandably) less specific. Tennessee soldiers were guided by unspecified “convictions” and performed “their duty as they understood it.” Floridians “fought with courage and devotion for the ideals in which they believed”–whatever they were. Georgia’s Confederates, though, were forthrightly patriotic. (“When duty called, we came; when country called, we died.”) More explicit still, South Carolina soldiers were propelled by an “abiding faith in the sacredness of States Rights.”

The Alabama State Memorial at Gettysburg

The Alabama State Memorial at Gettysburg

I want to be clear here. I am not sneering at the possibility that many of those who fell on this field were motivated by high ideals. I am convinced that many were, and I admire them for it. C. S. Lewis has written that the greatest chasm separating the human race is not the divide between Christians and non-Christians or even that between theists and atheists, but rather the gulf between those who recognize any belief system outside of themselves that demands their allegiance and those who acknowledge no such standard. The latter, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, are adherents of “the most horrible” of religions: “the worship of the god within.” In a recent essay on the importance of fatherhood, N.Y.U. psychologist Paul Vitz observes that “the world is hungry for examples of unselfish men.” In our age of materialism and individualism, the example of those who did fight at Gettysburg for union or states’ rights, freedom or independence, is a breath of fresh air.

And yet we need to think carefully about the conversation that we are listening to. What impresses me most about these monuments is their use of religious language and imagery in commemorating the men who fought here. It’s not that there are references to God, Jesus, or Christian faith–I’ve found almost none. But think about the words and phrases that do appear: “martyrs,” “devotion,” “sacrifice,” “faith,” “immortal” fame, “righteous” causes, “eternal glory,” “the millennium of their glory,” “sacred” heritage, “no holier spot,” and “ground forever hallowed.” As with Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, such rhetoric confuses the sacred and the secular. It fuels a temptation to which none of us is immune: the temptation to conflate our identity as Christians with other loyalties and attachments.

But such language also speaks to a universal human longing. No one is truly, completely happy, Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft observes. Beneath the surface of our lives, with its innumerable distractions and diversions, “the deep hunger of [our] hearts remains unsatisfied.” We reflect on life and, in our unguarded moments, we are haunted by a recurring question: “Is this all there is?” The reason, Kreeft goes on to explain, is that “we are not supposed to be happy here.” This is not our home. “You made us for Yourself,” Augustine of Hippo concluded nearly sixteen centuries ago. “Our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”

And yet we commonly cope with our heart hunger through self-deception, convincing ourselves that we can find meaning and purpose, fulfillment and transcendence in this life alone. As Christians, we are free to give a conditional loyalty to the state, but not our ultimate loyalty. All too often, the monuments at Gettysburg that speak to the battle’s larger meaning imply that we can be the authors of our own immortality, and that the key to our doing so lies in our making sacrifices to the state. Christian scholar Wilfred McClay has written recently that, because “human beings are naturally inclined toward religion . . . we have an incorrigible need to relate secular things to ultimate purposes.” Gettysburg’s monuments remind us that, because we are fallen, we are naturally tempted to equate secular things and ultimate purposes.

But these are not the only voices that I heard at Gettysburg, for there were countless others raised during the battle itself. Most of these cries from the heart are known only to God, but a fraction has survived in the soldiers’ own words, confessions made to contemporaries rather than declarations to posterity. One stands out in my mind, the testimony of an unnamed, unknown soldier who bore witness to a different kind of response to the indescribable happenings on this field.

We know of this soldier only through the recollection of another, Confederate Captain George Hillyer of the Ninth Georgia Infantry, a regiment in Anderson’s brigade of Hood’s division of Longstreet’s corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. Twenty-nine miles from Gettysburg when the fighting began on July 1st, they had marched all day and night and arrived on the field just before daylight on the 2nd. After spending the morning lying in a stand of woods due west of the Round Tops, in the afternoon Hillyer’s company was part of the general Confederate attack on the Union left. After making it almost to the base of Little Round Top, the Ninth Georgia was forced to withdraw, and Hillyer and his exhausted and bloodied company spent the night within earshot of Farmer Rose’s wheat field, a twenty-six-acre expanse that had been the site of some of the day’s fiercest fighting. As the sun went down, the wheat field was a kind of “no-man’s land” between the contending armies, with perhaps as many as four thousand dead and wounded soldiers now carpeting the flattened grain.

And in the midst of that hellish scene, Hillyer marveled to hear one of the men between the lines begin to sing. “He was probably a boy raised in some religious home in the South,” Hillyer recalled later, “where the good old hymns were the standard music.” There were “thousands of desperately wounded men lying on the ground within easy hearing of the singer,” the captain observed, “and as his voice rang out like a flute . . . not only the wounded, but also five or ten thousand and maybe more of the men of both armies could hear and distinguish the words.” The lines that they heard had been penned four decades earlier by an Irish poet named Thomas Moore and then set to music and published in 1831:

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish; / Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel; / Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish; / Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.

This is the voice that I will remember most from my visit to Gettysburg. To take the past seriously is to put our own lives to the test, and the conversations at Gettysburg do just that, pressing us with hard, discomfiting questions: What do we value? In what do we hope? Where do we find meaning? The answers etched here in granite are noble, but they are also earthbound, temporal. Far more challenging, far more convicting, far more comforting, far more hopeful is the response on the lips of this unknown soldier. Sung in darkness amid death and despair, it is both historical occurrence and spiritual metaphor, an echo of God’s invitation to a bruised and hurting world.

Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel . . .

The Wheat Field at sunset.

The Wheat Field at sunset.


[This week marks the 153rd anniversary of the three-day-long Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the American Civil War and the largest military engagement ever fought in the western hemisphere.  With the anniversary in mind, I am re-posting  a series of four essays that I originally penned two years ago after my first visit to the battlefield.  The first was a kind of tourist’s report; the remaining three–including the one below–are  more properly styled meditations or reflections.  My goal in these was to explore what it might mean to remember that bloody conflict through eyes of faith.]


Back to Gettysburg.

Two posts ago I began a series of reflections prompted by my visit to the battlefield there. These meditations are meant as illustrations of what I mean when I suggest that we make our hearts vulnerable as we contemplate the past. So far I’ve shared two examples. The first involved the weight of the past that overcame me at Gettysburg, its palpable reminder of the innumerable host of image-bearers that have gone before us, and the way that this can jolt us out of our own small, comfortable, and self-centered worlds. The second concerned the enormous chasm that separates us from those who clashed on this field a century and a half ago. Realizing this leads us to marvel at the omniscience of God in contrast with how little we actually know of what transpired there.

