Portraying violence in public history (part 2): the limits of empathy and the barrier violence can be

From John Hennessy:

Many thanks for the thoughtful comments offered up on Part 1 of this post, which you can find here. Bear in mind that what follows will be far more useful if you read Part 1 first.

Burying the dead at Fredericksburg

It strikes my limited brain that there are three reasons public historians choose to portray violence:  To shock (an easy thing, but rarely useful in itself, and indeed often gratuitous). As a tool to generate empathy (sometimes useful, when used to a higher purpose, but sometimes mis-used). And as a means to greater understanding (of either a major theme of history, a place, or people).

But there is a fourth outcome, invariably unplanned:

While portrayals of violence are often powerful tools for engaging an audience, we also have to recognize that for many people violence is a formidable barrier to understanding. One woman I greatly admired, possessed of an inquisitive, expansive mind, rejected every opportunity to understand the Holocaust because, she said, she simply could not endure the images (literal or described) that invariably accompanied the discussion. Likewise my wife struggles with battlefield interpretation, in part, she declares, because there’s such a focus on stories and images of violence. It is more than she can bear.  She is by no means alone in her struggle. Many people view battlefield interpretation as captive to graphic detail, some of it making little contribution to greater understanding.

Yet, violence is an essential part of history. The violence that permeates our sites and stories tells us important things about human behavior and human struggle–struggle against each other, and against violence itself.  More than that, violence–subtle and brutish, literal and symbolic, psychological and physical–is the birthplace of empathy.

And in turn, empathy is the siren song of public history. Visitors crave it; interpreters love engendering it. Certainly, for any kind of understanding on a human level, empathy is essential.

But, I would suggest, we fail when empathy is the end game, for empathy does not always carry with it understanding, and nor does it always tell us something important. It is, rather, a tool.  Which brings us back to the three accounts we discussed in Part 1 of this post. Continue reading

Portraying violence in public history (Part 1 of 2)

From John Hennessy (for Part 2 of this discussion, click here):

It’s an issue all of us who do public history should struggle with: what should be the limits of portraying violence? Having worked on or with battle sites for much of my career (which seems impossibly long these days), there is no denying the temptation to use examples of violence in public programs. Nothing gets the attention of an audience faster than the description of a horrific death or a sanguine landscape in battle’s aftermath. But, do such things really help us get our listeners to a place of greater understanding? Or are we merely indulging our own and our visitors’ morbid curiosity?

The park staff on the front lawn of Sherwood Forest, 2008.

Here’s a brutal account of a slave whipping, given to us in the testimony of former slave Randall Ward when he was brought as a witness by the government to disprove the loyalty of Henry Fitzhugh of Sherwood Forest, in Stafford County. The government seemed interested in using Fitzhugh’s treatment of slaves as evidence that, during the war, Fitzhugh had not been the loyal Unionist he claimed to be. Continue reading

Slavery and secession in Fredericksburg–Marye’s views

From John Hennessy [Please note:  We’ll be going quiet for a few days over the holiday, but will pick up again in its aftermath. A good holiday to all–poke around in the old stuff while we are away.]:

In Fredericksburg, the question of Union or secession was clearly entangled with the issue of slavery.  While editorialists did indeed rail about a state’s rights and the “vexing power of the national government,” when they particularized their grievances, they usually pointed toward slavery as the lynchpin upon which the relationship between the government and the South turned.  Jesse White of the Weekly Advertiser–the most radical of the local newspapers–was typical:

The institution of slavery in Virginia, is indeed, a most important feature of her progess… [Such] is the parallelism between her prosperity and its utility, that there is no section of the country where political and social relations would be more sadly changed than Virginia by a change in present relations.

Even the rabidly Unionist editor James Hunnicutt, who fought secession long after it had taken place, embraced the justice and necessity of slavery.

Most telling is the fact that when Fredericksburgers selected a delegate to the secession convention, John L. Marye Sr., they selected a man who owned significant property, including fourteen slaves.  Nearly two months prior to the election, Marye wrote a letter, published in the local newspaper, that clearly laid out his views on secession and slavery (on the former he was moderate; on the issue of slavery, he was typical).

