Monday, December 31, 2012

Two More Proclamations for a Special New Years Eve

From the pages of William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator published in those first few elated moments of 1863:

Proclamation by Gen. Saxton.

A Happy New Year's Greeting to the Colored People
in the Department of the South.

In accordance, as I believe, with the will of our Heavenly Father, and by direction of your great and good friend, whose name you are all familiar with, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, and Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, on the 1st day of January, 1863, you will be declared "for ever free."

When in the course of human events there comes a day which is destined to be an everlasting beacon-light, marking a joyful era in the progress of a nation and the hopes of a people, it seems to be fitting the occasion that it should not pass unnoticed by those whose hopes it comes to brighten and to bless. Such a day to you is January 1, 1863.

I therefore call upon all the colored people in this Department to assemble on that day at the Headquarters of the 1st Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, there to hear the President's Proclamation read, and to indulge in such other manifestations of joy as may be called forth by the occasion. It is your duty to carry this good news to your brethren who are still in slavery. Let all your voices, like merry bells, join loud and clear in the grand chorus of liberty — "We are free," "We are free," — until, listening, you shall hear its echoes coming back from every cabin in the land — "We are free," "We are free."

Brig. Gen. and Military Governor.

The New York Times reported that three thousand men, women and children turned out to let those merry bells ring, to shout those sainted words.

And men, women and children gathered again a century later, in the symbolic shadow of that, "great and good friend." And once again echoes were sounded from the throats of a people still traveling a long and winding path:

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Will it ring still? Can you hear the merry bells still? Strain your heart and listen.

Happy New Year, 1863. Happy New Year, 1963. Happy New Year, 2013. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Resolute on the Eve of Emancipation

In the eyes of William Lloyd Garrison, Abraham Lincoln stood waffling on the issue of slavery in the early days of December 1862. To be quite fair, in Garrison's eyes nearly anyone aside from William Lloyd Garrison stood waffling on the issue of slavery most of the time.

The future of the Emancipation Proclamation still was not yet written in the final few days of 1862. In the White House, Lincoln was polishing and weighing his words. But outside the walls of the Executive Mansion, there was doubt and uncertainty. Would he? Countless ministers in the north penned petitions urging him to follow through on his threat of September. But were the petitions enough?

For one man on the Peninsula, it wouldn't matter. His name was Tom, Garrison's Liberator reported in a snippet reprinted from The New York Tribune. Tom's conversation with a Tribune reporter named Samuel Wilkeson was both intriguing and incisive. Wilkeson was traipsing about the area around Norfolk and Fortress Monroe, speaking as he went, "with many intelligent men of color," on the question of emancipation and freedom.

While Sam Wilkeson was fighting a war with a pen, paper and the telegrapher's key, his son Bayard was fighting with field artillery and hot iron. As the ink dried on the Tribune and Liberator that December, Sam was serving as First Lieutenant in the 4th Light Artillery, Battery G., lobbing shells across the Rappahannock River at the rebel hordes. Eventually, Bayard would fight at Gettysburg to disastrous results. Each Wilkeson fought the battle against the Slaveholder's Rebellion in his own peculiar way.

While America sat tensely awaiting Lincoln's pen, Sam Wilkeson spoke with a black man, a former slave named Tom.

Wilkeson asked a simple question. Why didn't the black men of the South fight for the United States?

"They expected to, sir," Tom told Sam, but they, "were driven from your lines and camps, and pretty plainly told that you didn't want anything to do with us; that you meant to carry on the war, and leave us in slavery at the end of the war."

Still Tom, from his perch on one of the lowest rungs of society, could see the plain truth: "The North can't conquer the South without the help of the slaves.... We know, too, that if the war lasts, one party or the other party will give us our freedom." Whichever side offered the slaves their freedom would win their loyalty. "We mean to sell ourselves for freedom," Tom exclaimed, "we hope to you Northern men."

The dream of a slave...
in blue or possibly gray.
Tom could see more. "How long would this war last, if we were freed by act of Congress and the President's Proclamation," the wizened slave explained, "the rebel armies would melt away in a week." But if the war were to be won, then it needed to be won in whole. If the United States was to be won, Tom explained, "you can't save it without the social revolution," without destroying slavery.

Sam's account ended with a keen warning from the former slave. "You white men of the North will go into slavery," Wilkeson reported, "unless you take us black men of the South out of slavery; and Mr. W., you have not a great deal of time left in which to decide what you will do!"

Did Tom really exist? It's tough to say. He very well might have been a clever literary device derived by an anti-slavery reporter trying to capture the stakes in the waning moments before Lincoln would or wouldn't make his move.

Sam Wilkeson's opinion was clear regardless. The words of Tom, whether he existed or not, should be heeded. For Sam Wilkeson, abolitionist reporter, emancipation must come. And through the blood of thousands of black and white soldiers, including Sam's son Bayard, emancipation would come.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Kings and Princes: Christmas in Gettysburg, 1862

Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know now how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, good my page;
Tread thou in them boldly;
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

Good King Wenceslas, John Mason Neale, 1853

In a house along the first block of the north side of Chambersburg Street, a small metallic ticking noise signaled change. The calendar read December 24th, 1862. The rhythmic tapping was a voice, reaching out in code along thin strips of metal dangling from poles running to the east out of town. Soon, "Hanover, York, Harrisburg, and Baltimore," were sending their glad tidings to Gettysburg's citizens. Then soon, Gettysburg found herself on that Christmas Eve connected, "with all the world and the rest of mankind," the Adams Sentinel reported. In the home of John Scott along Chambersburg Street, the telegraph had come to Gettysburg. Lightning could now send words to the far-flung corners of the nation from the Adams County seat.

Outside the doors of the home, Gettysburg was busy, but not extraordinarily so. The youth of the town were gathering supplies for the next day's reveries. As dawn broke, "'Young America' was on hand in the morning," the Gettysburg Compiler reported, "with firecrackers, &c., but we do not think that the usual investment was made in that sort of thing." The surrounding countryside saw its fair share of muted but still joyous noise. As Christmas Day crept into night, the flames of a fire flickered through the darkness south of town. "We were informed," the Compiler reported, that the fire was, "the burning of several stacks of hay and fodder at Dr. Shorb's." The culprit for the blaze? "The fire is supposed to have been caused by fire-crackers."

Other Gettysburgians found themselves in far less familiar surroundings that Christmas. A member of the 165th Pennsylvania Infantry reported home that his surroundings were bleak that yuletide. Writing from Virginia, the soldier found, the country from Norfolk to Suffolk shows the ravages of war. Everything is laid waste." The soldier, chatting with an officer, learned that near his camp had stood seven barns in the span of just a few hundred yards. "And what is left? Nothing! Yes, nothing - all destroyed, and the fertile fields laid waste."