I’d like to share another meditation. This post will be a bit longer than usual, and I hope you’ll bear with me. The reflection is rooted in the recognition that our inability to recapture what happened on the battlefield isn’t only a reminder of the chasm that separates us from the generations preceding us. It also foreshadows how our own lives will fade from view in generations to come. We all know that life is short, and if we were inclined to think otherwise, the Scripture would insist on bringing us back to reality: “My life is a breath,” sighs Job (Job 7:7). “Our days on earth are a shadow,” his friend Bildad agrees (Job 8:9). Moses observes that our days are numbered (Psalm 90:12), David likens them to a passing shadow (Psalm 144:4), James compares our life’s span to a “puff of smoke” (James 4:14), and Isaiah is reminded of the “flower of the field” that withers away (Isaiah 40:7-8).

Deep down we get this, even as we conspire not to talk about it or acknowledge it. But the wispy, smoke-like, breath-like quality of our lives is not only a matter of length; it is also a matter of legacy. It’s a question of what sort of imprint we will leave behind when we’re gone. The answer, to put it bluntly, is not much of one. It’s not that our lives are without effect. Because we have lived, any number of others lives may be touched. Family members and neighbors, clients and coworkers, patients and students, customers and friends may all be affected, in some cases profoundly so. I’m not discounting that. But once we have passed, the memory of who we are (or were), the knowledge of those inner qualities that define us as unique individuals, will fade quickly into oblivion. How many of us have any more than a faded picture’s acquaintance with our great-grandparents?

The English poet Thomas Gray felt the weight of this. In his famous “Elegy in a Country Church Yard,” the eighteenth-century writer placed his narrator in a cemetery at twilight, where he considers the terse entries on the gravestones and meditates on “the short and simple annals of the poor.” The lives of the “rude forefathers” sleeping there have faded with time, Gray realizes. Humble headstones are all that remain, silent markers that preserve only “their names, their years, spelt by th’unlettered Muse.” It’s not just that our lives are so short, we may read Gray as suggesting. From retrospect they seem so insignificant. We leave but the faintest of footprints for posterity.

Thousands of years before Gray, another writer confronted the same troubling truth. “There is no remembrance of former things,” wrote the Preacher in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. “Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come by those who will come after” (Ecclesiastes 1:11). Indeed, the Preacher went on, “there is no more remembrance of the wise than of the fool forever, since all that now is will be forgotten in the days to come” (2:16a). This was one of many reasons convincing the writer that life is empty, meaningless, pointless, absurd. “Vanity of vanities,” he laments in the book’s very first sentence, “all is vanity.”

Through eyes of faith, we read the Preacher’s bitter lament as an example of what Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft calls “black grace,” by which he means God’s revelation to us “by darkness rather than light.” Ecclesiastes hardly captures the true meaning of life. Rather, it brilliantly exposes the futility of life lived “under the sun,” of an existence shorn of all eternal perspective. As we read, we are reminded repeatedly that all of our efforts to deny God and manufacture our own meaning and purpose for life are merely so many acts of self-deception or distraction. Our hope lies not in crafting our own stories, but in realizing that we were born in the middle of a far larger story. The path from despair comes through embracing the One True Story and seeing ourselves rightly as characters in its narrative of hope and redemption.

Intellectually, I understand this, but when I am honest with myself, I realize that the story of the Preacher is often my story, too. I struggle with the desire to manufacture my own meaning, to be the architect of my own immortality. Too often, my drive for accomplishments and reputation are less about a desire to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant” in eternity, and more about erecting monuments to myself in this present age.

Here, too, Gettysburg speaks to me. Visitors to Gettysburg not only get a glimpse into the battle that raged there in 1863. They also see evidence of how those who survived the battle wished to be remembered. The ten square miles of Gettysburg National Military Park constitute the largest statuary garden in the world. There are monuments and markers galore (somewhere in the neighborhood of fourteen hundred all told), the vast majority erected in the late-19th and early-20th centuries as the survivors of the battle were entering old age.

Monument to the 140th New York Infantry on Little Round Top

Monument to the 140th New York Infantry on Little Round Top

It would be interesting to undertake a systematic study of the inscriptions on these monuments. I did not, but I did stop to read a fair number as I walked the battlefield. One of the things that struck me is how mundane their perspective generally is. The vast majority simply repeat the same kind of details that would go into an action report after battle. A typical monument explains that the military unit being commemorated was positioned at such and such a spot for such and such a purpose, with such and such a result. An enumeration of casualties invariably follows, and sometimes the names of those killed.

Attempts to speak to the motivation or values of those involved are in fact extremely rare. They usually involve brief references to “duty,” “valor,” or patriotism. None of these is intrinsically Christian, of course, and a pagan soldier in ancient Rome would have welcomed them on a monument to Caesar’s legions.

What seems lacking in these monuments is any effort to connect what happened at Gettysburg to some larger narrative that would give the battle transcendent meaning. Such a narrative had been provided years earlier, however, in the most famous effort to commemorate those who fought there, although this commemoration was not a monument, but a speech.

We rightly remember the Gettysburg Address for its eloquence, but how deeply do we think about it? I may offend some in saying this, but to think Christianly about it is to see it as deeply flawed. Like the Preacher’s contemplation of life “under the sun,” its perspective is relentlessly earthbound, and at least one of its claims is vaguely blasphemous.

Probably the Address’s best known passage is its opening sentence: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We live in a talk-show culture in which contemporary political rhetoric is relentlessly parsed and dissected and critiqued unmercifully, but let a few generations pass and chisel the rhetoric in granite on the mall in Washington, and it becomes sacrosanct in our eyes. It might free us up to re-examine the Address afresh if we remember that it was roundly denounced when it was delivered.

Lincoln and Gettysburg Address

Lincoln and Gettysburg Address

As in our own day, much of the criticism was politically motivated. We forget that, like so many other politicians before and since, Lincoln used a public appearance before a large crowd as an opportunity to make a political statement. In November, 1863, the North was badly divided over the president’s recent Emancipation Proclamation. The Republican Party supported it, while the Democratic Party unanimously denounced it. And so the Republican leader wasted no time in defending his administration when he helped to dedicate the new military cemetery in Gettysburg, even though he never once referred to emancipation explicitly.

