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….


Emancipation, Freedom, Life

From John Hennessy:

Washington, John.2493As we ponder and recognize the profound statement that was the Emancipation Proclamation–changing irretrievably the government’s relationship with slavery–it might be helpful to look at emancipation from the ground up.  And so, John Washington, a Fredericksburg slave.  We have written of John Washington before.

Washington wrote of the arrival of the Union army in April 1862. At the time he was working as a barkeeper in a busy hotel on Caroline Street.

April 18th 1862. Was “Good-Friday,” the Day was a mild pleasant one with the Sun Shining brightly, and every thing unusally quite, the Hotel was crowed with boarders who was Seated at breakfast A rumor had been circulated amoung them that the yankees was advancing. but nobody Seemed to beleive it, until every body Was Startled by Several reports of cannon. Then in an instant all Was Wild confusion as a calvaryman dashed into the Dining Room and said “the yankees is in Falmouth.” Every body Was on their feet at once, No-body finished but Some ran to their rooms to get a few things officers and soilders hurried to their Quarters every where was hurried words and hasty foot Steps.

 Mr Mazene Who had hurried to his room now came running back called me out in the Hall and thrust a roll of Bank notes in My hand and hurriedly told me to pay off all the Servants, and Shut up the house and take charge of every thing. (p.76) “If the yankees catch me they will kill me So I can’t Stay here,” “said he,” and was off at full spead like the wind. In less time than it takes me to write these lines, every White man was out the house. Every Man Servant was out on the house top looking over the River at the yankees for their glistening bayonats could eaziely be Seen I could not begin to express my new born hopes for I felt already like I Was certain of My freedom now.

After crossing into Union lines, he reflected on his new-found freedom.

A Most MEMORABLE night that was to me the Soilders assured me that I was now a free man ….They told me I could Soon get a Situation Waiting on Some of the officers. I had alread been offered one or two, and had determined to take one or the other as Soon as I could go over and get my cloths and Some $30.00 of My own. Before Morning I had began to fee(1) like I had truly escaped from the hands of the Slaves Master and with the help of God, I never would be a Slave no more. I felt for the first time in my life that I could now claim every cent that I Should work for  as My own. I began now to feel that life had a new Joy awaiting me. I might now go and come when I pleased So I wood remain With the army Until I got Enough Money to travel farther North. This was the FIRST NIGHT of My FREEDOM. It was good Friday indeed the Best Friday I had ever seen. Thank God — 

Enough said.

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.

Letting history be complicated

From John Hennessy:

Chancellor house ruins smaller fileLast night I spoke on the experience of Fredericksburg’s civilians at St. George’s Episcopal Church, a historic and beautiful setting largely filled.  I ended  with a bit of a commentary on public history and the war.

At Fredericksburg, sacrifice, sadness, hurt, destruction, and death came in a fashion and in forms not seen before, affecting soldier and civilian alike, challenging the will of all. 

Many of you, perhaps, see the Civil War in a singular way.  A war for Union.  Or a War for Freedom.  A war for independence.  Resistance against aggression.  An effort to end oppression.  An effort to sustain oppression. 

Take your pick.  You are all right. 

Some of you see historical Yankees as vandals…invaders…   

You’d all be right again…. They sometimes were. 

But they were also ultimately agents of freedom….saviors of the Union of the United States. 

Southern soldiers and civilians were noble defenders of homes—courageous, devoted, beset by hardships. 

Many also owned slaves, and they waged war for a government committed to sustaining slavery.  They waged war in an attempt to dismantle the American Union. 

Some of you–with good reason–see the arrival of the Union army opposite Fredericksburg in 1862 as the darkest day in Fredericksburg’s history. 

The slave John Washington saw it as the greatest day of his life. 

Fact is, our history, our story tonight is all these things.  And that’s okay.  We needn’t succumb to our mania for defining people and events in a singular way, as good, bad, evil, or noble.  To do that requires us to assert the primacy of one story, one perspective over another.  To do that requires us to pretend history isn’t complicated. 

History is seen and understood differently by different people.

That fact doesn’t diminish our history—it enriches it.

Instead, I ask you to step back and look at these events, this place, as part of a great tide of history—a tide of many swirls and eddies, crosscurrents, and a good deal of flotsam—broken, discarded, ugly things we might wish were not there. 

But ultimately it is a tide that leads to our very doors. 

It teaches us and inspires us—the price paid, errors made, devotion demonstrated, and triumphs gained on our path to this place at this time as we continue to strive to shape this great nation. 

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 best blog of its kind I have seen

From John Hennessy:

If you haven’t read Pat Sullivan’s blog Spotsylvania Memory, you should. He views regional history through the eyes of his family’s long presence on this land. He’s a great writer possessed of fabulous source material, with a terrific balance of hard-bitten history and sentimentality. I promote this for no reason other than it’s REALLY good.

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

Mrs. Henry hailed a Southern martyr? Apparently not

From John Hennessy:

It’s one of the standard tales of First Manassas:  that the widow Judith Carter Henry’s death during the fighting on her farm on July 21, 1861, helped outrage the South, embitter the war. The presumption has always been that in the post-battle hunt for atrocities both sides undertook (avidly), the death of Mrs. Henry at the hands of Ricketts’s guns that afternoon ranks near the top.

Union artilleryman Captain James Ricketts later admitted that he “thoroughly riddled” Mrs. Henry’s house. This is how it appeared soon after the battle.

I can find no evidence of that. Mrs. Henry’s name rarely appears in newspapers North or South in the weeks and months following the battle. Rather, her death seems simply to have been accepted as an inevitable outcome of battle (no one then could know how uncommon civilian deaths in battle would really be during the Civil War). So far as I can see, no one trotted out her sad fate as evidence of Yankee perfidy, even though the press worked feverishly to document supposed Union barbarities.

The status of Mrs. Henry as lamented public martyr seems to me to be another one of those misplaced presumptions that morph into myth.

The ruins of the Henry House, after being dismantled by the Confederates for souvenirs and building material the winter following the battle.

The weight of war–a 150th musing on Manassas

From John Hennessy (a Manassas musing on the 150th anniversary of the battle–newly updated with an additional image):

No photograph I have ever seen conveys more vividly the weight of war on those who struggled through it than this one.

This is an image of Lt. Colonel Joseph McLean of the 88th Pennsylvania–his shirt unbuttoned, shoulders slumped, face heavy with sadness or fatigue. Precisely 150 years ago this afternoon–almost to the minute as I write this–McLean fell in the swirl of fighting on Chinn Ridge, at Second Manassas. About most who fell in this war, we know little beyond the official record–little of their life, their being, or their death. But of this man, Lt. Colonel Joseph McLean of the 88th Pennsylvania, we know a good deal.

Compare that image with this one, taken just before the Civil War, newly provided by McLean descendant Tim Perella (I am grateful for his sending it along and helping to share the story of Joseph McLean).

The purpose of war is to inflict hurt and suffering and destruction and death in quantity and intensity enough to compel the other side to yield the effort. Every death sent a pulse of pain through a family, community, and nation that in some way challenged their will to continue.

Back in my Manassas days, the family of Joseph McLean came to the battlefield, bearing his pictures and letters. Mike Andrus took them to the place where “Uncle Joe,” as they called him, fell. The pain from his death lingered still.  It was a tortuous, compelling experience for the family, made more so by the crushing blow McLean’s death was for his wife and family. Continue reading