What role should NPS historians play in the process of social change?

From John Hennessy

Here’s a profound question that anyone in the NPS has wrestled with, or should:

Should the National Park Service–through its programs and interpretation–facilitate public conversations that lead to social change, advocate directly for social change, or merely reflect those changes after they have taken place?

Here’s my take:  

In the end, the NPS always has and always will reflect the society it serves—or at least those  parts of society that have political voice. For long stretches, America behaved as though it had a single, universal history, whose virtues the NPS faithfully emphasized and promoted. As political power has dispersed throughout or society, so have the demand that both academic historians and public historians in the NPS (and elsewhere) recognize aspects of the American story long overlooked, or even purposely forgotten.  This is not political correctness. This is historical justice within a society built on the concept of equality and justice.

At the 2012 program “10,000 Lights to Freedom,” visitors carried and then shed stones symbolic of slavery.

The NPS today manages sites associated with gay rights, civil rights, the internment of Japanese, the Trail of Tears, and dozens of sites associated with what was once heroically labeled “westward expansion”—a period we today see as a complex mix of aspiration, suppression, relocation, and even genocide. The NPS didn’t lead the Civil Rights or Gay Rights movements.  But we reflect that they have happened. So it should be. And so it should be that our understanding of these sites and stories will evolve over time, as society evolves. History is dynamic.  

Maybe the question I originally posed is too simplistic. Try this instead: are public historians in the NPS (a government agency) observers and narrators of change, or do they have a role in the evolution of a dynamic society?   While I rather emphatically do not see my role or that of the NPS as the agent of social change (as someone asked, “whose change do we choose?”), I think public historians have an important role to play in the process of change, and it is this: 

Using the best scholarship available and thoughtful and dynamic presentation, we need to illuminate brightly the path that brought us to where we are, and then hope that our programs prompt listeners and readers use that information (and, perhaps, inspiration) thoughtfully as they engage in the ongoing quest to improve our nation.

The chasm

By John Hennessy. (This post originally published in 2012, but is worth revisiting.]

Not long ago I did a program in Spotsylvania County on the 1862 exodus to freedom in the Fredericksburg area, something we have written about a good deal. The event was at the new John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania County, a great exhibition dedicated to the history of African-Americans in Spotsylvania. We had a good crowd–60-70 people, about half black, half white.

The program was fine enough, but what occurred afterwards dropped jaws all around. I can’t explain how it happened, but the Q&A turned into a public forum on the place of the Civil War in our culture, and specifically how African-Americans view the War and slavery. It was as open an exchange about history among people with different backgrounds as I have ever seen. If we could bottle it and repeat it a thousands times, we’d make a difference in the world…

There were harsh, honest words. One man in particular declared that he viewed everything associated with the Confederacy as “toxic.” Another suggested that the Civil War has been and is simply a popular vehicle for helping to maintain white supremacy in America. Others pitched in–politely and productively, though often intensely–and through the room swirled a current of feeling that everyone who was there will remember the rest of their lives.

It wasn’t that everyone agreed; it was that everyone understood from whence other opinions came.

In public history we deal with lots of contrasting ideas and interpretations, for the Civil War was clearly the most complex event in our nation’s history. But every once in a while, from the swirl emerges some clarity–and so it was for me on this day.

I have written fairly extensively about the distinction between personal motivation and national purpose, and how we as a nation have, when it comes to the Civil War, often merged the two.

As these people spoke that day in Spotsylvania (the majority of the speakers African-Americans), the source of the chasm that exists between how African-Americans view the war (mostly as it relates to popular culture and politics) and how many white Southerners see it emerged. Virtually every person in that room who rose to speak saw of the Confederacy purely in terms of its national purpose–most prominently, its avowed intent (embodied in its constitution) to perpetuate a white supremacist nation that sustained slavery.

