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.
In the six weeks that I have been interning at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, affectionately known as FredSpot, I have not only grown personally in my knowledge of the Civil War but have also gained a further appreciation for the National Park and for my own role as a public historian. If nothing else, my internship here at FredSpot has reassured me of the public’s appreciation for history. Whether it be a visitor following an ancestor who fought in the Civil War or someone who just “saw the brown sign” and decided to stop in, many of the people visiting the park are really encouraging and enthusiastic individuals interested in their nation’s history. We also get a lot of foreign visitors who are captivated by a war fought by brother against brother. While some of my findings at FredSpot ring true with Rosenzweig and Thelen’s research, I feel we should give more credit to those individuals who visit Civil War sites not on a personal hunt for ancestors but just because the Civil War fascinates them.
One aspect that is unique to FredSpot is our collection of great resources to help visitors find an ancestor who may have fought in one or more of our four battles: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, or Spotsylvania. Indeed, a great many of our visitors come to the battlefield to stand where their ancestor stood approximately150 years ago. These people are generally extremely appreciative of what we can do to help them find that particular location. I have even witnessed, as have many of our staff, a visitor break down crying because he could stand right where his ancestor was mortally wounded. Not only could this visitor then better understand the impact the Civil War had on his family but he could reflect from that location upon all the other men who may have been shot down at the same time as his ancestor. The Civil War indeed affected all Americans and still does to this day. In this particular case, Rosenzweig and Thelen’s findings match my own. Many people feel connected to the past on a personal level due to family relationships.
Yet, the majority of our visitors do not visit FredSpot because they have an ancestor who fought in the Civil War. As I mentioned, specifically at the Fredericksburg Visitor Center, we have many visitors stop by because they saw our National Park Service sign and figured they would check it out. These visitors may not have a strong understanding of the Civil War but are willing to learn. On the other side of the spectrum we have Civil War enthusiasts who make it their job to visit as many Civil War parks as they can. They are extremely appreciative of park staff for giving them the opportunity to explore the battlefields and learn more. Therefore, while Rosenzweig and Thelen’s research is focused on the past being alive and well through people who have family connections, I am encouraged by the vast number of people visiting FredSpot just because they are intrigued and curious. The past is alive through these people, as well. This proves to me that not everyone has to connect to the past solely through family. There are plenty of other ways to “get hooked” on the Civil War, whether through books or film. Of course, my sample is very different from Rosenzweig and Thelen’s sample because I work at a National Park and interact with the subset of visitors who come to the park. My sample is the 57.2 % of people mentioned in the survey who visit history museums or historic sites.
Rosenzweig and Thelen’s research seems to tell us more about family connections to the past than about visitors who are drawn to history through general interest. I would like to do a survey on the 57.2% of people who visit historical sites because they’re eager or curious to learn rather than there to find ancestors or connect to their families. Based on Rosenzweig and Thelen’s findings and my own experience at FredSpot, I feel professionals should not be as concerned as some are about the “ignorance and indifference” of the public towards history.