Still, in a desolate landscape like Southern Virginia, the soldiers from Adams County were undeterred in their Christmas plans. "My mess concluded to have a grand Christmas dinner," the corespondent penned, "so, with that intention I went to town." Visions of a grand dinner swam before the soldier. "A turkey, or a young fat goose?" he dreamed. But when he arrived at the market, "there were but three turkies, and they were poor, and as for a goose, there was none at all." Christmas dinner that year in a camp in Suffolk, Virginia consisted of, "three pounds of pork, three pounds of corn flour, a quart of molasses, and a package of pepper." Still, the stalwart reader of the Democratic Compiler reported, there was little benefit in complaining. No one, he wrote, groused, "as hard as the Abolitionists." Through his politically slanted eyes, the Abolitionist soldiers, "groan at an awful rate for home."

The days of December were growing short, and 1863 was just on the horizon. And what would 1863 hold for Gettysburg? The Compiler's editor, Henry J. Stahle, stared into the tea leaves of, "an old tradition, published many years ago," in the form of a poem. "Christmas," he noted, "came on a Thursday." Then came the poem, lilting and brash. Perhaps it was a slight bit prophetic, considering the coming harvest of blood in July of 1863:

If Christmas on Thursday be,
A windy Winter you shall see,
Windy weather in each week,
And hard tempests, strong and thick,
The Summer shall be good and dry.
Corn and beasts shall multiply;
That year is good for lands to fill;
Kings and princes shall die by skill."

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Adventus: The Great Coming of 1862

Detail from Thomas Nast's 2-page spread in Harper's Weekly lauding Emancipation.
A couple of weeks ago, I spent a weekend in Harpers Ferry helping to interpret that amazing place for the National Historical Park's annual Christmas 1864 event. One of the greatest joys of my desk job in interpretive training is getting back out into a parkscape to test out new ideas and practices. This time it gave me the chance to experiment out in the field, wearing the olde-timey clothes of the 1860s and discussing how hammers, anvils and black labor won the war through the U.S. Quartermasters Depot at Harpers Ferry. The event is amazingly fun and infinitely powerful in its most intricate moments.

The weekend also gave me the opportunity to once again take on the annual Saturday evening lantern-light tour. Typically, that event focuses on the town's contributions to Sheridan's operations in the field in the last winter of the war.

How can you focus on the U.S. Army
Quartermaster's department when
images haunt your nightmares?
But this year felt like it needed to be different. Even though the event was focused on 148 years ago, my mind kept slipping back just two years further. As I planned out the program, I couldn't help but keep coming back to the idea of 1862. On the whole, very little has been focused nationally on the sesquicentennial of the first national crack in the wall of American apartheid, a crack whose size would wax and wane over the course of the next century and a half. It felt like a duty to the slaves who waited anxious in 1862 to tell their story this Christmas.

Mel Day, stalwart coordinator of the living history volunteer program in the park and the woman who taught me much of what I know about how interpretation functions, asked me what I wanted the evening tour titled. "Should I just put it down as, 'Captain Flagg's U.S. Quarter Master City: Approach of Peace 1864,' same as the event?" she asked me over the phone.

"No!" my mouth answered gruffly before I could temper it. I reeled for a minute. What to name it, I thought quickly, what to name it?

"Emerging from the Darkness: Christmas in a Land at War," I heard my mouth say.

"Did you just think that up now?" Mel asked. I answered that I had. "I don't understand how your mind works like that sometimes," Mel said. Sometimes I don't either, I thought.

I started 'reading' the audiobook of Penn Jillette's new book Everyday is an Atheist Holiday on the way in to work that week as well. His first chapter is all about Joy to the World and celebrating the mundane days (and not simply waiting for future redemption) as a way to make life really matter.

Penn's words melded with 1862, and inspired this Park Ranger. My mind was racing. Suddenly, it all fit together.

The opening stop of my tour was simple, but oh so sweet. It was one of those moments. And this is somewhat like what I said that night in the big tent, as my crowd prepared to bundle up and walk into the cold streets and back in time...


We come into this place from the darkness, the cold of winter. The Civil War was a period of intense darkness for America, a time when men killed men and when America tried to tear itself apart over the question of freedom. But this time of year is also considered sacred, and has been by cultures around the globe for centuries. Dozens of cultures, across the centuries, have had a festival in the dark, cold months of the winter.

In the 1860s, in America, one of those festivals was Christmas. 150 years ago right now, America was preparing for another Christmas in a land at war, with sons in fields far flung from home.

The period before Christmas, the four weeks before, are called Advent, which comes from the latin adventus which means arrival or approach, or simply coming. Christians in 1862 were preparing for Christmas in this time of advent.

And one of the ways that Christians prepare for the coming holiday is through songs and carols. Joy to the World is one of those songs. The lyrics were first written in the 18th century by Isaac Watts. The music wasn't added until the the 1830s. Like so many great American songs, we stole that tune. It was cribbed in 1839 from Handel's Messiah by preacher Lowell Mason.

"sins and sorrows" seems the most perfect
literary description of American slavery in
three words I could ever think of.
But Watts' lyrics, Mason's song, isn't about joy in the world right now. It is truly a song of advent, looking forward to a second coming of Christ and joy still coming. "No more let sins and sorrows reign, and thorns infest the ground," is an incantation for a future, not a present.

In December of 1862, there was another advent going on, another expected coming. This advent wasn't waiting for a savior to descend but for a simple document. Months before, in September, Abraham Lincoln had penned the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, promising that, "on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State... in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free."

And America began a long advent, a time of intense waiting.

For some in the South, it was waiting with dread at the potential collapse of their social structure, dread of revolt by a population living in their midst that in places outnumbered whites 3-to-1.

For some in the North, it was waiting with baited breath, incredulous at the thought that, after a long, dark night of injustice, heartache and imprisonment, that slavery could begin ending with the stroke of a pen, if only Lincoln kept his promise.

It was advent. It was a time of waiting for this world of, "sin and sorrow," to pass away and a new, different, uncertain and frightening world of freedom to take its place.

And in that time of advent, there were songs too. Songs of hope and of freedom yet to come.

One of those songs, which slaves would sing in the streets of a Virginia city south of here just a few short years later as United States soldiers marched to their salvation, went like this:

"Slavery chain done broke at last,
broke at last,
broke at last,
Slavery chain done broke at last,
Gonna to praise God 'til I die.

"Way down in that valley
Praying on my knees
Told God about my troubles,
And to help me if He please.

"I did tell him how I suffer,
In the dungeon and the chain,
And de days were with head bowed down,
And my broken flesh and pain.

"I did know my Jesus heard me,
'Cause the spirit spoke to me
And said, 'Rise my child, your children,
And you shall be free.

"Now no more weary traveling
'Cause my Jesus set me free
And there's no more auction block for me
Since He gave me liberty.

"Slavery chain done broke at last,
broke at last,
broke at last,
Slavery chain done broke at last,
Gonna to praise God 'til I die."

Freedom was coming, and America sat waiting in that long, cold advent of 1862 on pins and needles. And that song echoed backwards and forwards through that long, dark winter. Would freedom come? Would this advent end?