His argument was essentially historical. At worst misleading, at best debatable, it rested on a highly selective reading of the country’s founding. For years Lincoln had been insisting that his desire to end slavery was in keeping with the original vision of the Founding Fathers. “The fathers of the government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end,” he proclaimed repeatedly during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. In advocating the restriction of slavery and its ultimate demise, Lincoln informed the audience that “I have proposed nothing more than a return to the policy of the fathers.” Lincoln’s view was a libel on the Founders, Democrat Douglas rejoined. Offering his own reading of American history, Douglas informed cheering Democrats that “our fathers made this government divided into Free and Slave States, recognizing the right of each to decide all its local questions for itself.”

And so when Lincoln began by telling the assembled throng at Gettysburg that our fathers had been “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” the politically savvy among them immediately recognized a familiar refrain in a long-standing partisan debate. And when, a couple of minutes later, Lincoln concluded his brief remarks by implying that the Union dead at Gettysburg had died so that the nation might have “a new birth of freedom,” the crowd understood that he was enlisting the fallen at Gettysburg in the controversial cause of emancipation.

Republicans saw nothing exceptional in this. Democrats were livid. It was to uphold the Constitution, the Chicago Times assured its readers, “and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg.” What the president had done at Gettysburg was simply despicable. “How dare he,” thundered the Times editor, “standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”

As a historian, I see northern Democrats’ response to the Address as understandable (although their reading of history was just as one-sided as Lincoln’s). As a Christian historian, I am more disappointed by the way that Republican evangelicals across the North embraced Lincoln’s speech, for it contained elements that they should have found troubling.

For one thing, the Address is a classic example of rhetoric that conflates sacred and secular. Read broadly, Lincoln’s address was a masterful effort to situate the tragedy of the American Civil War in a larger story of redemption. The thing being redeemed, however, is not God’s Church but the United States. The author of redemption is not the Lord but “the people.”

The story Lincoln tells begins with its own creation account. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” the opening verse of Genesis declares. In the beginning “our fathers brought forth” the United States, Lincoln proclaims. Their values now bind us. Their vision–as interpreted by Lincoln–obliges us. Ever since Lincoln’s death there have been countless efforts to “baptize him posthumously,” as Christian scholar Allen Guelzo notes in his marvelous biography, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Guezlo argues persuasively, however, that although Lincoln was biblically literate and far from an atheist, he nevertheless died unconvinced of the gospel. What is more, although he employed biblical rhetoric and adopted biblical cadences in his speeches, he rarely if ever referred to the Bible as authoritative. As late as 1863, at least, the bedrock of his argument against slavery was not scripture but the Declaration of Independence and its assertion–penned by an apostle of the Enlightenment who owned 150 slaves–that “all men are created equal.”

Lincoln goes on to make two other assertions that ought to have troubled the thinking Christians in his audience. The first is his statement that “the brave men who struggled” at Gettysburg–presumably he meant the Union men–had “consecrated” the ground. To consecrate is to “set apart as sacred to God.” Something that has been consecrated is now “holy.” When the great “I AM” spoke to Moses from the burning bush, He informed the trembling herdsman that he was standing on holy ground. Lincoln told his audience the same thing. In what possible sense could that be true? It makes little difference whether you believe that Lincoln was speaking literally or figuratively. In his choice of words the president was draping the state with religious imagery and eternal significance, and that, however well-intended, is a form of what Christian scholar Steven Woodworth aptly labels “patriotic heresy.”

Second, Lincoln suggested that the blood of the Union dead justified the Union cause. He urged his audience to renew their commitment to the struggle precisely because others had given “the last full measure of devotion” on its behalf. My grandfather served in WWI, my father in WWII, and my son is currently in the Marine Corps, so I want to be very careful in choosing my words here. We can rightly respect, admire, and appreciate those who, through suffering and great danger have risked their lives in our defense. But that is a different thing from maintaining that the spilling of blood necessarily ennobles the cause for which it is shed.

We would not accept that view with regard to the storm troopers who died in the service of Adolph Hitler, nor the Islamic terrorists who knowingly went to their deaths on 9/11. And as American Christians we ought not to swallow the argument as applied to our own soldiers. If we accept the view that death in war automatically justifies the perpetuation of that war–so that the “dead shall not have died in vain,” as Lincoln put it–we abdicate our calling to live as salt and light. When we do so, the church forfeits its prophetic voice and becomes merely an extension of the state.

Thinking Christianly about the past requires that we make our own hearts vulnerable, so my purpose in sharing these thoughts is not so that we can smugly condemn those who have gone before us. Instead, we are called to identify with them. Their example reminds us, warns us, of the ever present temptation to confuse our identity as Christians with other loyalties and attachments, whether nation, race, class, or party. This is but one manifestation of the more general seduction that the Preacher of Ecclesiastes knew well: the illusion that we make our own meaning in life, satisfying our souls on our own terms, in our own way. Others have unknowingly succumbed. Why should we be immune?

Search our hearts, O Lord . . .


[Today marks the 153rd anniversary of the beginning of the three-day-long Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the American Civil War and the largest military engagement ever fought in the western hemisphere.  With the anniversary in mind, I am re-posting  a series of four essays that I originally penned a few years ago after my first visit to the battlefield.  The first was a kind of tourist’s report; the remaining three–including the one below–are  more properly styled meditations or reflections.  My goal in these was to explore what it might mean to remember that bloody conflict through eyes of faith.]

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The morning after I returned from my road trip to Gettysburg, I took my wife and older daughter out to breakfast to catch up with them and share a bit of my experience. As soon as we had placed our order, my wife leaned across the table and asked, “So what spiritual insights did you come home with?”

She knows me well. History is an almost inexhaustible storehouse of compelling human stories, but I am convinced that if the study of history is to be truly educational, it must be much more than that. Authentic education does not merely put knowledge into our heads that wasn’t there before. It alters the way we think. It challenges our hearts. It changes who we are.

