Thursday, January 16, 2014

Confederates in the Swimming Pool

I was swimming last night and thinking about dead Confederates. Someday, it's utterances like that which are going to see me involuntarily committed to an asylum. But it's true. I swam and thought about dead Confederates.

My pool is on Seminary Ridge at the YWCA Gettysburg & Adams County, just down the street from our house. That likely starts to explain why I was thinking of dead Confederates. Here, on the slope of Seminary Ridge, the YWCA sits just adjacent to the Seminary Campus. It's been there for quite a while, that pool was dug in 1980. Before it moved to its new home on Seminary Ridge, the YWCA was downtown, in the home where the Danner family weathered the storm of battle on the Diamond in town.

So, as I tread water in the deep end of the pool, I thought about the space I was occupying. It is water now, but in 1863 it was dirt, the fields behind a school dedicated to peace which saw too much war. And, with dead bodies trickling out the door of the Seminary hospital, those fields began filling with the stiffened bodies of men.

I was swimming, likely, in a grave last night. I pencil-dove as deep at I could, trying to get down to six feet, trying to dive down to those graves.

But as came back to the surface, I realized six feet was an unknown luxury in 1863. Rushed comrades dug as deep as they could. But hundreds were scattered dead across those fields and there just weren't enough hours or energy.

So I headed toward the shallow end of the pool. In three feet of water, I touched the tiled floor of the pool.

But even that was too deep.

I tend to sit on kickboards in the water when I'm lazing in a pool, hovering on the foam core chunks like a swing with no ropes. And it was at that moment I realized that was the perfect depth. I was sitting on the floor of a grave in the pool, just deep enough to cover over some poor soldier's face.

Time changes places, it has changed that ridge in small ways here and there. And one of those changes helps visualize the past, even if by mistake.

So I swam where Confederates (and likely many Federal soldiers too) once lay.

Was I swimming where William T. Watts was once buried? The 26-year-old man was wounded on July 3rd in the left foot. Surgeons in the Seminary Hospital took a chunk of the flesh and bone away, removing a few toes and metatarsals. But infection set into what was left of his foot, and he died on the 29th of August.

That past December, Watts fled the 4th Virginia Infantry for a few months, deserting the army, but returning by February of 1863. As he lay in the Seminary dying in agony, you can't help but wonder if he wished he had never returned, wished he hadn't come back, wished he'd stayed somewhere safe instead of having half his foot hacked off in some godforsaken house of God.

So now, when I go swimming, I'll be thinking just a little bit about William Watts and his comrades. When I sit on a kickboard, I'll probably remember I'm sitting on the floor of his former grave. I just can't help but think of these things. When I'm swimming, it only makes sense to think of dead Confederates' graves.

Because history is a disease of the mind, and I'm sick.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

For Gods' Sake, Copy-edit that Textbook on the Wall

The Stuka in Question. / CC nathanm
So, my social streams flooded on Monday with an article from the Denver Business Journal, a weekly Colorado publication with a circulation rate of about 16,000 issues. The internet is an amazingly powerful force for magnification. It can make a rant from one irate museum goer with very-close-to-nihl circulation seem like a meaningful and broadly held opinion.

In his ramshackle screed, and there's very little else it could be called, David Sneed, owner of a fence construction company in Denver, rants about the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

But after all that waiting, most visitors didn’t even notice the Stuka... because they were too busy smashing their pudgy hands against a filthy red button to hear the T-Rex roar.

I understand on one level Sneed's frustration. From a few photos I've gleaned online, the main transportation hall where the Stuka hangs seems to have little in the way of interpretation or context, the German dive-bomber hanging awkwardly beside a Boeing 727's fuselage and a steam locomotive.

The problem is much the same as I have with the Enola Gay's current berth at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA, where, stacked like cord-wood atop other planes of the World War II era, it loses all context and meaning. I much prefer (unlike the members of the VFW) the 1995 exhibition and its original script delving into what that plane did for and to the world.

