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MIT student blogger Sam M. '07

Antietam? I hardly knew him. by Sam M. '07

A Fourth of July fable, while I'm stuck in Germany.

DID YOU KNOW? An Italian defender once said of Pele, after the 1970 World Cup finals, “I told myself before the game, he’s made of skin and bones just like everyone else — but I was wrong.”

I don’t know if this comes as some sort of great disillusionment to you, but you don’t always have stuff to do at work. Unless you’re working 16 hours a day plus weekends for some crazy consulting company, you’re probably going to end up having a little bit of down time in your typical day. Especially if years of pulling all-nighters at MIT have trained you into a super-efficient chemical engineering machine capable of diluting solutions and running chromatograms at the drop of a hat. There will come a time when there are just no more chromatograms to run or users’ manuals to peruse.

So I think that’s why Wikipedia was invented.

I think Wikipedia is the ideal task for free time at work, because you can break away from it immediately when new work arises, and you’re actually learning something in the process. In many cases, it may even be something factual.

This morning I happened to be reading the article about the Battle of Gettysburg, which was just wrapping up around 143 years ago today. I had completely forgotten this fact before the end of the article; the only reason I stumbled upon it was because I was looking up Freddie Mercury a few days ago, which eventually got me into an article about Coca-Cola’s C2 beverage (advertised using Queen’s pop anthem “I Want to Break Free”, which itself was also appropriated by Argentinian dissidents in the 1980’s). From there I found a list of commercial failures of the 20th century which, in addition to detailing the fascinating history of the Dixie Square Mall, also led me to an article about New Coke (a development that led a pregnant Sam’s Mom to stockpile cases of Coca-Cola in 1985 for fear that her only son would be raised in a world without the its classic taste). After that, I don’t really remember what happened, but it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch for me to have gotten to the American Civil War from there.

I grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, about 38 miles north of Gettysburg. Now, I have heard that all history teaching is influenced by where you grow up, like in the Southern United States they might focus on the superiority of Confederate generals in the face of limited resources, or the various textbook controversies surrounding World War II atrocities.

And in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 38 miles north of Gettysburg, nobody gets out of a public school system without visiting Gettysburg at least twice, seeing the movie, hearing grizzled old reenactors tell you about the ghost they saw there once, crouching in the Devil’s Den and pretending to be a famous Confederate sharpshooter, and walking/running the mile of Pickett’s Charge while imaging rains of union gunfire pouring down from above. Nor without hearing that Gettysburg was, in fact, the most important battle of the Civil War, and perhaps any war (because what would have happened to history if the Confederacy had won?) and that when we visit Gettysburg next week (don’t forget to turn in your permission slips!), you’re going to see the High Water Mark on Cemetery Ridge, which is the farthrest the Confederacy ever advanced into the Union. And, hey, really, there wasn’t supposed to be a battle at Gettysburg at all! Despite what you saw in the movie last week, the only reason that there was a battle was because Lee and Meade had both heard that there was a shoe factory in Gettysburg, which would have greatly helped. Actually, Lee was on his way to Harrisburg, which, as the railroad capital of the North, was a tremendous strategic location and would have crippled the North.

Needless to say, I didn’t buy that at all. As nice as my hometown is, I could scarcely imagine it as being the true target of the most important military operation in all recorded history.

In the spring of 2005, I took STS.001: Technology in American History. I didn’t want to take it, really. MIT General Institute Requirements required me to take a CI-M class, I opted to keep afternoons free for a 20-hour-per-week UROP, and my overly ambitious attempt at a double major filled my schedule with five other classes that I thought looked cool. But it turned into one of the most interesting classes I’ve taken at MIT, giving both an engineer’s and a sociologist’s perspectives on such diverse topics as railroad construction, hot rods, atomic weaponry, steamboat motor design, and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.

But the most interesting STS.001 class was the special bonus 2-hour guest lecture right before spring break of my sophomore year, where Dr. Foley brought in Professor Merritt Roe Smith to talk about the American civil war. I already knew Professor Smith as the housemaster for my dorm, Burton-Conner. He invites my floor down for delicious dinners from time to time, comes to trivia outings with us, and greets me with a jolly “Hello! How are things in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania?” whenever he sees me at desk. I think he forgot my name and only remembers my hometown. But that day, he was there to talk about Civil War technologies.

About halfway through the lecture, he paused to give a demonstration of Civil War medicine. He said that he used to do it with an actual volunteer from the audience, but one time a girl fainted and had to be taken to the MIT Medical. So, without a volunteer, he pulled an authentic civil war bone saw out of his bag and demonstrated the vigorous sawing motion which one would have to saw through a wounded soldier’s flesh, emphasizing the lack of sterile procedure and anesthesia at the time. But a bone saw, despite its colorful, name couldn’t really get you all the way through the bone. So he said, that, if he had a volunteer, he would wrap this towel around her arm and show you how grisly battlefield surgeons really were by carefully showing this motion right here, through which the amputated limb could just be snapped right off.

Well, at that point I nearly passed out. From there, I barely made it through the next portion of the talk, which consisted of pictures of amputees demonstrating how poorly amputations were done at the time (usually, they just cut off the bad part, and sewed the good parts back together, leaving you with one arm longer than the other). Like the time Mr. Kemble brought a formaldehyde-preserved cow’s heart into AP Bio, I was just barely on the verge of consciousness, and given another reason not to be pre-med.

But just then I was granted a reprieve, as we turned to the discussion of the Battle of Gettysburg, which actually has an interesting story behind it that Professor Smith had to tell us about. And there, in my nauseated daze, I swear that Professor Merritt Roe Smith, noted technological historian and MIT professor for 30 years, told the entire STS.001 class, myself included, that the Battle of Gettysburg was not even supposed to happen, that General Lee had heard there was a shoe factory there, and that the Confederate Army was really headed for Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the major center for the Union railroads, which we had probably learned about in the past few weeks.

And with that, I was gone.

Happy Fourth of July, America!

One response to “Antietam? I hardly knew him.”

  1. Shana says:

    It really is the most Beautiful Game: “In 1967, the two factions involved in the Nigerian Civil War agreed to a 48-hour ceasefire so they could watch PelИ© play an exhibition game in Lagos.”