Many white Americans–with their intensely personal connection to the war and the Confederacy–speak of the war in terms of the personal motivation of participants (sometimes imperfectly understood), often their ancestors. To those Americans the war is defined not by national purpose, but by personal motivation.

And therein lies the great American chasm as it relates to the Civil War.

To many people in attendance, efforts to deny or redefine the national purpose of the Confederacy in order to reflect more positively on an ancestor or the South is simply offensive, and so the war evokes no connection or inspiration, only hostility.

Continue reading

Some tidbits on Alum Springs

Veterans at Alum Springs

Today it is a park–“Alum Springs,” along Hazel Run just west of the Blue-Gray Parkway. I daresay not many people give much thought to how it came to be or what it was, but in fact Alum Springs has a fairly complex history. Beyond the springs themselves–in the upper end of the park and once productive of waters believed to be curative–Alum Springs was the site of one of Fredericksburg’s few upland mills, the scene of at least two duels, and by legend a refuge for refugees during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

By far the best source on historic Alum Springs is Robert Reid Howison, who became a notable historian of both Fredericksburg and Virginia in the 19th Century. Howison was a lawyer, the brother of Jane Howison Beale, and after the Civil War the owner of Braehead along what is today North Lee Drive. His article “Dueling in Virginia,” [William and Mary Quarterly, October 1924.(Vol. IV, No. 4), pp. 217-218] includes a good deal of background about Alum Springs.  After this excerpt I have posted a number of images of the area today.

…It became a common source of enjoyment to the ladies and more refined men of the town to make up walking parties, and, in the temperate and delicious afternoons of the autumn season to walk out of the town, generally to the spot known as “Alum Springs Rock,” about two miles from the Court House in Fredericksburg. A mill site and dam for the old “Drummond’s Mill” then existed and a lake of pure water of the “Hazel Run” was just in front of “Alum Springs Rock.” In the freezes during he winter seasons this lake was frequented by many skaters. It furnished also the very hardest and best ice, which was eagerly gathered into ice-houses, private and public, in Fredericksburg, and was advertised as “Alum Spring ice,” and highly appreciated. Continue reading

Presidents in Fredericksburg: are there more?

From John Hennessy:

President McKinley in Fredericksburg in May 1900. He is in the carriage, his face toward the camera. Click to enlarge.

Years ago I did a program at the Fredericksburg Area Museum called Footfalls of the Presidents, an offshoot of their Footfalls of the Famous exhibit on notable visitors to Fredericksburg.  The program chronicled the visits of sitting, future, and former presidents to our area. Some visits were incredibly brief (the record for shortness stands at three minutes), others mundane, and some were emphatically important; at least two presidential trips to Fredericksburg involved real or threatened violence, including what I think is the first physical assault ever made on a sitting president.  One president lived in town for several years. Some stopped as a matter of convenience on their way through; others came for momentous reasons.

Judge and historian John T. Goolrick greets President Harding at the 1921 Marine Corps exercises on the Wilderness Battlefield. It was Goolrick, incidentally, who in 1924 would urge the removal of the slave block in downtown Fredericksburg, arguing that it had never been used to sell slaves.

By my count, 30 U.S. presidents have visited the Fredericksburg region at some point in their lives–thirteen of them as sitting presidents. The list as it stands today is below–given in order of their presidency, not necessarily in the order of their visits.

The question is, does anyone know of any more?

Here is the current list:

Washington,      Jefferson,     Madison,     Monroe,    Andrew Jackson,    Van Buren,   Tyler,     W.H. Harrison,      Lincoln,     J. Davis,    Polk,   Taylor,  Fillmore,   Andrew Johnson,     Grant,     Arthur,      Grover Cleveland,        McKinley,      Teddy Roosevelt,      Taft,      Wilson (in Milford, Caroline County, and almost certainly in Fredericksburg),  Coolidge     Harding,   F.D. Roosevelt (twice, perhaps three times),   Eisenhower,     Bush41,    Clinton,   Bush43,   Obama,   and Donald Trump

What’s up with Civil War Roundtables?

