National Park Ranger Beth Parnicza on “Going Back”

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 10.16.41 AMGreetings!

I’ve just finished watching Beth Parnicza’s talk on Civil War veterans and their post-war battlefield excursions. The talk, which took place on February 7, 2015, is part of the Gettysburg National Military Park Winter Series. The whole collection is available to watch on the GNMP Youtube channel.

Considering that the primary focus of my research for the past decade or so has been Civil War veterans and what they had to say when they thought about and discussed the war later in life – and particularly what they said on the battlefields where they had once faced war’s grim certainties – I found this talk notably engaging. Ms. Parnicza does a magnificent job of discussing veterans’ vivid memories of battle: death, smell, and in particular,  ghosts. She notes with well-studied and informed accuracy the emotions on display – and indeed how many veterans returning to the places of carnage seemed nearly overwhelmed with grief when acknowledging the sacrifices of their fallen comrades. Most importantly, as she points out, they used these opportunities to say goodbye to those with whom they had fought alongside – and, as it turns out…against.

Parnicza’s talk centers on the battlefields of the Wilderness region of Virginia and looks almost entirely at veterans’ gatherings of the mixed variety – meaning, she discusses “reunions” where representatives from both Union and Confederate armies  commemorated the fields together. On these occasions, one in attendance would scarcely have heard mention of treason, tyranny, or accusatory statements concerning the perversions of the original intentions of the founding generation – and perhaps only the occasional nod to emancipation and progress. These gatherings were “love feasts” dedicated to reconciliation, where veterans made sure to reject bitterness and the divisive issues of war. Rather, they honored sacrifice, heroism, fortitude, and commitment.

At least for the veterans discussed in this lecture, Parnicza is right on target. Mixed gatherings rarely emphasized contention precisely because most thought it tawdry at best to verbally attack, criticize, or ridicule former enemies now that the questions of war had been settled by shot and shell – and especially since the former enemies in question were sitting in the speaker’s presence. After all, former Rebels  were hosting Union men on Virginia soil – and doing so quite graciously. To reopen wounds of war would have been rude, so to speak, for either side. Still, I believe that a comparison with other veteran events would have served this talk well – and in fact helped to illustrate the point that such mixed meetings around the Wilderness were exceptional – and thus worthy of especial discussion.

For example, veterans attending gatherings throughout the rest of the nation – the ones other than the rare “Blue-Gray” type – were far less inclined to put aside contentious war issues. In fact, remembering what inspired them to fight in the first place was most often the very point of veterans coming together in commemoration. And as they aged, their voices grew even stronger. Forgetting the war’s causes and consequences – combative as they might be –  was the farthest thing from veterans’ minds.

This aside, Parnicza’s talk  offers much – in ways that I have discounted over the years – concerning the subtleties of reconciliation in terms of mutual sacrifice. Take the time to watch this excellent presentation – posted below – and then let’s talk.

With compliments,


PS – B.P., should you happen to read this post, thanks for the book shout out 🙂 You have included me in good company.


5 thoughts on “National Park Ranger Beth Parnicza on “Going Back””

  1. Thanks for the feedback and kind remarks, Keith! I was a bit surprised myself at the hefty amount of reunions mixing Union and Confederate veterans, but I suppose it was inevitable on Southern battlefields. I was concerned about representing predominantly this angle of the reunion story, but I was heartened to find that the vast majority had also attended Chris Gwinn’s lecture on Gettysburg reunions–which is excellent, if you haven’t watched it–many of which showed the lingering discord among veterans more strongly than those in the Fredericksburg region.

    In future, I hope to delve more into sources on Confederate veteran visits to our battlefields. As the early “keepers” of these fields, it’s hard to imagine former Confederates sending Union veterans over the fields unescorted, but I wonder about the dynamic of Confederates visiting without their Union brethren. I have some sources, but not enough yet to draw strong conclusions.

    I’m honored and glad that you enjoyed the presentation, and I’ll thank you in turn. Your book was the backbone of my secondary sources, and it nicely combines good reading, thought-provoking ideas, and thoughtful research.

    1. Thanks again Beth – and I have not yet viewed Chris Gwinn’s lecture, but I certainly will in the next few days. Once you dig deeper in the archival record I think you will find that former Confederates were a pretty snappy bunch when left to their own devices. Goolrick especially, whom you mentioned in your talk, was not quite so nice in his private writings. I have a few snippets from him that I would happily share if you are interested.

      I am glad you enjoyed the book!