At its best, our encounter with the past should be a seamless part of a larger quest for a heart of wisdom, a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live,” in the words of historian David Harlan. We shouldn’t settle for less. Genesis 32 tells how Jacob wrestled with God the whole night through, telling the Lord, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” (v. 26). I can’t begin to plumb the depths of that story’s meaning, and yet I think of it often in my role as a historian and a teacher. Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury and an accomplished historian, encourages us to believe “that there will always be gifts to be received from the past.” We must seek them persistently, insistently. Like Jacob, we must resolve not to turn loose until the Lord has blessed us.

What I am NOT suggesting is that we pray for special revelation from God, asking him to disclose hidden meanings from the past. . . . I find no promise in scripture that the Holy Spirit will reveal American history to us.  The Bible is clear, on the other hand, that the Spirit is given in order to convict us of “sin, and righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8). So when I propose that we wrestle with the past until the Lord blesses us, I have in mind studying history in such a way that it ultimately exposes our hearts. Our highest goal is not to understand the past for its own sake, nor to learn lessons from the past that help us get what we want in the present. Rather, our ultimate goal is to see both God and ourselves more clearly, to the glory of God and for our sanctification.

The point, in other words, is to get wisdom. As Proverbs 4:7 puts it, “Wisdom is the principal thing.”And if wisdom is our goal, we must figure out how to make scrutiny of the past lead to scrutiny of our own hearts in the light of God’s revealed Word. That, I am almost ready to conclude, is the essence of what it means to think “Christianly” about history.

I am still trying to work out what this looks like concretely, but I would like to share with you some of the thoughts that I had while roaming the ground at Gettysburg. They are examples of the kind of reflections I have in mind. You may be able to come up with other, better ones, and I welcome your suggestions and reactions. For now, I’ll share just a couple of observations, with more to follow soon.

First, the palpable weight of the past at Gettysburg is jarring. As I mentioned in my last post, as I walked the battlefield I felt the almost tangible presence of the nearly 170,000 men who clashed there a century and a half ago. I don’t mean literally that their spirits hovered there (although there are a number of “Gettysburg Ghost Tours” that claim precisely that). As I observed last time, there is something about being physically present at the site of a famous historical event. The experience enlivens our imaginations; sharing a common landscape somehow seems to connect us viscerally to those whose footsteps we follow.

That sensation, at least for me, has the effect of jolting me out of my own narrow frame of reference. For all the current talk of “globalization,” most of us really live in tiny worlds, don’t we? The universes we inhabit don’t have room for much: home, work, school, the mall, perhaps church. We pretend to expand our worlds through “virtual” reality but only isolate ourselves even more. It’s comparatively easy to believe that the world revolves around us when the island kingdoms that we rule over are so minuscule. And then we walk the field at Gettysburg, or some similar locale, and the landscape reminds us of the hosts that have gone before, and suddenly we can feel very small. That’s a good thing. If an integral component of wisdom is self-knowledge, “the first product of self-knowledge,” as Flannery O’Connor realized, “is humility.”

Second, as I thought about the men who fought there, I was immediately struck by the chasm that separates us from them. I’d love to be a tour guide at Gettysburg, but I wouldn’t be a very popular one, because I think one of the most important things to tell tourists is how little we know about what happened there. That’s not a message we care to hear. We want history that makes the past “come alive”–what I call You Are There history–and being reminded that “we see through a glass, darkly” when we peer into the past interferes with our fantasies of omniscience.

But call to mind what C. S. Lewis wrote about the vast disparity between the actual past–which is dead and gone–and history, which is not the past itself but our halting efforts to reconstruct it. “The past,” Lewis observed, “was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of . . . moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination.” The difference between the past and history, then, “is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.”

This is always true when we try to reconstruct an episode from the past, even an event of such scale and significance as the battle of Gettysburg. Take, for instance, the battle’s famous conclusion–Pickett’s Charge. As historian Carol Reardon has shown, even the most basic factual claims about the attack are actually just educated guesses. We don’t really know precisely when the bombardment preceding the attack began, how long it lasted, or why it proved ineffective. We don’t know exactly how many men were involved in the charge, and we certainly don’t know which Confederate unit got the farthest or precisely where on the field they were turned back. (At least three southern states claim that their troops advanced the farthest, and each has installed historical markers on Cemetery Ridge to position their sons at the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.”) We don’t even know for sure what George Pickett was doing during the charge. (There were even controversial claims after the war that he had skulked in the rear until the bloodbath was over.)

Looking west from Cemetery Ridge at the field crossed by George Pickett's Division on July 3rd, 1863. His men formed for the attack in the line of trees in the distance.

Looking west from Cemetery Ridge at the field crossed by George Pickett’s Division on July 3rd, 1863. His men formed for the attack in the line of trees in the distance.

When we move beyond establishing the factual details to the thornier tasks of explanation (why did the attack fail?) and re-creation (what was it like to take part?) our dearth of knowledge becomes all the more apparent. As Reardon explains, each kind of existing evidence about the battle has its own problems. Official reports were biased, self-serving, and frequently not composed until months afterward. Most of the letters and diaries of common soldiers at Gettysburg were never preserved, and those that survive are less revealing than we would hope. Individual soldiers saw only a tiny part of the battlefield, and in the stress of battle they often retained a kaleidoscope of impressions and sensations more than a coherent narrative of their experience. In writing to loved ones, they often gave up on the possibility of conveying what they had seen and experienced to civilians.

Newspapers covered the battle extensively (there were dozens of correspondents at Gettysburg), but reporters typically knew little about military matters and, like modern historians, were faced with the daunting task of trying to bring some sort of coherence to the myriad of conflicting individual perspectives that they could glean from interviews. To compound the challenge, they were under great pressure to rush their stories into print in order to scoop their rivals. As a result, “wishful thinking ran wild” and “no bit of hyperbole seemed excessive.”

But why stress how much we don’t know? The author of Proverbs provides our answer: “For as he thinks within himself, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7). It would be an oversimplification to say that what we think reflects our hearts and how we think shapes our hearts, but it’s not far from the truth. From best-selling popular works to the boring textbooks we’re assigned growing up, much of the history that we consume exaggerates our capacity to know the past and unwittingly promotes intellectual arrogance. Herbert Butterfield, one of the premier Christian historians of the last century, trenchantly identified intellectual arrogance as “the besetting disease of historians.” Christian writers are not immune to this malady, and we cannot guard against it unless we are aware of it.

More to follow soon.


