Thursday, March 28, 2013

Tool of Revolution, Piece of the True Cross

One of the treasures on display in Special
Collections, a receipt for a slave's labor on the
defenses of Richmond.
One of my former students, brilliant researcher and Gettysburg College Senior Lauren Roedner has been pulling together an exhibit from the private collection of Angelo Scarlato, displayed in the display cases in Gettysburg College's Special Collections. The exhibit, Slaves, Soldiers, Citizens: African American Artifacts of the Civil War Era opens officially on Monday. But I was able to sneak a quick peak on Wednesday night of the exhibit-in-progress.

There are some amazing artifacts, from freedom papers to slave collars, which pluck at the very heart of the 19th century's driving institution and struggle.

But one in particular caught my eye on Wednesday night. It is a rifle musket, like any other used in that war to preserve the United States. Carved in the stock are the initials, "I.J.W." and a unit, "CO. F 43." But the inscription doesn't have a state.

The gun was carried by Isaac J. Winters as he marched through Virginia during the war with the 43rd United States Colored Troops. Winters was a native Pennsylvanian, a free farm laborer from the outskirts of Philadelphia. As the war began, the 32-year-old man had a wife Margaret and two children, a daughter named Eliza and an infant son named Charles. As the war progressed, Winters' fledgling family continued to grow; his wife Margaret was pregnant with a girl as the calendar turned over from 1862 to 1863.

That flip of the calendar was important for all of America too. The war which the nation had been mired in for nearly two years was transforming. America began fighting, quite literally overnight, for a new goal: the freedom of 4 million held in bondage in the South. The Emancipation Proclamation opened the floodgates of freedom, transforming the war's aim. It also opened the United States military for men of a darker hue. They could start becoming real citizens.

Isaac Winters found himself, like many other citizens, caught in the new concept of conscription. He was drafted and subsequently mustered into the 43rd USCT in the late summer of 1863. The 5 foot, 9 inch tall black man was suited in a uniform and issued a weapon to fight on behalf of his nation, the new-found freedom of the citizen and, for Winters, the new-found obligation as well. He left Margaret and three children behind, his newborn daughter Anna cradled in the arms of his wife. And he fought.

The 43rd plunged through Virginia, part of a new American revolution. These were black men marching to tear men, women and children who looked just like them from the grip of slavery. According to an account from one member of Winters' unit, as they marched through Virginia, the 43rd was, "instrumental in liberating some five hundred of our sisters and brothers from the accursed yoke of human bondage." As the men crossed the Virginia countryside, the soldiers could, "see them coming in every direction, some in carts, some on their masters’ horses, and great numbers on foot." The slaves saw black faces and black hands carrying the tools of revolution and freedom, and said the sight, "seemed to them like heaven, so greatly did they realize the difference between slavery and freedom."

Winters carried that gun, that sainted relic, while he and his comrades freed their fellow human beings. He marched with it at his side while the roadsides teemed with the newly joyous, newly hopeful, newly free men and women of Virginia.

And he carried it on July 30th, 1864 as well, as the 43rd USCT watched a cloud mushroom from the rebel lines as a mine exploded beneath their feet. And into the maelstrom of the Battle of the Crater, Winters and the 43rd USCT plunged. As the battle progressed, Winters was wounded. He would spend months in the hospital before returning to his unit late that fall. He made it home safely to Margaret, Eliza, Charles and Anna by the fall of 1865.

But that gun is not simply a relic of Isaac J. Winters; it is a relic of a revolution. That weapon freed slaves. It is not a metaphorical object, though it certainly is that as well. It is a true relic, a piece of the true cross in the sacrificial struggle to bring freedom to the slave.

And for now, at least for the next few months, you can visit Gettysburg College and pay Isaac J. Winters' gun its proper homage. You can kneel at this small shrine to freedom and thank Winters for taking a step forward on that road toward equality which we're still walking today.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Choice Poetry: Valiant Manhood's Flinch

Throughout the war, the front page of Gettysburg's newspapers, regardless of your political stripe, had an evergreen column. Poetry graced the upper left corner each week. Sometimes raucous, often love-lorn, chiefly patriotic, the poems must have buoyed many a Pennsylvanian spirit as America floundered in the depth of Civil War.

