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.
At Andersonville National Historic Site, not a day goes by without someone telling me that their great-great-great grandfather or other family member was either a prisoner or guard at Andersonville. Likewise, not a day goes by without someone telling the story of their father, brother, uncle, or cousin who is buried in the Andersonville National Cemetery who participated in every war imaginable: Civil, Vietnam, Korea, World War I, World War II, and so on. Rosenzweig and Thelan said it best in their essay when they said that “it was the familial and intimate past that mattered most.” At Andersonville it is certainly true that the “presence of the past” is alive and well.
With an average of one hundred twenty people passing through the National Prisoner of War Museum every day, I have had the privilege of watching families go out of the park with new perspectives. I’ve watched as people come to the front desk at the start of the day not really knowing what they were there for, only to come back at the end of the day amazed and sorrowful over what happened here. Many of these people tell me that they never really understood the magnitude or the reality of what happened at Andersonville until they stepped into the cemetery and saw the graves of the 12,920 men who lost their lives at the prison camp. In the same way, I have been privileged to step out from behind the desk and help people search for an ancestor, for a loved one, and to watch their faces as they read the information on the soldier and then ask where to find more.
More fascinating, however, are visitor’s reactions after visiting the prison site and the cemetery. They may have come in excited to be at the place where their ancestor was held, but when they come back they are shaking their heads in pure disbelief. They ask questions not about their ancestor specifically, but about Andersonville as a whole and the Civil War in general. It is through the familial connection they have with the site that they are able to take the next step toward learning just how big and complicated both the prison and the war truly were. Even children who don’t really understand what happened at Andersonville and would rather be at home come out of the place changed. When they come back after doing the Junior Ranger program and we talk to them, you can see that they are opened to the realization that the history of the place isn’t just an open field, but one of difficult choices that changed thousands of lives.
It is, for example, one thing to talk about the fact that 33,000 men were held on 26 acres at one point in August. It is another thing entirely to actually be at that place, seeing firsthand how small a piece of land that actually is, especially when you add in the four acres of uninhabitable swamp. Visitors come in excited, ready to hear about the brave escape attempts or the story of Providence Spring, only to go away in amazement when they learn how small the spring is or how the men had to dig as deep as sixty-five feet just to get water, let alone try a usually unsuccessful tunnel. Beyond the already complex story of Andersonville, visitors are also exposed to the broader scope of prisoner of war history when they tour the Prisoner of War museum. Visitors who come in specifically for the Civil War story oftentimes leave with astonishment at the stories told of POWs from World War II or Vietnam. The story of Andersonville isn’t a narrow thing that can only be connected to the Civil War, it is a broader tapestry that helps to connect the past with the present. Every day I hear people say that their ancestor was at Andersonville, but every day I also hear people saying “My dad was a World War II POW” or “I had a friend who was a POW in Vietnam.” The stories I hear from working at Andersonville aren’t all 150 years old; many are more recent stories still touching the lives of those who tell them.
Within the context of Andersonville, Rosenzweig and Thelan’s survey’s suggestion that family connections are what matter the most is evident each and every day, as I have said. People come here not knowing what to expect, yet walk away enlightened about the history of the site, their family, and the nation as a whole all because that one family connection sparked their interest. In a place whose history is difficult and complicated, visitors walk away with a fraction of realization and with a deeper appreciation and interest in both their past and out country’s past. They leave Andersonville asking themselves questions—How did they do it? Why do we do this to each other? What would I do?—questions that are not specific to the American Civil War, but relevant to our entire history as a nation.