Likewise, there the Stuka hangs mute. It, as far as I can tell, doesn't tell its own story very well.

OK, so Sneed has a point. The Stuka isn't all that striking.

But that's about the only point he has which is sustainable for the future of public history. A sustainable future requires one key thing: helping everyone find a reason to care about the past. Everyone needs an access point. And access points which work for the largest percentage of "everyone," which, in the terms of interpretation, strike toward the universal, are the best investment.

What would Sneed replace the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry's interactive weather and dinosaur exhibits with? "I want a museum that bores the children and scares the old people," Sneed muses, "Learning takes time and effort; it’s boring; and kids should know that from conception."

If this Stuka had an audio track, and dramatic
lighting, and a bright red button to push
putting that frightening diving prop into action,
then it might strike fear into everyone's heart.
/ CC H. Michael Miley
Learning is not painful. It's not boring.

It can be boring. It can be torturous. It can be a process of pouring facts over the stifled and cuffed captive, like water over the nose and mouth of a victim of water-boarding.

And God knows I've been in plenty of exhibits where that's the case. I call them, as do many of my colleagues, a textbook-on-a-wall. They're those exhibits which stretch on interminably, taking literally hours to read ever bit of text. The designers decided that every fact, every detail, every nugget of minutiae needed to be printed on a panel somewhere and slapped on the wall. And once you've already paid your admission (or ridden the Metro for an hour), you feel almost honor-bound to bang your head against each and every panel until blood trickles from your furrowed and overstuffed brow.

This is Sneed's answer to the accessible museum: make it tortuous for everyone. And what will that yield?

No one will go.

When I say, "no one," I specifically mean, "not everyone."

Museums and historic sites are tasked with being relevant to everyone, not simply the already interested. If we preach to the choir, the choir can never grow.

So what is my answer? I want a museum that scares the old people, scares the young people, scares the middle aged. That's something that happens from visceral experience, not exhibit text. I want a museum that helps everyone understand the fear of a Stuka, not because of a textbook's worth of text, but from the object's placement, from the way it's lit, from the soundtrack playing alongside it.

I want a museum that makes people laugh like a soldier reading a comic in Playboy in the rice patties of Vietnam, just before a firefight erupts. But old, young and middle laugh at different things. The important learning moment is not getting the specific joke in that 1960s era magazine, but feeling that tough-to-replicate feeling of giggling in the midst of abject terror. So make them laugh, then shock them. Give them the feeling. But an exhibit panel doesn't do that, whether it's a 4th grader or a 80-year-old reading it. Experience does that.

In short, museums need to become more experiential, not less. Learning is not something we suffer through. We, as a species, have learned best from experience since the first man discovered fire. No matter that his wife told him, "hot," he only learned when he singed his own fingers.

Damning museums for trying buttons and sound effects is not productive. Lauding them and pushing them to do better is.

A thumbnail example: when my mother and I first visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, I was barely old enough to go through the exhibits (back when they had an age limit). I remember getting in the elevator, dimly lit with heavy, riveted walls. She leaned into me and with real, palpable fear in her voice whispered, "it's a gas chamber," as the attendant pushed us into the elevator and it rumbled up.

It was that moment the holocaust became real to her. The text we read for the next three hours was unnecessary.

Intentionally wanting history to be boring is elitist and antithetical to what our profession is meant to do: unearth the past to make the present a better place.


(And before some pedant comes along, yes, I know the difference between copy editing and general editing. But I also know what makes a catchier title, and something with four syllables rings better than two.)

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Bloody January: Adams County's Own Fall

On a cold 10th of January, in the dark early hours of the morning, more disaster struck. Cole's Cavalry, the 1st Potomac Home Brigade Cavalry had seen nothing but disaster since January began. Cold air stung their noses, snow and freezing rain pelted their stand collars and soaked their saddles. Finally, the found rest in a camp atop Loudon Heights, with vast panoramic views of the Shenandoah and Potomac from the crest of the hill.

