The Phenomenon that is History at Sunset

From John Hennessy, NPS:

In 2002 we had an idea that had more than a few of us squarely in the camp of skeptics:  90-minute Friday night walks focused on either new sites, new stories, or fresh angles on familiar sites.  We weren’t sure that anyone would show up at the conclusion of a busy week of commuting or at the end of a long day of touring the battlefields or the area.  But, we decided to try it out.  On Friday June 14, 2002, I stood on the front steps of the library on Caroline Street, ready to give a tour through the streets of Fredericksburg (War Means Anguish, War Means Freedom: The Civilian Experience in Fredericksburg) but without a clue if anyone would come.  They did…93 came along as we walked Princess Anne, Lewis, and Charles Streets.  Over the next ten weeks we gave five different programs (each repeated once) that drew 1,143 visitors–an average of 114 per week.

Donald Pfanz at Chatham, 2006

This coming Friday night (June 11) we commence our ninth year of HaS with a program by Frank O’Reilly that will explore the site of Bernard’s slave cabins and Latimer’s Knoll. The series has succeeded beyond anyone’s reckoning.   If all goes as expected, somewhere around week 7 or 8 or we will count our 10,000th visitor to the series.   Through 2010, we will have done 96 programs (we did sixteen in 2003—an exhausting experiment we opted not to continue–which accounts for the unbalanced number).  Of those, 58 have been new, original programs either in terms of site, theme, or material.   This is no small point.  Putting together an entirely new program takes literally weeks of effort (we’re not born knowing this stuff, of course). But, I will say too that the knowledge gained in the preparation of these programs has been put to use in many ways–in our new films, exhibits, publications, and other live programs.  I think visitors have been rewarded for the effort in many ways.

The best-attended program was the first Chatham candlelight program in 2002, with 260.  The biggest number for a program in the field or on the streets is Frank O’Reilly’s and Eric Mink’s 2007 first-time walking tour of the newly preserved Slaughter Pen Farm, which attracted 211.  In all, five programs have attracted more than 200 visitors.  The smallest attendance came in 2004, when 28 visitors braved a torrent to join Frank O’Reilly on a tour focused on street fighting in Fredericksburg. The wildest single program was, undoubtedly, our 2006 tour of Falmouth, when to my horror at the conclusion of the program most of the crowd just streamed out across Route 1 near (not at) the Falmouth Intersection to take the shortest route back to their cars at Belmont.  You’ll note we’ve not done that program again….

Our biggest year was 2006, when the programs averaged 146.  Our slowest year was 2003, when we averaged 73 (thanks partly to bad luck with weather).  I think the only program we’ve done that might be labeled a clunker might be the one I did, War at Our Doors: Spotsylvanians Amidst War, in the area right around Spotsylvania Courthouse in 2003.  That program attracted only 39–an all-time low for programs not affected by weather.

The largest average attendance turns out for programs at Chatham; the six programs at Chatham (including candlelight tours, which always attract big crowds) have averaged 178 visitors. Tours in and around Fredericksburg average about 145.  The farther you move out-of-town, the lower the averages go.  Chancellorsville averages about 95 per program, Wilderness 85, and Spotsylvania more than 70.  As for staff, nobody draws more people than Frank O’Reilly.  Over the years, he has led 17 programs averaging 114 (including one in a torrent).

Of the 96 programs that will have been presented by the end of 2010, twenty-three will have focused dominantly on civilian themes or sites.  That we have gone outside the park boundaries has without question broadened the appeal of the series, as has our focus on some broader themes of history.  We are at a point where we do limited publicity for the series simply because we can’t easily handle more people than we already get without altering the things that made the series successful in the first place.  How many historic sites have that kind of problem?

To my mind, History at Sunset demonstrates a couple of things about public history. First, experimentation is good; for us, this was a flying leap that worked.  But more importantly, History at Sunset demonstrates the power of the people to help shape our programming.  What we envisioned as an experiment has become an integral–maybe signature–part of our larger interpretive program.  That happened not because we intended it so, but because the public, by virtue of its response, made it so. Rest assured, if the public hadn’t responded, we would have stopped doing it long ago. Now we’d face rebellion if we stopped (we’d be pretty disappointed too).

