“It was the most nervous I’ve ever been. You can convince yourself you don’t know anything.” The first day working at any new place can be nerve-racking. But what if your job is to be the living spokesperson for a war fought more than 150 years ago? For Becky Oakes, an intern last summer at four Civil War battlefields in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the first day on the job proved to be a rewarding experience after she let the anxiety melt away. A family who traveled from Indiana to Fredericksburg had come to ask her about the battle, one in which their ancestors had fought. “Before I knew it, I was grabbing maps out from under the visitor’s desk and showing the family where their relatives would have been positioned. In that moment, I realized I could do this.”
Becky Oakes, a history major with a Civil War Era studies minor, came to Gettysburg four years ago on a feeling. Something about the campus just clicked with her. Although initially interested in WWII, her focus shifted towards the Civil War as she became involved as a Pohanka intern at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and as a fellow for the Civil War Institute. A generous gift from the John J. Pohanka family to Gettysburg College allowed for the establishment of the Brian C. Pohanka Internship Program, which helps students working as interns for the National Park Service (NPS) cover the costs of living. The Pohanka internship opened many doors for Becky and she gained mentors out of the supervisors and historians who worked with her on site. This experience transformed into a seasonal uniformed park ranger position, allowing her to return to the National Military Park in Fredericksburg for the summer, weekends, and special occasions.
As a senior, Oakes formulated her history thesis on Henry Abbott, an officer in the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. “I was surprised at how painless it was to write my capstone. Everybody tends to get worked up, but after reading a collection of his letters I just knew I was going to write about the conflicting ideas of mourning and manliness,” said Oakes. Henry Abbott’s brother, a member in a different regiment, was killed in battle, forcing Abbott to mourn in a new way. Never wanting to appear weak as a leader, Abbott was uncertain about how to grieve without losing face. But over time, the members of his regiment became more like family. “I started to see that Abbott grieved the losses of his own infantry men as if they were truly the brother he had lost. These men became surrogate brothers which eventually turned into true brothers. They were family at the end of it all,” said Oakes. Henry Abbott died in 1864 at the Battle of the Wilderness, but his letters and diary remain very much alive with the aid of historians like Becky.
In August, Oakes will be attending West Virginia University for their master’s program in public history. She hopes that one day she will be working as a historian at a National Park. Oakes said, “Public historians bridge the gap between academia and the everyday person. I love that I get to talk to people about something I am passionate about and share that with them”.