Becoming a Better Historian

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

By Jon Tracey ’19

I’ve had an absolutely incredible summer at Appomattox. I will be leaving the National Historical Park with tons of knowledge and wonderful memories, as well as valuable experience. I’ve learned so much over the course of the summer, both about the Civil War as well as about myself. I’ve become a better historian, learned how to complete more advanced research, and discovered new ways to help teach the public about history. Of course, the summer had plenty of ups as well as downs. Losing power and air conditioning on a hot Virginia night while trying to do research was certainly frustrating! I also had some experiences with visitors that were less than perfect. While delivering first person living history programs, I had to stay within the context of what that particular soldier would have known in the summer of 1865. Sometimes visitors wouldn’t understand that, and once I was shouted at for being unable to answer the question of “What’s original inside the general store?” Luckily, that interaction was the exception rather than the rule, as most of my internship was filled with high points.

McLean House, Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

My first day of living history was particularly enjoyable. First person interpretation is exceedingly challenging, but I found it equally rewarding. Another memorable moment was when I was delivering my third person program on soldier life and uniforms. Having young visitors dress up in the uniforms and pose for pictures for their parents was heart-lifting, as I could see them linking what they learned in school to a physical object as well as thoroughly enjoying learning. Another moment worth mentioning occurred while I was working in the visitor center. Behind the desk, we have records of Confederate soldiers who were paroled at Appomattox, as well as maps to show where a soldier’s regiment was during the battle the morning of April 9th. Having visitors come in curious about their ancestor and being able to help them through this research was especially gratifying.

As I return to Gettysburg College, I know I’ll be taking a lot of things with me. I’ll be bringing physical souvenirs of all the sites I visited on my weekends, but the intangible things I’ll return with are far more valuable. My research skills as well as interpretive skills have greatly improved. More importantly, I’ve found myself more accepting, or at least more aware, of other points of view. The Civil War is a complex part of history, and I think my awareness of a variety of viewpoints helps to make me a better historian. Naturally, my content knowledge has also greatly increased. The end of the Civil War was not always something that was reached in classes that try to rush through before finals week, and this internship at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park has helped me to gain a greater understanding of the end of the conflict. On a less scholarly note, I’ve also made a number of friendships and connections that I’m hoping will continue for many more summers, as well as cemented my desire to work for the National Park Service as a career. Ultimately, this internship was an incredible opportunity, and I will always carry the lessons it taught me.

2 thoughts on “Becoming a Better Historian”

  1. Well written description of your experiences. I think one valuable lesson you have experienced is that of dealing with the public. In my opinion, public relations is one of the essential tools you will need in any career path you choose to pursue. Dealing with the public is also one of the most difficult things to deal with because of all the different personalities you will encounter. It sounds like you have already discovered this during the tours and talks you have conducted. Keep up the good work. We are very proud of you.

    Grandma & Grandpa Wozniak

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