So now we step out into the darkness, to find the roots of that freedom. We step out to find the joy of its coming, the sorrow of its coming, the fear at its coming. We step out into the darkness to find uncertainty.

Welcome to the long dark advent of the Civil War. And as we venture into the darkness, we can take that song of hope with us.

"Slavery chain done broke at last,
broke at last,
broke at last,
Slavery chain done broke at last,
Gonna to praise God 'til I die."

Thursday, December 6, 2012

In Response to Kevin: Truncated and Sliced

I was reading Kevin's latest post over at Civil War Memory and found myself strongly agreeing and wanting to respond. So I began writing this post.

And this post used to be longer. Much longer. Scads longer.

But I'm cutting it out of abundance of caution. Criticism of interpretive product is something that people too often take too personally for some reason.

I've never understood that. I likely never will. This is a world of ideas; a free marketplace is the best marketplace. Let the opinions rain down. If you have different ideas, I want you on my team. I don't reject you.

So, here's what's left of the post...


I will state my belief here in strong, bold letters:

There is not one program given on any Civil War battle landscape that cannot, somewhere in it's natural flow and using resource-specific elements and tangibles, discuss the cause and context of the war in a meaningful and thematically-integrated way. Period. Full Stop.

Furthermore and because of this, there is no reason or excuse not to cover the cause and context of the war in a meaningful, thematically-integrated and site-specific way in every personal services program in some manner or fashion. Period. Full Stop.

If an historian ever chose a hill to die on, that's a worthy one.

(Using "an" before "historian" would be another worthy hill to die on as well, by the way.)


Maybe someday I'll post the whole thing.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Spielberg's Dead Wrong about the Dead;
or, The Places in the Movie Where I Cried

Spielberg's whole speech, unvarnished
and ready for your viewing pleasure.
You'll have to buy a ticket to see the movie...
I stood in front of the rostrum in the National Cemetery with my parents. They hadn't seen the movie yet. My best-friend was next to them. He hadn't seen it yet. Another compatriot joined us who had seen it, but we were definitely outnumbered in our little knot of folks within the massive crowd. As Spielberg continued speaking, I leaned in to the group. "You really need to see the movie," I said, knowing that no matter whose ears it hit the odds were it'd hit a meaningful target.

Spielberg was speaking about the history writ with lightning I had seen the night before. It still amazes me that it has taken us a century's worth of time and this brilliant director (as opposed to his countless forebears) to steal that phrase back from the racists. And he was noting the gaps in history. "But even with history that’s as scrutinized as that of the American Civil War," the director noted, "some aspects, certain details, are gone forever."

Spielberg is exactly right. History, by its very definition, is a fragmentary tapestry missing quilt squares left and right."History forces us to acknowledge the limits of memory," Spielberg continued, "It tells us that memory is imperfect, that no matter how much of the past we’ve recovered, much of what once was or has been, now is lost to us."

Then he started down the road that got my dander up. "I believe it’s the betrayal of the job of a historian to promise perfect and complete recall of the past and to promise memory that abolishes loss." So far, so good. But then the turn.

That woman had the right idea:
watch the speech as someone
undoubtedly did 149 years ago...
with the aid of a treetop perch.
"One of the jobs of art is to go to the impossible places that other disciplines such as history must avoid. To art, we enlist the imagination to bring what’s lost back to us, to bring the dead back to life. This resurrection is, of course, just an illusion, it’s a fantasy, a dream, but dreams matter somehow to us."

My heart reeled at the blow. Mr. E.T., Mr. Jurassic Park, Mr. Hook was telling me I couldn't do what I intend to do every day. What I already do whenever I step out in front of an audience of visitors.

"History must avoid," Spielberg said, using imagination.

"History must avoid," Spielberg said, trying to recover the lost and fill in the gaps.

"History must avoid," Spielberg said, endeavouring to resurrect the dead.

Interpretation is all about doing these things. We offer up the broken pieces of a fractured and piecemeal past and let visitors begin filling in the gaps, sousing out their own hidden meanings and meeting the dead once again. When you ask a visitor what they might have done faced by the stress and fear of the moment, when you ask them to place themselves in the minds, hearts and shoes of a soldier staring into the gaping maw of the enemy or a mother leafing through a newspaper and finding the name of her son in the list of dead, you're filling in the gaps of history we can't fill with evidence alone.

Evidence only takes us so far in understanding the past. If we stop at evidence, and ignore the human heart, we'll never draw anything meaningful from history beside rote cause-and-effect relationships. These are lessons, yes, but shallow ones that don't resonate with the human soul, but which only resonate with the human mind's fixation on policy decisions.

Spielberg's movie does just that perfectly. He's right. Art is an amazing medium through which to discover those moments. Tears poured down my face during those first 15 minutes of the film as the central meaning of the Gettysburg Address flickered on the screen and emerged from the mouth of a black man fighting for freedom. I cried as a pair of white soldiers lost their words when they spoke to the President, starstruck and babbling. I stepped into both their sets of shoes and felt their past.

It wasn't a contrived past; it was real. Those feelings had real historical implications. The butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling found while meeting Lincoln or discovered when imagining real freedom wasn't fake. It was a simple interpretive time machine, asking the audience to try to live in that past for a moment.

And I cried. For the bulk of the film I was sniffling, snorting or bawling. When Stevens presents his gift? Tears. When the roll call vote drags on and everyone expectantly hangs on the news? Saline drops all over my face. When Elizabeth Keckley casually tells Tad she was beaten with a coal shovel when she was younger than him, as if it's normal and not a travesty? It destroyed me.

But art isn't the only medium through which we fill in the gaps in the past.

All those things were real, Steven. They were real history. Not factual memories, but emotional ones of a past long lost and forgotten. History can be (and when undertaken to its fullest potential is always) a form of art. Don't take that away from those of us doing our jobs right. When you strip history of art and imagination, you get exactly what everyone hated in High School: names and dates to memorize and recite.

You're wrong, Steven. Your movie is history, not just art. Those gaps you fill are filled with real history. It might not be what actually happened in those moments exactly, but the only past that matters is the usable past that each of us carries with us anyways. We all simply fill in the gaps we have to.

Next time you're in the area, I'd be happy to prove it to you out on any of these local battlefields we have, gratis. History is exactly what you did, and we historians (some of us at least) do it daily. Let me show you.

Between now and then I'll probably just watch your movie a half-dozen more times.

And cry.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Living Fortress of the Heart: Resonance of Emancipation

Under the spreading Emancipation Oak
a band of interpreters stand...
Jacob dragged me somewhere again. I really should learn to say, "no," because no matter where I get dragged by Jake, it always ends up wrecking my brain for months and making me obsess about some amazingly minute interpretive experience. But I'm a glutton for interpretive punishment.

Last year during the National Association for Interpretation annual workshop it was an historic diner. This year, with the conference being held in Hampton, Virginia, there are far more Civil War related speed bumps to roll over.

Yesterday it was the Emancipation Oak. "It'll be amazing," Jake assured me, "It's a living thing that's a National Historic Landmark."

