CalU roundtable speaker puts focus on Civil War general
By Les Harvath
Published: Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Even historians, who deal with the whats, whens, wheres, whys and what ifs, occasionally look back with fondness and, of course, a smile, at their Psychology 101 classes as they marched toward their degrees.
Katie Thompson, who is pursuing her doctoral degree in 19th Century American History with a focus on the Civil War at West Virginia University, and the featured speaker at Thursday's California University of Pennsylvania Civil War Roundtable, dusted off her Psych notes for her presentation, “Echoes of Chancellorsville: Daniel Sickles at Gettysburg.”
“In my research and as part of my presentation I talk about psychology and psychological effects of being on the front lines, about how soldiers react on the battlefield and carry their experiences from one battle to another. This psychological issue is not generally a topic of Roundtable discussions,” she said.
Going from battle to battle is only one of the issues Thompson, 24, covers regarding Sickles, whom, Thompson said, was a colorful character and whose scandalous behavior followed him throughout his life.
However, aside from any behavioral tendencies or patterns, Thompson focuses on Sickles, comparing and connecting the general's actions at Gettysburg with his experience at Chancellorsville (May 1-5, 1863), which occurred, ironically, two months prior to the Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) campaign.
At Gettysburg, Thompson explains, Sickles made a controversial move in pulling his troops forward of Union lines to high ground, without orders from commanding officer Gen. George Meade, compared to Hazel Grove at Chancellorsville, where Sickles suffered high casualties in pulling his troops from high ground on orders from his then commanding officer, Gen. Joseph Hooker.
“Those moves were in direct opposition to each other,” Thompson noted, further explaining that at Chancellorsville, Hooker pulls Sickles' Corps off the high ground, creating a situation of very intense combat and higher-than normal casualties. At Gettysburg, Sickles finds himself on low ground but does not like his position and pushes his line up about three-quarters of a mile to a position of high ground, without orders, once again suffering considerable casualties.
“I argue that his decision at Gettysburg put the entire Union position at risk and placed his men in a dangerous situation where they again saw fierce fighting and high casualties, with that Gettysburg move based on his experience at Chancellorsville,” Thompson added, “and I use elements of psychology to demonstrate my argument. I look at Sickles' previous experiences at Chancellorsville and relate that to what he does at Gettysburg.”
At Gettysburg, incidentally, Sickles lost his right leg in the battle and, in spite of any military failings, was awarded the Medal of Honor (for his actions at Gettysburg).
Following surgery, as explained by Civil War Trust website, Sickles gained lasting fame for donating his amputated limb to the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C. The limb was received with a small card which said, “With the Compliments of Major General D.E.S.” Part of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Army Medical Museum has kept Sickles' amputated limb on display. Ironically, Sickles died May 3, 1914, 50 years after Chancellorsville.
Not unlike fellow Civil War historians and enthusiasts, Thompson's interest in the conflict stems from when she was in the eighth grade and studying American history and the Civil War.
“My parents have a background in theater but they dragged me to Gettysburg, and the tour sparked my interest in Gettysburg and the Civil War,” she said with a laugh.
While admittedly awed by what she discovered at Gettysburg, she was more immersed in what the battlefield guide said as he told the story of the battle, not just about troop movements.
“What impressed me was that he paid attention to me as a 12-13 year old girl,” she recalls. “He answered my questions and talked about the monuments and their significance. My interest grew from there.”
Thompson graduated from Sienna College with a bachelor's degree in history, with an emphasis on the Revolutionary War. Additional research led her to the West Virginia University, where in 2012 she received her master's degree in history, focusing on the Civil War.
In ongoing research as she pursues her doctoral degree, Thompson discovered in Sickles an interesting character and the first person acquitted of murder using a plea of temporary insanity, she noted, chuckling. In 1859, two years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, Sickles shot and killed Francis Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key — of “Star Spangled Banner” fame — who had been having an affair with Sickles' wife, even though Sickles was not the best husband and his behavior in Washington, D.C., society was less than exemplary. Sickles' attorney, incidentally, was future Secretary of State Edwin Stanton.
When not devoting her time to Sickles and her doctoral program, Thompson is assistant managing editor for the Emerging Civil War book series and has contributed essays about the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Civil War campaigns.
She is currently at work on her first book for the series, “After the Storm: The Burial of Civil War Dead,” which focuses on what happens once a battle has ended and the armies have moved on.
“Hundreds or thousands of deceased soldiers' bodies remain on the battlefields, waiting for someone to deal with them, whether it be one of the armies or the local civilian population. This book will look at the burial process, from immediate responses of local citizenry to the creation of the National Cemetery System and Confederate cemeteries.”
Since 2010 Thompson has been a seasonal historical interpreter at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. As a historian at the park, she works at the visitors' centers, providing park and historical information to visitors, in addition to leading walking tours and other special programs. During her park tenure, she has also recreated the annual Memorial Day Luminaria at the National Cemetery.
Thompson will address Civil War enthusiasts in the university's Kara Alumni House, with doors opening at 6:30 p.m. for the 7 p.m. meeting. Information may be obtained via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 724-258-3406
With her doctoral degree in sight, Thompson explains she will be able to “tell stories about history in some way or possibly teach, and my experience with the Park Service will be beneficial either way.”
Les Harvath is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.
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