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.
This guest post is by Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, about the Civil War Era as a battle of three competing visions — that of the North, South, and West. More at http://adamarenson.com. It is the start of a series of musings from a historian of the culture and politics of Civil War America, drawn from his notes and photographs upon bringing this perspective “back to the battlefield.”
On a Sunday in July, a few weeks before the vaunted sesquicentennial re-enactment, I enjoyed a balmy day at the Manassas battlefield. Like many of the sites I visited, the National Park Service looked ready: the new signs were beautifully designed, the ranger talks were entertaining and informative, and the trail directions were clear. The Manassas Battlefield is an excellent place to see the different scale of battles between 1861 and 1862—the difference between a skirmish between untested men across a few small hills and a major engagement across miles of terrain, with armies hardened by the experience of war.