I made a snide remark about, "living history," and joined him in the car along with Clayton and Travis, two more whip-crack interpreters.

The tree is on the campus of Hampton University and is massive. It's an impressive Southern Live Oak, an evergreen tree that seems to envelop the sky with it's sheer mass.

Under the tree 150 years ago, former slaves sat in rapt attention as the words of the Emancipation Proclamation were read aloud to them for the first time. Lincoln exclaimed in neat strokes of ink upon a page, translated into living words for the contraband gathered at the foot of the tree, that the slaves of the Southern states in rebellion, "henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons."

These poor shards of humanity, shivering in the shade of a even-then sprawling tree, saw new light as Lincoln took a massive step toward their freedom and equality. The fort that loomed on the horizon, the bastion of freedom named after James Monroe, now stood explicitly as a bastion to protect their freedom from the slave power.

OK, so Jake was right. It was worth the stop.

But then we went on another wild goose chase. "Now we're going to see the Hampton National Cemetery!" Jake declared. Into the car we piled again. After discovering there are two Hampton National Cemeteries, and that we had arrived at the wrong one, we hightailed it over to the correct one, again within the campus of the historically-black Hampton University. Four white boys in an SUV were waived past an incredulous security guard. She was sure we weren't going to cause trouble, but it was an odd sight at sundown.

We wanted to find someone, and had our sights set on a few USCT soldiers. Travis produced his phone and listed off the names of some Medal of Honor winners resting within the cemetery's brick walls.

We hunted down the grave of Color-Sergent Alfred B. Hilton. Hilton served in Company H of the 4th United States Colored Troops. He enlisted in August of 1863 at Baltimore. He listed his residence as Harford County, Maryland. He was married and in his twenties. He was 5 foot, 10 and a half inches tall. His complexion was black.

Standing over the sod beneath which lay Color-Sergeant Hilton, we read a quick biography of his heroic act. Our glowing screens told the tale in the growing darkness.

In late September of 1864, as the 4th USCT charged the rebel works during the Battle of Chaffin's Farm outside Richmond, the Color-Sergeant carrying the Regiment's flag was struck down by a bullet. Standing next to him was Sergeant Hilton, the United States flag tight in his grip. As his comrade fell, Hilton grabbed for the flag and, according to the Official Records, "struggled forward with both colors, until disabled by a severe wound at the enemy's inner line of abatis." Hilton urged his fellow soldier onward, passing the flags on to another man, "his thoughts were for the colors and not for himself."

Hilton, bleeding from a severe wound in his right leg, was brought to the United States Hospital at Fortress Monroe. His leg was amputated at the knee.

He lingered, sickness taking hold. Hilton died on October 21st, 1864.

A package was returned to his company commander in the field from the hospital. Inside were simple things: a cap that had sheltered his head from rain or sun as he marched forward for freedom, a wallet with $4.50 worth of paper money, and two ambrotypes. Who were the faces in those pictures? Were they his wife? Was one a photo of him, waiting for a spare moment to send it home to loving hands waiting for a warm embrace that would never come?

I looked up from the gravestone, a tear staining my right cheek. I swear it was from the cold. A tree caught my eye. Its leaves looked familiar. Behind Hilton's grave, shading his final resting place, is a Southern Live Oak. The branches don't spread as wide as the Emancipation Oak, but they're still strong.

Color-Sergeant Hilton rests now, forever a free man under the shade of a cousin of the tree of first freedom, a stone's throw away from Freedom's Fortress.

He is the Civil War in microcosm more than any other man.

I'm glad I got the chance to meet him.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

"With high hope for the future": Holy Temples of Democracy

A Temple to Democracy
/ CC Kevin Burkett
I did it again. I went to Pennsylvania Historical Association's annual conference (this year in Harrisburg). I always seem to be the black sheep at these gathering, focused on raw emotional meanings and the usable past far more than the broader historiographical implications of either the proverbial or actual price of tea in China. This year I went to present a paper on the knock-down, dragout brawl that Daniel Sickles and William H. Tipton have throughout 1893 over the preservation of the Gettysburg Battlefield to a room full of professional historians.

OK, so the room wasn't full. There were five spectators. Yeah. That's how these academic conferences tend to go for me.

Before my session (where Dr. Bloom, my Master's thesis adviser joined me to talk about the Carlisle Indian Industrial School), I sat in on a session on Pennsylvania's colleges' and universities' Public History programs.

It was interesting to see the lay of the land, but I was unimpressed by the general trend of the conversation. I think one of the key problems that academics (even public historian of the academic stripe) have is that they are terrible communicators for a general audience. I never got the chance to ask the question during the Q&A, "do you have a mandatory interpretation or communication course in your program?"

Like a petulant preteen, I took to Twitter to grouse about it. "Here's the point the panel missed," I tweeted, "'office' historians can't communicate effectively w/ normal folks. That *NEEDS* to be problem #1."

Twitter is one of the safer places to complain like this at professional conferences I've found because barely anyone over 30 pays attention to the social media dimension of these events. To some extent, I'm simply complaining aloud to myself like a psychotic mumbler in the corner of the Metro car, swathed in a worn fatigue jacket and sporting a unkempt greying beard.

Much to my chagrin (and maybe elation) one of the panel's participants, Aaron Cowan from Slippery Rock University, wrote back. He noted that there's been, "much agonizing over this in profession." But his keen question was simple: "but do we ask this of English lit, chemistry, psych? Are historians worse?"

So I bit. I responded. Twice.

Not simply a temple
to Christ, but a temple
to liberty as well.
/ CC Meghan
"I don't think historians are worse than all acads," I wrote, "but I fear the effect is more dire: under-informed electorate." "But," I noted, "I'm one of those funky, altruistic Federal public historians."

I am one of those funky, altruistic Federal historians who thinks that our parks and sites of cultural import are sacred spaces and safeguards of liberty.

If applied physics fails, and an engineer makes a miscalculation or two, a bridge falls down and a few folks end up dead. It's a tragedy but it's ephemeral. If applied mathematics fails, and an economist makes a poor prediction or two, some investors lose a chunk of change in the market. It's a loss but it's relatively small.

But what happens if applied history fails, if public historians aren't effective in their work of communicating America to Americans?

America is a society built upon a secular religion. Our sacred spaces are our historic places. And our citizens learn the craft of citizenship, the process, the pitfalls and the promise of America, within those temples to freedom. Public historians are the scions of those spaces. If we fail to help the public find the meanings they need, if we fail to even entice them to come inside the temples, we risk losing America.

If applied history fails, and civics evaporates from the American peoples' consciousness, America falls down.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"I grow so weary of the sound of screams": The Real Ghosts of Gettysburg

The infamous "tombstone" / CC Juls K
A special holiday post a few hours early today.

Down on Baltimore Street, in the front yard of the sprawling complex that calls itself the "Farnsworth House," a tombstone used to sit. It was greyish-white, tall and arched at the top. In front of the marker, the dirt sat freshly turned, a single rose marking the grave. On the stone's face was the motif of a cherub. And under the wings were inscribed, "In Memory of Benajah Edwards who Departed this Life July 2 1863."