There is in the North a party of fanatics who are wrought up to phrenzy on the subject of slavery….They do not see that our earliest records refer to slavery as existing and no where treated it as a novelty. They do not see that Christ came upon earth to instruct us in our duty, and finding slavery established, not only did not condemn it, but, on the contrary, explained the relative duties of master and servant…. In all arable countries there were slaves, and slavery continued to exist while it was profitable. The gain of the slave is in doing as little as he can; the gain of the freeman is in doing as much as he can…. It would be well for all parties concerned if they would bear in mind that this question of slavery is a vital one in the South, and there is nothing in the history of the Southern States which would lead to the opinion that they would submit to interference on that subject…..If these good people are really disposed to befriend the slave, they will gain that end much more surely by not making it absolutely necessary for the master to draw tighter the chords of bondage.

This wonderfully concise, articulation of Marye’s views on slavery is, in its sentiments, unremarkable. There was little public dispute about the place of slavery in Southern or Fredericksburg society. The surviving editorials, letters, newspaper accounts, and testimony make clear that the debate in Fredericksburg as it related to secession hinged not on the existence or justice of slavery, but on its protection–and what its loss or limit at the hands of an intrusive Federal government implied for the future of the South. Would slavery be better protected inside or outside the Union?

Marye’s status as a slave owner and his views on slavery were base requirements for his election, and were in themselves not decisive in his lopsided victory (his opponent, William S. Barton, also owned slaves). Rather it was Marye’s conservative views on secession–his argument that the South’s rights and institutions would best be served by remaining in the Union–that garnered him his 2-1 margin in votes. Given the rhetoric of the time, it’s hard to imagine the town selecting someone to make that argument who was not invested in the institution most at risk.

The mystery of public appeal

From John Hennessy:

The Baptist Church, setting for November 20th's Years of Anguish program

Yesterday we had more than 600 people pack into the Fredericksburg Baptist Church for Years of Anguish: The Coming Storm, which recounted the South’s, Virginia’s, and Fredericksburg’s march toward secession. That they enjoyed themselves (emphatically), learned a great deal, and had a pretty vivid experience while doing so is not really surprising. We had two world-class talents on hand:  George Rable and Bill Freehling. Dr. Rable was awesome in his presentation. I think even he would agree, though, that the high moment of the day belonged to Bill Freehling, when, as he assumed the role of Governor Henry Wise arguing in favor of Virginia troops taking the field, he reached into a bag and pulled out, as Wise did 150 years ago, a gun, brandishing it about, arguing forcefully in favor of force. The audience gasped…then laughed…but in the end, a powerful point was made: the debate over secession was a debate over life and death, and those who took up that debate knew it.  I daresay no one who was there yesterday will ever forget Bill Freehling brandishing a gun and cursing in the pulpit of a Baptist Church, but more importantly, no one will forget the message he conveyed by doing so.  It was a brilliant interpretive moment.  (If anyone out there has photos of the scene, pass them along and we’ll post them.)

The methods were at times light and engaging, but the message of the day was profound.  That’s not surprising, given the talents of Drs. Freehling and Rable.

Another great contributor to the day was the audience itself. Audiences rarely recognize their role in determining the quality of the programs they receive. Speakers don’t just speak, and audiences don’t just listen. In a really good program, there’s a constant, usually unspoken give-and-take between the two. The energy invested by a rapt audience fuels the speaker, and an energized speaker in turn elevates the audience. I firmly believe that audiences get out of a program what they put into it. Yesterday’s audience might have been the most amazing I have seen on that account. From the first word by our moderator Jeff McClurken of UMW (who did a fabulous job and set the perfect tone), the energy in the place was astonishing.

The audience’s investment took voice in the form of questions. We were all mightily impressed, even amazed, at the quality of questions–articulate, complex, heartfelt–and they made for some of the day’s best moments. Even those who sought to make a contrary point to the speakers did so in a thoughtful way. Great kudos to the audience…..

What was most amazing–in fact it stunned all of us–was that more than 600 people attended in the first place, and most of them stayed throughout the four hours. Mind you, secession is not the sexiest of topics–it’s weighty, complex–and it’s not the type of thing that typically draws people off the streets on a perfectly beautiful Saturday afternoon.  But it did yesterday. Certainly having Drs. Rable and Freehling on hand was part of it. But, the response far exceeded anything we expected.  Why it is that some programs catch on with the public and inspire them to come, and why some that you’d expect to be very appealing just fall flat (I have been involved in both over the years) is a mystery I have not been able to unravel.

But, it certainly suggests that the public is anxious and willing to be engaged–and maybe more importantly to engage us–in a thoughtful way about the American Civil War. For those of us in the field of public history, that’s a hopeful sign as we move ahead with the 150th.

