Communication Currents

Famous 19th-Century Lecturer Puts Her Spin on U.S. Civil War Sites

February 1, 2015
Political Communication

In the midst of the U.S. Civil War sesquicentennial, travel to sites associated with the war is big business. Nearly four million people visited Gettysburg in 2013, exactly 150 years after the infamous battle fought there. Why do people travel to such places, and how do they make meaning of them in ways that can be communicated to others? We discovered some fascinating answers to such questions when we examined letters written by one famous 19th-century visitor to Civil War sites, the popular public lecturer Anna Dickinson.

We investigated the ways that Dickinson—a 32-year-old white Philadelphian—found meaning in her visits to wartime sites in 1875, only 10 years after the end of the Civil War. Dickinson, who had often spoken out on behalf of the Union and emancipation, traveled through five of the former Confederate states in April 1875 to deliver lectures to fee-paying audiences and to experience the postwar South. Her venture was not a commercial success, but she believed she had gained useful information about the region. During her tour, she wrote long and detailed letters to her mother, Mary Edmondson Dickinson. These letters, which we accessed in Dickinson’s papers at the Library of Congress, describe the impressions gathered through her journeys. (Interested readers may wish to consult J. Matthew Gallman’s 2011 published transcription of the letters.) In keeping with Dickinson’s Unionist commitments, the letters emphasize Union valor and Confederate savagery and generate political warnings about the potential treachery of unreconstructed white Southerners.

In our study of Dickinson’s handwritten letters, we focus attention on her descriptions of visits to wartime sites. She toured battle sites in Virginia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. She visited the warehouse complex that had been Libby Prison and Castle Thunder in Richmond, VA, and the sites of the infamous Confederate prisons in Salisbury, NC, and Andersonville, GA. She saw seven national cemeteries: Fredericksburg and Richmond, VA; Wilmington, Raleigh, and Salisbury, NC; Andersonville, GA; and Chattanooga, TN. We find that in Dickinson’s letters, the constructed character of the author—the voice the letters present as Dickinson’s own—repeatedly and often simultaneously performs two roles: the role of a Unionist pilgrim paying homage at sites of Union valor and Union suffering, and the role of a Unionist critic and investigator, seeking knowledge about what happened at the sites during the war. We call this dual role a “pilgrim-critic” to highlight Dickinson’s reverential, emotional responses to the sites and her intellectual, information-seeking efforts. We interpret Dickinson’s performance of both of these roles within the overarching context of her staunch Unionist beliefs.

Dickinson’s letters routinely depict the hardships of the pilgrim-critic’s journey to the wartime site, the encounter with the place, the responsibility placed on the visitor through the encounter, and the political and informational dynamics of the visit. We find that the pilgrim sacrifices for personal enrichment while the critic sacrifices for social duty; the pilgrim experiences the sacred place while the critic inspects it; the pilgrim bears witness while the critic gathers testimony from others; the pilgrim asserts partisanship while the critic performs as an advocate; and the pilgrim confirms prior beliefs while the critic discovers new knowledge.

Dickinson’s brief commentary about the national cemetery at Fredericksburg offers a good example of the intertwined pilgrim-critic roles. She wrote:

On the side of a high hill, beautifully terraced, the little mounds one & all green with growing spring, & their white head boards showing plain in the soft verdure, the flag, for which the men under it had died, flying from a mound at the top—15,241 of these dead heroes, but 2397 of them known, 12,844, with no name on their head stones save “Unknown Soldier of the U.S.”

In this passage, the critic’s voice, performing objectivity, offers visual detail: the cemetery lies on a terraced hill, the graves are planted with grass and marked with white headboards, a flagpole surmounts the hill on a specially designed mound, and burials can be enumerated with precision. Yet the pilgrim’s voice does not speak in value-neutral terms. The site has been “beautifully” modified, and the grass on the graves heralds “growing spring” and thus the fulfillment of an obligation of the living to the dead to keep their memories alive. The Union military personnel buried there are not simply soldiers or sailors, officers or enlisted men, but “dead heroes,” with their remains reposing under the flag for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. Even the statistics of the dead, divided into known and unknown, are freighted with emotional significance. The erection of a grave marker is an effort to preserve the deceased from oblivion, and the necessity of marking a grave “unknown” signals a social failure that affects the nation and individual families alike. The blended roles depicted in this short excerpt, showing reverence and critical inquiry, recur throughout the letters.

Through our analysis of Dickinson’s long letters to her mother from 1875, we are able to show how a Northern public figure, with considerable talent for crafting imaginative and persuasive prose, used language to make links between wartime sites, her own experiences of these sites, and lessons about contemporary politics she wished to convey later on to the Northern public. In deploying the dual pilgrim-critic role, the letters depict paying homage and seeking knowledge as complementary rather than antithetical goals. Further, Dickinson’s letters demonstrate how, through detailed, descriptive commentary, a particular version of Northern partisanship is expressed as self-evident, even commonsensical.

What can we learn from this 1870s example? Places do not speak for themselves but require human beings to interpret them, and human interpretations are not a transparent reflection of an objective reality but are always affected by existing beliefs and attitudes, specific to their own time and place. People visiting sites identified as historically significant can adopt multiple roles simultaneously. The ways they choose to make sense of the sites for themselves and for other people have the potential to affect how individuals and social groups remember certain places and events.

About the author (s)

Sara C. VanderHaagen

University of Nevada

Assistant Professor

Angela G. Ray

Northwestern University

Associate Professor