Around 4am on the 10th, while Cole's men huddled together in their tents for warmth, dark forms stirred on the edges of camp. "Precisely at half past four o'clock this morning," a soldier wrote to the Adams Sentinel, "Moseby's Rebel Battalion, himself in person at their head, avoiding our pickets on the roads, crossed the fields and dashed into our camp." Around the tents, the horsemen pranced and pawed, shouting demands at the suddenly roused but still canvas shrouded men. The rebel soldiers fired their pistols and revolvers blindly through tent flaps, then, with the obvious upper-hand, "a demand for instant and unconditional surrender made."

You can imagine the bleary-eyed confusion in those tents, as soldiers rolled over to peak out and see the Grey Ghost standing outside their abodes. Then, like a flash, the, "demand was answered by a shout of defiance from our boys, as they rushed from their tents, half-naked, in the midst of their assailants, and with their trusty carbines and revolvers drove back the astonished Rebels."

A few hours later, after the firefight drove away the enemy, a soldier sat in his tent and scribbled his note to the Gettysburg newspaper. The rebel, "Captain William R. Smith called out to his men," the soldier recounted, "'Give the damned Yankees no quarter, but secure the arms and horses.'" But as the word "horses" escaped his lips, a bullet drove through the southern Captain's breast and knocked him from his saddle, dead. That cold morning, no one felt like breaking the frosty ground with a spade. "His dead body now lies in its white winding sheet of snow on the spot where it fell, a few feet from the tent in which I write." Nearby, "in a pool of his own now frozen blood, the body of Lieutenant Colston, of Baltimore," sat solidifying in the chill air.

The scene must have been ghastly. It would have turned the stomach of even the most seasoned soldier.

But for a few of Gettysburg's soldiers, the scene was nowhere in sight. They had been plucked away from their comrades as prisoners. Just a few days before, a disaster had befallen Company C, the "Keystone Rangers," on a New Year's Day scouting expedition gone awry. Of 75 men on patrol in Loudon County, 57 were killed or captured. The grim news hit Gettysburg's papers on the 12th of January. Missing, presumed prisoners, were Sergeant. J. E. Gibson and Bugler M. J. Coble. Privates Jacob Hartzell and E. C. Wenschoff were among the casualties.

George Shriver as he appeared in life, from the
Shriver House Museum's Blog.
And along Baltimore Street, in a brick home built by their patriarch, a family's heart shattered. The Shriver's Father would not be coming home. George W. Shriver joined the war early, enlisting in 1861. He lasted so long, nearly long enough to kiss his wife and hug his children again. But on New Year's Day, 1864, likely as his family took visitors in their parlour and wished each other well on the holiday, George Shriver fell into enemy hands.

His trip would take him southward, deep into the heart of the Confederacy. He found himself in a tiny crossroads town named Andersonville, and a resident of a new prison camp, Camp Sumter, being established there. Among the first prisoners through the gates of the tall wooden stockade of Andersonville was Adams County's George Shriver. At home, Henrietta and her two children must have held out hope their beloved protector would survive.

But George walked through those gates, never to leave again. Hettie wept; George was dead by August.

We who study this war, at one point or another, pause to imagine how lucky we are that we never have to witness the human carnage of somebody lying in a pool of his own blood, slowly congealing on a crisp January morning. We are blessed that we will never witness that technicolor carnage firsthand. A cold, clinical and heaven-sent 150 years seperates us from having to witness wholesale evil of the devil's 4-year carnival known as the Civil War.

But would George Shriver have felt blessed, destined as he was to lie forever in grave number 6816, far from his wife and children in Adams County? Was he blessed to be headed to a grave in the Georgia mud, rather than having to see his friends and enemies alike wrapped in their palls? Maybe even the carnage of war could be a form of relief when thrown in stark contrast to the alternative.

Seeing a frozen pool of blood on a January morning, seeing some poor man who will never make it home to his family, at least means you might, perhaps, make it home to see yours.