War at Our Doors

From John Hennessy:

I have been working this week on my talk for this weekend’s Years of Anguish program at the Baptist Church (you can find more about the event here–excuse the flippant title accorded the piece by the newspaper). My task is to track Fredericksburg’s and Spotsylvania’s slide toward secession. The preparation for special programs like this is always intense, but the payoff is learning much that is new–and getting to plow through primary source material rather than the very important government work waiting on my desk.

"Beaumont," the home of George Guest and his wife Mary Eliza Bernard Guest, torn down in the 1980s

I’ve done dozens of programs over the years, but whenever I touch on the civilian story related to Fredericksburg, I keep finding myself coming back again and again to Rebecca Campbell Light’s compilation of the letters and diaries of the Bernard sisters, War at Our Doors. Marriage scattered the sisters across the Rappahannock Valley during the war, from Culpeper to Fredericksburg to Port Royal, but many of the passages relate Fredericksburg’s condition at critical times of the war. The local seat for the Bernard sisters was a home called Beaumont (later Altoona–above), located on what is today Route 3, just short of I-95–on the site of the Burlington Coat Factory.  The house was torn down in the 1980s. Mary Bernard married Englishman George Guest, and during the war frequently hosted visits from her sister Helen Struan Bernard.

Helen’s writings constitute some of the most lyrical,moody expressions available to us–they convey a powerful sense of time and place. Take this quote, which I will use in my talk this weekend.  It was written on April 21, 1861, in Port Royal (fifteen miles downstream from Fredericksburg) just four days after the Virginia convention passed the ordinance of secession.

…All has been quiet & pleasant enough but abroad we hear nothing but war & tumult, the greatest excitement prevailing throughout the whole length and breadth of the land, troops collecting from all points and the dreadful fact forcing upon our minds that Civil War, with all its untold horrors, is actually at our doors…..Rumours come & and are contradicted & followed by others in such rapid succession that I know not what to believe. We talk of war, but we know not what it is.  It has been heretofore all a myth to us in this happy land, a thing belonging entirely for the books & far off countrys. I shudder to think the sad experience we may have gained before another year has passed.

If you haven’t read it, you should.  Very good stuff.  Rebecca’s next book about the Wells family of Fredericksburg, Between Two Armies, will be published next year, to be followed by yet another compilation of source material focused on the Hamilton family of Hamilton’s Crossing fame. She is rapidly becoming the maven of civilian source material related to the Civil War hereabouts.

A future king visits Fredericksburg–and the slaves hope

From John Hennessy:

Edward Albert, the Prince of Wales, in a photo taken just a month after his visit to Fredericksburg.

Tomorrow night we give a reprise of “Footfalls of the Presidents” at the Fredericksburg Area Museum. We’ll reference most of the 25 presidents (sitting, past, or future) who have visited Fredericksburg, but will not reference the lone king–and so I offer that up here.

In the fall of 1860, the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward–the future King Edward VII (1901-1910) of the United Kingdom–undertook a high-profile tour of the United States on behalf of his mother, Queen Victoria. To New York and Washington the 19-year-old went, and along the way he made a brief stop in Fredericksburg just after noon on Saturday October 6.  “A great crowd of people were assembled at the depot, cheering and shouting,” reported the New York Herald. As the  prince emerged from his car, someone in the audience threw a bouquet of flowers that struck him in the chest. The impact “frightened him for a moment, as he did not expect to be ‘pelted with roses,'” reported the Fredericksburg News. “He picked it up and bowed his thanks.”  The Prince was, the News concluded, “a Very Pretty Boy.”

Someone accompanying the prince told him that Fredericksburg was the home of Washington and “the only finished city in the United States.” This latter point irked the locals, for it implied stagnancy, and indeed the smirking remark would be remembered bitterly in the local press for years. The interloping tour guide spoke of Washington’s boyhood here, his membership in the Masons, and the home of his mother marry.  The prince was “deeply interested.”

The railroad depot that greeted the Prince of Wales is the cantilevered building with the white gable at upper right.

Mayor Montgomery Slaughter was at the depot to greet the Prince. A band played “God Save the Queen.” The News recorded that local African-Americans seemed especially excited, “bowing and courtseying to the ground, praying ‘God Bless Massa.'” The Herald noted, “The Prince came out and bowed, curiously inspecting the slaves, as if he expected to see some badge upon them.”

