I love this photograph, which was taken this past weekend in Gettysburg during our panel discussion on the teaching of Civil War memory in the classroom. It was a real privilege for me to be seated in between the two historians (David Blight and John Hennessy), who have had the biggest impact on my understanding of historical memory and public history. Their passion for history is highly infectious. Both have encouraged me at different times and have helped to open new doors. I am certainly grateful and proud to call both friends. Continue reading “In Good Company”
Today is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. Back in 2008 I delivered the keynote address for the National Park Service’s annual commemoration of the battle. In it I reflected on the meaning of the battle and why I bring students to these sites. I thought it might be worth running again given the date of its original publication and I hope it leaves you with something to think about on the anniversary of one Civil War battle.
Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students, bound for one of the areas Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite day of the year. For me, it is an opportunity to reconnect with a history that has given my life meaning in so many ways. It’s also a chance to introduce this history to my students, many of whom have never set foot on a Civil War battlefield. Visits to battlefields such as Fredericksburg provide a venue in which to discuss what is only an abstraction in the classroom and offer students and the rest of us a chance to acknowledge a story that is much larger and more remote compared to our individual lives and yet relevant in profound ways.
I suspect that my class visits to battlefields have much in common with what bring you to a place like Fredericksburg. We want to understand what happened here, why it happened, and what it means that it happened. We are compelled to do so. My students and I walk this hallowed ground and try our best to piece together what are often conflicting accounts of the ebb and flow of battle. At the same time we struggle to understand and honor the courage of the men who fought and “gave the last full measure of devotion.” Some of those stories are well known, such as the one depicted in this beautiful monument dedicated to Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, who in the heat of battle chose compassion over violence and hatred or the combination of fear and steadfastness that animated Sergeant Thomas Plunkett of the 21st Massachusetts, who carried his regimental colors into battle only to receive a direct hit by a Confederate shell which cost him one arm and part of another – his blood forever staining the regiment’s flag.
I so wish I could be in Fredericksburg, Virginia this weekend to take part in events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the famous battle and the war in 1862. I’ve been following events through my preferred social networks, but this video captures what remembering the war should be all about. John Hennessy is the chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. No one that I know personally thinks more deeply about what it means to do public history and how best to steer the general public through the many landmines of Civil War memory. Even through video John’s passion for history and commitment to engaging the entire community is palpable.
No doubt, we all glean something different from such a message, but I am reminded that how we remember as a community often reflects boundaries that we would do well to overcome.
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.
It’s always nice to have someone who can do a better job of expressing a thought that you are struggling to formulate. That’s how I feel about this editorial by John Hennessy, which appeared yesterday in the The Free Lance-Star. I heard John give a version of this essay a few months back as part of a keynote address at a conference on public history at North Carolina State University. I am pleased to see it in print. This particular passage jumped out at me: