On the front lines of history
On the morning of the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Opening Assaults at Petersburg, I carefully watched all that was happening. While there was plenty going on – children’s activities, cannon demonstrations and a camp of re-enactors – one tent seemed to constantly have a steady stream of visitors who all spent a significant amount of time there before moving on. The tent that was so popular was the archeology one. Visitors put on clean white gloves and examined bits of pottery, fragments of metal and dropped bullets neatly organized in trays indicating the area in which each was found. As an intern in Resource Management, the department which predominately deals with the preservation and conservation of the park’s cultural and natural resources, I, of course, am partial to archeology, but what was it that was entrancing all these visitors? So I got to thinking about why I love my own job.
Studies by historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelan indicate that many of us prefer a history which is directly pertinent to us, one we can grasp, and therefore humanize within a framework we are already familiar with: the stories of our families, the history of our communities and our own personal past. When we lack that sort of direct connection, artifacts can help build it for us. By sketching out a familiar context they can bring a story which may seem impossible to imagine close to us.
I am fortunate enough to spend my days with these objects, organizing Petersburg’s closet of wonders. I catalogue seemingly useless rusty nails, old bricks and countless “indeterminate metal objects” and reorganize Civil War canteens bearing scars from lethal encounters with bullets, shrapnel and swords. I construct boxes to protect artifacts such as a pristine Union uniform which appears nearly entirely unworn save the wear on its collar from sweat, perhaps a legacy of a ceremony in the blazing Virginia sun 150 years ago. I carefully lock up original letters between well-known Confederate generals. Perhaps most importantly, I select items for an exhibit case, items that will in their own unique way tell a story about the past that is different than anything I could write myself.
A seemingly useless rusty nail found alongside broken ceramics and animal bones can be used to date a kitchen; a kitchen which is not so different than our own. We, too, use nails to build our tables, our cabinetry and our homes. We have our own favorite family recipes that require removing and discarding chicken bones before stuffing what remains with bits of bacon and gooey cheesy deliciousness. We laugh as we share our daily experiences around the dinner table and yell when the cat jumps on the counter and knocks yet another one of our favorite ceramic mugs on the floor, shattering it into a million body, foot and rim shards of a now unknown ceramic vessel. All of these memories, our own memories, can be conjured by a tray I have carefully selected for visitors containing a rusty nail, a few chicken bones, a fragment of earthenware and a label that reads “kitchen.” So while they may have done things that seem so strange and inconceivable to us like wear petticoats and corsets with dresses down to their ankles in the hot Louisiana sun or march forward in a straight line across a grassy field with no defense but a loaded musket aimed towards another army just as courageous, yet scared as they, people of 155 years ago were not too different from us. They laughed and yelled, broke plates, ate chicken and built communities and homes for their own families.
As I select the artifacts for the outdoor case the park will display during the July commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Crater, I keep thinking back to the way the archaeology tent resonated with visitors during the days of the Opening Assault. One of the objects I’ve chosen to use is a tiny handheld fire fighter’s helmet molded from a fragment of the thousands of pounds of clay removed from deep within the earth as Union forces tunneled beneath the Confederate lines in preparation for the 4:45 AM explosion on July 30, 1864. I plan to place it next to the badge of the New York City fireman- turned-Union soldier who molded and carried that clay, a man who was simultaneously a fireman, a soldier, and a craftsman. Together these objects may conjure a visitor’s own memories of an everyday hero in his or her own life or maybe just his or her own experiences as an artist meticulously molding, glazing and firing objects. I’ve also selected a completely warped and twisted rifle barrel to show the strength, magnitude and destruction of an incomprehensible scene; during the Battle of the Crater the 4 tons of black powder exploding below the ground caused the earth to tremble and a cloud of dust, dirt, iron and bodies to rain down on this field.
While I may not be standing directly in front of visitors in my green polo and khakis, walking them around the battlefield, I am using one exhibit case and five words to sketch a scene which they will paint and color with their own experiences; thus making this field and those men a part of their own past as well. After all, that is what is so entrancing about artifacts for historians and visitors alike. They build a personal connection between the ground we see and the words we have heard and read. The motto of our department, the five words I will be using in that case say it all: the artifacts tell the story.