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.
Since beginning my internship at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, I have learned that interpretation is immensely important. It is not just about spouting out facts, dates, and figures at members of the general public who will probably never remember half of the stuff you tell them. National parks are about taking important and interesting material and making it relatable to the lives of the visitors that come to the park on a daily basis. Although Civil War emphatics deeply appreciate meticulous information, the average visitor wants more than just cold, hard facts. He/she wants to take something more meaningful away from his/her time spent at the park and this is where interpretation is key.
Dwight Pitcaithley addresses the idea of interpretation and the deeper meanings behind the significance of national parks (especially battlefield parks) in his work “A Cosmic Threat: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the Civil War.” In this essay, Pitcaithley explores the history of interpretation at NPS battlefield parks. When battlefields were first being preserved, their purpose was “to understand the military actions which took place there and to remember the men who fought there.” As Pitcaithley puts it, battlefields were to be “explained in detail” like “a chess game of war.” This idea was widely accepted, especially among the Civil War veterans who had fought these battles, because it sped up reconciliation between the men of the Blue and the Gray armies. Avoiding sensitive subjects that could easily reopen old wounds and focusing on common experiences shared between comrades and enemies alike was too tempting to resist. So naturally, parks that memorialized the battles and the soldiers of the Union and Confederacy did the same. “Any interpretation of the war, any mention of the war’s causes, or any mention of slavery” was dodged like the plague.
It is important to understand specific battles in great detail. However, as military historian Sir John Keegan once stated, “an army is… an expression of the society from which it issues.” Posterity is robbed of a deeper connotation to the Civil War when battles are isolated from the overall story arc of the era. So much can be learned from specific battles about the social, economic, and cultural realities of the Civil War era. There was a reason that Union and Confederate armies were fighting each other, so when the “why and how those two armies got to the battlefield” are marked as “irrelevant,” a void is created, like a single, missing puzzle piece in an almost finished jigsaw puzzle.
In the past fifteen years, however, the National Park Service has made significant changes to provide “a more balanced interpretation” of battlefield parks because, as Pitcaithley notes, “a useful history must include both painful as well as prideful aspects of the past.” When a child burns itself on a stove, it learns not to touch a hot stove. Sure, it is a painful memory and embarrassing, but the child learned from its mistake. The same goes for any dark and embarrassing memory from the American past. As much as a person might want to brush a not-so-glorious moment in their life under the rug to never again see the light of day, sometimes those unsavory actions are what could save someone else from future faults. We need to have an open “civil conversation” throughout the United States about the entire story of the American Civil War, about slavery, civil rights, the Lost Cause, and “The Treasury of Virtue.”
The NPS continues to make an effort to expand the knowledge and minds of visitors to battlefield parks to encourage them to see the causes and consequences of the Civil War from the different perspectives of individuals alive during this time period. Cutting across lines of ethnicity, gender, and age, more and more voices are being resurrected from the past to shed new light onto the story of the Civil War. The visiting public deserves more “than a mere recounting of” a battle. They deserve an interpretation of the war that makes them think, that makes them want to share what they learned and discuss how they feel. They deserve a meaningful story that they can relate to and carry with them for the rest of their lives. The NPS is helping to bridge the gap of time so people today can connect with others like themselves from long ago.
Pitcaithley highlights the 1998 “Holding the High Ground” report about Civil War interpretation in the National Park Service. The report states quite clearly that “Battlefield interpretation must establish the site’s particular place in the continuum of war, illuminate the social, economic, and cultural issues that caused or were affected by the war, illustrate the breadth of human experience during the period, and establish the relevance of the war to people today.” Harpers Ferry National Historical Park fulfills the charge laid out in the report by providing visitors with interactive museums, collections, living history guides, games, and more to engage them in and teach them about civilian and military experiences during the war. However, Harpers Ferry also has historical significance long before and after the Civil War. For over 400 years, the town at Mr. Harper’s Ferry has been interwoven into the threads of American history. Natural, industrial, transportation, African American, Civil Rights, and Civil War history can all be found in Harpers Ferry and there is at least one exhibit and program to accompany each one of these historical themes.
Harpers Ferry is also one of the very few National Parks that has an Education Department that is completely dedicated to providing educational programs and interactive simulations to school groups and the Junior National Youth Leadership Conference. Children participating in this program study Harpers Ferry history, particularly John Brown and his controversial raid on Harpers Ferry that helped to spark the beginning of the American Civil War. Students explore why America was spiraling towards disunion and discuss the leadership characteristics of John Brown. The kids decide for themselves whether they think John Brown was a good or bad leader and if they would personally follow him on his raid on Harpers Ferry.
Another part of the program includes the students partaking in a simulation that allows them to take on the identity of an actual person who was a civilian or soldier present in Harpers Ferry at the time of the Civil War. They are taught drills and gun positions if they are in the army, run the dry goods store and visit the provost marshal if they are civilians, or run the hospital and make cartridges at the arsenal if they are a part of the war effort. At the end of the simulations, they find out the fate of the person whose identity they’ve been assigned. This allows the students to develop a personal connection to regular people like themselves from the past and get an invaluable interpretation of the past that even the most skilled park ranger could not provide.
National parks like Harpers Ferry work to provide visitors an unforgettable experience that is not only educational, but essential. Engaging in a broader context of the causes and consequences of the Civil War is not only important to fostering understanding of an enormous turning point in United States history, but it is also crucial in understanding the American experience. The Civil War – in all its broad complexity – is part of a national heritage that belongs to everyone that calls themselves an American.
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.
Gilbert, David T. A Walker’s Guide to Harpers Ferry West Virginia (Harpers Ferry Historical Association, 2011).