On the front lines of history
This post is part of a series on the experiences of our Pohanka Interns at various historic sites working on the front lines of history as interpreters and curators. Dr. Jill Titus explains the questions our students are engaging with here.
For many people, the past can be a murky thing. As historians and interpreters, it is our challenge to connect people with a past that they may or may not understand. Some visitors to historic sites come in with their own connections, but for those who don’t, we’re responsible to make that connection for them. In my second summer as an interpreter for the National Park Service, I’ve discovered that most people connect best when we tell stories. Visitors often don’t care about troop movements on a map, unless they are tracing the story of an ancestor. What people crave, what we as humans crave, is a story. As interpreters, it’s easy to reel people in with individual stories, but more difficult to connect them to a broader historical narrative.
At Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, I work at a number of different sites, but the one where making the connection to the larger story is perhaps most difficult is Chancellorsville Battlefield. Since Chancellorsville was a large-scale, pitched battle, it is often easy for visitors, and even those of us who spend our days behind the information desk, to forget that this action was part of a larger war. There are incredible stories of soldiers and generals, but it is often difficult to connect them to the larger narrative of the war. It is the interpreter’s responsibility to dig deep for narratives that do connect to broader themes.
For me, at Chancellorsville one of the most useful stories has proven to be that of David Kyle, a private in the 9th Virginia Cavalry who rode out with Confederate General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson on the night he was fatally wounded. Kyle grew up a mile from where he rode on the night of May 2, 1863, and his story reminds us that Civil War battles took place on people’s farms, that homes were commandeered to serve as headquarters, and field hospitals were once offices, homes, and places of worship. For many visitors, and even many scholars, the civilian and military worlds operate in vacuums, but as historian Susannah Ural reminded us in her talk at the Civil War Institute summer conference, these worlds are actually interdependent. Understanding this concept helps make the decisions soldiers and civilians made more clear, giving us a better understanding of the war.
For visitors who come in pursuing a family story, we are further challenged to use their personal connection to the past as a bridge to the larger story in which their ancestor was involved. But where do we begin? Perhaps with our responses to the details these visitors choose to share with us. One visitor told me that “my ancestor went to war because it was his duty,” another proudly stated, “my great-great grandfather went to war to preserve the Union,” while yet another stated matter-of-factly, “my great-great granddaddy went to war to uphold his honor.” All of these statements provide important slivers of information about the 19th century, a time period far removed from the present.
But none are as simple and uncomplicated as they appear on the surface. As interpreters, we can help visitors understand that the choices made by their ancestor are related to cultural norms that we no longer uphold in the 21st century. Should we experience a civil war today, who would be compelled by personal honor to join the war effort? I would harbor a guess that not many people would sign up for these reasons. And what about fighting for the preservation of the Union? Today that question seems as far removed as the war itself. These small insights into cultural context can help those who had ancestors engaged at specific battles begin to see them within the framework of the larger war.
Stories are without a doubt the most engaging tool we as historical interpreters have to draw in public audiences. Though many of our stories might be interesting, they aren’t always useful in connecting our audience to the larger story we want to tell. Choosing the right story and teasing out its important themes and meanings can help visitors and interpreters locate smaller moments in time within the larger continuum of history.