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 historical 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 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. 

Rare Pictures that Look Back from Freedom: A Former Slave Portrays the Fredericksburg Area, pt. 2

from: Harrison

In part 1 of this post, I introduced the story of William Hayden, who was enslaved upon his birth in Stafford County in 1785, and separated from his mother, Alcy Shelton, by their owner around 1790.  Hayden freed himself in 1823, and in 1846 published a memoir:  Narrative of William Hayden…Written by Himself.  Aside from his book’s extraordinarily rare, eyewitness-derived woodcuts depicting slave life the Fredericksburg area, I’m fascinated by its account of the long-term psychological and spiritual influences of a particular landscape:  Belle Plain plantation, Hayden’s birthplace in Stafford and his first home.

Sunrise, Potomac Creek at Belle Plain, 2013.

Sunrise, Potomac Creek at Belle Plain, 2013.

Anyone who makes a close historical study of a battlefield engages with the psychological history of terrain features.  I suspect that this aspect of landscapes, and of our historical efforts, is often so obvious that we’re unaware of it.  For instance, a pair of modest homesteads at Hazel Grove and Fairview assumed paramount importance during the battle of Chancellorsville.  The plans of commanders who suddenly found themselves tasked with the defense or capture of those places and the ground in-between would of course have real consequences for soldiers on May 3, 1863, one of the bloodiest days in the nation’s history. 

I suspect, too, that the constant interchange between specific, seemingly undistinguished collections of soil, water, foliage, and buildings on the one hand, and ideas, beliefs, or sentiments on the other—with profound consequences for people’s lives sooner or later—is even less apparent, at least at first, when we consider aspects of history that lack the broad drama of armies contending on a battlefield.

In penning his memoir, which is virtually unknown today, William Hayden located the earliest stirrings of his Christian faith at his mother’s cabin, and with his savoring during childhood of a view of the morning sun and its reflection in the waters of Potomac Creek.  The vista from the cabin and its immediate vicinity was bordered by the hills and flatlands of William and Alcy’s home-plantation, Belle Plain on the creek’s south bank, and by those of his father’s likely home-plantation, Crow’s Nest on the opposite bank.

New Sun in Potomac Creek at Belle Plain, minutes later.

New Sun in Potomac Creek at Belle Plain, minutes later.

William’s faith included what he termed “presentiment,” a confidence that he would serve as one of God’s instruments.  The first of the resulting, happy outcomes was William’s timely intervention while still a child at the onset of a fire at the Belle Plain cabin (illustration in pt. 1 of this post).  The same faith gave him the perseverance and optimism to eventually escape the enslavement that had begun on that very landscape, then return to the Fredericksburg area as a free man in hopes of rescuing his mother from enslavement as well (she having since relocated to Falmouth).  He planned to remove her from Virginia.  Ideally, the exodus would also include his brother, sister, her husband, and at least two of the sister’s children, all of who were evidently free people of color.  Likely prominent in William’s calculations was a state law, albeit one applied irregularly, that required persons legally freed to leave Virginia within one year or face re-enslavement. 

Our story resumes in the dark, early morning hours of a July day in 1828, with William arriving on the stagecoach from Belle Plain at a Fredericksburg hostelry kept by a “Mr. Young”—almost certainly the Farmer’s Hotel, managed by James Young.

The granite-fronted Enterprise Building was built around 1900 on the site of the Farmer’s Hotel in 1828.

The granite-fronted Enterprise Building was built around 1900 on the site of the Farmer’s Hotel in 1828.

Continue reading

Historians or interpreters?

From John Hennessy:

At the Gettysburg conference a couple weeks back, Dennis Frye and I got into a bit of a public conversation. By way of background, both of us entered the NPS at about the same time way back when, and while we have followed differing paths, we have ended up in the same place. He is the Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry NHP. I am the Chief Historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP. Dennis possesses a brilliant mind. I have always considered him to be the rabbit this sorry hound is chasing.

