A Human Medium

By Amanda Pollock ‘18

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.

Civil War Parks serve a dual purpose: to educate visitors about the events that took place on their hallowed grounds, and to commemorate these events. Interpretative elements, such as informational signs and monuments, successfully memorialize and pay respect to the soldiers who risked their lives. Interpreters of the parks function as a ‘human medium’ to educate the public, and are given the unique responsibility to contextualize controversies that still exist today and explain just why these men were fighting in the first place.

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park has always placed a great deal of emphasis on the battle itself, for the sole reason that most people do not even know that two battles were fought at Appomattox. The park has made it its mission “to commemorate the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant…brought about by the Appomattox Campaign from March 29-April 12, 1865, and to honor those engaged in this great conflict.” The employees at this park have the duty to explain to the public the important military events that occurred on park property, as the battles were a crucial part of both the history of the village and the nation. To fail to mention the actions of the men who fought and died there would indeed be undercutting their service.

With that being said, the study of the terms of surrender that General Grant drafted on April 9, 1865 allows for reflection of “the causes and consequences of the Civil War and…the effects of the war on all the American people, especially the South.” Given the limited size of Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, the space within the Visitor Center Museum and display cases throughout the park are still mostly dedicated to the campaign.  But starting in 2008, the park has attempted to display more information about non-military history, which is evident in the exhibit on African Americans in Appomattox located in the McLean outdoor kitchen and slave quarters, pictured below. However, it is mostly up to the park workers to discuss causes of the war, local history, and slavery. Whether through ranger talks or first-person living history programs provided by the park, these important aspects of the nation’s history are presented through a human medium. This allows the presentation of these often-controversial topics to be offered through a form of discussion rather than through lecture. By giving visitors the opportunity to explore the “gray areas” of history, Appomattox Court House is giving the battlefield and the village the justice they each deserve.

The historical landscape of Appomattox Court House National Historical Park offers many opportunities to interpret the war and its legacy through a human medium. Photo courtesy Amanda Pollock.
The historical landscape of Appomattox Court House National Historical Park offers many opportunities to interpret the war and its legacy through a human medium. Photo courtesy Amanda Pollock.

Sources:

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, “Appomattox Court House National Historical Park Long-Range Interpretive Plan,” (U.S. Department of Interior, Washington DC, 2010).

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.

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