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 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.

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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. 

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.

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….

A different sort of aftermath at the Sunken Road

From John Hennessy:

At the conclusion of Sunday’s culminating ceremony at the Sunken Road, we asked those who had carried flowers from the riverfront to the road place them on  “that small but immense barrier between men Union and Confederate,” the stone wall.  Doing this didn’t come into the program until relative late in our planning, but it turned out to be one of the most compelling aspects of the day for many people.

Laying flowers on the stone wall The flowers represented those who fell at Fredericksburg; one out of ten was red, to represent those who died. We were all awed by the sense of responsbility people took in placing the flowers. Clearly, having the chance to physically express themselves in this way meant a great deal.

Yesterday I recieved a note from one of our former law enforcement rangers, now retired, Lyne Shackelford. With his permission (and our thanks), I share with you what he wrote about the program, the wall, and the flowers.

Everything was great: the participants, Rangers, reenactors, crowd, speeches, cannonade, Sunken Road wall program, but for an ex law dog like me, you really got my attention.  Here’s the nub of what I’ll carry:  The idea of placing carnations on the wall was truly transformational…a gesture symbolic of all who suffered and died during the battle for Fredericksburg, or the war for that matter.  Until the anniversary yesterday, and ever since I came to Fredericksburg over 20-years ago, I’ve always viewed it as an inanimate objective, as some ancient artifact where so many men died as part of a fruitless, dirty, and bloody campaign.  The carnations we placed there yesterday seemed to sanctify the wall as a living body and memorial to those soldiers, whether they died there or not, embodying their spirit and those terrible times when they lived.   Steven Foster knew what he was talking about when he wrote “Hard Times Come Again No More” and you’ve helped me realize that this wall still represents that part of our condition today.  It’s not just a wall any more.  We take these memorials for granted sometimes…I grew up with them, but I think after this anniversary, I’ll begin to look at them just a little bit differently.

The Clock on St. George’s

From John Hennessy, on the eve of the 150th of Fredericksburg.

St George Epis Ch5 crooped someWhen next you are in town, look at the clock on the steeple of St. George’s Episcopal Church.  That’s the town clock, overlooking Market Square, keeping time for everyone to see for more than 160 years–laborers and lawyers, slaves and soldiers, mothers and middlemen.

That clock measured Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Fredericksburg in May 1862.  It signaled time for the church’s bells to ring on the hour and half hour—even in the darkest days of war–which in turn begged passersby to look up (we still do).  It marked the appointed time for auctions of slaves at the corner of Charles and William and for school in Jane Beale’s schoolhouse on Lewis.  It counted away the last minutes of thousands of lives.

On December 11, 1862, several Union cannoneers, their view of town obscured by smoke, chose to fire at the one thing they could see above the chaos below—the steeple with the clock on it.   At least one of them claimed to have hit it.

The clock may have stopped. We don’t know. If  so, it, like the war-torn rhythm of Fredericksburg’s days, soon started again.

Nothing more tangible than the turns of that clock, accumulated one-by-one over days and years and decades, separates us from Fredericksburg’s most tumultuous days.

1899 Spectacle: “The Battle of Manassas!”–a Living Panorama Leaves Visitors Unimpressed

From John Hennessy:

I came across this curiosity tonight in the May 6, 1899 issue of the Charleston Evening Post–something I had never heard of before.

A news piece that same day notes, “The advance forces of the Pain Fire-works Company have been at work this week arranging the grounds for the grand reproduction of the “Battle of Manassas,” or the first Bull Run fight. Everything is in perfect order, and on next Wednesday evening the gates will be opened to receive the vast crowds which will undoubtedly be attracted to witness this magnificent production.

The scene representing the battle-field is one of the most perfect paintings that Mr. Pain has ever presented. The battle will be given in very detail, and Gen. Johnston’s famous charge illustrated by an army of well trained men. The costumes, arms and equipments are fac-similes of those used at the battle….”

The pyrotechnical display which closes each exhibition has been especially arranged for the occasion, and the features will be emblematic of the U.C.V. [United Confederate Veterans].  Massive portraits in lines of fire will be presented of the leaders and the Confederacy, and the Bonnie Blue Flag will float proudly over the base ball park during Reunion week.

Another article from the May 3 issue noted that the “massive scenery to be used in the presentation has arrived and the artists and carpenters will begin the erection of the same tomorrow. The scene represents the old battlefield and surroundings and has been painted from sketches made by engineers at the time of the battle….Every detail of the battle will be pictured and over five hundred men will take part….The scenery is entirely new, having been painted especially for this presentation.”

Opening night, May 10, 1899, saw 5,000 people pour into the ball park to watch the spectacle. The newspaper tried to put the happiest spin on things. The public went away, said the newspaper, “perfectly satisfied with what they saw” (perhaps not the lavish praise the organizers sought).  “The fight was as realistic as could be made, and the effect was altogether good….The heavens were brilliantly illuminated with rockets, exploding troubles, and set pieces.”

But beneath the tepid praise were ominous rumblings. The next day’s paper carried word that after a second performance “The Battle of Manassas will not be given again at the base ball park.”  The news note continued, “The public have been greatly disappointed with the spectacle since the first night it was given….There will not be a display tonight.”

What exactly this thing was is not really clear.  Do any of you out there know?  A living panorama?  A moving map?  Just an excuse for some fireworks?

In any event, it’s an interesting effort to capitalize on the American tradition of war watching begotten by Manassas.

 

 

 

The Civil War, 9/11, and remembering

From John Hennessy:
 
We re-post this from last year…
It seems to me that in the aftermath of national trauma, we as a nation (consciously or unconsciously) have accorded the rights of memory to a certain group or groups. We have seen that most vividly in our lifetime with 9/11. Virtually every collective commemorative or interpretive expression made toward 9/11 is subject to the explicit or tacit approval of survivors, rescue workers, or the family members of victims. I think we understand that, and if past be prelude, it will be that way for quite some time. The focus on public interpretation of 9/11 is squarely on the experience and suffering of victims and survivors.
 