Most of the poems were mainstream schmaltz, passed from paper to paper as each editor read a line or two he liked and thought his readers might appreciate. The poems spread like a particularly odd malignant cancer from organ to organ.

But every so often, there appeared a unique poem. Usually they were headed with the terse words, "For the Adams Sentinel," or "For the Compiler." In the last few days of March 1863, the Sentinel ran one of those simple, local poems on its front page.

The poem was simply titled A Soldier's Musings, written from the perspective (and perhaps pen) of some boy wearing a blue uniform and fighting in the Federal ranks. The first lines shake with simple power: "The soldier's life, the soldier's life / is not the life for me." It flies in the face of every patriotic ditty and rousing aire we remember from the war.

This particular soldier seems depressed as he wrote that he is, "often sad and lonely too." It was love that strained his heart along with the perpetual boredom. "Alas, how oft in vain, / A missive from my much loved Kate, / and then I breath her name," he lamented.

But the soldier was quite certain of what all this love-sickness called for. "If e'er this soldier's life is o'er," he pined, "I'll quickly then return, / I'll never shoot a bullet more, / Or make a rebel moan." Love called not for violence or killing. Love called not for death and destruction. Love called for the opposite.

"I'll ask her then," the soldier resolved, "to change her name, / From that of Katie Love."

And what of war?

"And if I'm free again once more," the soldier-poet declares, "By Sam I'll ne'er be caught." If conscription would seek to separate their happy home, to drive a wedge between soldier and Kate, this man's choice was quite clear and certain: ""I'll take my Katie dear, / And right away to Canada, / I'll go the draft to clear."

Such was the valour of one Gettysburgian, one possibly-imagined, possibly-real American man in the face of a long and interminable war. Discretion would ultimately prove for him the better part of valour. And love would conquer war.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

An Unexpected Hiatus and a Few Remarks

After a hiatus I've felt guilty about for days, I'm returning to the keyboard to rejoin the blogosphere. A bout of my own sickness and some family sickness kept me away from the keyboard. But I return, turning up once again like a bad penny.

I've got plenty of things in the works, from Twitter to the New York Tribune, from the proto-Scott-Joplin to continuing my deep dives into Gettysburg's past. But for now, I wanted to take you inside the late, great Future of the Civil War conference held this weekend at Gettysburg College. My battle with a nasty chest-cold abated long enough for me to participate in the Working Group on Training Seasonal Rangers in an Era of Holding the High Ground. What of the conference I could participate in before I had to whisk myself away to Wilmington was excellent, and I'm hoping Peter Carmichael and the crew down the street at CWI make this an annual gathering of the minds.

So, below is my own bootleg audio of my remarks at the conference. It's not the greatest quality of recording, but the words intact. I will eventually take the time to transcribe them and clean up the edges a bit, giving them a permanent home here on the blog. For now, however, the audio is available for you to squint your ears and attempt to hear my ramblings. I'll be back next week with more crazy ideas from the bleeding edge of the odd and wild world of Interpreting the Civil War.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Loading Chekhov’s Gun in 9-Times: The Fundamental Disconnect in Historical Interpretation

Today's post is somewhat unique and calls for a different sort of introduction.

Thursday night brings into Gettysburg an avalanche of historians (both public and academic) to discuss the Future of Civil War History for a whole weekend. That means I'll be taking some annual leave from work and participating in a working-group investigating "Training Seasonal Historians in the Age of Holding the High Ground." It's still unclear who will be able to attend our panel thanks to sequestration and a moratorium on NPS travel. Still, those of us who can make it will soldier on.

But I didn't want just the folks who find themselves in Gettysburg this weekend to join the conversation. So I'm posting a truncated version of my position piece for the working group. Some of it's a bit out there; I know my positions on how we could make visitors experience better can seem a bit fringe. Because it's a position piece, it's a bit longer than my typical blog post. But I think there's some interesting concepts here that need to see the light of day.

