John Hennessy on Battlefield Interpretation

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Thanks to John Hennessy, who is the chief historian at the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, for taking the time to comment on my last post.  I decided to feature it to see if anyone is interested in responding to his question.  It's always nice to hear from someone on the front lines whose job it is to think about battlefield interpretation as well as how to reach out to the general public. 

It seems to me that it's our charge to make sure visitors understand both what happened at battlefield sites and why those battles matter to the nation and its history. One reason they matter, of course, is that so many died at these places–they are profound places of loss, reflection, and commemoration. That, certainly, is core to what we do (and part of our traditional role). But illuminating how what happened at Fredericksburg, for example, reverberated through Northern sitting rooms and halls of Congress–just two weeks before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation–does nothing but ADD to the interpretive experience. Every word, every twitch of our muscles ought to help visitors understand what happened, why it happened, and why it mattered (and matters). That requires some effort to put the battles in context, though that context should in my view always (at a specific site) be seen largely through the lens of that particular battle or event. I confess that I find the argument that we should not accord political, social and economic significance to battles and campaigns both interesting and befuddling. Why would we not? Can someone tell me why we should not educate visitors about why the Battle of Fredericksburg–or Antietam or Gettysburg–mattered to the nation beyond its purely military implications?

2 comments… add one

  • Marny Sep 25, 2008

    I just came back (about a week ago) from my vacation in the USA (I’m German). A lot of time during that vacation I spent visiting various Civil War related places, among them the Fredericksburg Battlefield Park. I’m very interested in the Civil War era but I’ve only begun to get really into it about a year ago. So for me, visiting the battlefields is all about learning as much as I can about the battles that took place there. That – at least for me – includes the impact the specific battles had – and maybe still have – on the nation. As a matter of fact, it includes everything someone is willing to tell me about it. I know that not everyone is that interested in the Civil War or learning about history in general but I’m pretty sure that most of the people visiting sites like the Fredericksburg Battlefield are there to learn more about what happened. So I’d definitely appreciate if someone would explain why e. g. the Battle of Fredericksburg had the impact it had and I can’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to hear something like that.

  • Tim Lacy Sep 25, 2008

    My comment goes in the exact opposite direction as Marny’s. This line from Mr. Hennessey’s comment attracted my attention:

    “One reason they matter, of course, is that so many died at these places–they are profound places of loss, reflection, and commemoration.”

    I’ve found battlefield sites to be all about the particulars and none of the big ideas and issues posed in that line. I get bored with emphases on the placement of guns and troops, and battle-day strategy, but am fascinated with reflections on the meaning—from soldiers, generals, nurses, etc.—on why “we” were/are there. That kind of material definitely causes one to reflect and perhaps commemorate the site.

    This is not meant as a critique of the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, as I have not been there. I only mean to highlight what gets my intellectual juices flowing. – TL

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