[Today marks the 153rd anniversary of the beginning of the three-day-long Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the American Civil War and the largest military engagement ever fought in the western hemisphere.  With the anniversary in mind, I thought I would re-post a series of four essays that I originally penned a few years ago after my first visit to the battlefield.  The first (below) is a kind of tourist’s report; the three that follow are more properly styled meditations or reflections.  My goal in these was to explore what it might mean to remember that bloody conflict through eyes of faith.]

This past Thursday morning I hopped in my Kia Rio and made the nearly seven-hundred-mile trek from Wheaton to the site of the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere. Along the way I prepared mentally by listening to books on tape: James McPherson’s On Hallowed Ground–a brief guide to the battlefield–and the first half of (what else?) Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. From Friday through Sunday morning I spent nearly sixteen hours roaming the six thousand acres of Gettysburg National Military Park, and I even managed to squeeze in a quick half-day tour of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (fifty-four miles to the south), the site of John Brown’s infamous 1859 raid on the federal arsenal there. After hiking on the battlefield a final time early Sunday morning, I drove the seven hundred miles back home while listening to the second half of The Killer Angels. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain received the Confederate surrender at Appomattox shortly before I pulled in the driveway. It was the ultimate history nerd road trip.

Yours truly beside the memorial to the 20th Maine Inf. on the southern slope of Little Round Top.

Yours truly beside the memorial to the 20th Maine Inf. on the southern slope of Little Round Top.

After I’ve had time to wrestle with it a bit more, I want to think out loud with you about one of the eternal questions that the experience has raised in my mind, but for the moment let me just share a few initial reactions:

Let’s start with the culinary landscape. After extensive reconnaissance, I have three discoveries to report: first, the “General Pickett Buffet,” much like the general’s charge in 1863, was ambitious but unsatisfying. Second, the Avenue Restaurant, a locally owned diner a couple of blocks to the north, serves a marvelous breakfast. And finally, proximity to the battlefield seems to have had no appreciable effect on the food at McDonald’s.

Next, the battlefield itself: It was amazing, and I would recommend it to anyone at all interested in American history. The battlefield is under the auspices of the U. S. National Park Service, which has done a fabulous job of preserving as much of the original battlefield as possible and of interpreting all that transpired there. I’ve read countless books on the battle over the years, but there is simply no substitute for being there. If you can go, and if your health allows for it, get out and walk. I hiked a half-dozen times along the crest of Cemetery Ridge, stood in the woods along Seminary Ridge where John Bell Hood’s Texans formed to attack on July 2nd, clambered on the rocks at Devil’s Den (which Hood described as the worst ground he had ever seen), measured the length of line defended by the Twentieth Maine Infantry at Little Round Top, followed the route of Pickett’s Charge (and back), and stood where Robert E. Lee rode to rally his men after that charge was broken.

I am not a military historian, and to be perfectly honest, I have never been able to muster interest in academic disputes about strategy and tactics. And yet walking the battlefield helped me enormously in understanding what both armies were trying to accomplish. The ground mattered greatly in Civil War battles, and one of the most striking things about Gettysburg is how varied the ground could be.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

Much of the setting is bucolic farmland–gently undulating fields dotted with clapboard barns and split-rail fences. A part of the setting is urban; Confederate General A. P. Hill’s corps drove Federal forces through the town itself on the first day, and his sharpshooters took up positions on Baltimore St. from which to harass the entrenching Yankees near the cemetery on the outskirts of town. Some of the fiercest fighting, however, unfolded on a landscape straight out of a science fiction movie. I had read about “Devil’s Den,” but I had never fully appreciated how bizarre it really is. I don’t know about you, but when I see Civil War battles in my mind’s eye, I never picture soldiers fighting hand-to-hand atop boulders the size of garbage trucks.

Young visitors to Devil's Den.

Young visitors to Devil’s Den.

The benefit of visiting the battlefield goes far beyond a better understanding of how topography shaped the conflict, and that’s a good thing. Setting aside the occasional sweaty, middle-aged re-enactor, I suspect that few of the park’s two million visitors each year are primarily interested in such technical questions. Most probably just want to gain a sense of what the common soldiers who fought there experienced. I certainly was hoping for that, among other things. There is an unbridgeable chasm that separates them from us, of course. I know that. We can never fully grasp the horrors that they witnessed and endured. (I feel that less as a limitation than as a mercy–thank you, Father.) And yet, I do believe that visiting places such as this enlivens the imagination, and imagination is an indispensable aid to historical understanding. In walking the land where these armies clashed, the landscape somehow connects us to those whose footsteps we follow. The result is a shadowy glimpse of long ago, and that, to my mind, is a treasure.

And now to the less-than-sublime–the town itself: There are numerous circa-1863 structures still standing that help us to envision what the town looked like as Union and Confederate forces converged on it 150 years ago. But much of the fighting on the 2nd and 3rd of July took place outside of town, and in the intervening century and a half there was all kinds of commercial development in that vicinity, and ever since the national park was established in the late-nineteenth century, entrepreneurs have sought to make money from tourism. Thus advocates of historical preservation have fought a battle of their own, heroically defending the ground from creeping commercialism.

They have won that battle, up to a point. The nearest McDonald’s (a good barometer of the balance of power in the struggle) is still several hundred yards from Cemetery Ridge. And yet if you head north from McDonald’s along Steinwehr Avenue, you will immediately encounter a gauntlet of cheap souvenir shops seeking to help you commemorate your pilgrimage to Gettysburg’s “hallowed ground.”

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The range of commemorative items is truly impressive. Notebook in hand, I visited several stores, all within a good tee shot of Cemetery Hill, and compiled a partial list. There were all kinds of caps, t-shirts, sweatshirts, and hoodies, of course. The vast majority referred to the recent sesquicentennial (“Gettysburg, 1863-2013″), but there were others appealing to hikers (“Hiked It, Liked It: Gettysburg Battlefield”) and imbibers (“Gettysburg: A Drinking Town with a History Problem”). For unreconstructed Confederates who might not otherwise enjoy visiting the site of a Union victory, there were declarations such as “Lee Surrendered, I Didn’t” and “Keep the South Beautiful: Put a Yankee on a Bus.”