This year’s schedule, which you can find here, includes three new programs:  Aquia Landing, Slavery and Slave Places in Fredericksburg, and Cavalry in the Streets.  Beyond the break, below, is the full record of programs we have done for HaS over the years, with attendance and presenters.  For those of you who have attended the programs, I’d be curious why you think the series has succeeded…  And also, I’d be curious of things you’d like to see us do in coming years.


June 14:      War Means Anguish, War Means Freedom: The Civilian Experience in Fredericksburg — June 14.  Hennessy.  93

June 21:      Sunset at the Bloody Angle — June 21.   Mertz.    86

June 28:      A Voice of War: Following the Footsteps of  Sergeant Rice C. Bull. Frye and Pfanz   56

July 5:         Across the Bloody Plain:  Hurkamp Park to Marye’s Heights,  O’Reilly    111

July 12:       War Means Anguish, War Means Freedom. Hennessy & Bryant   153

July 19:       Chatham by Candlelight:  Life of a House, Story of a Nation 260

July 26:       Sunset at the Bloody Angle.  Mertz 73

August 2:    A Voice of War:  Following the Footsteps of Sergeant Rice C. Bull 72

August 9:    Across the Bloody Plain:  Hurkamp Park to Marye’s Heights 87

August 16:  Chatham by Candlelight:  Life of a House, Story of a Nation 53

Total for 2002:                                                                   1,143 (Avg. 114)


May 2:        Chaos in the Night: the Wounding of “Stonewall” Jackson. O’Reilly & Wyckoff 146

May 10:      Candlelight Tour of “Stonewall” Jackson’s Final Hours. 157

May 16:      A New Way of Fighting: Upton’s Attack at Spotsylvania. Mertz (rain) 41

May 22:      Chatham by Candlelight: Life of a House, Story of a Nation 165

May 30:      City of Hospitals: the Aftermath of Battle. Hennessy 91

June 6:        A Voice of War:  Following the Footsteps of  Sergeant Rice C. Bull. Frye and Pfanz 63

June 13:      War at Their Doorstep: Spotsylvanians Caught Amidst War. Hennessy 39

June 20:      A Candlelit Evening at Ellwood 86

June 27:       War Means Anguish, War Means Freedom. Hennessy 93

July 11:       Across the Bloody Plain:  Hurkamp Park to Marye’s Heights. Frank O’reilly & Barton Myers 97

July 18:       Battle in the Balance:  A Walk in Widow Tapp’s Field.  Mink and O’Reilly                     65

July 25:       History Unveiled: Archeology at Sunken Road and Marye’s Heights.  Mink & Pfanz 115

August 1:  Sunset at the Bloody Angle—Mertz & O’Grady     72

August 8:  City of Hospitals: the Aftermath of Battle. Hennessy      (heavy rain)     85

August 15: War at Their Doorstep:  Spotsylvanians Caught Amidst War. Hennessy  52

August 22:  Place of Worship, Scene of War: Old Salem Church by Candlelight 137

Total for 2003:                                                                                   1504 (Avg. 94)


June 11      Changing Face of War: Fighting in the Streets. O’Reilly (heavy rain) 28

June 18      Race to the Spotsylvania Crossroads: The Battle of Laurel Hill. Wyckoff        37

June 25      City of Hospitals: The Aftermath of Battle. Hennessy  133

July 2         Like Thunder from the Clear Sky: Jackson’s Flank Attack at Chancellorsville. 87

July 9         Where Valor Sleeps: Exploring Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Pfanz      93

July 16        War Comes Home: Lower Caroline Street Struggles with Slavery and War. Hennessy   111

July 23       A New Way of Fighting: Upton’s Attack at Spotsylvania. Mertz     63

July 30      Breakthrough!  The Battle of Prospect Hill. O’Reilly. 145

August 6    Place of Worship, Scene of War: Old Salem   Church by Candlelight. 115