From John Hennessy:

I have done some speaking on the Civil War Round Table circuit lately. The public reaction to all these things has gotten me thinking, and I offer up a few observations.

A couple years ago I made a short circuit through the Deep South, speaking at two Civil War Round Tables. They treated me exceedingly well, and I enjoyed myself. But (you knew that was coming) the experience made an impression on me for other reasons.  Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, conferences and invitations to speak at Civil War Roundtables were rampant. I think one year, before Return to Bull Run came out, I received something like 180 invitations to speak at various places.  And wherever I or one of the others who commonly rode the cannonball circuit went, the audiences were large and sometimes (though not always) enthusiastic . (At one appearance I made before the Northern New Jersey CWRT, 31 of 33 people in the room fell asleep during my talk, a record I surely can never approach again. I still give thanks to the two priests in the front row who managed to stay conscious throughout.)naturalist-sullivan-leads-natl-capital-parks-tour-1951

My latest foray into the deep south took me to two large Southern cities, both with long and deep traditions at it relates to Civil War Round Tables. At one, we had 31 people in the room when I spoke. At the other, 38.  Sixty-nine people from metropolitain areas with combined populations approaching 3,000,000.  Average age;  probably well over 60.  One kid, and few young people. Last month I spoke at another CWRT in a LARGE city. Twenty-five people.

We have long been aware of the flagging interest in CWRTs, but I confess this was a bit of a splash to me (I was told the audience for my talks were typical). Friends and colleagues confirm similar experiences across the country. While some CWRT’s continue to thrive, Clearly, the Civil War Round Table as we have known it–once the foundation for interest in and advocacy for Civil War history–is stumbling, suffering from lack of interest.  Is it because interest in the Civil War is flagging across the board?  At some sites (including ours hereabouts) attendance has dropped 30-40% since 1995 or so, though in recent years the numbers have stabilized, and indeed the last couple have risen.  Or is the Civil War Round Table format just not the medium people use to engage their interest in the war?  Or, as some have suggested to me, has the move to broaden interpretation of the Civil War–to address more than the traditional military story–turned off the traditionalists, the very people who are often most engaged with CWRTs?

These are questions honestly asked.


History, Citizenship, and a Better Nation

From John Hennessy:

Photo courtesy Jackie Suazo

Photo courtesy Jackie Suazo

Last weekend, I had the true honor of giving the keynote address at a naturalization ceremony at Chatham. I had never been to a naturalization ceremony before. Thirty-six people became citizens, and probably 150 came to watch.

I have been involved in thousands of  public programs in my career, but this ranked in the top five, easily.  Witnessing something that truly matters is always a powerful thing, and this mattered–to the people receiving their citizenship, and, truly, to the people looking on as well. The day included none of the strained, polite applause that characterizes graduations or award ceremonies. Instead, there was unadulterated joy–from the participants and those watching.

The invitation to speak prompted some thinking about the nexus between history, citizenship, and our ongoing pursuit of a better nation. Here is what I had to say.

From the first days of our nation, Americans have challenged America to be better.  It’s a noisy process, sometimes raucous, sometimes even ungraceful.  But the result is unmistakable: from its beginning, our nation has traveled an arc of change that has led us away from oppression and toward equality and justice. We have meandered to be sure, and sometimes we have taken steps backward.  But the general arc of change is undeniable:  by the efforts of every generation we have progressed, become a better nation–more just, more tolerant. 

Citizenship is an invitation to join in that process of change—to join the chorus of Americans challenging America to be better.  We challenge ourselves in a million ways, by acts and words.   A gesture on a street corner challenges others to be as kind. Putting our children on the school bus each morning challenges us to be as conscientious. We challenge America to improve by voting or volunteering or raking your neighbor’s leaves, by teaching tolerance and confronting intolerance. 