Beyond this, there were commemorative coffee cups, travel mugs, flasks, beer steins, and wineglasses; refrigerator magnets, lapel pins, zipper pulls, ash trays, plates, jig-saw puzzles, key chains, iron-on patches, tote bags, windsocks, lap robes, piggy banks, paper weights, coasters, golf balls, Christmas tree ornaments, pens, pencils, pocketknives, cigarette lighters, thimbles, mouse pads, and playing cards. None of these much tempted me, but if I had had the money, I wouldn’t have minded bringing home the Pickett’s Charge snow globe, the shot glass with the entire text of the Gettysburg Address inscribed on it, or (my favorite) the Robert E. Lee bobble-head doll.

Maybe on my next visit.

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This weekend I caught a showing of The Free State of Jones, a movie about a comparatively unknown chapter in the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, starring Matthew McConaughey.  Since I’ve spent nearly three decades teaching and writing about this period of American history, I thought I should check it out.

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I should say up front that, as a historian, I have a love/hate relationship with historical movies.  On the one hand, I’m generally thankful for any cultural influence that directs our attention to the past.  If a fraction of the viewers who turn out to see Free State are inspired to dig deeper—maybe even to read a serious work of history about the period—then I suppose I should be thankful, and to a degree, I am.

On the other hand, however, the medium is generally bad at conveying complexity—and history is nothing if not complex—while the need to turn a profit reinforces the tendency to emphasize entertainment at the expense of accuracy.  I know I should be thankful when Hollywood encourages us to pay attention to the past, but I am always left wondering whether the movie in question does more harm than good.  In particular, I worry about the implicit lessons that historical movies teach us about what history is and what it means to think historically.

At bottom, I think there are two common audience reactions to movies that claim to be “based on a true story,” and neither one of them is good.  The first is to take the claim at face value and assume that, in watching the movie, we have just learned something reliable about the past.  I’m reminded of a story that Sam Wineburg tells in his wonderful book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  Wineburg, an educational psychologist at Stanford who has spent most of his professional career studying how we think and learn about the past, tells a story of watching the movie Schindler’s List when it first debuted.  When the heart-wrenching film about the holocaust had ended and the subdued audience began to file silently out of the theater, Wineburg heard one viewer whisper to his wife, “I never understood what happened then until now, right now.  Now, I know.”

This scares me.  I worry that our entertainment-obsessed culture will only take the past seriously when it is packaged in two-hour-length segments of gripping entertainment.  And I worry even more that we will confuse these two-hour-length segments for the past itself.  History is not the past but an argument about the past, ideally grounded in logically compelling historical evidence.  Historians don’t discover the past “as it actually was” in the archives; we do our best painstakingly to recreate it, weaving interpretations that are always imperfect and always debatable.  Any movie “based on a true story” is similarly offering an interpretation, with the difference that there won’t be footnotes and a bibliography; we’ll be invited to accept the interpretation on faith.

So one common response is to take the claim of historical accuracy at face value and assume that we are learning something true; the other is to take the claim at face value and question whether accuracy even matters.  Read the “critical reviews” that have appeared over the past few days and you’ll find that this is the ubiquitous message.  Reviewers praise the movie for director Gary Ross’s “unusual respect for historical truth” and then move directly to the political implications of the movie’s message or the quality of its artistry.  Did the pacing lag?  Was the plot too sprawling?  Was McConaughey really wearing dental prosthetics?  “Of course,” I can hear you replying.  “That’s what movie critics do.”  But when a movie claims to be teaching us about the past, I fear that critics’ calculated indifference to historical accuracy reinforces one of the besetting historical sins of our culture: to evaluate history on the basis of its artistry or political usefulness, rather than its truthfulness.

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Oh well—end of sermonette—let’s talk about The Free State of Jones.  The movie focuses on an area in southeastern Mississippi that became famous for its resistance to Confederate authority.  The soil in this region of Mississippi was not well-suited to the production of cash crops, and most of the white families who settled Jones County were small farmers who concentrated on livestock growing and had little connection to slavery or the cotton economy.  When the state held a referendum on secession after Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency, the white male voters of the county originally opposed secession by a large majority, but when the state as a whole overwhelmingly endorsed disunion, they quickly fell into line.

The exigencies of war have a way of exposing the faults lines of communities at war, however, and pretty soon the support of Jones County’s yeomen for the Confederacy began to erode.  The imposition of conscription in the spring of 1862 had a lot to do with this, as did the subsequent passage by the Confederate Congress of a ten-percent “tax-in-kind” on all agricultural products.  Soon, the white yeomen of the region believed that they were caught up in a “rich man’s war” in which slaveless farmers would be forced into military service while their families were brought to the brink of starvation by a heartless government interested only in the welfare of large plantation owners.

Over time, more and more of the white Confederate soldiers of Jones County fled the front lines and returned home.  These deserters would provide for their families as best as they could, and “lie out” in nearby woods and swamps whenever Confederate troops were rumored to be nearby.  Increasingly, they also interfered with Confederate tax agents sent to confiscate a portion of their crops and livestock.  Eventually, their resistance to Confederate authority became more organized, thanks in part to the leadership of farmer Newton Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey).  When Confederate authorities sent troops into the region to regain control, Knight’s band participated in a series of bloody skirmishes.  Whether Knight and his “company” ever formally declared their independence from the Confederacy is highly debatable, but their disenchantment with the Confederacy and willingness to resist Confederate authority with force is undeniable.

So what is the historical value of The Free State of Jones?  I have taught a course on the American Civil War a couple of dozen times over the years, and one of the themes that I stress in each one is that we cannot begin to understand the Civil War accurately as long as we see it as a straightforward struggle between a unified South and a unified North.  Both regions experienced extensive internal dissent, and coming to grips with this transforms our understanding of the war’s contemporary and long-term significance.  The Free State of Jones explodes the myth of a solid Civil-War South, and I think that’s valuable.

A second theme that I always stress in Civil War courses is that, while northern victory resulted in the end of slavery, the question of what “freedom” would mean for former slaves was not remotely settled when Lee surrendered to Grant in April 1865, nor would it be settled for decades to come.  At least a third of The Free State of Jones involves the post-war Reconstruction era—a period Hollywood almost never acknowledges—and the movie effectively hammers home the reality that the official demise of slavery did little to weakens the ubiquitous racism that had been a bulwark of slavery for at least a century and a half.  This also, is valuable.