We do have a relevance problem in our Civil War sites. We're not speaking to America. Here are some of my thoughts on how we might start doing that...

Anton Chekhov, famed 19th Century Russian playwright, died of Tuberculosis in 1904. I like to envision Chekhov’s parlor. I have no clue what his parlor looked like or where it even was. I would presume it was in Russia, or perhaps the Ukraine. In my mind, it looks like the set to his play The Cherry Orchard that my college theatre department put on while I was an undergrad. The shape of the room, though, doesn’t matter.

What matters is that on the wall of Chekhov’s parlor in my imagination, displayed prominently on one wall is the absence of a gun. It’s not there. It is not neatly hanging on the wall. There is no fouling piece cradled from two hooks. There aren’t even two hooks from which to hang a gun at all. And (obviously) because it’s not there, it’s not loaded. It’s not ready to be fired. The hammer is not cocked and waiting. Chekhov’s parlor in my mind has a floating empty space on the wall precisely where a gun is not. There is no gun.


Seventy-five percent of National Park Service interpreters were classed as, “Walking Encyclopedias,” in a recent study by Clemson University’s Marc Stern and Virginia Tech’s Robert Powell of personal-services interpretation. These types of interpreters were wholly, “focused on conveying a large volume of facts.”

First and foremost, that is not intended as a positive assessment. Those words should sting. They should sting with all the weight of words hurled by a fourth grade bully at a book-toting, glasses-wearing pre-teen as he ambles down the hall of the school. Because in the end that’s what those words mean: just like the classic stereotype of a nerd, the label, “Walking Encyclopedia,” is not a damnation of knowledge but fundamental social skills. The “Walking Encyclopedia” Park Ranger is aloof, unreachable and unrelatable. They are principally not an effective communicator.

This class of primary interpreter identity, the report went on to show, correlated negatively with visitor outcomes. In short, the more like a “walking encyclopedia” an interpreter is, the less likely the visitors are to have a positive behavioral change because of a program.

Encyclopedias have one key goal, be they the traditional kind which sit on library shelves, the new digital encyclopedias of the internet age or the walking variety: imparting knowledge. But imparting knowledge as a goal is not necessarily the most effective tactic when it comes to interpretation. “Interpreters who expressed that a primary goal of their program was to increase the knowledge of the audience about their program’s topic,” the Stern & Powell report concluded, “achieved lower visitor experience and appreciation scores than others.”

Setting out to teach facts and figures, information and events, tactics or biographies is simply not as effective as other more noble endeavours. When an interpreter intends to increase visitor knowledge, when she desires to cram facts into their heads, programs begin to become less effective on the whole. “Those aiming to change their audience’s attitudes, appreciation, understanding, and/or desire to learn achieved more positive attitudinal outcomes,” Stern and Powell continued, “Interpreters who explicitly aimed to increase their audience members’ levels of concern or change their behavior were more likely to achieve more positive post‐program behavioral change than others.”

Knowledge is power, as the adage from Francis Bacon and 1990s Saturday Morning Cartoons exclaim, but it certainly is not the key predictor of success in Interpretation. Setting out to impart knowledge to visitors, setting out literally to teach them facts, is not as powerful or pure a motive as the myriad other options an interpreter has when stepping out into the field to give a program.

Yet one of the key metrics for success in both National Park Service interpretation training and beyond is the measurable outcome. These types of goals and objectives are typically phrased as a, “by the end of this tour/talk, visitors will be able to…” formulaic phrase. Often, the next few words are something akin to, “name three generals who commanded troops at Cold Harbor and explain their significance,” or, “list two of the three major branches of the Army during the war and explain their utility.”


A whole wall of Chekhov's Guns
/ CC Chris O'Donnell
When we let our primary selection criteria for guides or interpreters be raw knowledge and when we eschew the ability to process that story into a more powerful meaning, then we will find we have hired am extremely knowledgeable corps of interpreters who have not a lick of skill when it comes to the basics of storytelling or molding a narrative. We find ourselves with a workforce composed primarily of researchers and not communicators, primarily of brains without mouths, of minds without meaningful vocabularies. And the most apparent expression of this, in our Civil War landscapes, is the proliferation of interpretive programming which concerns itself heavily with the facts of the historical events at play, but nearly always ignores the broader scope of the narrative and its personal significances to the audience in front of us.