  2. I am an author of sorts and a historian of sorts. I would never claim to have the expertise to argue any points that you made in your brilliant lecture.
    What keeps running through my brain almost nightly since my first trip to Shiloh when I was 14 (I am 76 now) is the following.
    Was the Union, was slavery enough, what was the actual driving force for thousands, to wit, stare each other in the face and then proceed to kill with impunity. I know a lot were scared, and others had myriad of emotions during the doing. But I keep coming back to what, if it exists, was the nuts of the matter to keep people shooting at each other for four years knowing they were going to die. I have visited most all major and many less known battlefields for years in the East and the West. It holds true in every instance that the boys no matter what color uniform were just willing to die. I SAY THAT THE UNION AND SLAVERY WAS NO THE WHOLE ANSWER.

    As an author one can noodle about plot and what it takes to sell a book but to me it is always about the facts, the possibles, the realism and how I would feel in a death situation say at the age of 22 when I had a young lady of prominence, looks and the will to know you in the Biblical sense.

    The reunions were of a totally different mind set to me. I would think the foremost thing on anyone’s mind was that I am still alive. That is the most precious state of all unless the hereafter delivers big time.

    Then for the big boys, they always have to be right!!!! Can not, will not admit that there was wrong on my part; nope will never take any heat for anything that I did.

    At the present the South is totally unraveled. There is no identity which probably started after the War and was compounded by all the Civil Rights laws. An uneducated person who has lived their whole life in one county and made one trip to see the elephant somewhere knows nothing other than what was passed down by mouth thru the generations but I digress. It still leaves me in the dark as to why they would stand point blanks and kill by the thousands. I had a cousin who one time said, “that those boys did not think it out all that well.” Sort of like our trips into Iraq.
    Beth it would be a wish to sit with you over tea and talk out this and other matters about the Civil War. You have the Historian DNA and the ability to communicate.
    One last thought. The preponderance of informations in all of these presentation mostly appear from Union sources and would surely bear the slight stigma of the Blue home front.
    Enough for now.


    1. Interesting commentary, Daniel. I will certainly pass along your views to Ms. Parnicza. Out of curiosity – what do you mean bu “historian of sorts”?

    2. Daniel,

      Thanks for your kind comments on my program and for taking the time to write up your thoughts!

      You bring up a lot of ideas, but it seems to me the heart of what you’re asking is a universal question of war. What in the hearts and minds of average young men (and now women) compels them to sign up to not only risk their lives but also to kill others, when their lives at home bear no resemblance to the violence, pain, and drudgery of war?

      The answers, of course, would differ for any Union soldier you asked, but the two that you present–Union and the abolition of slavery–are the boiled down answers that I would give. Stated that way, they don’t quite sound enough. But if you put yourself in a prospective soldier’s shoes, I should hope you would be looking for a cause greater than yourself if you’re thinking of sacrificing your own life or taking another’s.

      Preservation of the Union means preservation of your country, preservation of the way of life and functionality of your nation as you know it. It means following in your collective ancestor’s footsteps in carrying on the fight for liberty and Revolutionary ideals. It means striking back at the folks who think they can dissolve the Union just because they disagree with shifting power in Congress and the presidency. It’s economics, politics, patriotism, idealism, and youth combined

      While the abolition of slavery was less of a universal among Union soldiers, if you knew your death would contribute to the freedom of millions of others, would you think it worthwhile? It probably depends on your own values and your feelings about those “others,” but it sounds like a compelling argument to me.

      Other factors weigh in, too. You might’ve signed up for Union, abolition of slavery, pay, adventure–but you might go ahead and stay in line and shoot at the enemy because if you don’t, you’ll face court martial, let down your fellow soldier, or shame yourself in front of your friends from home.

      The bottom line is, it’s these issues as the roots, but they grow into so much more when you start to dig into them. There’s no better way to answer a nagging thought than to tackle it with a book or two. I’d recommend James McPherson’s “For Cause and Comrades,” Gary Gallagher’s “The Union War,” and (one of my all-time favorites) for a better understanding of the process and weight of killing and dying on a soldier and a society, Drew Gilpin Faust’s “This Republic of Suffering.”

      In terms of the overriding themes of each reunion, I’d agree to a point that participants were focused on being alive. From what I’ve found, most veterans were overwhelmed, nearly consumed with thoughts of the dead–whether specific comrades lost or simply the environment of a battlefield in the immediate aftermath of battle. Survivor’s guilt seems more the tune than gratitude for life, though I think that both were present. As years passed, events did become more political, and it was important for both sides to affirm that they were, of course, correct. It stands to reason that any individual would hope to justify his or her actions, whether on the winning side or not. Have you read Keith’s book? It’s certainly worth checking out for a more developed view of how veterans kept to their wartime causes in peace.

      I’m not entirely sure where you’re going with your comments on the south. Feel free to clarify, and I’ll see what I can do to respond.

      As far as most of my sources being Union, the most written-about reunions and visits in the Fredericksburg area came from Union soldiers and units. It does add a certain tint, though, which is fascinating in itself.

      By all means, stop by the park sometime to chat! I’m a real sucker for chamomile tea.

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