But the movie is also full of all kinds of historical inaccuracies and outright silliness.  Many of the movie’s errors are trivial:  the real Newton Knight was 24 years old in 1862 when the movie begins, about half as old as Matthew McConaughey.  A villainous Confederate colonel wears three stars on his collar, which was the insignia of a lieutenant general.  At a poignant moment in the movie, Knight’s followers lower a Confederate battle flag that is ubiquitous today but would not have flown over a Mississippi courthouse in 1864. (The flag was primarily employed by the Army of Northern Virginia during the war and did not become synonymous with the Confederacy until the 1920s.)  Not much here to get worked up about.

Other of the movie’s inaccuracies probably help to make the movie more entertaining. The best example here would be the battle scenes.  According to Victoria Bynum, the historian who is by far the leading expert on Jones County’s civil war, there were at least a dozen skirmishes between Knight’s followers and Confederate troops during the latter half of the Civil War, but they were invariably small affairs involving a few dozen individuals at most and never exacting more than a handful of casualties.  One of the first major “battles,” for example, just before Christmas 1863, resulted in Confederate casualties of one dead and two wounded.  I assume that in a culture utterly inured to violence, director Gary Ross thought that the less bloody reality would simply bore the audience.

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If the battles in Jones County were typically small skirmishes, they also mostly pitted white males against white males, with few exceptions.  The film, on the other hand, insists on portraying Knight’s band as a “racially and sexually integrated paramilitary utopia,” in the words of one trenchant review.  This is Hollywood fabrication.  Bynum stresses that both enslaved blacks and white women were important to the success of the Jones County resistance, but in ways that, while still heroic, were more prosaic.  Both slaves and the resisters’ wives supported Knight’s company in invaluable ways, but primarily by smuggling food to the deserters when they were lying out and by alerting them to the approach of Confederate soldiers.  Director Gary Ross has them in the thick of the fighting.

The most ridiculous scene in the movie comes when Knight has planned an ambush of Confederate soldiers monitoring the funeral of a recently-hanged deserter.  The funeral procession consists primarily of middle-aged farm wives who, when the signal is given, pull revolvers from their shawls and, quite literally, begin blowing the heads off of Rebel soldiers at point-blank range.  The later portrayal of a shoot-out at the county seat features rifle-toting wives in their bonnets charging Rebel troops, loading cannon, and otherwise striking fear into the heart of the Confederate army.  This is manufactured out of whole cloth.

THE FREE STATE OF JONESWhat bothers me most about the movie, however, is not the minor inaccuracies or even the inanities but the egregious way that Ross has made the entire story into a simplistic morality play.  Newton Knight is delivered to us as a noble Robin Hood with twenty-first century racial sensibilities who would probably be a Sanders supporter if he were alive today.  The real Newton Knight did father at least five children with a former slave who became his common-law wife, but the movie’s depiction of Knight’s racial views is almost entirely conjecture, and Ross has chosen to skip over well documented episodes in Knight’s life that would complicate his heroic persona.  (There is evidence that he murdered his brother-in-law in cold blood during the war, for example, as well as testimony suggesting that he urged his mixed-race children to “pass” as white rather than challenge southern mores unnecessarily.)  On the other hand, every Confederate character in the movie is either a non-entity (enlisted men with no lines) or smarmy villains devoid of decency.

History can be a wonderful framework for moral reflection, especially when we allow our engagement with the past to expose our own hearts.  The best histories of slavery and the Civil War force us to confront our own propensities for moral compromise and injustice.  We need to see white Confederates—even white defenders of slavery—as three-dimensional humans no more prone to sin and self-justification than we are.  We need to get to know them well enough and gain enough understanding of their circumstances to confess that we might have behaved in the very same way if set down in their shoes.  The Free State of Jones just encourages us to feel superior.


Fame has eluded me until relatively late in life, but that is about to change, and I wanted my loyal readers to be the first to know.

There have been some near misses, times when I suspected that popular acclaim was going to elevate me to stardom, despite my shy and humble nature.  There was the time, at age five, that I appeared on the children’s show “Fun Time with Miss Marsha.”  A decade later I was front man for my church youth ensemble as we performed for a March of Dimes telethon.  My mom bragged about that for years.

But the closest call was actually after I began teaching, back in 1991 when a retired humanities professor from the University of Florida popularized the theory that Zachary Taylor, not Abraham Lincoln, had been the first American president to be assassinated.  Taylor had died in July 1850, sixteen months into his presidency.  The cause, according to most historians, was acute gastroenteritis brought on when Taylor gorged himself on raw cherries and iced milk during a Fourth of July celebration in the nation’s capital.  Not so, said Professor Clara Rising, who speculated that the twelfth president had in fact been poisoned by one of his political enemies.  Although she had no real evidence to support her suspicions, Rising convinced Taylor’s descendants to agree to an exhumation of their ancestor’s remains, and for a week or so that June the nation breathlessly awaited the results of the partial autopsy.

Within hours of the announcement of the impending autopsy, a TV journalist from a popular Seattle news magazine program was calling to say that he would like to interview me to get my take on the story.  He wanted me to speak about the implications of Taylor’s alleged assassination, how it changed the course of history, etc.  I cleaned up my office (no small feat), put on a tie, and in a lengthy interview I shared a plethora of erudite insights about Zachary Taylor, antebellum American politics, and the coming of the Civil War.  I could tell that the reporter was deeply moved, although he was too professional to let on.

And then the results of the autopsy were announced the next morning, and unfortunately (at least for my television career), there was no evidence of foul play.  I never talked to the reporter again.  All I got was a telephone message left while I was in class.  One of the secretaries in the History Department office had summarized the message on one of those pink “while you were out” slips that functioned as voice mail before there was voice mail.  “Taylor wasn’t poisoned, so no story,” said the memo.  “Thanks anyway.”  Such is the fickleness of fame.

IMG_0819Now, twenty-five years later, the siren song of celebrity calls for me again.  This was the scene last December in my U. S. History to 1865 class at Wheaton.  C-SPAN was there to film a class session for later broadcast on their wildly popular “American History TV” (which probably all of us watch religiously on C-SPAN-3 every Saturday night).  Although the lights, cameras, microphones, and miles of cable were hardly unobtrusive, my students were real troopers.  They stayed awake at all times, looked variously intrigued and enthusiastic, and interjected with thoughtful, penetrating comments at the proper moments. It was a bravura performance.