Pfanz, Don - Clara Barton Program

Donald Pfanz presents a program in the shadows of the Catalpas at Chatham.

The exchange we had revolved around what should be our purpose when giving public programs. Dennis–who is a superlative interpreter and historian (and there is a difference)–offered that when giving public programs, his purpose is not to provide answers, but to provoke questions. I suggested that when I go on a tour with Dennis Frye, who knows as much about Harpers Ferry and Antietam as anyone on earth, I want to know what he thinks about the key questions that surround those places–what has he learned, and how does he use that information to ANSWER the great questions. I don’t want him merely to point out those questions to me.

Reflecting back on that exchange, it occurred to me that we were really talking about two different roles we play before the public, often obscured or merged. Historians seek answers to questions–help build our knowledge and understanding. Interpreters provoke questions, bidding others to further inquiry, to become historians themselves. And those who are both historians and interpreters–if they are any good–meander back and forth between the two roles with ease.

The NPS is full of fine historians–people who have done original work that has expanded our understanding of the Civil War. The staff at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP, for example, has written something approaching a dozen books, some of them standards in the field. There is little doubt that some of our staff know more about the events around Fredericksburg and elsewhere than anyone on earth and can relate those events to the larger themes of history with ease. “Subject matter experts” get a bad rap in the NPS, for there is a presumption that immense knowledge equates to poor interpretation. Simply not true.

The NPS is also possessed of many outstanding interpreters–people who don’t just educate, but provoke people to question and learn. They are an incredibly valuable part of what we do. But not all interpreters (provokers of questions) also assume the role of historian (seekers of answers to those questions). And to be good at what they do, they don’t necessarily have to. Most park programs include a mix of pure interpreters and historian/interpreters.

But, the best historical interpreters I know are also historians. By that I mean they seek answers, they expand the world’s knowledge, AND they have the ability to engage the public in creative conversations about such things. Dennis Frye is such an animal. So are Frank O’Reilly and Donald Pfanz and Scott Hartwig and Peter Carmichael. Sometimes they act as pure interpreters. (Catch Dennis sometime talking about John Brown; it’s interpretive art). Sometimes they are historians, speaking to some of the great historical questions of the day, applying all that they have learned….and generally to the audience’s great benefit.

People like Dennis apply those varied skills to different audiences, in varying admixtures. The best historian/interpreters have an unerring instinct for recognizing the time and place for each and to move back and forth without anyone noticing. Not everyone can.

Rare Pictures that Look Back from Freedom: a Former Slave Portrays the Fredericksburg Area, pt. 1

from: Harrison

William Hayden was born into slavery in 1785, at Belle Plain plantation on Stafford County’s Potomac Creek and near the Potomac River.  His owner separated William while still a child from his mother.  William returned as a free man decades later in an effort to liberate her and perhaps his sister as well.

portrait 2

William Hayden at the time he published his memoir in the 1840’s.

Hayden stands out not only for attempting this prior to the Civil War, without the new paths to liberation that the war would open for other enslaved people, but also for publicly condemning the system that had devastated his family, in a memoir published in 1846.  The Narrative of William Hayden…Written by Himself also traced the origins of his faith as a Christian.

Looking east along Potomac Creek and then across the Potomac River, from a point near the site of the main plantation house at Belle Plain—the basic elements (modified by reforestation and bank-erosion) of William Hayden’s beloved vista.  Lowest shoreline, appearing blue-gray in far distance, is Maryland on  opposite side of the Potomac River.  Closer, two-level shoreline at left is Crow’s Nest, in Stafford County, Virginia and on opposite side of Potomac Creek from Belle Plain.  (In 1864, as shown on the map linked in my text below, Union wharves were situated along the right bank of the creek:  one just upstream, to the left of the camera-position here, the remainder downstream.)