It seems one of our most desperate fears is that one of our visitors might know more than us. Culturally within the National Park Service, we have a deep-set fear that we cannot possibly survive that type of scenario. So we arm our staffs, both temporary and permanent, to constantly play a game of ‘stump the ranger.’ We focus our seasonal training initiatives on cramming as many facts about our park narratives, predominately battle tactics and movements at Civil War sites, into a budding ranger's head instead of turning the focus toward technique and delivery methods. It is not a sin to turn to a visitor who is trying to engage in a game of ‘stump the ranger’ and say, "I'm sorry, I don't know the answer to that one. But here's a good book to try." And if that visitor persists, it is not a sin to tell them that an interpreter's job is not to know every fact, but simply to help visitors have meaningful experiences using the facts the interpreter does know.

Facts and knowledge are important, just not paramount. The raw stuff of history is wheat and chaff waiting to be separated at the mill of the mind. This much the interpreter shares with the historian. Both take the raw material of history, the documents, letters, censuses, notes scribbled in the heat of the moment, and do something with them. The historian runs all this through the grist mill of the mind, grinding the facts and figures against the wheel and bringing forth massive 50 lb. bags of fine ground flour. The historian captures every viable grain of wheat, leaves behind the chaff and crams the fine flour into the larders of knowledge. That's not a fault, it's simply a definition.

But History is to Interpretation as a fifty pound sack of flour is to a cupcake; they partly comprise the same basic materials, but one takes a lot weirder fine grain control. The interpreter, the truly skilled interpreter like Larsen, runs that same grist through the mill of the mind and comes out with 50 lb. bags of fine ground flour as well. But the interpreter looks for the one cup in that fifty pounds, the one scoop of flour that will make the perfect cupcake, a scoop that will make the most amazing meaning. Then they politely dump the majority of that flour into the hog trough, not to be used for human consumption but not decried as entirely useless.

Interpretation is a fundamentally different philosophy of research and construction. The Historian amasses the aggregate of the world's knowledge. The Interpreter combs the world's knowledge for one or two amazingly meaningful tastes.

What does this look like? The Interpreter digging through history seeks out resonances, not complete bodies of knowledge. Resonances are the echoes of the past forward into the human soul. So instead of worrying about learning an order of battle or a table of organization, the interpreter's job is to build a small but ever-growing toolkit of meanings and stories, small morsel ready to whip out and build greater meaning in a place.

So what does a future for Civil War Interpretation look like, then? First and foremost, it is not a rote listing of facts. It is not taking visitors onto a battlefield and endlessly explicating minute movements of company level bodies of troops with no sense of meaning or purpose. It needs to be something more, something truly interpretive. It needs to not focus on imparting facts as much as inspiring wonder and curiosity within the visiting public. It needs to be personally relevant to the whole American people, and not simply those visiting our sites. In short, it needs to be conveyed by Park Rangers who identify themselves as interpreters first and historians second, as servants always to the meanings of the past and not solely to the facts.


And so we return to that first damnation of Stern & Powell’s report: the Walking Encyclopedia. This is the ever flowing font of knowledge. It is not so much a font as a fire hose, spewing out a constant, blistering stream of water. This is our primary character trait as interpretive park rangers at National Parks. We gather our crowd near the fire hydrant that says, “Ranger Programs Begin Here,” hook up a hose and kindly ask them to drink, before open the nozzle on them at full bore. And the rules of narrative have an answer for the Walking Encyclopedia as well.

In a letter to fellow playwright Aleksandr Lazarev in 1889, Anton Chekhov noted about exactly how much detail he intended to include in a play. “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it,” Chekhov mused. Muscovite businessman and art collector Sergei Shchukin purportedly remembered an even more descriptive maxim from Chekhov in his own memoir: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” The gun is detail. If it will never go off, it is simply an adornment on the wall. It is a distraction for the audience. Hand the gun on the wall and someone, even if it is just one mind sitting in the balcony, will forget that the entire rest of the play is happening and wait for the flash and the bang.

