As the Pohanka summer intern at the Andersonville National Historic Site I had the immense honor of taking part in Memorial Day at the Andersonville National Cemetery. Let me just tell you, there’s just something about 20,000 U.S. flags rustling in the breeze. The cemetery was ablaze with red, white, and blue this past weekend, both on flags and on visitors’ clothing, as our way of paying homage to our fallen troops. The cemetery was at its most jubilant and colorful as hundreds of citizens celebrated this holiday at the stone rostrum among green grass and blue skies. On Memorial Day weekend, the national cemetery becomes Andersonville’s crown jewel, but in addition to the cemetery, the five hundred acres that make-up the park also includes the ground upon which Camp Sumter Military Prison operated during the Civil War.
For those of you uninitiated to the horrors of Andersonville, this means that the land on which I now live and work was from February 1864 to May 1865 a landscape of overcrowding, disease, starvation, and, ultimately for 12,920 Union soldiers, death. Standing in the national cemetery for the park’s Memorial Day service this past Sunday, surrounded by flapping flags and patriotic music and smiling faces, it was easy for me to forget all this, if only for a moment. During Monday’s flag straightening and Tuesday’s flag pick-up, though, I paused. While passing each headstone and each name, each one representing one of 20,000 men buried here who have served in wars spanning four centuries, I remembered.
The purpose of this little anecdote is to highlight for you the dualities and dichotomies that make Andersonville so unique, for the story that the National Park Service tells here—the one that I, too, will now struggle to tell—is a complicated one. Really, it would be more accurate to say that we tell multiple stories here. Andersonville is a place where ideas of race, nationhood, freedom, suffering, loyalty, politics, memory, and patriotism are irrevocably intertwined, complicating an already complicated tale of suffering and enriching the way in which many visitors learn about and understand this nation’s civil war.
In the organized chaos of Memorial Day planning, my role at the park has primarily been that of basic interaction with the visitor. Don’t let my use of the word “basic” mislead you, though; my interactions with park visitors over the past two weeks have been surprisingly varied, unique, and meaningful. There was the biker in the cemetery on Memorial Day who spotted “Tennessee” on a Civil War headstone and assumed that the man buried thereunder was a “good Confederate boy.” He was quite taken aback when I explained that all Civil War burials in the National Cemetery are Union men, save one Confederate whose later re-interment here probably would have made him livid if he had known about it. There was also the Vietnam veteran who entered the National POW Museum for only a few minutes before reemerging in tears, admitting to me that it was all too much for him. I confessed to him that sometimes it’s too much for us, too. And there were the parents who had only the day before picked their son up at the airport as he returned from a tour in Afghanistan; standing only 100 yards from the deadliest landscape of the Civil War, I was one of the first people to say “Welcome home” to him. Finally, I had the chance to analyze myself as a visitor. As I walked the silent rows of graves, I found among them Clancys, Kidds, Mimses, Owenses, and Philbrooks—people who might be kin, however distant, to me.
These are simply a handful of small events and exchanges of which I have already been a part; in the upcoming months, their ranks will certainly grow. I look forward enthusiastically to my adventures here—to the connections that I will make, the people who I will meet, and the meaningful relationships that I will surely forge.