August 13 War at Our Doorsteps:  Spotsylvanians at War. Hennessy        52

Total 2004                                                                  731 (avg. 73)


June 10:      The Sunken Road Reclaimed.  Frank O’Reilly and John Hennessy.           90

June 17:      Widow Spindle’s Flight and a Fuss Over Fence Rails.  Mac Wyckoff.    85

June 24:      Ferry Farm, Pine Grove, and Stafford County in the Civil War. Hennessy.     118

July 1:         A Forgotten Place Newly Discovered:  Catharine Furnace to the Wellford Farm. Frye and Mink.    60

July 8           Changing Face of War: Fighting in Fredericksburg’s Streets.  O’Reilly.   165

July 15:       Sunset in Saunders Field. Mertz.        55.

July 22:       Heroes and Homefolk:  A Walk Through Fredericksburg’s City and Confederate Cemeteries. Hennessy.   130

July 29:       The Haunted Woods: Voices of Hazel Grove and Fairview. Humphreys.  135.

August 5:    Stonewall’s Final Battle:  Jackson Shrine by Candlelight. 131

August 12: Where Valor Sleeps: Fredericksburg’s National Cemetery. Pfanz.   80

Total 2005                                                                   1049


June 9            Under the Guns: The Bombardment and Looting of Fredericksburg. Hennessy    201

June 16          Fredericksburg’s Forgotten Plain:  Bernard’s Cabins and Latimer’s Knoll. O’Reilly.    148

June 23          Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, and the Bloody Legions: Chatham as a Field Hospital. Pfanz.    120

June 30          Granite Shadows:  A Walk Through Spotsylvania Confederate Cemetery. Wyckoff.   125

July 7             Infantry and Iron in the Wilderness:  Catharine Furnace to the Wellford Place. Mink & Frye.  83

July 14           The Red Badge’s Bloody Morning:  Chancellorsville, May 3, and the Red Badge of Courage. Hennessy and Mertz.  140

July 21           Echoes of Struggle:  Voices from the Bloody Angle. Humphreys & Living Historians.           124

July 28           An Elegant Place Bedraggled:  A Walk Through Civil War Falmouth. Hennessy.   175

August 4        Ellwood by Candlelight. With Janice Frye and the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield.  145

August 11      Jackson’s Wounding by Moonlight. O’Reilly.  Chancellorsville Visitor Center.         210

Total 2006                       1471


June 8            A Woeful Place Reborn:  From Farm to Battlefield to Park—the Bloody Angle. Pfanz, Hennessy.   (rained out after ten minutes)        85

June 15          Scarred Jewel:  Brompton in the Swirl of War. O’Reilly,  Wyckoff.   187

June 22          Horror on the Plank Road. Mertz and Hennessy.  135

June 29 In the Vortex:  A Walk on the Slaughter Pen Farm. O’Reilly & Mink.     211

July 6             High Drama at a Bedraggled Place:  A Walk in Widow Tapp’s Field. Mink.  86

July 13           Stonewall’s Supreme Moment:  Voices from Jackson’s Flank Attack Humphreys and living historians.  135

July 20           Forgotten Places on the Bloody Plain:  Exploring a Lost Battlefield. O’Reilly and Hennessy.  206

July 27           Caught in a Firestorm:  May 3 and the Ordeal of the Chancellors. Frye and Mertz.             83

August 3        War on the Kenmore Ridge:  An Exploration of Washington Avenue. Mink and Frye 125

August 10      Life of a House:  Chatham by Candlelight. Wyckoff and Chatham volunteers.       205

Total:                                                                                           1,458


June 6:                   A Woeful Place Reclaimed: From Farm to Battlefield to Park – the Bloody Angle Hennessy             94

June 13:                 In the Vortex:  A Walk on the Slaughter Pen Farm. Frank O’Reilly     95

June 20:                 Bloody Homecoming:  David Kyle and the Ordeal of the Bullocks. Greg Mertz.  101

June 27:                 History Revealed:  Civil War Secrets on the University of Mary Washington Campus. Eric Mink & Kati Singel    170

