Category Archives: Battlefield Interpretation

Marching Through Georgia

One of the book projects that I’ve been anticipating for some time now is Anne Sara Rubin’s study of Sherman’s March in historical memory. The book will be accompanied by an innovative digital history project called Sherman’s March and America: Mapping Memory, which she is developing with Kelley Bell. The interactive maps allow users to trace Sherman’s march along a historical map as well as a fictional map that includes places mentioned in books and movies such as Gone With the Wind. The video above (and I suspect others) explores the popularity of Henry Clay Work’s song, “Marching Through Georgia” in the North and around the world. It’s really well done. I can’t think of a better example of the use of technology to enhance the traditional monograph format.

(video uploaded to YouTube on June 11, 2013)

The Face of Public History

The group of teachers that I have been working with over the past seven days has experienced the best in Civil War site interpretation from Nashville to Washington, D.C. At the same time, however this trip has reminded me of just how important it is that our public historians reflect the gender and racial profiles of their audiences.

This group of teachers is overwhelmingly white and female. Throughout Tennessee and Virginia our guides were almost all white and male. Let me stress that site interpretation was sophisticated and clearly based on the latest scholarship. Eric Jacobson did a fabulous job of interpreting the Carter family and the battle of Franklin that touched on gender and slavery and NPS Ranger, Christopher Young at Chickamauga, led one of the best battlefield tours that I’ve ever experienced. Continue reading

149 Years Ago Today

Battle of the Crater Painting

The battle of the Crater was fought 149 years ago today. Here is a letter written by Henry A. Minor, who served as a surgeon with the 9th Alabama Volunteers. The 9th Alabama took part in William Mahone’s counterattack, which proved to be decisive in achieving a Confederate victory that day. The letter is one among scores of Confederate accounts I have in my collection that didn’t make it into my book. It offers a great deal of detail as to what transpired on that day and how the battle was assessed.

H.A. Minor to sister, M.A. Moseley: Field Hospital, 9th Alabama Regiment near Petersburg, Va., August 1, 1864 [Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.]

We have been here over six weeks, have had several fights with the enemy but as I have written to Brother Lute concerning all up to the middle of July, I will only tell you of one we had the day before yesterday.  I send papers giving an account of the affair and will be very brief in my remarks.  Peter was not in the charge, he being a sharp shooter.  He with his comrades were left to hold the line on our right while the Division went to the center to retake our lost position.  It is said to have the most brilliant charge of the War, the charge of our brigade.  The line was kept properly, the men moved rapidly and quietly reserving the fire until close up and then delivering it with terrible effect.  Here for the first time our men fought negroes.  The Yankees put the negroes in the front and are said to have forced them forward.  The massacre was terrible.  The ditches were almost filled with dead.  Men had to walk on the dead, could not find room for their feet.  Such a sight was never seen before. Continue reading

“It Is An Invasion To End a Rebellion”

For many visitors to Civil War battlefields overseen by the National Park Service the orientation movie provides a much needed overview of the relevant history and a clear statement as to why it is important. Unfortunately, many of these movies are out of date, though in recent years individual parks have worked hard to bring their stories in line with more recent scholarship. Shiloh National Military Park is one such example. The first words spoken in their new movie remind visitors that United States soldiers were engaged in nothing less than the suppression of a rebellion.

I’ve never been to Shiloh. In fact, I’ve not visited any of the battlefields outside of the Eastern Theater apart from the Mobile area. In a few weeks I will be co-leading a group of history teachers from Nashville to Washington, D.C. as part of what I assume is one of the last Teaching American History sponsored programs. I will be leading a few tours in the Virginia – D.C. area, but the 10-day trip will finally bring me to places like Franklin, Fort Negley, Stones River, and Chickamauga. I can’t wait.

Is This Group Ready to Reenact Olustee?

Jimmy Price notes that reenactments of engagements in which black soldiers participated have already taken place, though on a smaller scale. Even in these cases, however, it is not at all clear as to how the racial element was choreographed/interpreted. He also questions whether the general public would only “stomach” reenactments in which African Americans proved victorious. I don’t know.

A number of you have questioned whether a sufficient number of Confederate reenactors could be organized to reenact battles in which blacks took part. Does this video of the 2012 re-dedication of the Florida Division, UDC’s monument on the Olustee battlefield help?

One of the problems that I can’t seem to get around is the clear limitations that a reenactment offers in these specific cases. It’s one thing to be able to simulate some of the violent acts involved, but it seems to me that the crucial component is the understanding of why it happened and how it fits into a broader interpretation of the war as a whole. Perhaps I am going to get into trouble for saying this, but I just don’t trust reenactors to be able to do this. Of course, there are exceptions, but I’ve seen way too many examples of reenactors – both blue and gray – who have skirted the tough questions of race when raised. Perhaps there is a natural tendency to do so in such a setting. Then there is the question of how they should discuss these issues. Perhaps a select few could do a competent job of explaining these issues in character, but whatever benefits are gained from such a presentation its limitations are pretty clear.

I guess what I am saying is that most people need significant interpretive scaffolding before being exposed to such a reenactment and the wide range of emotions that would no doubt surface.