Below, as a sort of epitaph, read the words, "Ghost Story Tickets in Bookstore."

The plywood of the mock-grave eventually weathered and was removed. The Bookstore closed to make way for a seance parlour, another cashgrab expansion to enlarge what (mocking Lincoln's immortal words) the proprietors call "Gettysburg's Haunted Address."


My favorite holiday is Halloween. When I was growing up, it meant so many things. First, it meant the chance to wear odd and wonderful costumes to school. Mummies, vampires, ghosts, Frankenstein's monster. Second, it meant the joyous time of sparkling snow was arriving. No matter what the weeks before had been like, Halloween was a guaranteed snowfall in Upstate New York. It was like clockwork.

As I grew older, the fantasy of Halloween took strong hold of who I am. I found Tim Burton. I found the Nightmare Before Christmas and Disney's Haunted Mansion. I found ways to stretch that morbid but jocular holiday out longer and longer. One year in High School, in the week leading up to Christmas break I dressed up each day as the litany of characters from Dickens' Christmas Carol, sporting a top hat for a miserly scrooge, a lighted candle atop my head for the Ghost of Christmas Past and rattling (plastic) chains through the halls as Jacob Marley.

I love the morbid and the dark. I love the twisted fantasy world of Halloween.

But that one word is crucial: fantasy

Halloween is the holiday of the wry smile, more so than any other. We walk into a haunted house ready to meet "ghosts" and "zombies" who are really just local kids looking for some pocket money in a part time job. The Hitchhiking Ghosts that Disney conjures are metal armatures, pneumatic cams and rubber masks. They make us smile and laugh and scream, but we know what's underneath it all. Halloween is a fiction we all pretend is real for a moment for a good time.

I haven't felt too "Halloween" in the past half-decade or so. That warm feeling and my love of the holiday has receded. Most of that I think I can attribute to living to Gettysburg. This community now so often uses the names, faces and experiences of the dead as a cruel joke that the novelty of the Halloween spirit now chafes.

No place in America has the morbid become the jocund so universally than in Gettysburg. I've spoken a bit about why this might be and what we can learn from it in the past. But the reason and the lesson don't change the raw feeling that the product produces in my soul.

That fake tombstone in front of the Farnsworth House really set off a bomb in my consciousness. And now, even though the piece of garbage has been removed from the front lawn, the scar still remains on my heart every single time I walk past the Farnsworth House. Benajah Edwards didn't exist. But plenty of other men did. My Great-great Grand Uncle died at Gettysburg on July 2nd and has no grave. Every time I think of that tombstone, I think of him and the others whose names and resting places have been lost to all eternity.

You can conjure them far more easily than the charlatans down on Steinweir Avenue ever dreamt. Just list the contents of their pockets. Before being lovingly placed in the ground of the Soldiers' National Cemetery, the pockets of the dead were emptied. Some of the trinkets held clues to the identities of the men. Some yielded nothing more than silence. The contents were catalogued and kept, according to the 1867 report on the cemetery, "in the possession of the Cemetery Association at Gettysburg, Penn'a." Where those carefully guarded momentos are now, I have never been able to track down. Their whereabouts have disappeared just like the names of many of their original owners. Still, the tantalizing list remains.

One unknown soldier, whose name disappeared when a bullet or piece of shell drove itself coldly into his body, was wearing two rings and carried a small book cut of wood. Another carried a spoon and a glass inkstand, no more letters arriving at home penned with it's dark contents. A soldier was lain unknown in the cold ground at Gettysburg, the only clue to his identity a testament, written in German and inscribed to him from Catherine Detaupafer. Another held in his pocket a letter from Carrisa Smith. Would Catherine or Carrisa ever learn the fate of the two men?

A young man lay dead on these fields nearly 150 years ago. In his pocket sat an ambrotype of a young woman and a letter. He was real. He was not a fantasy. When that young woman cried, the tears were real. When he bled, the blood was real.

It wasn't plywood. It wasn't a joke.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Whole War in One Photo

Broken chains and muskets: the very essence of the slaveholder's rebellion. The war was caused by a blind, stalwart defense of slavery. The war hinged upon the future of slavery in America. The war shattered slavery in the United States forever.

Thanks to the 3rd United States Colored Troops reenacting unit for their excellent impromptu exhibit at Gettysburg College last month (where this photo was taken) as part of the celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation.

If you missed Pennsylvania's Civil War Roadshow in it's final stops before being dismantled, you missed out on excellence. The exhibit explicitly dealt with causes, meanings and race in meaningful detail and to great extent. The touring exhibit will be installed in the Pennsylvania State Museum to, "allow a greater number of people to see and enjoy this important exhibit." Because everyone knows things without wheels reach far more people than things with wheels.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why The "Harvest of Death" Doesn't Matter (And Why It Does)

I went on a tour a few Sundays ago. It was very tough to explain exactly what I had done (in sensible terms) with my coworkers when I came into the office the next Monday morning. Not just very tough, but embarrassingly tough.

THEM: "What did you do this weekend, John?"

ME: "Well, Sunday I went on a tour of places on the Gettysburg battlefield where one specific photo wasn't taken-"

THEM: *blank stare*

Garry posing a stand-in at a place
where the photos were not taken.
That conversation really tends to go nowhere, frankly. Tim Smith and Garry Adelman toted around 60 eager visitors as we patrolled the battlefield at Gettysburg, visiting the places that aren't where the Harvest of Death series of photographs, Alexander Gardner's enduring battlefield mystery, could have been taken. We crossed the Sherfy Farm to set foot in Mr. Spangler's fields. We stood just north of the Wentz House and squinted at Little Round Top. We wandered around behind the former Keefauver Elementary site and ended in a driving rainstorm along Reynolds' First Corp Line. And throughout the day, at stop after stop, Garry and Tim unfolded for us why the Harvest of Death could not have been taken at that place.

Much time, hot-air and many electrons have been expended on this topic of late, spurred on by a few publicly expressed theories (many of which end up being rehashes of long discounted theories). Particularly, John Cummings over at Spotsylvania Civil War Bloghas been hammering relentlessly on his theory. In turn, Garry has been urging caution in publicizing new theories before they've been vetted and the author him or herself has vehemently tried to prove themselves wrong.

I spent 5 hours out on the field on Sunday, in a quest to learn about a landscape to better find a photo's true location. But in the end, it doesn't matter at all.

I'll repeat that and emphasize it: the actual location of the Harvest of Death and the other photos taken nearby does not matter at all.

He had eyes and a nose.
He had loves and sorrows and joys...
It might be nice to know. Garry expressed as much during the tour. He said he'd like to lie down where the men lay, in the exact spot. He wants to be able to feel the real. I understand that sentiment. It's part of the reason we preserve these places. We want to touch the proverbial pieces of the true cross.