July 11:                  First Blood at Chancellorsville:  A Walk on the May 1 Battlefield. Eric Mink. & Joe Obidzinski   106

July 18:                  Through the Streets, Into the Maelstrom:  In the Footsteps of a Union Regiment. Frank O’Reilly & Mac Wyckoff    163

July 25:                  Homefolk and Heroes:  A Walk through Fredericksburg’s City and Confederate Cemetery. Mac Wyckoff & Janice Frye      180

August 1:               Bloody Dawn: Fairview in the Maelstrom.  John Hennessy.          132

August 8:               Lens on History:  The Photography of the Sunken Road. Stacy Humphreys & Eric Mink.   120

August 15:            Beyond the Big House:  Slaves and Slavery at Chatham.  John Hennessy      164

Total:                                                                                                    1,325


June 12:  Ferry Farm and Pine Grove: John Hennessy & Paul Nasca (GWF)           183

June 19:  Prospect Hill: Frank O’Reilly                       150

June 26:  Jackson & the Germans, May 2, 1863.  Eric Mink and Don Pfanz (rained out in progress)  83

July 3:  This Time the Yankees Win: Marye’s Heights at Second Fredericksburg.   White and Obidzinski   189

July 10:  Clara Barton in Fredericksburg: Pfanz and Hennessy          192

July 17:  Race to the Crossroads:  Laurel Hill:  Greg Mertz.                      83

July 24:  Key moments for Key People….  Hazel Grove-Stuart Drive at Chancellorsville:  O’Reilly and White    103

July 31:  Chewning/Higgerson:  Janice Frye                  65

August 7:  Ellwood Candlelight:  FOWB,  Janice Frye.                            135

August 14:  War Means Anguish: Civilians in Fredericksburg.     John Hennessy      123

Total 1,306

7 thoughts on “The Phenomenon that is History at Sunset

  1. I have been attending the HaS tours for several years now. I think they have been successful because you bring the story of the city, the surrounding area and the people to life and link it to the terrible conflict that occurred here. For a future HaS event, I’d really like to tour the remains of the “beanpoles and cornstalks” bridge over Potomac creek.

    Thanks for all you do!

    • Thanks Steve. The great challenge with the site of the Potomac Creek Bridge is one of parking–there’s just no place to put 50-70 cars. But, it might be doable for a smaller Saturday morning program. We’ll work on that. Meantime, the closest we’ll come is our Aquia Landing program in August–the first time the NPS has ever done a program out there. We’ll be using extensively the available historic photographs for that one.

  2. John – I’ve been to the Potomac Creek crossing site and understand the parking concern. I’ve long been facinated by the famous photos of that bridge. The actual site is little known today by most people. It is easy to drive past and not even notice the stone abutments. I hope you can work out some kind of program there.
    I’m looking forward to this Friday’s HaS at Bernard’s cabins. My GG Grandfather fought in Lane’s brigade, almost directly in front of the cabins.

  3. A very impressive record and impressive recordkeeping!

    “June 14: War Means Anguish, War Means Freedom: The Civilian Experience in Fredericksburg — June 14. Hennessy. 93”

    I wish this one could be repeated or consider a new one “Downtown Churches during the War”.

    I am beginning a 6 part series for St. George’s Episcopal’s newsletter entitled “St. George’s Civil War” for this fall basically concentrating one building and its parishioners during the war focusing on the Church’s three roles – fortress, church and hospital. Really micro history. I am enjoying the Virtual Fredericksburg map on the Mysteries and Conundrums site as well as all of the content there. It is exciting to see what you don’t know! Carry on!

    • Thanks Ben. We’ll certainly do War Means Anguish again. I believe we have done that particular tour four times over the years (including the concluding tour last year), and it is certainly the one I get the most requests for. Your idea of a program focused on the churches during the war is an outstanding one–and one we’ll put on the list for next year.

      You should know that one of our City of Hospitals tours ended up spending all its time inside St. George’s because of rain. It turned out to be a terrific experience. No sanctuary in town has quite the sense of place as yours does.

  4. Pingback: Race riot at Aquia Landing | Fredericksburg Remembered

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