Looking east along Potomac Creek and then across the Potomac River, from a point near the site of the main plantation house at Belle Plain—the basic elements (modified by reforestation and bank-erosion) of William Hayden’s beloved vista. Lowest shoreline, appearing blue-gray in far distance, is Maryland on opposite side of the Potomac River. Closer, two-level shoreline at left is Crow’s Nest, in Stafford County, Virginia and on opposite side of Potomac Creek from Belle Plain. (In 1864, as shown on the map linked in my text below, Union wharves were situated along the right bank of the creek: one just upstream, to the left of the camera-position here, the remainder downstream.)

Along with written descriptions, the memoir includes wood engravings, or woodcuts.  These are stylized and doubtless reflect the imagination of a non-eyewitness engraver to one degree or another.  Yet several of the artworks may represent the only pictorial illustrations of enslaved people’s lives in the Fredericksburg area, prepared at the direction of someone who was once held in bondage in the area and who returned to again witness slavery there firsthand.

Narrative of William Hayden opens two years after the end of the American Revolution, with the author’s birth at Belle Plain to Alcy Shelton, a slave of “George Ware,” and James, a slave of “Mr. Daniel.”  Judging from background information on the estate, in historian Jerrilynn Eby’s 1997 county history, They Called Stafford Home, William Hayden’s memory over half a century had modified some spellings slightly:  Alcy’s owner was actually George Waugh, who shared occupancy of the 1,500-acre Belle Plain plantation with his brother, Robert Waugh.  George and Robert’s father, John Waugh, had died in 1783 in possession of at least 39 enslaved people, Alcy Shelton probably among them.

William Hayden’s own father, James (with whom he evidently never lived and whose minimal mention in the Narrative does not even include a last name), was perhaps the property of Travers Daniel, who owned Crow’s Nest plantation on the opposite side of Potomac Creek from Belle Plain.

Since the Belle Plain plantation house survived until the Civil War, this detail from an 1841 plat reflects the basic landscape of Hayden’s childhood decades earlier.  The exact location of his mother’s cabin is unknown; it may have been situated, along with other dependency structures, in the area marked “barn” here.  The steamboat landing was not present during Hayden’s childhood, but by the 1820’s it was operational and likely the point where he disembarked when returning to the area as a free man.  Copy courtesy of the White Oak Museum.

Since the Belle Plain plantation house survived until the Civil War, this detail from an 1841 plat reflects the basic landscape of Hayden’s childhood decades earlier. The exact location of his mother’s cabin is unknown; it may have been situated, along with other dependency structures, in the area marked “barn” here. The steamboat landing was not present during Hayden’s childhood, but by the 1820’s it was operational and likely the point where he disembarked when returning to the area as a free man. Copy courtesy of the White Oak Museum.

William’s first recorded memory was of savoring the morning scenery from the door of the cabin he shared with his mother, brother, and sister.  The cabin afforded views of both Potomac Creek and the Potomac River, occupying a location on or near the main road from Fredericksburg.  The plantation’s frontage on Potomac Creek adjoined the sites of a Colonial-era wharf and public warehouse for tobacco shippers, and would gain national fame during the Civil War.

(For my GoogleEarth overlay map of the Federals’ Belle Plain wharf-sites in 1864 click here and scroll down to fifth illustration; for John Hennessy’s account of Charles Dickens’ visit to Belle Plain in 1842 click here.)

The sun and its reflection in Potomac Creek, with the cabin of Hayden’s mother at left.   Although this woodcut from Narrative of William Hayden obviously exaggerates the topography of Crow’s Nest plantation across the creek, Civil War soldiers would comment on the steepness of the area’s heavily eroded ravines.

The sun and its reflection in Potomac Creek, with the cabin of Hayden’s mother at left. Although this woodcut from Narrative of William Hayden obviously exaggerates the topography of Crow’s Nest plantation across the creek, Civil War soldiers would comment on the steepness of the area’s heavily eroded ravines.