Joining this process of national improvement is perhaps the greatest of all the privileges of being an American citizen. 

As we sit here today, I ask you to think for a moment about the path to citizenship.  Continue reading

Revelation in details

Our friend Pat Sullivan, who maintains the excellent blog “Spotsylvania Memory,” has done a wonderful post on the unendingly interesting details of Phenie Tapp’s life. Phenie holds a prominent place in the history of the park–in the 1930s she narrated to park historian Ralph Happel her memories of the Battle of the Wilderness (she was four or five at the time). But mystery has surrounded her life, which, as Pat shows, turned out to be a whirlwind of drama, betrayal, and intrigue. As Pat’s work demonstrates, not all our local legends were the stuff of virtue.

Our thanks to Pat for a great piece of work.

The voices of soldier and family mingled: the Knox letters to be unveiled Sunday, and you’re invited

From John Hennessy:

Knox CoverOn Sunday October 27, 2013, the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center and Historic Fredericksburg Foundation will debut a new and important book of letters relating to Civil War Fredericksburg:  The Circle Unbroken: The Civil War Letters of the Knox Family of Fredericksburg.  What makes this book launch even cooler is that it will take place in the Knoxes former home, now the Kenmore Inn. You can buy the book, of course (and Jane Beale’s diary too), but you can also stroll the house that for more than five decades served as the home for a family that sent six sons to serve in the Confederate army. To those of you consumptively inclined, the launch includes a FREE, well-victualized reception, with wine.  It runs from 3-5 p.m.  The Kenmore Inn is at 1200 Princess Anne Street in Fredericksburg, 22401. And did I say it’s free? For more on the launch, click on the Knox launch flyer.

The publication of the Knox letters is something of a community effort.  The letters were donated by the family to the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center several years ago, whose incredibly dedicated group of volunteers spent about two years transcribing and researching their contents.  (If you haven’t used the Heritage Center, you should (its collections are fabulous). And if you don’t support them, you should do that too, whether you use them or not. It’s a first-class organization that by all appearances puts every dime it gets to good use.) The publication committee of the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation arranged for their publication. The two groups have collaborated with the Kenmore Inn (which is providing immense support) on the Sunday launch of the book. Members of the Knox family will be there. We hope you will come.

This is likely the best, most complete collection of family papers related to Fredericksburg I have seen.  I wrote the following for  the introduction to the book–it gives you a good sense of the letters:

knox and beale

The Knox house in the late 19th century. That’s diarist Jane Beale’s house to the left. Between Knox, Beale, and the Alsops across the street (all of them kept extensive papers or diaries), this has to be the best-documented Civil War neighborhood in Virginia. Courtesy Historic Fredericksburg Foundation and its executive director, Sean Maroney.

The Knox family would be unremarkable except for one thing: they left behind a trove of letters between them that chronicles a family and a community in dire crisis.  These are more than just the letters of a Southern family in Fredericksburg during the Civil War; they are also the letters of a nascent, hopeful, ultimately defeated nation.  They reflect much that’s important about the war: the immense risk secession represented for communities and towns across the South (risks willingly taken and fully realized for most), the tremendous effort involved in forging a new nation, the astonishing and thorough conversion of the Knoxes and thousands of other families from American to Confederate, and the immense efforts families undertook to maintain a structure and identity in the midst of chaos.

The Civil War produced thousands of letter collections, many of them published, many of them excellent.  Some of them include letters incoming and outgoing, from soldier to home and from the folks at home back to the field. But few include the range of letters produced by the Knox family of Fredericksburg. All six of the Knox boys served the Confederacy, most of them in the local regiment, the 30th Virginia Infantry. The 30th was something of a nomadic unit, serving at times with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but also in the Virginia Tidewater, North Carolina, and even Tennessee. Lieutenant Robert Knox’s letters home constitute most of the correspondence from the field, often writing on behalf of his soldier-brothers.

