By Eric J. Mink
In this third of our three-part series on the CWI conference scholarship program, NPS historian Eric Mink reflects on the program’s impact on his decision to pursue a career in public history.
NOTE: Applications to participate in the 2017 High School Student Scholarship Program are due February 15 at 4:00 pm.
I first attended the Civil War Institute Summer Conference at Gettysburg College on a student scholarship in 1987. As a rising high school senior, the Institute opened my eyes to see battlefields and Civil War history in a different way and it proved to be a formative experience that would help to define both my educational and career paths.
When I was eleven, my family moved to Gettysburg. For me, it was a wonderful place to grow up and indulge an interest in the Civil War. My family’s house sat just half a block from the fields across which Lee sent his divisions on July 3, 1863. I poured over my father’s copy of William Frassanito’s photographic study of Gettysburg and rode my bike to find the same rocks pictured in the wartime images. I first heard about the Institute from my high school history teacher, Terry Fox, who knew of my interest in the Civil War and suggested that I apply for one of the student scholarships offered by the Institute. When I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship sponsored by the Lincoln Group of D.C., I honestly did not know what to expect from the conference and certainly had no idea how much I would come to value that one week’s experience.
Looking back at my registration packet and all of the collected materials I kept from that conference, I see that it had thirty-eight scholarship recipients. As the youngest attendees, we bonded immediately. Discussions about history and our experience dominated meal times and after hours. I made solid friendships that week and kept in touch with some of the other scholarship recipients. Nearly thirty years later I still run into one of my fellow attendees from time to time. For most of us, the exposure to the Institute’s faculty and programs was priceless.
The lineup of lecturers that summer shows that the Institute has always had top-notch programming throughout its long history. The theme for the week focused on 1861 and included lectures by William C. Davis, Harold Holzer, Drs. James M. McPherson, Catherine Clinton, Mark E. Neely, Jr. and Gabor Boritt. The full program impressed me, but it was the battlefield tours that I remember the most and feel had a lasting impact. I remember standing on the Manassas Battlefield at the Stone Bridge and listening to Ed Bearss. Ed’s energy and enthusiasm coupled with his command of the subject captivated the audience and impressed upon me the power of not just the history, but its interpretation. The tour of the Gettysburg Battlefield could not have been better, I thought. I’d turned the pages on my father’s copy of Gettysburg: A Journey in Time so many times that I had broken the spine and the pages fell out. That day touring the battlefield with Frassanito was impactful. Bill not only explained the battle, but to me he explained the importance of battlefield preservation. Through the immediate post-battle photos he used, he brought home to me the fact that we weren’t just standing in fields and woods, we were standing in THE fields and woods. Landscape features that were present during the battle had survived and were still visible. To me, that was very powerful and emphasized the importance of preserving places in order to better understand the events that occurred at them.
In no small way, the Institute helped to focus and further shape my interest in Civil War history. That interest influenced my choices and decisions with continuing my education. I attended Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington) in Fredericksburg, Virginia, another town with great Civil War importance and a school that offered a major in Historic Preservation. As I approached graduation, I applied for and accepted a summer job with the National Park Service (NPS) in Fredericksburg. Greg Mertz, who hired me and still does the hiring at the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, informed me that when reviewing my application, my Civil War Institute scholarship played favorably in my hiring. My first job that summer involved giving tours at Chancellorsville Battlefield and the Stonewall Jackson Shrine. It’s worth noting that the park’s summer staff that year included two other “seasonal” rangers who are familiar to the Civil War Institute, its current director Pete Carmichael and frequent lecturer and battlefield guide Keith Bohannon. As I worked toward a career in the NPS, I bounced around the battlefields of Fredericksburg, Manassas, and Gettysburg before landing in Richmond. I am currently an NPS historian working as the cultural resource manager at Fredericksburg.
The Civil War Institute had a considerable influence on my education and career. Since I began working for the NPS, I have been asked back to the Institute as both a speaker and tour guide. The Institute first introduced me to lectures and battlefield tours, so I consider it a tremendous honor to be asked to contribute during the summer conference. The scholarships that continue to be offered by the Institute are wonderful opportunities for young people to indulge an interest in history and the American Civil War. I think it’s safe to say that the exposure to leading scholars is unique. Any high school student with an interest in the Civil War should strongly consider applying for one of these scholarships. The friends you make along with the historians you meet and learn from just may have a lasting impression on you and provide new opportunities. Who knows where it might lead you?