This week, we observe two critical moments in the sesquicentennial of the Civil War: the Union victory at Gettysburg and the Confederate surrender of Vicksburg. While 165,000 soldiers clashed in Pennsylvania, my third great-grandfather, Alcander Morse, and his 37th Illinois regiment were part of the 77,000 Union troops encircling the city of Vicksburg.
Morse enlisted alongside his friends and stepbrother in Boone County, Illinois in August 1861. By the summer of 1863, he had survived the Union victories at Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove in Arkansas, and was moving along the Mississippi River on foot and by transport ship until the regiment arrived at Vicksburg on June 14. From this position, Morse and the 37th faced Confederate batteries and encountered Rebel prisoners and deserters. On one quiet morning, Morse and his buddy traveled to the front “to see the Boys fire at the Reb’s. our Rifle Pits are just close Enough to their front so I can fire in with my old five shooter with the 100 y.d. sight raised.” Occasionally, he left his post to visit friends and family in nearby regiments and to gather the “ripe & penty” blackberries and plums that grew in the area.
While he often spoke with the confidence and bravado frequently found in the writings of western soldiers, he was also rather affected by what he witnessed in his role as besieger. “still the seige continues with unabated fury,” he wrote. “O, they must have the Horrors in there, the shell & shot flying about their ears continualy & on short Rations at that I am sure if I had to pass through what they do I should want a full stomach to steady my nerves.”
What follows is the account of the days leading up to the surrender of the city:
30th this last day of June is a beautiful day all seems unusualy quiet, still the seige continues & will most likely until the Stars & Stripes float in all their magnificence over Vicksburg the stronghold of the Reb’s we have U.S. Grant at our head a man that never tires & with him at our head we know that Vicksburg is ours
1st last night it rained a thing we very much needed to preserve the Health of the troops all is quiet up to this time 6.A.M. later at 8.A.M. a fierce cannonading commences & is kept up for about two hours then all is quiet as before
2d beautiful weather all is quiet go the 95 Ill. visiting have a pleasant visit come back in the Evening
3d splendid morning all are preparing for a grand charge on the Rebel works on the morrow (Ever Glorious 4th of July) new Bateries are being planted nearer their works & all is being done that is possible to insure our success ten A.M. all is quiet not a gun is to be heard an armistice has been agreed upon at 3.P.M. the two Com’d’g. Gens (Grant & Pemberton) are to meet we all go half way & meet the Rebs & have a chat they look rough Enough still they will own nothing but without doubt they must give up soon on account of food
4th the Ever Glorious fourth has dawned but what do we hear the heavy boom of cannon the fierce rattle of musketry the shouts of charging Legions; O, no it is the shout of victory it is the booming of cannon in honor of the Great Victory acheived by U.S. Grant the Pet of the Army of the Tennessee a man that prepares to do a thing before he does it or commences & then goes unfalteringly forward never once halting until his end is is accomplished this is indeed a glorious day to the Arms of the U.S.
5th we are now camped inside the Rebel works the prisoners are still inside of us Gen. Grant with his untiring zeal left with all the available forces for the Big Black to try & take in Joe Johnston if possible if not to drive him off. he just waited long enough to fulfil his promise (of eating supper in Vicksburg the 4th of July) then he started off post haste
More of Alcander Morse’s experiences at Vicksburg, as well as the entirety of his war diary can be found here.
(As for Gettysburg, when word reached Morse on July 10, he wrote, simply, “We have good news from the Army of the Potomac.”)
When I was a kid, my absolute favorite film was Gettysburg. My interest in the Civil War developed at a very young age, and as a film lover, there were very few choices for me to get my “fix” in between viewings of The Labyrinth and The Princess Bride. I still remember seeing it for the first time in the movie theater with my extended family, and we routinely had viewings every summer as I grew up. The film played a large and memorable role in my formative years. Through the movie and the novel that gave birth to it, I was introduced to the side of the war that I would eventually study in graduate school: the human element. As an adolescent, I fixated on the emotional realities of soldiers on the battlefield, a focus that made the war terrible, but not divisive.
We see things simply as children, when we are not yet burdened with the knowledge that will weigh us down in our adulthood. When we can still love a movie steeped in Lost Cause mythology, oblivious to the significance of those careful omissions of history. And all causes are just, all soldiers mighty. Where it is okay to cry at the beauty and tragedy of 15,000 men marching across unharvested fields to epic, swelling music and recite every word of each beautifully-enacted monologue–“Winn was like a brother to me, remember?”– or memorable one-liner–“We should have gone to the right.”
It is a strange moment when you find yourself struggling to reconcile an important part of your past. Gettysburg is still one of my favorite films. As a movie viewer, I can appreciate its scale and the dedication of the actors. I can rub my arms to disperse the goosebumps I get during certain parts of the score, and I can retort along with Chamberlain, “Darn it, Tom, don’t call me Lawrence.” But as a historian, I cannot pretend not to notice the romanticization of slavery (of all things), nor can I brush off my discomfort at the blatant canonization of the soldiers–officers and men alike. I cannot ignore the depiction of combat as the sanitized heroism that misled many of the soldiers into the ranks. And no matter how loudly I cough through Longstreet’s line, “We should have freed the slaves, then fired on Fort Sumter,” it still stands there on film to mislead viewers for all of time.