The Knox home became the Kenmore Inn in 1932.

The Knox home became the Kenmore Inn in 1932. Courtesy HFFI.

For the Knox family and other residents of Fredericksburg—on the Rappahannock River midway between the warring capitals—the home front became the battlefront. The descent of armies on Fredericksburg in 1862, 1863, and 1864, inspired many local families to flee. Typically, families took to the roads to find safety in adjacent Spotsylvania County. But the Knoxes had uncommon means, and the family’s life as refugees took them as far away as Richmond, Danville, and Columbia, South Carolina.  Invariably, mother Virginia Soutter Knox managed the family in flight.  Father Thomas F. Knox held closer to Fredericksburg, trying vainly to watch over home and business.  All the while, the family wrote letters. For most of four years, these letters constituted the connective tissue for a family dispersed by war. They reflect the often immense efforts families undertook to maintain a family structure and identity amidst chaos.

The war weighed heavily on Fredericksburg and the Knoxes. All the boys-turned-soldiers survived the war (an unlikely, happy outcome), but the family suffered huge economic loss. In 1860, Thomas Knox owned $50,000 worth of real estate and $22,000 of personal property (much of that surely slaves). But by the time the census taker came around in 1870, that $72,000 fortune had shrunk to just $8,000, including just $500 of personal property. The family, however, continued to thrive as a pillar of the Fredericksburg community for decades. They lived in their Princess Anne Street house until 1911.

The Knox house today, 1200 Princess Anne Street.

The Knox house today, 1200 Princess Anne Street. Photo by Russ Smith, 2012.

Archeological Discoveries on Sophia Street

[From John Hennessy, with great thanks to Kerri Barile of Dovetail Cultural Resources Group for the dig photos.  Bear in mind that in this instance, I am just the reporter. ALL the hard work here was done by the Dovetail archaeologists.]

This week archaeologists are working in advance of the continued development of parkland between Sophia Street and the Rappahannock. As we have written before, Sophia Street below the Chatham Bridge has always been an eclectic, sometimes homely, mix of workplace and homeplace, with much change taking place over the decades. Still, its basic function as Fredericksburg’s all-purpose neighborhood remained intact for more than two centuries, until the demand for parking for downtown visitors prompted the transformation of riverside Sophia.  Steadily, residences have been removed or transformed. Nowadays, hardly anyone lives on this part of Sophia.

Many believed that the constant change along Sophia Street likely destroyed much evidence of the robust community that once thrived along the street. This week’s archaeological work, done by Dovetail Cultural Resources Group, has shown otherwise. The work has uncovered the foundations of four major antebellum buildings, one of them new to us.

This is a famous picture, taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1927. The buildings shown here stood just south of Shiloh Baptist Church (old site).

719 Sophia Street by Johnston

The work this week has revealed the building’s foundations vividly.


Behind these buildings at what was 719 Sophia Street stood a large community ice house, built about 1832 and in use until the early 20th century.  The ice house shows up clearly in the great 1863 panorama of Fredericksburg.  It’s the low-roofed building next to the African Baptist Church.

fredericksburg panorama ice houseThe dovetail folks found the west foundation of the building–closest to Sophia Street. The ice house pit (to the left in this image) is filled with beautiful clean soil.


They also uncovered the foundation of a house we had never noticed before, though it’s visible in the great 1863 panorama.  This was a house that stood behind Absalom Rowe’s main residence.  While I did not get a photo of the foundation while it was exposed (the crew was able to take a quick look only before the trench was filled in), it was something of a revelation that the foundation remained.  The adjacent ground was built up considerably when the adjacent Masonic Lodge was built in 1921, and no one had much hope that the antebellum foundations would remain. But they do.  The building in question is the one immediately beyond Ab Rowe’s outhouse in the foreground.

fredericksburg panorama cropped on second Rowe House

The archaeological work on Sophia Street will continue through tomorrow, Saturday.  Stop by if you have the chance.

