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.

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14 comments… add one
  • Eric Wittenberg Jul 2, 2012 @ 15:08

    One of my favorite experiences ever was a tour of Second Bull Run with John Hennessy and Ed Bearss that we did two summers ago. Bud Hall was also along, and I was there to help, although I was mostly a fan. Imagine what an experience that was if you enjoyed being out with just John. Even though it was 104 degrees and really muggy, it was an experience that I will carry with me forever.

    John’s an old friend. I’m glad to know that you had an opportunity to experience a battlefield with him. We may make a tactical guy of you yet, Kevin. 😉

  • CWT Mike Jul 2, 2012 @ 13:46

    Wow, I’ve been struck by similar thoughts watching the recent PCN Gettysburg Battlewalks. I’m also impressed by the thought that soldiers may not have any idea, and perhaps even interest in what’s happening a few hundred yards away. On the battlefield for a soldier, the focus is here and now!

  • John Hennessy Jun 30, 2012 @ 17:31

    Kevin: Thanks very much for the kind words. I don’t get to do Manassas tours very often anymore, and last week’s day on the field was a good one, made better by your presence. It was good to see you. John H.

  • Ray Ortensie Jun 30, 2012 @ 10:46

    It sounds like you had the same experience as I did on your tour. I so wish I could have went on more than one as I also wanted to go on that tour as well but got my first choice. Who else to go on a tour of Antietam other with Tom!

    • Kevin Levin Jun 30, 2012 @ 10:48

      Tom is one of the best. A couple of years ago I went on a tour of Antietam with Tom that focused specifically on monuments. For this Civil War memory guy it was a real treat.

      • Ray Ortensie Jun 30, 2012 @ 14:17

        It was finally great to put a face to the emails/messages from when I was working on my masters years ago. Tom was a great sounding board and great to talk with on Civil War history back when I was in school (which now seems like ages ago).

  • Keith Muchowski Jun 29, 2012 @ 15:25

    Kevin, I just got back from Gettysburg an hour ago myself, though I was not at the Institute. For the past few years my wife and I have rented a house there the week before the battlefield anniversary. Of course we go to Antietam and Harpers Ferry as well.Being New Yorkers we have no car and so took the Boltbus to Union Station, the Metro to its farthest stop in Maryland near where my wife’s best friend lives, and rented a car. All told it makes for an 11-12 hours journey each way.

    I am not a “minutiae” guy either, but I do love walking in the footsteps where the Civil War battles (and WW1 battles in France, where my brother lives) took place. It is a helpful reminder that these were real people who did amazing things. Unfortunately I do not remember his name, but we took a ranger tour of East Cemetery Hill on Wednesday with a ranger who did an incredible job bringing the tactical, human interest, strategic, and political together into a riveting discussion. The tour was scheduled for an hour and 1 1/2 hours in he was still going and no one had left. It was nothing short of extraordinary.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 29, 2012 @ 16:38

      Glad to hear you had such a good time. Gettysburg is indeed a magical place.

  • GDBrasher Jun 29, 2012 @ 7:27

    There is nothing like a good battlefield tour. It drives me crazy to see people come to an NPS site and pass up a ranger guided tour. I say that not only as a former ranger who gave tours on the Richmond sites, but as someone who credits battlefield interpretation/tours as one of the major things that pulled me into my passion for history. I am also a firm believer that you can not understand a battle and how it unfolded unless you walk the ground and see it from the localized perspective you mention here. Some of my most enlightening and enjoyable moments have been either taking (or giving) battlefield tours . . . Not to mention the great times and wonderful memories I have had with friends who share the same passion.

  • Michael Aubrecht Jun 29, 2012 @ 5:53

    I’m am sure that it was an absolutely wonderful experience. John is extraordinary and has been a great mentor to me as well. His Second Manssas book is considered to be one of the best ACW studies ever published. To have the opportunity to walk that ground with him must have been priceless. BTW: I am looking forward to reading your book Kevin. I congratulate you on your accomplishment and hope that the book brings you even more success and opportunity.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 29, 2012 @ 5:54

      Thanks, Michael and congratulations on your most recent book with Eric.

  • Tom Clemens Jun 29, 2012 @ 5:42

    Good to see you there, and agreed, John Hennessy is great. I cannot remember how many years I’ve known him ,but it is many; he was on our SHAF board for a few years when he lived in Frederick. Congrats on the book!

    • Kevin Levin Jun 29, 2012 @ 5:56

      Thanks, Tom. It was a lot of fun to be able to do my first book signing at Gettysburg.

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