Back when Jacob was writing for the blog, he penned a terrific review of the Shriver House's interpretation. Head on over and give it another peek.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Gettysburg's New Dawn, 1864

The first few days of January are usually crisp and cold in Gettysburg. Sometimes there is frost or snow, sometimes not. Sometimes there is a bitter wind, sometimes not. Sometimes there is sun bleeding across the horizon and splashing a cloudless sky, sometimes there is not. But the new year here, like everywhere else, stands as a symbol of promise and hope for the future.

And nowhere, during those bitter cold first few days of January, 1864 needed hope more than Gettysburg. For the many Lutheran men and women milling through the streets, the language of John of Patmos' Revelation might have been the most honest description of the last year. "Go your ways, and pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth." Gettysburg had been drenched in wrath.

But even in the slowly healing craggy wasteland that surrounded Gettysburg, there was hope. And unlike John's vision of the great showdown of heavenly host, this hopeful message rhymed.

A year has passed, and on the walls of time,
We hear the distant echoes of its chime,
And now, as often in the days of yore,
The Carrier comes unto each patron's door,
And shall, in simple and in honest verse,
The glorious scenes of the past year rehearse;
And praise the heroes who, in noble strife,
Fell nobly fighting for the Nation's life.

For the men and women who lived here, the meaning of their struggle of the last year was abundantly clear. In the "Carrier's Address to the Patrons of the Adams Sentinel," in the newspaper's first issue of 1864, the meaning of battle at Gettysburg was laid out for anyone who cared to follow the lilting verse. Stanza after stanza whips by, as the poet describes how, when the rebels plowed through the fields, "with their flag of 'bars,'" the heroes of the townspeople had flying over their shoulders, "the gallant 'stripes and stars.'"

A clash not unlike that in Revelation had happened here, as "host met host." Yet still, "like old Ocean's rock, / Our boys withstood the fiery charge and shock." The sainted sons of the United States prevailed, "and Heaven smiled as we the victory won."

Then the poet pivots, because this town had seen so much more than just three days of carnage in the past year. Those burning few moments of carnage had only been 4/5th of a percent of the year's days, hours and seconds. But those fleeting moments of fire shifted the course of all the months which followed.

Suddenly, the poet brings down upon Gettysburg not armies, but throngs of visitors. We are standing in November. And we start to see the meaning of it all — Freedom.

The scene is changed! What means this concourse vast?
Has some bright fairy's wand been o'er us cast?
For lo! behold! the dignitaries of our land
Are here together, as one common band;
While thousands upon thousands come,
Each from their far and distant home.
What brings them here? It is to see
The graves of those who died to make us free;
To consecrate the Cemetery for the dead,
Who nobly for our Union their blood shed.

Gettysburg had been etched into eternity, the name of a place forever known for a few simple acts: killing and speaking. But the future was still unclear. How soon, "Disunion's swelling flood," would take to crest and fall again was still unclear. "But if the cloud that now dark o'er us lowers, Should burst upon us its ensanguined showers," the Carrier assured the borough, "Yet like the far-famed Nazarite of old, We to the pillars of the fane shall hold, And the same shock that ruin round us throws, Shall hurl destruction on our common foes."

Gettysburg had seen the worst of war. But something else had sprung from that bloodsoaked stem: hope. The war, for much of the nation, had seemed to change in that first week of July. The carnage was awful. The loss was appaling. But out of that destruction, there seemed the glimmering light of an oncoming dawn. Like a small glowing ember, it must be kindled into a flame, then a fire, but it was there.

If this small town of a few thousands people could find their hope in the bloodsoaked ground outside their doors and the bloodsoaked shirtsleeves which hung around their wrists half-a-year earlier, there was hope enough for the nation.

War was far from over, but if Americans kept blowing on that ember, cupping their worn, calloused and bloodstained hands to its feeble warmth, the great fire of peace might again blaze in the hearths of the nation.

1864 would be another long year of war. It would prove to be the war's last long year. But for the men and women standing in Gettysburg's frigid streets on New Years Day 1864, that war had no end yet. It was an eternal war. And peace was still a long ways off.