The literary principle of Chekhov’s Gun is one antidote in a medicine case of many waiting to be applied like a poultice to Civil War interpretation. Does this or that fact contribute to understand? Does it lend meaning? Does it throw an amazing light on a truly meaningful opportunity for the visitor to connect with this place, with the real? No? Were you just including it to show the depth of knowledge you have and nothing else? Lose it! Don’t hand the gun on the wall if it will never go off. Don’t establish where a man is from if you never bring it up again? Did this soldier have four children? Was he a carpenter? Are you going to do something with those facts more than just hang them on the wall and forget them? Will you churn them into meaning later on? If not, don’t go to the bother of hanging them on the wall. Strip the story to its meaning, so that no one’s eyes or ears are waiting for the bang that will never come.

The simple tools of communication are the greatest antidote we have to the grand disease that is the Walking Encyclopedia in the National Park Service. The cure is simple; we simply need to stop being historians and start being communicators and partners in our visitors’ own discovery. When we help them to find meaning, and not a litany of facts, then we will be relevant to the whole American people. Right now, our relevance is in a downward spiral and there aren’t many parachutes hanging on the wall of the plane. Someone, anyone, needs to pull up on the yoke.

The parlor in my imagination, the one Anton Chekhov left behind inside his villa in Yalta in 1904, has no gun on the wall. It’s not waiting to be fired. No maid lightly dusts the cocked hammer. No cap sits atop the cone. No hammer falls down. A plume of gun smoke doesn’t drift through the air. The playwright is not stunned by the lack of an explosion. He does not clutch his stomach; there is no gaping hole in his gut. There is no gun.

Anton Chekhov, famed 19th Century Russian playwright, died of Tuberculosis in 1904.

This work contains material based upon or wholly the work of a National Park Service employee, created during the course of official duties. As a work of a federal government agency, such work is in the public domain and free to be redistributed, reused or remixed by anyone for any purpose.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Shattered by War: The Huber Family

Frederick's battered tombstone. / CC Wiki
The tale of Sergent Frederick Huber is relatively well known. The young man, fighting at the battle of Fair Oaks, was struck by three rounds, the final a bullet through his breast that quickly sapped him of his life. The Adams Sentinel reported the incident in the early summer days of 1862, underlining Frederick's bravery in the face of the great beyond. "Tell Father," he reportedly said with his dying breath, according to the Sentinel, "I have died for my country."

But who was that father?

Dr. Henry S. Huber was 48-years-old as his son lay dying in some godforsaken field in Virginia. Up to this point, Huber's life had been relatively uneventful. Most of his medical career he'd spent in Gettysburg, moving to Southern Pennsylvania after a nasty bout of malaria made him leave his practice in Chicago. Aside from his practice, the Doctor also taught physiology at Pennsylvania College, just north of his home on Chambersburg Street.

"As a physician," a former student later recalled, "Dr. Huber displayed a sound judgement in the diagnosis of disease, and in the application of remedies was bold and very successful." But his skill went beyond treating the flu. "As a surgeon he ranked above mediocrity, was dextrous with the use of the knife and operated with skill."

Henry knew what the inner workings of a human body looked like. He knew what happened when you poked and prodded at an organ, when you excised tissue or pierced muscle.

And reading the account of his son's wounds, the bullet piercing through his breast, the doctor-father must have instantly known the pain, known the dread, felt the blood trickling from his son's chest at that long and lonely distance. He didn't need to be told that Frederick had died; his mind would have filled in that gap long before he read the words.

That was May of 1862. Dr. Henry Huber made the long trek to the outskirts of Richmond. He stood in the destroyed hell that is a battlefield after war. He saw the carnage, saw the outcomes of the horror of this war. Then he exhumed his son's battered corpse and saw the true depth of that horror.

How many corpses had he examined like this before? And yet this one was so different. Not a cadaver from a medical school classroom, but the shattered form of the son you loved so deeply. The son who won your pride as he grew to manhood. The son who graduated from the college where you teach human physiology and biology. The son you cradled in your arms when he was tiny. This wasn't just any body, this was Henry's Frederick.