Much the same thing happened after the Civil War.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, we accorded the rights to the memory of the conflict to the veterans on both sides.  They in turn fostered a swift but incomplete reconciliation—one that pasted over but did not extinguish lingering bitterness, one that was based on selective history and the desire to celebrate common virtues and suffering.  The focus of reconciliation—and the focus of America as it viewed its Civil War—became the shared courage and sacrifice of soldiers blue and gray on the battlefields.
 
A unique aspect of this as it relates to the Civil War is that the ownership of the war’s memory was bequeathed to subsequent generations, and in many instances the descendants have battled to protect and advocate for the memory of their ancestors every bit as vigorously as their ancestors did.  Continue reading

The phenomenon of the “Moonwalk,” May 2, 1996

From John Hennessy:

The trace of the Mountain Road at Chancellorsville, where Jackson was wounded.

It was perhaps the most amazing, curious interpretive event I have ever been involved with–made so not by its content, but rather by its literal atmospherics. This now-legendary program (at least within the park staff) proved two things:  Stonewall Jackson can still draw a crowd even 134 years after his death, and people will jump at the chance to get close to history, even in its most ethereal form.

The program had its genesis in an article that appeared in one of the Civil War magazines (I believe Blue and Gray, but could be wrong). The writer had earlier done celestial calculations showing how and why the tides at Tarawa had been so exceptionally and disastrously difficult during the amphibious landing there in November 1943. His latest calculations showed that the arrangement of celestial bodies on May 2, 1996 would match precisely those of May 2, 1863, the night of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville–same moonrise, same moon phase, etc. Though amazed that anyone had the time to figure such a thing out, the park staff–atuned to subtle connections like that–thought it was all pretty cool, and so we decided to do a program at the site of Jackson’s wounding that night, May 2, 1996.  We issued the standard press releases about the event and prepared for it like a hundred others.

Frank O’Reilly was to lead the tour. At the time, I was the park’s Assistant Superintendent (a REAL bureaucrat, even in title), and offered to help with logistics and to be available if anything came up. We planned the program to start at 7:30, and to be done by 8:30 (before full darkness fell). We agreed beforehand that if some folks wanted to hang around until the anniversary minute (put by most accounts at 9 p.m.), we would hang too. We even calculated the likely moment. Adjusting an hour for daylight savings time and the 1883 adjustment for the imposition of Railway Time in Virginia (by most accounts about 11 minutes in this part of Virginia), we put the time of Jackson’s wounding at 10:11. Given that that was nearly two hours after the original program ended, we figured few if any would want to linger that long.

The stone place in the 1880s to mark (erroneously) the site of Jackson's wounding.

We expected a good crowd–maybe 60 or 80 people, given the quirky uniqueness of the evening. I drove into the parking lot just short of 7 and was astonished at what I saw. Not dozens, but hundreds of people, the lot overflowing, visitors swarming around the visitor center. By 7:15 we had probably 400 people on hand. Frank and I did some emergency recalculations, split them into two groups as best we could (Frank’s far larger than mine–people who come to see Frank O’Reilly want to see Frank O’Reilly, and not the second string), and came up with a plan to move the groups through what by any measure is a small space.

That done, as we waited for 7:30, I started talking to people. Continue reading

CWPT Unveils Fredericksburg App.–and wireless digital media rattles the cage of traditional onsite interpretation

From John Hennessy:

With yesterday’s release of a new I-phone app for Fredericksburg Battlefield by the Civil War Trust, it seems like a good time to revisit a post we did way back when on the emergence wireless digital media.

We are rapidly moving toward a world where fixed, structural onsite interpretation (like the wayside exhibit at Jackson Shrine, above) will be obsolete. Someday not far off, visitors will come armed with wireless devices–think not cellphones and Blackberries, but I-Pad and its successors–that will deliver film, maps, audio, animation, and other nifty things that will make current wayside exhibits seem like 1950s TV (quaint and nostalgic, but clearly out of date).  This is not a bad thing. In fact, we ought to look forward to the possibilities of more dynamic presentation of media.  Our visitors deserve it.

(Apropos to this, and contrary to popular perceptions, between 80% and 85% of our visitors are completely reliant on media for their interpretive experience onsite.  Put another way, only 15%-20% of our visitors attend live programs by one of the park’s historians–this due to a combination of timing and inclination on the part of visitors. Media, obviously, shapes the quality of experience for most of our visitors.)

But the transition to digital media raises some very interesting issues.  As it has been, the NPS largely owns both the sites and whatever interpretation visitors receive on that site. The marketplace offers visitors a few choices in the form of guidebooks and CD-based tours, but these reflect a tiny slice of the market. Visitors generally get what the NPS gives them.

The release of the new app yesterday puts us on the threshold of a new era.  Five or ten or twenty years from now, visitors will be a able to stand in the Sunken Road (by then likely devoid of traditional wayside exhibits) and shop a marketplace of products for onsite interpretation–choosing a source of interpretive media from any number of suppliers for delivery to whatever portable device they have.  While no doubt many visitors may reflexively look to the NPS for their product, the fact remains that interpretation will be buffeted by market forces that simply do not exist today.  Visitors will inevitably (and should) gravitate toward products that offer the best experience for the best price, or the one that suits their particular interest or inclination (it’s easy to imagine, for example, that non-profits like the SCV or Civil War Preservation Trust could develop their own interpretive universes, or an aspiring tech firm might develop products strong on glitz).

Continue reading