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.
We have all heard the stinging statement, “Americans do not know their basic history.” Although the blame for this atrocity is sometimes laid upon the shoulders of the United States’ educational systems, more often the judgment goes hand in hand with the stereotype that Americans are lazy. And perhaps we are. Like any American college student, my laundry will pile up until I run out of socks, and I would much rather watch a historically sketchy movie than dig through the research stacks at the library. But regardless of our love of television remotes and microwavable dinners, my summer as an intern at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park and the 1994 historical survey undertaken by David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig have shown me that Americans are taking an active effort to engage and connect with the past, albeit in a utilitarian way.
In their study, Thelen and Rosenzweig report that in a single year 91.1% of Americans engaged the past by looking at photographs with family or friends, and 81.3% of Americans watched movies or television programs about the past. Both of these methods of experiencing history are convenient and easy to access; social media and television have a direct feed into the homes of almost every American. Having a background in survey analysis, I am not completely convinced of the historical significance or accuracy of the photographs and television programs “about the past” that these Americans viewed. It seems likely that many respondents may have watched a film like “Gone with the Wind,” or a show like “Downton Abbey” and deemed them pictorial representations of historical reality. Although I am concerned about the quality and validity of the historical interpretations gleaned from this kind of easily accessible mass media, I do believe that Americans still have an active interest in their history outside of its entertainment value.
My time spent interning at Appomattox Court House NHP has put me in direct contact with members of the American public and the way they engage history. The Thelen-Rosenzweig study suggests that 57.2% of Americans travel in order to experience a historic place. So why would the majority of Americans expend the time, energy, and money to travel to a place like Appomattox Court House NHP? The study and my personal experiences both point to a motivating drive to explore connections to the past through family members. Many of our guests arrive at the park with the names of their ancestors and their respective units in hand, hoping to learn more about the experiences of their long-deceased relation. These visitors are most often interested in the places that their ancestors have tread.
When travelers come into the visitors’ center knowing they had an ancestor who was surrendered with the Army of Northern Virginia, we are able to provide them with the answer to their question: “where was my great-grandfather?” Our visitors’ center is equipped with regimental histories which we use to enlighten our guests on the travels and engagements of which their ancestor took part. But of course, the park itself is special to descendents because it was where their ancestors stood and participated in a vital event in American history. Knowing that a piece of themselves (albeit, a piece long gone) was involved in the shaping of the nation helps the visitors not only make sense of the United States, but also helps them describe themselves and their current station. Being able to stand in the same space, and see the same landscape as their ancestor is a powerful connection to that piece of themselves from a century and a half past.
Understanding the past is a major component in making sense of the present. Sometimes the answers can be as simple as a position on the battlefield with light fighting that meant a military ancestor returned home and was able to have a family after the war, leading to our visitor’s existence. Or, the battlefield death of a great-grandfather led to the financial destitutions of a widow and her children, from which the family may have never recovered. However, there are also larger answers about the present that visitors seek to uncover. For example, the resolution of the Civil War meant emancipation for the millions of American slaves in 1865, but racial animosities were still present in the former Confederacy and parts of the North. The Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century and persisting contemporary racial inequality are both results of the failure to adequately address the needs of freedmen in the wake of peace. African-American visitors are directly affected by those incomplete and faulty policies of 150 years ago.
The biggest question that a visitor can seek to resolve at our historical Civil War parks is what it means to be an American. Lieutenant Colonel Ely Parker was an Iroquois Chief on General Grant’s staff at the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia; his ethnic status disqualified him from American citizenship. However, in the McLean Parlor surrender meeting General Lee remarked that Ely was the only real American in the room. Parker would reply by saying, “we are all Americans.” He summed up the entirety of the war in those four complicated words. Even though we have different skin colors, cultural backgrounds, languages, state origins, and political beliefs, the Civil War proved that we are one indivisible people. We are an imperfect people, but we are a nation continuing to chaotically crash through barriers to develop the “more perfect union” that our founders dreamed of over 200 years before. An ancestor’s piece in that complicated puzzle of national evolution helps a visitor make a personal connection to how far we have come, but also brings the enduring challenges of our nation to light.
As my experiences and the study suggest, Americans engage history when it is easily accessible to them in movies and television shows. But, an extra effort is required in order to make a personal connection to family history. As people seek to derive meaning from the Civil War, they often ask how the conflict defines the nation and themselves in the present day. Many visitors make this connection through the experience of place. Americans are a busy people, but perhaps not so lazy after all; through historical tourism they make time to engage history for the purpose of understanding themselves and the contemporary world.