Upon finding out that I would represent Gettysburg College as a Brian C. Pohanka Intern at Petersburg National Battlefield, I was ecstatic though a little wary. The Petersburg Campaign was one on which I had never truly focused. I had heard of the Crater, the battles of White Oak Road and Five Forks, but I did not fully understand the scope and magnitude of the campaign. However, as a student whose passion is the experience of the common soldier, I quickly realized what a perfect fit the Petersburg Campaign is for my interests.
The 292 day, nine and a half month siege, encompasses nearly every imaginable topic related to soldier life. In total, over 160,000 soldiers fought on the front lines in and around Petersburg. Every one of those men had 292 days worth of stories and experiences to tell. It would take a lifetime to learn and analyze every one of those stories. Fortunately for me, I am able to don the uniform of a Confederate private and relate some of those experiences to the public, stories such as the following:
A Confederate private was retreating from the front lines and when his officer, attempting to stop him, asked why he was running he replied, “Because I can’t fly!” A Federal private, speaking of the hardtack he and his fellow soldiers were issued said, “Some of the boys say that it was issued to [Admiral] Perry for his trip to the Far East as ammunition and has been mistakenly issued to the infantry as food!” I share stories such as these repeatedly, always to a chorus of chuckles from wide-eyed spectators. However, before I came to Petersburg, I set an additional goal for myself: see the proverbial “spark” ignite in someone’s eye. I am pleased to say that I have accomplished that goal.
A young boy, no older than six, came to visit me at Stop 3, our recreated section of earthworks where I give talks on soldier life and experiences during the Petersburg campaign. He instantly ran over to me with a keen sparkle of interest in his eye. He began asking questions, talking so quickly he became incomprehensible. I explained the equipment used by soldiers and talked about some of the ways they spent their time: playing cards or praying or sleeping in their bombproofs. When he asked if I could “shoot the gun” for him, I obliged, going through the archaic nine-step process. As the crack of the rifle echoed through the trees and the smoke cleared from the first shot, I looked down at him; his mouth peeled back into a smile and then I saw it. I recognized same light in my own eye that has since turned into an inferno. I found myself jolted and excited at the thought that I had started that spark.
I cannot be more honored to have had the chance to have accomplished this goal, nor could I have asked for a more incredible experience. I am more than excited to see what the coming weeks will bring.