Students Piece Together Soldiers' Experiences for New Digital Project

Students Piece Together Soldiers' Experiences for New Digital Project

Three student Fellows and seven first-year student volunteers (Cameron Sauers, Garrett Kost, Benjamin Roy, Benjamin Hutchinson, Lizzie Hobbs, Thompson Dasher, and Star Militzer) have spent Fall 2017 working on CWI’s new digital history project, “Killed at Gettysburg,” which began incorporating student work in the spring semester. Participating students have spent time in the Gettysburg National Military Park library researching soldiers killed at the Battle of Gettysburg, reading about their family backgrounds and various reasons for fighting, tracing their final footsteps in battle using digital mapping technology, and writing about the impact of their deaths on their families, communities, and the battlefield’s commemorative landscape.

Through focused research into individual soldiers’ experiences of war, the students addressed broader historical questions such as soldier motivation, Victorians’ evolving conceptions of death, 19th-century notions of manhood, bravery, and cowardice, familial relationships, and the shaping of historical memory through commemorative landscapes. The story of John Mahoney, alias William Jones of the First Rhode Island Light Artillery, reveals the harsh economic realities and anti-immigrant sentiments facing Irish Americans in the 1860s that compelled many to enlist and even adopt an entirely new identity in the process. Jones was decapitated while manning his gun during the artillery bombardment preceding Pickett’s Charge on July 3. His death illuminates the brutality and savagery of Civil War combat that is often diminished by a focus on the valorous actions of soldiers and the “glorious charge.” The struggles that Jones’s mother faced in trying to claim a pension for her son further reveal the often overlooked impacts of a soldier’s death on his family as well as the chaotic bureaucratic aftermath of the war. Jones’s mother not only had to prove Jones’s single marital status, celibacy, and good character, but also had to vouch that she was the mother of a man who never truly existed except by his alias.  Only after submitting satisfactory proof on all of these fronts was she awarded a modest pension, revealing the frequent, if not ironic reality of Civil War mothers living as the financial dependents of their own children, even after death.

Choosing to commemorate their sacrifice with only a modest monument near the Angle on Cemetery Ridge, the First Rhode Island is best memorialized by the artillery piece in whose service Jones lost his life, now known as the “Gettysburg Gun,” which currently resides in the Rhode Island State House—a cannon ball still lodged in the barrel from the July 3 barrage, and William Jones’s name engraved on the tube. Although the gun has made trips back to Gettysburg for various battle anniversaries, its presence in the State House speaks to its transformation of this government building into a commemorative landscape of its own in which the sacrifices of Rhode Islanders past are showcased to inspire and re-dedicate politicians and the public alike to the principles of Union, freedom, and equality for which Jones and his peers fought.

The story of Sergeant Charles Phelps of the 5th New Hampshire highlights essential elements of 19th-century manhood and cultural prescriptions for death in the Civil War era. After witnessing the death of his regimental commander, Edward Cross, in the melee of fighting in the Wheatfield on July 2, Phelps took it upon himself to preserve his regiment’s honor by avenging the death of his Colonel, and shot Cross’s killer. Phelps had but a few moments to enjoy this paramount display of martial manhood before himself being gunned down—in the back. Lingering on the battlefield for a full day before he succumbed to his wound, Phelps was left to wonder which narrative would come to define his actions at Gettysburg—that of brave avenger, or that of a coward, shot with his back to the enemy.  Phelps’s prolonged suffering on the battlefield and the angst he surely felt about how his death would be represented to others complicated for him—as it did for countless individuals during the war—the notion of the “Good Death,” in which a man dies a brave and honorable death, surrounded by friends and family, at or close to one’s home. Phelps’s family likewise struggled with the nature of Charles’s death. However, the way that they—and his comrades--managed to cope with his death demonstrates how Victorian Americans struggled to redefine the meaning of death and come to terms with the savage and disturbing ways that men died in war.  The Phelps family ultimately financed a wagon to retrieve Charles’s body from the battlefield and bring him home to New Hampshire for a proper burial and a re-claiming of a small part of the “Good Death.” Phelps’s comrades likewise helped to convert Phelps’s unfortunate and inglorious death into a heroic sacrifice by establishing a G.A.R. post in his honor in the wake of the war.  In so doing, they elevated him before the entire community as the quintessential example of loyalty to the Union and patriotic sacrifice, redefining his life and death as an inspiration for generations to come.  

Stay tuned for updates in early 2018 when the "Killed at Gettysburg" website is expected to go live!