Here is the panorama from which the above images are taken.

Fredericksburg panorama not cropped

Icons, the merely famous, and us–some thoughts on Jackson on the anniversary of his wounding

From John Hennessy.

The Mountain Road Illuminated, May 2, 2013. Here Jackson fell wounded.

The Mountain Road Illuminated, May 2, 2013. Here Jackson fell wounded.

These are the first portion of the remarks I gave at the event marking the 150th anniversary of the wounding of Stonewall Jackson. More than 450 people gathered at the site, in the fading light and eventual darkness. My purpose was to talk about the man and our collective and ongoing relationship with  him. Greg Mertz and Frank O’Reilly brought visitors through the events of May 2, culminating with Jackson’s wounding at about 9 p.m.  It was a memorable evening.

It strikes me that one of the differences between our treatment of historical icons and our treatment of merely famous Americans is this: for merely famous people, we are satisfied to understand their deeds. For our icons, we seek a vision of the person, replete with personal details, almost all of them flattering. 

 Thomas Jonathan Jackson is an icon.  Not universally, but largely. You can visit his house, stand in his living room. Museums across the South are filled with items both military and personal, authentic and imagined.  One museum keeps a drawer full of items donated to them on the assertion that Jackson had them on his person the night he was shot—probably thirty pounds worth of stuff.

 Books on the Civil War, on the Confederacy, and on Jackson are full of stories that personalize him.  His Widow Mary Anna’s memoir was and remains one of the most popular books about Jackson, largely because it is full of stories large and small that paint an image of Jackson as a person.  Stories like this:

 Just two weeks before his mortal journey into these woods, Jackson for the first time saw his new daughter—6-month-old Julia–and took his first stab at parental discipline.  Julia had become fussy, stopping only when picked up by her mother.  When Mrs. Jackson returned the child to the bed, Julia started crying again. General Jackson exclaimed, “This will never do!” and instructed, “all hands off.”  Mrs. Jackson related, “So there she lay, kicking and screaming while he stood over her with as much coolness and determination as if he were directing a battle.”  When Julia ceased wailing, General Jackson picked her up; when she started crying again, he put her down, “and this he kept up until she was completely conquered, and became perfectly quiet in his hands.”

Jackson, taken at Belvoir just days before Chancellorsville.

Jackson, taken at Belvoir just days before Chancellorsville.

 The perfect soldier is also the perfect parent. Anyone who has ever had a baby will recognize the immensity (maybe the impossibility) of Jackson’s accomplishment:  conquering in minutes what mankind has sought vainly to master for centuries—soothing a crying baby.  [I read this and think, okay, let’s see how he would have done when she was a teenager.]

 He has also been hailed the perfect Christian, the perfect husband, and even a reconciler among races, though he owned or hired slaves himself and waged war for a government committed to perpetuating slavery. 

For our great heroes, for someone like Jackson, we presume, even demand, that the deeds that made them famous are matched by virtues that would make icons.  We want and presume universal excellence, virtual perfection—something that men like Lee and Jackson would have been the first to deny (and modern defenders the first to assert). 

 We gain a great deal as a nation by having and knowing our heroes.  But we lose something too when we forget that in more ways than not they were very much like all of us.  We are all a ledger book of virtues and foibles.

Without war, and very possibly without Robert E. Lee, we would not know Thomas J. Jackson.  Perhaps, in his hometown of Lexington he would be remembered, but then only as a common, pious, middling man of religious intensity, active conscience, and mild (often overstated) eccentricities who was largely deplored by his students at VMI, where he taught. 

Jackson, like most of our heroes, rose to excellence only when his particular form of excellence was demanded.  If Wayne Gretzky had been born in Florida, or Bryce Harper in Fairbanks, we would never have heard of them. Like Jackson without war, they both would be and perceived to be just like us.  And, of course, in most ways, our great icons are, though we insist otherwise.