On the front lines of history
by Thomas Nank ‘16
My experiences at Antietam National Battlefield over the past four weeks resonate consistently with two points in the 1994 survey conducted by David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig, but raise some questions about a third. My unscientific observations of the people who come through the Visitor Center at the battlefield lead me to conclude that many visitors are linked to the past through familial connections, and that most visit the park to connect with American history. I find little evidence, however, that African-American visitors find a deep connection to their ethnic past through the story of what happened at Antietam in the fall of 1862.
The author interpreting.
Almost every day, the Visitor Center front desk staff gets at least one inquiry, on some busy days up to 4 or 5, from visitors with a family connection to the battle. “My great, great, great grandfather fought here with the 20th Georgia, can you tell me where that would have been?” is a typical question. Numerous research products, maps and photos are on hand at the front desk to locate where a particular unit may have fought, and those visitors are always given enough attention by the park interpretive staff and volunteers to help them understand where that particular engagement occurred and how it affected the battle. If they can visit that spot on the battlefield, it helps them make a connection to their ancestor. It’s always a rewarding experience when we can make that moment possible for them.
Most park visitors, probably many more than the 22 percent counted in the survey, come to the battlefield at Antietam to connect with their country’s past. They know enough about the Civil War to know that Antietam was an important battle, or they have more than a passing interest in the Civil War, or they just come to Antietam to “check the block” on their list of historic National Parks to visit. Most visitors seem to understand the park is an important national resource and worthy of protection and preservation. The goal of every interpretive program at the park is to show the visitors the importance of the battle to the narrative of American history and its broadening definition of freedom, and the positive feedback that the staff receives (although limited) seems to indicate we are successful in communicating that theme to our visitors.
My experience with African-American visitors, however, tells me there is little to no understanding of the significance of the battle to the “collective narrative” of emancipation and freedom. My best guess is that one percent of all visitors to the park are African-American. Most of them are visiting for recreational purposes, and few come here to learn more about the Emancipation Proclamation. Geographically, the park is a two hour drive from major urban centers, and most visitors are not aware of the direct link between the battle and emancipation. One woman I spoke with did not know what the Proclamation was. Thus despite the survey results, in the context of this Civil War park, I have seen very little evidence of African-American interest in Antietam as a “unique historical site” within a collective historical narrative.
Based on my observations to date, the three main reasons visitors come to Antietam National Battlefield are: (1) to learn more about an event of national historic significance, (2) recreation, and, (3) finding more information about a personal connection to an ancestor who fought here. All three are valid and important reasons to continue to emphasize, expand and improve the interpretive programs in place at the park.
Roy Rosenzweig, “Popular Uses of History in the United States: Professional Historians and Popular Historymakers,” Perspectives on History, Vol. 38, No. 5 (May 2000)