In this context, I look back on that early version of myself, and I miss her. I long for her naive view of the war. For a little while. But then I take off my rose-colored glasses and remember that I should be proud of the steps that I have taken (and continue to take) to educate myself. And I realize that knowing a hard and complicated truth is infinitely better than believing in a comfortable and incomplete untruth.
Yesterday, I spent most of the day watching and listening to the live stream of the Sacred Trust Talks at Gettysburg, and while they were excellent, I noticed the absence of some voices. I suppose it is no surprise that at a national military park, military matters were prominent. But one of the interesting facets of the Gettysburg story is how well it can be used to address the many views historians use to study the war– military, social, race and gender, environmental. Perhaps this reflects where I am presently in my own readings on the war, but the loudest absence to me during yesterday’s brilliant talks were the voices of black Americans. Joseph Glatthaar briefly brought them up in relation to their servile role in the Army of Northern Virginia, but public audiences may have been completely unaware, for example, of the systematic abduction of freemen and self-liberated slaves by this same army as it moved through the North. But this is not the kind of history people want to hear.
It reflects one of the larger problems facing Civil War history in popular memory. We do not like to ponder the culpability of Americans, North and South, in the institution of slavery and the racism endemic to our society, then or now. It is an ugly side of our history, and it makes us uncomfortable. But the solution is not to hide from it, to erase it from our telling of history, but rather to accept it, to learn from it. Such has been my journey from childhood Civil War enthusiast to adult historian. It may not be an easy path, but it is a rewarding one.
I have a problem with attachment. I am not talking about an attachment disorder wherein I have separation anxiety or am unable to form bonds with the people in my life. No, I am talking about a habit of becoming overly-attached to the subjects of my research. I do not know if this is a common condition among historians or just a weird quirk of mine resulting from some strategically-placed strand of genetic material, but I tend to get invested in the lives (and deaths) of the people I read and write about.
This came to my attention while writing my Master’s thesis. Research for said thesis including reading over fifty sets of letters and diaries written by doctors, nurses, teachers, officers’ wives, but especially soldiers during the Civil War. After reading years’ worth of diary entries and letters—becoming endeared to his colorful personality, sharing in his hopelessness as he wrote repeated letters despairing, “I have not received word from you in months. Why don’t you write me? Have I said something to offend you?”— I always dreaded that last piece of evidence, the letter from a friend or that editorial sentence informing me of the death of the person I had grown so found of. As if being informed of the death of the author of 150 year old writing is a surprise. But there is something incredibly personal about following the journey of someone’s life through their own writing, especially through something as harrowing as a war.
The research project I am working on at present involves reading hospital registers filled with the names and afflictions of Civil War soldiers and inputting them into a searchable, sortable spreadsheet. This might seem like a chore to some people, but for me it is a privilege. The seemingly simple process of reading and transcribing a name can actually be an intimate experience. Perhaps no one has thought of musician Joseph Laycox of the 136th Ohio National Guard in nearly 150 years. But there he is, on the pages in front of me, admitted to the Post Hospital at Fort Williams, Virginia three times during the summer of 1864.
Just like people-watching at the airport, it is impossible for me not to imagine the life of this soldier. As a member of a national guard unit, Joseph Laycox was enlisted for a 100-day term of service. Surely, he must have thought that as a musician in a unit that would only exist from May-August 1864, he might serve his country at minimal risk to himself or the R. G. Laycox that enlisted as a musician alongside him— a brother perhaps? They were admitted to the hospital on June 5, 1864, with Joseph complaining of “Intermittent Fever,” malaria most likely. Both men would be sent back to their regiment after a few days’ stay in the hospital, but Joseph was admitted again several days later and returned to duty after ten days.
As I continued down the register, musician Joseph Laycox remained on my mind, for being one of the few musicians who appeared in the records, but also as a name I had seen more than once. And then there he was again. Joseph Laycox. Musician. 136th Ohio National Guard, Company F. Room 4, Bed 35. Admitted August 8. I ran my finger across the columns: Returned to Duty; Deserted; Discharged from Service; Sent to General Hospital; On Furlough. All blank. And finally: Died. August 21. His term of service would have ended nine days later.
Poor Joseph Laycox.
Thoroughly invested now in the life (and death) of the man, I turned to the Internet to discover that he left behind more than just his name on a line in a hospital register. The U.S. Army Heritage & Education Center in Carlisle, PA holds “The Joseph Laycox Papers,” containing a letter written to his brothers and father dated after his second stay in the hospital and a letter to his wife enclosing a poem entitled “To My Wife.” Perhaps he did not know that one day someone might happen upon his letters—or even just his name—and remember him back into a living, breathing man. But his family did. They treasured that little bit of their son and brother and husband enough to preserve his words throughout the centuries. For someone like me, just a bit too sensitive for her own good, who might look upon him as something like her own ancestor, even if only for one afternoon.
