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.
Battlefields administered by the National Park Service are in a process of transformation. Administered originally by the War Department, interpretation at many battlefield sites has for years been marked by the military actions that occurred on the ground, from orders given to regiment positions to how flank attacks work. The National Park Service now is working to expand the horizons of interpretation on battlefields. Though military history is still greatly (and rightly) emphasized and members of the US Armed Forces still travel to battlefields to study tactics or communication, military history is no longer the only topic of focus at many parks.
This is a relatively new concept, only being overtly implemented in the last two decades, so many visitors still arrive at the parks expecting a program entirely focused on the military history of the site. While it is certainly not a problem that many visitors are most greatly interested in military history, too few come to the parks looking to also learn about the social, political, and economic histories of the war as well. At Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park where I am interning this summer, we conduct “History at Sunset” programs each Friday at 7pm, lasting up to two hours. These programs have very specific topics, ranging from animals in war to the trail taken by Stonewall Jackson’s amputated arm. NPS Ranger Beth Parnicza has noticed that attendance at these programs is greatly dependent upon the type of history that the specific program reflects. Programs about street fighting in the town of Fredericksburg will draw two hundred people, while programs about slavery will likely only bring eighty. Is this because people are simply more interested in military history or because visitors are still stuck in the old mindset that these parks are only about the military history and they therefore do not look for or expect anything else?
Whichever is true, are efforts are certainly being made to include more to the story of battle than just military actions. Instead of just talking about soldiers’ experiences, Fredericksburg Battlefield greatly stresses the significant effects the battle had on civilians in the area. Along the Sunken Road sits the Innis House, a house that is and was in the middle of the battlefield. Visitors can go inside of the house and see the inner wall, covered in bullet holes.
This original wall is actually perpendicular to the orientation of the battle during 1862, something we emphasize to visitors, for if there were that many holes on this particular wall, one could not even imagine how many were on the wall facing the orientation of the battle movements. It is described that if you placed two hands at any point on these walls, a bullet hole would have been there. The Innis house belonged to civilians and seeing the bullet holes makes it understandable to the visitors why so many citizens fled the town at the dawn of battle. Many families fled the town and some never came back, relocating themselves permanently. Before the battle, Fredericksburg had a population of about 5,000 and by March 1865, more than half of the whites who fled the town were still gone.
Visitors are often captivated by this story because it makes everything relatable. It is hard for an ordinary visitor understand what it would have been like to assault Marye’s Heights, but easier to imagine how it would feel to see your house destroyed or what it would be like to leave your home and never return. As Civil War historian James McPherson believes, it is true that one cannot understand the military history of a war without also understanding its social, political, and economic aspects as well, so I believe that the Park Service’s work to broaden interpretation of its battlefields is extremely significant and will have great results.
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.