But in a larger sense, finding the site means nothing. The men are gone. The bodies have long since rotted. Either they were moved to the Soldier's National Cemetery when the bulk of the Federal dead were reburied in the winter of 1863-64, or they rest in an undiscovered and likely never to be found grave somewhere in the Pennsylvania topsoil.

The burial crew has found their own home in the earth as well. Finding the site will yield no evidence of what happened there. It will be a sterile farm field among other sterile farm fields. It is not a tangible reminder of anything in particular.

The pictures themselves hold the true power. Zoom in on that photo. Zoom in really close. Download the TIFF version and hold onto your seat as you dive into the world of 1863. It's the wonder of the Library of Congress' massive scans of these images that makes them into true windows into the past.

Feet that would never walk through
the door of their home again...
The only thing matters is that moment, frozen in time forever by mercury or albumen. It doesn't matter where exactly that photo was taken. In fact, the photo draws some of its power from the very fact we don't know where it was taken. First, it means that the photo still holds sway in the imagination. It isn't simply a dopey scene to reenact for your Mom's camera as you jump from rock to rock in Devil's Den, only to rise up from the morbid spot and go back to the hotel room and watch a re-run of Law and Order before nodding off to sleep. Tourists lay down and pose, then do something these soldiers never could: they go home. And how many of them are reminded of that fact, as they hop back into the comfy, air-conditioned car? When we find the spot, it might simply become a carnival sideshow. While it's a mystery, there is still reverence.

This could be my Grand-Uncle.
Or your Grandfather. Or anyone's.
The mystery also lends raw power to the men within the photo. When we know the place, we can begin to discern who the men actually were. We can make stabs at their regiment;, we can speculate as to which men from which company might be that bearded face or this clenched fist. As long as the photo remains a mystery, the men captured in time are simultaneously no one and anyone. These handful of men stand in as visual reminders, the once-living sculptures who can be any young man who bled and died on these fields. They are an embodiment not of one man, but of every Federal soldier on the field at Gettysburg. Take away that universality, give them names and ranks and regiments, and they lose their deeper meaning and power as stand-ins for every dead United States soldier.

Where the photo was taken doesn't matter. But I guarantee that we'll keep spilling gallons of ink (both real and digital) over the matter for years to come. I have my own theory of where the photo is. I'm not going to say where. I haven't done nearly enough research or meditation to come out an say. It's irresponsible. I'm not going to say where I think Gardner's Harvest of Death series was captured.

In fact, if I discovered with 100% accuracy where that photo was taken, with all the surety available on this earth, I'm still not sure I would say where it was. I might hide the truth from the world and never tell another soul (beyond maybe Garry and Tim, after having sworn them to secrecy). I hope we never find that place. Because when that happens the photo may very well cease to matter. It will simply become a means to an end. It will be the treasure map to a giant red 'X' on the ground, discarded as soon as the shovels (or in this case modern cameras) are whipped out.

While the location is still a mystery, people still stare into those cold, lifeless, sorrowful and twisted faces. And that's the only reason the photos hold any meaning. They're the only reason it matters at all.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fear in Illinois: A Father's Grief

Like a prose poem, the passage leaped off of the page of the Lutheran and Missionary as I scanned the newspaper's columns. Sitting in the reading room of the Abdel Ross Wentz Library at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, my heart raced. It's not often that you find new words penned by someone you've been studying for years.

Under the headline, "Hospital Experience," in the September 25th, 1862 edition of the newspaper, a simple column of text speaks to a harrowing and sorrowful experience in a federal hospital. Just days after the bloodshed and destruction of the Battle of Sharpsburg, the caring hearts of Pennsylvanian Lutherans were yearning for some glimpse into the reality of war that had lapped at the shores of the Commonwealth and crashed in a devastating cascade along the mountains to the south.

The article is signed, "H. L. B.," almost certainly Pennsylvania College President Henry Louis Baugher. The last (that I've found) in a series of short articles about Baugher's experience in a Federal hospital in Quincy, Illinois, the article is the most touching of the lot.

Tragedy had drawn the Pennsylvania minister to the West. The President's son Nesbitt Baugher, lawyer and newspaper editor, lay in grave condition in a hospital bed in Quincy in the spring of 1862, bloody and gored by bullet wound after bullet wound at the Battle of Shiloh. Nesbitt began his struggle full of vigor and headstrong from the success of the armies in the battle, writing from his bed to his father that he had, "news for you – great, glorious news for our country, but not quite so for me."

Baugher had been hit seven times in total by enemy bullets. His condition was grave. The young lieutenant's father wrote:

A young man, full of animal vigor, and animated by lofty patriotism, is wounded, it may be once, twice, or oftener. The pain of the wounds is not very great; he is carried to the hospital; under the influence of chloroform his system is prepared for a comparatively painless probing and dressing. He is able to write home to loved ones, that he was wounded and is doing well, and that his is not seriously ill. In a few days fever sets in, slow but certain. There is nothing to alarm. Symptoms encouraging; wounds healing; physicians say the patient will get well. Still the slow fever continues. Unexpectedly there is a chill, then delirium; the soldier is once more in the battle field, and it is his last. Nature, enfeebled by disease, is no longer able to resist, and death approaches and obtains an easy victory. If you ask the physician what was the immediate cause of death, he will probably say that the puss discharged from the wounds thus vitiated and carried to the brain caused delirium and was unable longer to sustain life.

I've known for some time that President Baugher visited his son's bedside as he lay dying. When I give tours of the campus, I usually gave that aspect of the tale one solemn line: 'he made it to Illinois just in time to hold his son's hand and pray over him as he died.'

But it was so much more than that.

There is true pain in the words of a father who has lost his own. You can easily conjure forth the form of a father, bending by his son's bedside as he thrashes in a delirious haze, watching as, "death approaches and obtains an easy victory."

Each of Baugher's three letters
are equally heartrending.
A few beds down the ward, another soldier lies prone, his, "head has been opened by a fragment of a shell, and the brain forced itself out of the opening." Drifting in through the door are the excruciating screams from yet another man, "the piercing exclamation repeated again and again," Baugher calls it, of the words, "Oh! God, be merciful!"

You can see President Baugher's face, stained with briny streaks. "Kind nature," he mused, "opens the fountain of tears that the breaking heart may find relief through this opened channel."

And you can hear a father's plaintive voice, asking the question of why his boy had to die, and the surgeon's coarse and clinical reply: "the puss discharged from the wounds thus vitiated and carried to the brain caused delirium and was unable longer to sustain life."

War becomes real. Painfully real.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Divided Maryland: Antietam 150th Interpretive Talk

Sanctuary (noun). 1. A place of safety, refuge or protection.

A few weeks ago, I spent an amazing weekend interpreting the Dunker Church. Not many of you were able to visit that amazing place on that amazing weekend.

For those of you out there who didn't get to see my talks that weekend, or for those of you who would like to live them again, check out this MP3 recording of the presentation, with added music and sound.

