This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.
The National Park System is made up of over 474 parks, ranging from heritage sites and historical parks to historical trails, memorials, monuments, and the list goes on. There are many layers of history and many different stories present at each National Park, and it is important that each park’s whole story is shared with its visitors. In 1998, thanks to the “Holding the High Ground” initiative, Civil War battlefield parks began to make a concerted effort to broaden their interpretation to highlight social, economic, and cultural issues related to the war. This effort was undertaken in order to help visitors understand the Civil War in a broader context than just from a military prospective.
Civil War battlefields have been preserved since the 1890s. With early battlefield parks established so close to the end of the war, their interpretation focused mainly on military history and steered clear of the causes of the war. Yet over the past fifteen years, this way of thinking has changed dramatically. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, for example, focuses on interpreting and teaching the park’s history in many different lights. The park has six main historical themes: John Brown, Industry, Civil War, Natural Resources, Civil Rights, and Transportation. Although the town of Harpers Ferry switched hands eight times between 1861-1864, the site also has over 300 years of history that is interpreted just as much as its Civil War history.
If you were to walk through the park today, you would find stories of industrial development and civil rights, Civil War museums, and exhibits about the Niagara Movement, John Brown, and Lewis and Clark. As you walked through, you would see a period dry goods store, a ready-made clothing store, a confectionary, and a watch shop. During the weekends you can find vignettes occurring in these museums and shops sharing with visitors the stories of civilians during the 1800s. There are also tours given that focus on the park’s history as a whole, the site’s connections to the civil rights movement, and even how the natural resources of the land played a role in the success of the town. For example, the park’s Civil War to Civil Rights tour tells the story of how the Murphy-Chambers farm played an important role in the Battle of Harpers Ferry, but also served as home to John Brown’s fort in 1906 during the Niagara Movement’s convention at Harpers Ferry. This tour shows how one piece of land can play many different roles throughout history. Visitors would miss out on so much history and interesting stories if the park only focused on Harpers Ferry’s Civil War history.
National Parks have become a valuable educational tool and outdoor classroom. Harpers Ferry NHP is one of only a few parks that has an Education Branch within the Interpretation department. During the summer the Education staff at Harpers Ferry NHP lead a program for middle school students who are participating in the Junior National Youth Leadership Conference. The morning program consists of teaching the students about John Brown and in what ways he was a leader, while the afternoon simulations focus on exploring what it would have been like to be a civilian under martial law, to work for the government during the war, or to be a soldier. The simulations help students to understand what it would have been like to live in Harpers Ferry during the 1860s. This is just one of many examples of how the park brings history to life in order for visitors to connect with the past.
Harpers Ferry NHP gives visitors a well-rounded history. From George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, from John Hall to John Brown, from W.E.B DuBois to General Robert E. Lee, this park has a vast and rich history. Harpers Ferry NHP is a model park when it comes to programs and experiences that help visitors to understand broad currents in American history.
Pitcaithley, Dwight. “A Cosmic Threat: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War,” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of Memory, ed. James O. Horton and Lois E. Horton, (New York: The New Press, 2006): 169-186.