The precious coffin was carted home and placed in Evergreen Cemetery, under a smart looking tombstone and with much local honor.

Time passed. And then the horror of war that seemed destined to remain in Virginia bled into Pennsylvania. And war came to Gettysburg.

Sometime during the fighting, Frederick Huber's eternal slumber on Cemetery Hill was disturbed. A shell plowed through his tombstone, cracking the marble artwork and wiping his name from the marker. Frederick Huber was once again no more. But he felt no terror. He felt no sorrow. He felt nothing when his epitaph was truncated from, "Frederick A. Huber," to simply, "Son of Dr. H.S. & P.J. Huber."

Dr. Huber's signature, as it appears in the
Penna. Border Damage Claims, filed
in the late 1860s and early 1870s.
But where one shell instilled no terror, another would strike nothing but.

On the southeastern corner of Chambersburg and Washington Streets, the living Huber Family cowered. Outside was the hell which had taken Frederick, now come for them too. And then, as the chaos reigned in those first frantic hours of battle of July 1st, their home itself was pierced. A shell entered the third floor, crashing through the front and side walls of the home. Glass rained down as a window frame racked under the force of the speeding missile. A shutter was slammed to pieces and destroyed. Gravity pulled a few bricks down from their cemented perches.

Dust settled. The house still stood, a small scar at its roof-line that would need to be fixed in the weeks after two armies finally left this southern Pennsylvania town. The damage amounted to $25. With new bricks, new window, new shutter, nary a scar remained to show where the shell had hit.

And still, what scars did that small speeding hunk of iron leave behind? What wounds were left that even Dr. Henry S. Huber, the talented physician and surgeon, could never heal even with his best efforts? Some wounds last forever.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Interpreting Different Cheesesteaks

Wednesday's Metaphorical Cheesesteak, dirty and
on the street. Just like it should be.
I wandered around Philadelphia last week on travel for work, which meant I had the opportunity to indulge in my favorite Philly pleasure. Besides Rocky, Comcast and Benjamin "Macho Man" Franklin, the City of Brotherly Love has given us all one other joyous invention: the cheesesteak.

I'm a Pat's King of Steaks partisan.

My order is, "wiz wit," and is usually served up with a side of pickled peppers. I love the dingy picnic tables. I love the greasy grill. I love the surly staff that mans the window. Going to Philadelphia means an inevitable pilgrimage down to Passyunk & 9th for a taste of true sandwich perfection.

Except I didn't go to Passyunk this time. I could have. I had the time, Pat's is open 24-hours and the steak is always hot. Still, I didn't make my usual trek.

Instead, I had a steak at a street cart just outside Independence Hall. There was no wiz. The cheese was provolone. It still had onions, but they were crisp and moist, not stringy and caramelized. And the view wasn't a South Philly baseball diamond, it was the brick-and-mortar cradle of liberty.

The sandwich was nothing like what I expected.

It wasn't bad, it was just different. I enjoyed the different experience. I liked this different steak.

It's not what I went to Philadelphia seeking, but it game me a new appreciation for the form. It was a new sandwich experience. I found a new way to see cheesesteak.

Sometimes, interpreters are afraid of changing their stories. The inertia in many interpretive environments can be indomitable. You hear phrases like, "our audience doesn't come here to hear those types of stories," or, "if we change what we talk about, our audience won't come anymore."

But I'm going to keep eating cheesesteaks. In fact, this new cheesesteak experience might open me up to trying other takes on the sandwich. I'll still love the Pat's experience. But I'm not so dead-set against trying other offerings in the city of Brotherly Love.

Maybe our sites are the same. We can offer up new sandwiches alongside the old, different meanings along with the ones we've been sharing for generations. Trying new cheesesteaks doesn't diminish my love of Pat's. Nor does it mean I can never eat a Pat's steak again. It just means I've found other steaks that I enjoy as well.

And in Philly, variations on cheesesteaks are inexhaustible. I can keep finding sandwiches that mean something to me.

Thank god.