A little behind-the-curtain confession: we had actually practiced all of this in advance.  Although I chickened out at the last moment, I had even scripted an “impromptu” comment from one of the students who would interrupt me at the beginning of the class session with the following heart-felt observation:

Professor McKenzie,

Before we get started, may I share something?

As I was walking across the beautiful grounds of Wheaton College this morning, I was reminded of how greatly I have been blessed by the opportunity to be a history major here.  I can say without hesitation that it has been a transformative experience.  Indeed, words cannot express the depth of my gratitude to the Wheaton History Department.  You and your colleagues have changed my life forever.  If I were a parent of a high-school senior, I know that I would be encouraging him or her to apply to Wheaton College and become a history major.

In conclusion, if it will not embarrass you unduly, Professor McKenzie, I must say that your brilliant lectures, your unparalleled sense of humor, your remarkable wisdom, and your gracious, winsome spirit have been the pinnacle of my experience here at Wheaton College.

Thank you, thank you, a thousand times thank you.

I’m pretty sure he could have made it sound unrehearsed.  My students make comments like this all the time.

At any rate, I have purposely refrained from telling you about the scheduled broadcast, for fear that C-SPAN would go bankrupt or that the producer would watch the tape and say “What was I thinking?!”  Neither has happened, however, and I can now report that our class session on “Emancipation and the Civil War” will air this Saturday night at 8:00 (eastern) on C-SPAN 3.  If your cable plan doesn’t include C-SPAN 3, you can watch the video after the fact from the “American History TV” website by clicking here.


As I was backing out of the driveway this morning, I was distressed to see a “For Sale” sign in the front yard of our very dear next-door neighbors. I backed down the street to where I could see the sign more clearly and discovered, to my relief, that it read as follows: “FOR SALE BY OWNER,” and then in much smaller, handwritten print, “One Day Only: April 1st, 2015.”

April Fools’ Day. I’ve hated this day all of my life.

At any rate, the prank got me to thinking about April Fools’ Days in American History, and my thoughts went to one of the most ominous April 1sts in our past. It was April 1st, 1861, and the United States was perched precariously on a precipice. (How’s that for alliteration?) Since the election of Abraham Lincoln as president the preceding November, seven southern states had issued resolutions purporting to sever their ties with the Union. A half dozen more were sorely tempted to follow suit, and would very likely do so if the Federal government took steps to restore the Union by force. As the country waited for the inauguration in March of its new Republican president, the seceding states took steps to constitute themselves the Confederate States of America and set to work confiscating all federal property—forts, arsenals, customs houses, and mints—within their borders. By the time Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4th, 1861, the Union was visibly collapsing and the authority and prestige of the U. S. government was at its nadir.

Lincoln in 1860

Lincoln in 1860

Lincoln and his cabinet—which included four of his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination—were deeply divided as to how to respond to the crisis. In his inaugural address, the president had tried to show both moderation and resolve. On the one hand, he had gone out of his way to try to reassure his southern critics that they need not fear a Republican presidency. On the other, he had insisted that “secession is the very essence of anarchy” and declared that the Union is “perpetual.” Drawing a line in the sand, he had pledged (somewhat redundantly) to “hold occupy, and possess” all federal property within the rebellious states. Implicitly, this seemed to obligate the new president, at the very least, to do all within his power to maintain control of the federal forts in the lower South not yet in Confederate hands—most notably Fort Sumter in the mouth of Charleston harbor.

William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State

William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State

The ranking member of Lincoln’s cabinet—Secretary of State William Seward—led a faction within the administration that sought to avoid a showdown if possible. Seward had much more experience in national politics than Lincoln and had been the odds-on favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, before losing out to Lincoln on the 3rd ballot. It is quite possible that he had accepted the State Department post—historically the most prestigious and influential cabinet appointment—with the intention of serving as the de facto head of the administration, pulling the strings behind the scenes while the inexperienced Lincoln played the role of puppet and figurehead. Toward the end of March, Seward had met secretly with representatives of the Confederate government, assuring them that the government would not use force to uphold its authority and promising—without Lincoln’s knowledge or approval—that the Union troops assigned to Fort Sumter would soon evacuate the installation.

As March drew to a close, and as it became increasingly evident to Seward that Lincoln intended to uphold his inaugural pledge, the secretary drew up one of the most remarkable memoranda ever given to a sitting president by a high-ranking government official. Because Seward forwarded the memorandum—titled “Some Thoughts for the President’s Consideration”—on April 1st, historians have commonly referred to the document as Seward’s “April Fools’ Memorandum.” In truth, the proposals it contains are so outlandish that it is tempting to conclude that the secretary was pranking the president, but he wasn’t. He was in dead earnest.

After criticizing Lincoln for having failed to define a clear policy, “either foreign or domestic,” Seward went on to repeat his recommendation that Sumter be evacuated. In Seward’s mind, this sort of concession to the South was the best way both to keep the upper South in the Union and avoid the tragedy of civil war.

Page 3 of Seward's April 1, 1861 memorandum to President Lincoln

Page 3 of Seward’s April 1, 1861 memorandum to President Lincoln

Then came the clincher. Under the heading “For Foreign Nations,” the Secretary of State recommended to the president that the administration “demand explanation from Spain and France, categorically, at once.” Spain had recently sent troops into Santo Domingo, while France was casting its eyes on Mexico, and Seward was proposing to challenge both on the grounds that they were in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. “If satisfactory explanations are not received from Spain and France,” Seward went on, the president should “convene Congress and declare war against them.” Although he didn’t spell out his rationale for the president, Seward clearly believed that the best way to unify the country was to provoke a war with one of the major powers of Europe.

But what if Lincoln was not prepared to take the lead on such a drastic policy? The Secretary of State concluded his memorandum with the following presumption:

Whatever policy we adopt, there must be an energetic prosecution of it. For this purpose, it must be somebody’s business to pursue and direct it incessantly. Either the President must do it himself and be all the while active in it, or devolve it on some member of his Cabinet. Once adopted, debates on it must end, and all agree and abide. It is not in my especial province but I neither seek to evade nor assume responsibility.

Lincoln replied in writing to Seward the same day, although it is not clear whether his brief note was ever actually delivered. What is clear is that Lincoln ignored Seward’s proposal of provoking a European war. He also effectively declined the Secretary of State’s polite offer to take over the management of his administration. If something “must be done,” the president wrote in his reply, I must do it.”