Close your eyes and transport yourself to a hard church pew in Western Maryland...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Veritas: The Power of the Real

There's something about touching the actual thing, something about contacting the real that makes a distant world come immediately to life. There's an excitement about that moment when you see and touch something a piece of another world. A Thomas the Tank Engine character reminded me of this fact recently. Watch the young boy's face as he picks Stanley back up in a cornfield after his favorite toy travels to space and back:

Joy. The joy of meeting an old friend who has had a new experience.

There's power in that moment. There's awe. That feeling is an amazing one, when you realize what you hold in your hand. The young boy in the video feels the thrill of space in the very palm of his hand.

"...a mass of incandescent gas,
a gigantic nuclear furnace..."
It is the same sort of awe I felt when I opened an unassuming cardboard box earlier this year. Inside were two small plastic canisters with the intimidating label, "Caution - Radioactive Material." And safely tucked inside each, in a nest of cotton, was the real.

When the Trinity Test was preformed in July of 1945, the massive atomic fireball, the first ever massive atomic fireball sucked sand from the desert floor into the smouldering nuclear cauldron hovering momentarily over the New Mexico landscape. The sand melted and fell, a rain of molten green silicate. "Trinitite," was born, the curious byproduct of brilliant minds working toward fantastic and catastrophic ends. And inside each of the containers that arrived on my doorstep this past summer sits a sliver of Trinitite, a small piece of that greenish nuclear glass.

It's real. It's an actual piece of the past. It's amazing to hold that in your hand (don't worry, it's relatively low-yield in terms of radiation and mostly safe to handle as long as I don't butter my toast with it or something).

When I hold it in my hand, It's like I can feel the heat. It's like I can see the light of the growing fireball. I feel the doubt of Robert Oppenheimer as he questions the very morality of science. I can hear the echo of his words in my head: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

A photo of that sliver of nuclear glass doesn't do it justice. Pixels glowing on a screen aren't enough. Looking at the real thing with your own eyes, feeling it in your hand, turning it over between your fingers is immensely powerful.

Peale draws back the curtain on
his temple to the real. Part history,
part science but all proof of the past.
Technology is a wonderful thing, but it can never replace the sheer thrill and true meaning-making moment of seeing the real things. There can never be such a thing as a "virtual visitor center." We need places where we can see, touch and witness "the real." Charles Willson Peale realized that fact in Philadelphia in the 1780s, and Americans have been fascinated by the temples of "the real" ever since. The buildings we invest millions in at each of our sacred secular temples are shrines to the real evidence, they are the proof that the past actually happened.

Oftentimes, pixels on a smartphone can't do "the real" justice. Sometimes those things need to lie behind glass in visitor centers, on display to prove that the sadness of the past was a real, tangible thing. Sometimes we can hold those pieces of "the real" right in the palm of our own hands, mailed from a certified mineral supply company direct.

And sometimes we can pick them up in a nearby cornfield, a space traveler come back to earth and returned to his best friend.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Victim of Emancipation: Adams County Flustered

Lincoln ala Blondin walking the political
tightrope of Emancipation. / PD LOC
Republican stalwart newspaper The Adams Sentinel ran nothing in its folds hinting at the editor's elation over the Emancipation Proclamation in the days following the document's release. In a terse column, headed, "Proclamation of the President," ran the document, unadorned with either accolades or contempt. Elsewhere in the paper's folds, the news hovered back and forth over the fields around Sharpsburg and word of the lackadaisical pursuit of Lee's army into Virginia. The deep meaning of one of Lincoln's most momentous moments seemed to be lost on the Republicans of south-central Pennsylvania, as they eschewed the topic, pussyfooted around it and went out of their way to nearly ignore the document which sat in Washington City with its ink still drying.

The Democracy, on the other hand, was happy to make hay while the sun shone. "President Lincoln has issued a Proclamation setting free all the slaves in the States in rebellion on the first of January next," the Compiler susinctly noted to its readers. "We believe this movement," editor Henry J. Stahle continued, "to be highly inopportune, and will, we are confident, be questioned by all men not utterly Abolitionized." The folds of the paper then paraded forth extract after extract from Democratic newspapers chastising Lincoln's actions, comparing him, the New York World adeptly chided, to, "Blondin in the art of political balancing."

In article after article, for the next few weeks, the Compiler excoriated the Lincoln administration and its supporters for the bold action of Emancipation. Running under the headline, "FREEING THE NEGROES," Stahle printed the Proclamation in its entirety.

The Republicans must have felt the soft underbelly of election politics that the Emancipation Proclamation had left exposed. Across the white North, the majority of whose citizens made no pretense toward equality of the races, voters were headed to the polls that fall. Some, particularly Pennsylvanians, would cast their ballots less than a month after the document hit the street. Among those wishing to return to office was Gettysburgian and Pennsylvania College graduate Edward McPherson, trying to hold tight to his seat representing the 16th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Emancipation Proclamation became the perfect cudgel with which to beat McPherson. "VOTERS, REMEMBER!" the Compiler trumpeted, "that Edward McPherson voted with the Abolitionists for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia!" The paper swung again. "REMEMBER - that Edward McPherson voted with the Abolitionists for the Confiscation Bill, in pursuance of which President Lincoln has declared his purpose to liberate the negroes of the South!" Again and again the blows came down.

The Sentinel timidly replied with small jabs, claiming that the only souls who could support the Democratic tickets were, "every voter who loves Slavery more than he does the Union - who loves party more than his country."

The Sentinel did adeptly predict that, "the victories in Maryland, the emancipation proclamation, and the one which threatens traitors in the North with punishment when obstreperous, have worked [a] wondrous change. The future is darker and bloodier to the rebels than the past and present."

Democrats crowed over their victory in 1862.
"Abolitionism Rebuked!" the Compiler boasted.
Edward McPherson lost the election in a landslide victory for the Democracy. Early returns showed McPherson losing by over 450 votes in his home county alone. "We assume," The Sentinel lamented, that even, "the Army vote of the District will not overcome Mr. Coffroth's majority on the Home vote, and therefore concede the defeat of Mr. McPherson for Congress." For local Republicans, the root of the loss was quite clear. McPherson, "was pursued with steady and calculating malignity. His opinions were misrepresented, his record perverted, his motives misconstrued, his purest acts maligned, and everything said and done, which an artful foe could concoct to his injury."

But McPherson's record was not twisted all that much. His stand for the freedom of four million in bonds in the South were relatively consistent and unwavering. The Emancipation Proclamation had simply awoken an angry and racist sentiment within the American Democracy, prompting the Compiler at the bottom of one column to urge locals to, "VOTE THE WHITE MAN'S TICKET!"

Lincoln sold Edward McPherson's seat in the United States House of Representatives in a calculated gamble. Lincoln sold that seat and many like it with the simple stroke of a pen in September of 1862. In exchange, Lincoln took a step down the road toward freedom and equality. McPherson's seat was collateral damage in a war for freedom.