The discovery of the existence of this poem reminded me of something I had encountered during my initial research. In Mr. Lincoln’s Fort: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington, I remembered there being a poem at the end of the section on Fort Williams. And there he was again, Joseph Laycox, but this time, his own words. “Libbie, I am going to send you this sublime poetry. . . . I think it is the nicest thing I ever saw for this occasion.”
To My Wife
Dearest wife I still remember
With a husband’s aching heart
How it filled my soul with sorrow
When we two were called to part.
Though I’m but a private Soldier
Gone to fill my country’s call
All my trust is in the savior
Let me stand or let me fall.
When I get your welcome letters
As in Dixie land I roam
And you speak of our dear children
How it makes me sigh of home.
Then if we are only faithful
To the lord our truest friend
Safe we’ll rise to realms of glory
Where our bliss will never end.
I do not know what became of Joseph Laycox— whether or not his family came to collect his body, where he was buried, if he had any children to mourn him or pass on his name. But I do know that he existed. And now so do you.
What makes a historian? Is it the degree? The training? Does one become a historian upon the completion of a master’s degree or is the title withheld for those determined enough (or is it crazy enough) to pursue a PhD? I am not sure I know the answer, though I can say that I feel like a historian.
On the surface, I suspect my journey is no different than most: lifelong interest in history changes undeclared to declared; master’s degree follows bachelor’s degree; trained historian seeks dream job; &c. But in actuality, the process has been more complicated than that.
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Kansas, I struggled with finding a profession that would suit the person I had become throughout the course of my studies. Surely there is such thing as a historian who has no plans of being trapped within the uncertainty of the academy, yes? I looked at museums and historical sites only to be met with the “minimum requirement: master’s degree or comparable experience” brick wall. So, turning to the “What To Do with a History Degree” handout my generic undergraduate counselor gave me, I went the legal route. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But one legal assistant certification and three years later, I found myself doing clerical work in an office surrounded by lawyers with impeccable shouting abilities, terrified that a simple typo might lose a case for the attorneys I worked for. Unending anxiety was hardly what I had in mind when I hung my history degree on my wall. But that’s okay, I thought, I can still be a historian on the side.
In my spare time, I decided to continue a project that had followed me for most of my life: reading, understanding, and researching the Civil War journal of my third-great grandfather. Coming from a very history-conscious family, genealogy had initiated my interest in history. Most of my childhood memories involve listening to my father, uncle, and grandfather tell tales of our family’s history, stories that had been passed down through generations of individuals who understood the value of preserving the past, whether in oral or written form. Family vacations often included entire days spent within the walls of a museum, journeys to cemeteries for photos and etchings of ancestors’ graves—and even complete strangers’ to research when we got home—trips to Civil War battlefields, or pitstops at the homes of various historical figures. At each destination, I would ponder my own place in the history of the locations I visited. What did it mean to be the 5th cousin 5 times removed of Alonzo H. Cushing, who gave his life on the battlefield at Gettysburg defending his post? Had my midwestern family lived like Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in his quaint Victorian home in Brunswick, Maine? Did my grandfathers have any sense of the Native Americans they had displaced when they claimed their homestead in southern South Dakota?
All my life I have been a student of the past, but found that there were very few options for me outside of the academic world, with its scholarship held hostage in unaffordable journals and obscured within mostly-inaccessible prose. Sitting in a cubicle two hundred miles away from my alma mater, my access to scholarly materials was limited. Unaware of the growing community of historians on the Internet, I felt out of sync with the current trends, research, and discussions. Working a standard eight-to-five, low-paying job limited my prospects in terms of getaways to archives in search of research material. What do you call a historian with no ability to practice her craft?
In the end, I chose to bail on my career in the land of lawyers and to cast my lot in a place that would allow me to know what being a historian felt like. Cue coursework, colleagues, thousands of dollars worth of books (and student loans), and seminars where I discovered I had overcome my fear of speaking up. It was paradise. As was the discovery that a future employed by a museum or historic site, sharing history with the masses and being a part of people’s vacations and guilty pleasures like so many others had been a part of mine was in the realm of possibilities. Three years and one degree later, I am waiting for my chance to do just that.
So back to the question at hand: what is a historian? Am I? Does one define a historian by her job title or does a historian define herself?
No, I am not a member of the academy—in that it is not my intention to ever seek a PhD en route to a tenured position—but I am an academic. No, I do not plan on becoming a professor, but I will be teaching. And yes, I would love to make a living as a genealogist. Perhaps in some circles that strips me of my historian credentials, but it is the kind of historian I choose to be—a student of history who is not necessarily bound by limits of era or geography; who wants to learn about herself just as much as she does about the citizens of the past. I am a historian whose affiliation is not to some institution I hope will find my work worthy of tenure, but rather to the people who wish to learn of the past. One who intends to create scholarship that is open to said people and includes them in its discussion. One that takes advantage of the technology at her disposal and uses it to do, share, and promote history. To bring together the scholar with the wannabe student, sitting in her cubicle, daydreaming of archival research or the little girl writing her own History of the Civil War in a yellow Fat Lil’ Notebook at home. It is a lofty goal. Wish me luck.