The News explained the appearance of slaves at the depot thus: “It is said the negroes believed the Prince of Wales was coming here to set them free. We think the negroes have more sense. They are freer now than most Northern poor people” (a popular refrain in 1860 Virginia).


From John Hennessy:

As we look back on the history of our community and nation, we are fond of saying that people are a “product of their times,” and of course they are. But in the realm of public history that statement is often used to imply a simplicity that wasn’t real.  It implies that the pressures of society and peers left no choice but to conform, or indeed that there was no choice to be had at all. The result is a public history that is reduced to simplicities, that’s monolithic, with little room for discussion of the motivations or decisions of participants –as if everyone was simply swept forward by an unseen force that rendered individuals powerless to resist.

Union troops loot lower Caroline Street

We see this idea applied most rigorously to those subjects that make us most uncomfortable. In the Fredericksburg region, the looting of the town by Union soldiers is often seen in such simplistic terms. The existence and sustenance of slavery is another. But in fact, these topics (and many others we’ll discuss over the months) were a complex tangle of individual choices, knowingly made within a community (or army) that was acutely aware of the moral dilemmas that faced them. In making individual decisions on how to respond in such circumstances, some rationalized their way to what we would today label an immoral course. Most, though, were apathetic, and were indeed swept along by that unseen hand of history and collective morality or immorality.  And a few recognized the choices that faced them and had the will to see the issues clearly and to decide accordingly.

Recognizing the range of personal choices in turn recognizes the richness, complexity, and dimension in our history. More than that, the rhythms of history demonstrate clearly from whence human progress emerges: from those who recognized and confronted the moral and practical dilemmas at hand.

Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford, resident of lower Caroline

Fredericksburg includes its fair share from all three categories (we’ll call them the rationalizers, the apathetic, and the confronters). We’re going to undertake an occasional series on here that looks at some of the dilemmas that faced this community (or in the case of the Union army, the community’s occupiers), with an emphasis on how people reacted to some of the great issues of the times–and what those decisions tell us about some of the broader themes of history.  Which brings us to the subject of the day. Continue reading

When an exhibit becomes an artifact: the remarkable Hanover Street diorama, perhaps the oldest exhibit in the NPS

From John Hennessy:

We have ruminated in this space about the evolution of media, and especially digital media. Still, despite all the techno developments and all the creative energies put into media development, I firmly believe that nothing is more effective as an interpretive tool than a the human voice. The combination of the voice of a thoughtful, creative interpreter, an evocative site, the words of the people who once trod that site, and the mind’s eye of the listener still make for the most memorable, enduring interpretive experiences.

But, as we have written here, at a typical landscape-oriented park like a battlefield, about 80% of our visitors do NOT take a tour, and thus are completely reliant on media for according significance to the sites and landscapes they see. That’s a staggering number, and it emphasizes that for an NPS site to be successful, we have to excel at both personal services (tours) and media.

Which brings us back to the question, “what works?”  Sometimes in our search for evocative, effective media, it pays not to look forward into the swirl of emerging digital media, but backwards to something more simple.

Of the dozens of exhibits in the park–museum exhibits, wayside exhibits, and even digital exhibits–in my view still the most effective and evocative is the oldest exhibit we have: the Hanover Street diorama on display at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. Continue reading

Context matters: the contrasting narratives of John Washington and Noah Davis, Fredericksburg slaves (with a Patton connection)

From John Hennessy:

Both begin with the identical words:  “I was born a slave.” Both narrate a life within slavery and a lifelong quest for freedom.  Both were urban slaves, working in homes or small businesses or industry.  But in most other respects, the narratives of John Washington and Noah Davis could not be more different. The differences command of those who read them special care. They demonstrate vividly why context matters.

Only a couple hundred slave narratives have ever been published, and so Fredericksburg is fortunate to have two produced by men who spent a most of their lives as slaves in the town.  You are likely most familiar with John Washington’s narrative, published in 2007 by David Blight as A Slave no More (read more about Washington’s memoir here). Washington wrote in 1873, seven years after the war, and in his retrospective recounts his life in slavery and his quest for freedom in vivid terms. His narrative is filled with antagonists, most notable his mistress, Catherine Taliaferro. In Washington’s narrative, Taliaferro, her neighbors, the community, and its institutions are the limiters of his freedom. They are, rightly so, Washington’s foils in his struggle for time, space, literacy, joy, and family.  Writing privately from his new home in Washington DC ten years after emancipation, John Washington could afford to offend. His memoir is frank, sometimes stark, though rarely angry or vengeful. Continue reading