Like Lyndon Johnson did while sweeping his pen across a sheet of paper in the East Room of the White House in 1964 then glibly noting to his comrades that his party had, "lost the south for a generation," Lincoln was willing to take a political drubbing precisely for doing the right thing rather than the popular. Lincoln was willing to alienate pockets of the white North, to lose precious seats in the House or Senate and perhaps even cement himself as a devil of epic proportions in the eyes of American racist ideology precisely because it was the virtuous path and the path that fulfilled the true promise of the nation.

And afterall, Lincoln had, "made a solemn vow before God that if General Lee was driven back from Maryland I would crown the result by the declaration for freedom to the slaves."

Emancipation was right, not popular. And Lincoln was brave precisely because of that fact, not in spite of it.

So celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation, don't simply commemorate it. It truly is a political gamble worth shouting for.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Four Days in Heaven Spending Four Days in Hell

The German Baptist Brethren Bible on the front table inside the sanctuary of the
Mumma Meetinghouse, 150 years after it sat there on the eve of the battle.

I spent four days this past weekend wallowing in the depths of hell. Around me swirled the maelstrom of battle, a spinning vortex of blood, death, destruction and loss. Outside the windows, every patch of ground is a reminder of the sacrifice and heartache.

If you squinted your eyes, or better yet closed them completely, you could see it all.

The Dunker Church (more accurately called the "Mumma Meetinghouse" or "German Baptist Brethren Meetinghouse) is a purely magical place, an amazing environment in which to weave tales of meaning for visitors.

Those tales were ones of fear and trepidation, as pacifists confronted the awful prospect of war. Those tales were ones of hope and heartache, as Emancipation came within a hair's breadth of freeing the men and women enslaved on Sharpsburg's landscape, but not quite close enough in 1863. Those tales were ones of horror and shock, as Civil War photos became portals to the past and the present.

I kept getting asked the question, over and over again, "aren't you tired?"

But the opposite was true. Each interaction with a visitor refreshed me, uplifted me and brought light to my step. By Monday, I could barely hobble out of bed and slide into my green and grey uniform. But the pain was a good one, the aches were almost therapeutic.

My hat / PD NPS Photo
I had forgotten the joy of seeing someone have that moment of new appreciation for a place, whether that place be old friend or new acquaintance.

All told, I spoke to the majority of the people who visited Sharpsburg this weekend and wandered onto the battlefield. The location was prime, the crowd flow was intense, but the opportunities for meanings were limitless. From the fight against slavery to the fight over secession, from smouldering Libya to the streets of New York, the Dunker Church became a time machine allowing all of us to view ourselves from wild perspectives and amazing heights.

Tune in next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel and you might get a glimpse at some of the meanings I shared with visitors.

Maryland, it turns out, was an amazing, violent, vibrant, frightening and befuddling place in 1862. It only takes a time machine to visit it.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Sharpsburg, Maryland: 150 Years Later

The battle this weekend would shine light
upon a nation and soak that same land in blood.
If you are somewhere in the mid-Atlantic region over this next weekend, are obsessed with studying and understanding the Civil War and aren't going to be trying your damnedest to be in Sharpsburg, Maryland this weekend, you might want to check your pulse.

I'll be there, as will many friends of the blog (including alum-author Jake, past guest blogger Vanessa Smiley and stellar interpreter Emmanuel Dabney from over at Interpretive Challenges), working to help visitors find deep meanings on the landscape.

So, stop by the Dunker Chruch and wave hello to me. And find my compatriots all over the park, connecting the battlefield of yesterday to the world of today.

Find out all the cool things happening this weekend over at the National Park Service's site.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

You Don't Get A Tour; Come Back Next June

A sign that can literally stop visitors in their
tracks. I've seen it happen nearly every Friday.
A friend of mine and former supervisor said something to me the other day. I deeply respect him; he taught me the very basics of interpretation. But his words shocked me. I still don't know exactly how to process them.

He said something like, "I saw you leading a tour on Friday with three visitors. It takes something to go out there when you know you're only going to get so few people. I respect you for it; I couldn't do it."

The most exciting sight in a National Park for me is a simple sign. Sometimes it's brown and mounted up on a high post. Sometimes it's low to the ground with a little magnetic slot for a time placard. Sometimes, like at Harpers Ferry, it's wooden and dangles from metal rings off of a mobile stand.

The signs read, in clear, plain letters, wherever they are, "Ranger Program Begins Here."

The soundtrack for today's post is
brought to you by the
Five Man Electric Band...
I have a timeslot on that particular sign. On Fridays all through the summer (and now into the fall) I've been doing experimental programming in the park, trying out and testing new techniques, honing my skills and in general staying fresh. I spend the rest of my week shackled to a desk, so getting out and talking to the public is a welcomed breath of fresh air, and makes me feel like a real Park Ranger and not some obscene pretender to the title.

But lately, my brown sign has been disappearing. Someone has been tucking it away behind the buildings. And thank god for the stalwart volunteers who, every time I call the information center on a Friday morning and remind them I'll be doing a tour, drag it back out from it's hiding place and slide the "11:00" tag into it's proper place.

And some well-meaning soul, by the next Monday morning, has dragged it back into hiding.

But why?

The answer is simple: it's not summer anymore. There are no more tours, or very few. And, I'd wager, the person dragging the sign behind the brick walls of the buildings is trying not to tease visitors or get their hopes up. That's a valiant reason, but is it really productive or simply sweeping a broader problem under the rug?

The Clemson / Virginia Tech report on effective National Park Service interpretation has been rattling around in my brain lately. Beyond its implications for the individual interpreter, the report released last month will hopefully have deep implications for management and program planning.

One of the key findings of the report is stark (emphasis added):

Because nearly all programs produce positive results and these data have the highest potential to be measured consistently, we recommend monitoring numbers of programs and attendees, as well as the proportion of scheduled programs that actually take place. These appear to be the most reliable measures of interpretive program health across parks.

Hide it under a bushel? No.
Why not let it shine?
The health of interpretation can be measured in the sheer number of personal services programs a site puts on the schedule.

So what's the health of interpretation after the college kids disappear from our parks in August? Many parks eviscerate their tour schedule. Many days, nary a personal services program is offered. And with the schedule go my favorite signs.

But why hide them?

What if we left the signs out? Might they work as amazingly powerful motivators?

For parks with limited or non-existent staffing, what types of conversations would they spark with visitors? When a visitor asks when the tour begins at the sign, imagine having to tell them that the park doesn't have enough in the budget to have enough staff to offer them a tour. What sort of righteous indignation (or meaningful letter begging a Congressman to increase that park's budget) might that encounter inspire?

And what about parks where interpreters are content not giving tours? What about those sites where there's enough staff, but ambition seems to have dried up? Might my favorite badge of honor become a deeply motivating mark of shame each time a visitor asks, "why aren't there any tours beginning at that sign today?" Might it move some rangers to step back out into the sunshine and help visitors find new meanings, even if it's only one or two on a program in late August or early September?

After all, they came here and they desperately want to care. Why make them wait until next June? Why not help them care today?