John Hennessy on Battlefield Interpretation
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?