This post is part of a series on the experiences of our Pohanka Interns at various historic sites working on the front lines of history as interpreters and curators. Dr. Jill Titus explains the questions our students are engaging with here.
The beauty of working at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania is the opportunity it offers to engage visitors on four different historical fronts. 1862 demonstrates the slow shift to hard war as the battle of Fredericksburg provokes political change in the war with the Emancipation Proclamation and increased destruction of private property. Chancellorsville demonstrates changing mentality on part of the commanders, making 1863 the year of taking unprecedented risk. Throughout 1864, the war rages on with bloody carnage and stalemate at both the battle of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House as trench warfare foreshadows the grim future of combat. With this opportunity comes an interpretive challenge, both for me as the interpreter and for the visitors themselves. How can visitors relate or connect to the twenty-two hour blood bath at the Bloody Angle? Should we attempt to answer their questions of humanity while we tell stories of destruction?
When it comes to interpretation for children, we often question how to address these overwhelming topics without frightening or disturbing them. But in my experience, children understand and engage the past better than adults do. They are not politically active, nor do they see the world through hardened memories. A six-year-old with no understanding of the implications of slavery will acknowledge to the wrongs of the institution without fears of political correctness. Children are not afraid to say what comes to mind, making fundamental messages easier to convey.
About an hour before thirty six-year-olds were scheduled to arrive for a children’s program in the National Cemetery at Fredericksburg, I was dreading the experience. I kept scrambling to find ways to make the soldiers’ sacrifice relevant to them. But when they arrived on their multi-colored-fun-bus, they were excited and eager to learn. As we walked through the 15,000 graves, reading and discussing along the way, they were very aware of the significance of not only the cemetery, but of the war itself. We stopped at a USCT grave, one of four known in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, and they agreed that it was unusual that an African American was buried with the rest of the Union soldiers. They also picked up on the fact that he was in the back of the cemetery, isolated and surrounded by unknown graves. When I asked them why it was important to remember the USCT soldier, an African American boy raised his hand.
“To remember that he fought for what he believed in and for his people. Without him, I wouldn’t be free,” he said, his answer striking a deep chord with Rosenzweig’s research on African American identity and its relationship with the past. I question why these connections could not be made in other areas of our park. Why is a connection like this made at Fredericksburg but not at Spotsylvania Court House? The first engagement of African American troops and the Army of Northern Virginia was at the Aldrich Farm during the Spotsylvania campaign. Yet visitors flock to see the Bloody Angle, to hear the stories of men beating each other with hatchets and the butts of their muskets. “Through the past, they find ways to understand and build relationships to those close to them and to answer basic questions about identity, morality, mortality, and agency,” writes Rosenzweig, giving a possible explanation for visitors’ focus on the Mule Shoe Salient. We are attracted to stories of history that either make us question our own humanity or prove how far we have progressed since the relentless slaughter of Spotsylvania. Some visitors come and ask “why did they do that?” while others answer before they even question why— “it’s what they believed in.” But is that the true answer across the board? I think visitors engage the past to answer questions others may have left unanswered or unasked. Family connections are strong but individual curiosity may win the battle of historical interpretation.