Painting the Stories of Our Grandfathers

By Rebecca Duffy ‘16

At Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park I, as an intern, began my summer with nearly two weeks of training. Of course, we interns wear many hats. We are the frontline historians: friendly faces behind the desk at the visitor’s center, voices over the PA system reminding visitors that the “twenty-two minute film on the Battle of Fredericksburg will be beginning momentarily.” We are the authors and guides of most of the daily tours. Thus, with all of that information- from park operations to living in quarters to the site specific facts our visitors came to learn-we need every second of that training. Yet the most difficult job we have, interpretation, using the tangible objects around us to bring the stories of the war to life, cannot really be taught. It’s learned best on-the-job.

The Innis House along Sunken Road at Fredericksburg

We as interpreters need to leave our visitors with new stories and thought provoking ideas. Our goal: to help them grow their opinion so that they may continue that discussion over the car-ride home and beyond- all while dealing with a topic that covers a range of interests and a range of emotions.

I, for instance, try to focus my tour on bravery:  the eight divisions of Union soldiers who marched toward a seemingly impregnable stone wall on that winter day, while thousands of Confederate men held the position regardless of numerous friendly fire incidents and heavy casualties among officers. I try to paint the field, empty for nearly half a mile, save a few fences and yet, in the end, seemingly “covered in a navy cloth.”

All while I hope to inspire the park visitors, I have found they have actually inspired me. From touring Chatham with a woman whose grandmother had grown up there, to my very own disappointment when it had seemed a great grandfather had deserted the war effort and to the laughter that followed when the family responded “things happen, that just gives him character!” The visitors connect to those names and regiment numbers; they transform them from a list on a yellow pad. They become very real on these grounds, more than just an anecdote; they inspire a discussion. I don’t have any ancestors who fought in the Civil War, but still there is nothing more amazing than having the ability to overlay a current map and tell the visitor they can walk where their ancestor marched, they can stare at the same siding of the Innis house their ancestor had one hundred and fifty years ago; to know you are sparking an interest, to “get someone hooked.” After all, the visitors have done that for me.

Interpretation is an art and yet, visitors do it all the time. So while there are plenty of lessons to learn- whether in training or on the job- before it can be near “perfection,” I have found the key aspect is in sharing curiosity; to provoke more questions, to see new perspectives and often even allowing the visitor to further inspire the historian.

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