Category Archives: Battlefield Interpretation

Finding Meaning in Battlefield Minutiae

I have plenty to share about this past week’s CWI at Gettysburg College.  It was an honor to be asked to speak and I had a wonderful time meeting and talking with the participants.  Peter Carmichael has done a fabulous job as the institute’s new director and I look forward to returning in 2014 to help mark the events of 1864.  While there were many highlights that I hope to share over the course of the next few weeks the most rewarding experience of the conference was spending the day with John Hennessy on the Second Manassas battlefield.

I first met John in 2007 as I was working on the final chapter of my Crater manuscript, which addresses recent interpretive challenges on the Crater battlefield and elsewhere.  John was kind enough to meet me to talk about interpretation and since then we have remained good friends.  No one has taught me more about public history and I consider John to be something like a mentor. [Buy John's book.]

Some of you know that while I enjoy visiting battlefields I am not preoccupied with tactical details.  I do not give much thought to the alignment of units or try to nail down exactly where they were. Give me an overall sense of what happened and I am good to go.  I’ve never given much thought to Second Manassas beyond the strategic level; in fact, this was my first time on that particular battlefield.

To watch John lead a tour is to watch a masterful storyteller, who has thought deeply about what the battlefield has to teach us.  He moved seamlessly between the strategic and tactical levels as well as the political implications of the campaign as it unfolded.  He even asked the group to reflect on questions related to memory.

We stopped at places like Brawner’s Farm, the unfinished railroad, and Chin Ridge and John went into great detail about the action that took place there.  John, however, didn’t simply describe the action that took place there and share first-hand accounts, he explained why doing so is important.  He suggested that we need to engage in a little imaginary discipline and understand that the ground under the soldiers feet at any given moment constituted the entirety of the battle.  This was a revelation to me.  I’ve always remained detached from this perspective since I was only interested in the larger picture, but for the first time I was able to see the battle as a collection of more localized encounters that were self contained for the men involved. How the broader battle might unfold is irrelevant from this perspective.  What matters is maintaining formation, holding ground, and looking after the man next to you.  The result was a personal connection to a battlefield that I have not experienced anywhere else.

Thanks, John.

Our Struggle to Commemorate the Peninsula Campaign

One hundred and fifty years ago George B. McClellan made his way up the Virginia Peninsula in what many anticipated would be the final campaign of the war.  With the largest army ever assembled on the American continent he would seize the Confederate capital of Richmond and reunite the nation.  As we commemorate the campaign and McClellan’s failure outside of Richmond in the Seven Days Battles 150 years later, however, we seem to be struggling with its significance and meaning.

Part of the problem is the scope of the campaign, which covered roughly three months in the late spring and early summer of 1862.  It’s much easier to frame a useful interpretation of a major battle, where the armies meet and there is a clear victor.  Bull Run and Shiloh is where we lost our innocence; Gettysburg and Antietam connect to the story of emancipation and freedom; the fall of Atlanta ensured Lincoln’s reelection and Appomattox is where the nation reunited.  Regardless of how accurate such narratives might be they help to make sense of and even justify the bloodletting that took place at these sites.

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At the Heart of the Black Confederate Matter

Update: I just wanted to take a second to encourage all of you to read Pete Carmichael’s presentation in its entirety. The last thing I want is for you to read this post as some kind of hatchet job. His thoughts regarding battlefield interpretation deserve a careful read and perhaps in the next few days I will have the opportunity to explore it further.

I almost want to apologize for this post because apart from the recent Civil War Times editorial by Gary Gallagher I haven’t thought much at all about this subject.  Unfortunately, I missed a really good public history panel at the OAH that included Peter Carmichael and Ashley Whitehead, both of who discussed what they see as the future of battlefield interpretation.  [Thanks to John Rudy for posting a transcript of their talks.] I encourage you to read both of their talks because I am only going to poke at an ancillary point made by Pete at the beginning of his presentation.

So we’ve got to move ahead. One thing that strikes me is that we have a hard time doing as historians, public historians or academic historians, that we need to recognize that the interpretive battle has been won. Certainly there are pockets of the lost cause out there, and we certainly need to contend and address those issues, but we often bring undue attention to those pockets of resistance. And the blogging is largely responsible for that, in exciting and talking about the issue of the Confederate slave. Man, that’s not an issue among professional historians, that’s not an issue with most of the public, but it is an issue with really, I think, a small minority.

On the one hand I agree with much of this.  Teachers and public historians are no longer up against a widely-held framework that attempts to justify the Confederacy.  At best, they are echoes of the lost cause.  I also agree that the veracity of the black Confederate narrative found on hundreds of websites is not in any way a concern of academic historians and at best on the radar screens of a “small minority” of the general public.

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The Battlefield as Classroom (New York Times)

"Field of Lost Shoes" at New Market Battlefield

In December 2008 I was honored to deliver the keynote address for the National Park Service’s annual commemoration of the battle of Fredericksburg.  I used the opportunity to reflect on how I utilize battlefields to connect my students to American history.  Last year I decided to revise it to reflect the various places that I took students during my time in Virginia.  Taken together these trips remain my most memorable and enjoyable teaching experiences.  Thanks to Clay Risen of the New York Times for agreeing to publish it in their Disunion column.  This is my second essay in the series.

Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students in central Virginia, bound for one of the area’s Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite day of the year. It allows us to imagine ourselves as part of a larger community, one extending far back into the past. In those moments, in those still-dewy fields, the distance between the present and past collapses. I suspect it’s the same reason that bring hundreds of thousands of people each year to Fredericksburg, Manassas, Richmond, Petersburg and the Shenandoah Valley: We want, we feel compelled even, to understand what happened, why it happened and what it means that it happened.

Read the rest of the essay.

Newt Gingrich Pushes For Monument at the Crater Battlefield

Mahone's Counterattack by Don Troiani

Well, not really.  It looks like a reporter for the Petersburg Progress-Index just finished reading Newt’s Civil War novel on the battle and decided to follow up on a call to place a monument to United States Colored Troops, who fought at the Crater. Gingrich and his co-author, William Forstchen wrote in their afterward that the staff at the Petersburg National Battlefield,

are delighted to work with us to fulfill a long-held dream of ours to see a monument placed on the site of the Crater in memory of the thousands of USCTs who fought on that field. As far as we can have been able to find out, not a single battlefield monument to any USCT regiment exists on ground they fought for. We hope to rectify this long-overdue honor and acknowledgment.

Of course, anyone who has actually taken the time to visit Petersburg knows that there is a monument to black soldiers at the site of their successful assaults on the city, which took place in June 1864.  It’s hard to know what to make of their supposed “long-held dream” given that discussions between Newt’s literary agent, who happens to be his daughter and the NPS lasted only for a few months.  In short, as far as I can tell there are no serious talks to speak of here.

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