On the front lines of history
A few days ago, I was working the desk at the Cold Harbor Visitor Center when a burly man with a goatee walked through the door. Approaching the desk, he told us in a thick southern accent that he was looking for an ancestor who had fought at Cold Harbor 150 years earlier. He believed his ancestor had been wounded and taken to a hospital in Richmond. He told us that several days earlier a ranger had assured him his ancestor would have been hauled into Richmond on a railroad, not a wagon, as he had previously feared. He was looking for confirmation of this. “I want to make sure that I can tell my mother that he didn’t suffer, that they didn’t haul him all the way in on a wagon,” he explained.
I did my best to answer his question, but like most of us, I simply don’t have the knowledge of Confederate evacuation systems necessary to give him a definite answer. In looking at the map of the railroads in the vicinity of Cold Harbor, it appeared that most passed several miles away from the battlefield, seemingly contesting his theory. I didn’t challenge him on it, as this was obviously the narrative he wanted, one where his ancestor suffered, but not horribly, another stalk he would add to the family fasces of his ancestor’s tale. I didn’t have enough evidence to challenge it, so I let it be.
This was much more important to him, in any case, than any interpretation I could give him about the battlefield or Grant or the Confederates, a narrative in which he seemed to have only a passing interest. Even these larger connections were familial; he knew that his ancestor had served in the brigade of General Wofford, who was a distant cousin.
I was honestly puzzled over how to deal with this visitor. On one hand, he clearly had a deep connection to the Civil War and the past. Emotionally, he already had a connection to the war that was deeper than anything I could create by speeches, quotes or anecdotes about the war’s importance. Yet the larger war, the impact of secession, emancipation, reunification and Reconstruction, all of these things were marginalized in this man’s story, despite the fact that they probably impacted his life more profoundly than any of his ancestor’s soldier stories.
At the time I didn’t fully realize this dichotomy. The man left Cold Harbor satisfied with his visit, commenting, in his first mention of the broader historical picture, that the war “was such a tragedy.” Nevertheless, as the day wore on, I found myself increasingly frustrated with the experience.
The challenge I had faced, and that Rosenzweig & Thelen’s survey suggests all public historians face, is to integrate family stories into the larger narrative framework of history. This visitor’s family story was clearly an emotional and powerful one, yet he had failed to connect it to the bigger questions raised by the war, including, in his case, the ramifications of his ancestor’s actions in fighting for the Confederacy. Bringing the intellectual rigor of historical analysis to family stories, with all their emotional power, is the challenge we as public historians face in engaging with visitors to Civil War sites.