Thinking back to childhood mornings in that cabin doorway in the 1780’s, William Hayden recalled the origins of his faith, and his being struck by the twin heralds of

The Day God as he peered from the chambers of the east, and cast his reflection from the clear bosom of the Potomac, appear[ing] to my infantile mind like two suns–the one in the heavens, and the other in the body of the waters; and every morning, it was my desire, and indeed, my first employment, to repair to the door and witness the rising of the two suns.  …witnessing with joy, the beauties of Heaven, and Heaven’s goodness.

Continue reading

Can an app (or two) fix the history business?

From John Hennessy:

IphoneThis post is prompted by an interesting discussion over at Robert Moore’s Cenantua’s Blog and a  Christmas Eve Washington Post article about the declining interest in and increasingly dire condition of house museums. The Post article notes that visitation at most sites–excepting mega-places like Mount Vernon and Monticello–has dropped dramatically in the last decade or two. The article pays particular attention to Stratford Hall, Lee’s birthplace. Its thoughtful and resourceful executive director, Paul Reber, has watched visitation there drop from 80,000 per year in 1976 to 51,000 in 1991 to 27,00o last year.  Some sites, like Carter’s Grove and Lee’s Boyhood Home in Alexandria, have closed altogether, morphing back into private homes. A painful trend.

We have certainly noticed this at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP. While use of the sites has been relatively flat, people walking in the door of our visitor centers has declined steadily the last two decades.  In 1994, visitation at Fredericksburg VC was 117,000.  Last year it was around 73,000, and that represents an increase over the few years before that.

It’s a common thing to attribute declining visitation at historic sites to their inability to keep pace with emerging media and the demands of a public that has broken free of traditional forms of interpretation.  The Post reporter constructs such an argument, using Paul Reber’s words as the crux:

“These places are designed to tell a story for a demographic that doesn’t exist like it did decades ago,” [Reber] said. “We still deliver our stories to visitors with a guided tour, walking through the house with them. We hit them over the head with it, because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

“But people have the Internet in front of them now and can find anything they want and create their own narrative and explore the things that interest them. We have to adapt.”

Nothing that Paul or the reporter suggest here is untrue (though I would argue that the human voice well wielded is still by far the most powerful interpretive medium out there, bar none). There is no arguing that adapting how we deliver interpretation and understanding to modern audiences is critical. I’ve spent a good deal of my career trying to do just that, and there are vast mountains yet to climb on that account. Click here for some discussion of digital media and interpretation.

But it seems to me that something vastly greater than a simple mismatch of media and audience is going on here. We like to think that while society has changed, historic sites have not. That’s simply untrue, and in fact it may well be that the changing nature of historic sites and their place within American culture have more to do with declining public interest than does historic sites’ rigid resistance to change.  [Please note I use the term “may well be” in launching this argument; I am not entirely certain I believe all that I am about to write myself, but I do think what follows is worth considering and discussing].

Not long ago, historic sites were a refuge–places without real controversy, bastions of nostalgia, remembrance, and even idolatry. They were places of stability and constancy amidst a world changing, someplace we could go to reconnect with our collective (often incorrect) vision of what America once was and the people who built it. Then, most historic sites were a product of America’s insistence on a single, shared understanding of American history. [We explored this phenomena in this post back in 2011.]

Now, as power and influence in our society has become more diverse, so has our view of history. As we demand more from our historic sites, they have become vastly more complicated. They are now intellectual battlegrounds. Historic sites are far less comfortable places than they used to be. While that engages and excites many of us, should we also not be surprised that it has put some people off? Today, to many eyes, the Civil War is seen as the domain of a bunch of crazies, “still fighting the war,” waving flags, asserting righteousness, and denying much along the way. I don’t know how many times I have had people tell me that they want nothing to do with the war; it’s such a bubbling cauldron in American culture.   Is it possible that the intellectual mayhem that surrounds our sites renders them less appealing to many visitors?

Of course the great example that belies this assertion is Monticello, which has seen visitation rise in the face of–and perhaps because of–the fierce controversy over Jefferson and his lineage.  But is this the exception rather than the rule?

All questions honestly asked….