Just over a week ago was the 152nd anniversary of General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. Although that number may not be as big a deal as the 150th anniversary a few years ago, there was something else special about this year. For only the seventh time since 1865, April 9th fell on Palm Sunday, just as it did on the day that Grant and Lee met in the McLean House. Not only was I lucky enough to attend this commemoration, but I was able to revisit the job I held over the summer by volunteering that weekend. Arriving on Friday, I donned a volunteer uniform, attached my nametag from the summer, and walked out into the surprisingly cold air.
Luckily the weather was vastly improved on Saturday and Sunday, as hundreds of visitors flocked to the small village far out of the way of most tourists. Volunteers greeted visitors at the parking lot and helped to answer questions across the site. All weekend, interpretative programs were delivered on topics including Union General Philip Sheridan’s 1865 Central Virginia campaign, the United States Colored Troops at Appomattox, and the surrender proceedings themselves. Reenactors, both Union and Confederate, camped within the park, carrying out firing demonstrations to represent the fighting within and around the village and recreating the stacking of Confederate arms. Continue reading “Appomattox: 152 Years Later”
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.
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.
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. Continue reading “A Human Medium”
For decades, it was an established truth that Civil War battlefield parks focused solely on military affairs, and not on any of the societal factors that contributed to bringing about the conflict. Though today parks emphasize a variety of reasons for the war – most prominently slavery – the reason that such discussion was absent for so long lies in the continuation of something which the war sought to remedy: a divided nation.
Public opinion on the Civil War and its relationship to slavery was bitterly divided due to many groups of people, most of whom had some connection to and therefore a measure of pride in the Confederacy, not being able to accept that the war was fought, first and foremost, for the preservation of a system dependent upon slavery. Because slavery is now acknowledged as an evil, connecting it to the Confederate cause made it hard for descendants and enthusiasts to take pride in Confederate heritage. As a result, Confederate heritage groups utilized their numerical strength to wield a significant amount of political muscle, pushing an agenda stressing that battlefield parks should focus solely upon military affairs. Not wanting revered battlefields upon which their ancestors bled for victory to become “sites of shame,” those with Confederate ties agitated such that the National Park Service did not dare even attempting to speak of the War outside of its basic martial composition. Indeed, the parks, influenced by such groups, mostly told the story of what happened, not why.
Throughout the sesquicentennial, I have often found myself wondering what the end of the 150th anniversaries and the surrender at Appomattox would bring to present Civil War memory. What lessons do we take away from that small stuffy room in the McLean House, with the fate of the nation hanging in the balance?
I was fortunate enough to attend the 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9. Purposely decked out in all Gettysburg College and Civil War Institute attire, I eagerly awaited the many discussions and debates between me and fellow visitors. I had imagined the historic site to be crawling with Lost Causers and neo-Confederates. But to my surprise, as the crowd began cramming in front of the stage at 1 o’clock, the time when General Lee had arrived exactly 150 years before, the focus shifted to the importance and overall historical context of the ground on which we stood. As Robin Snyder, the Acting Superintendent of Appomattox Courthouse National Historic Site, took the stage, she made the connection between 1865 and 2015 in one word.
This post is part of a series on the experiences of our Pohanka Interns at various historic sites working on the front lines of history as interpreters and curators. Dr. Jill Titus explains the questions our students are engaging with here.
We have all heard the stinging statement, “Americans do not know their basic history.” Although the blame for this atrocity is sometimes laid upon the shoulders of the United States’ educational systems, more often the judgment goes hand in hand with the stereotype that Americans are lazy. And perhaps we are. Like any American college student, my laundry will pile up until I run out of socks, and I would much rather watch a historically sketchy movie than dig through the research stacks at the library. But regardless of our love of television remotes and microwavable dinners, my summer as an intern at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park and the 1994 historical survey undertaken by David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig have shown me that Americans are taking an active effort to engage and connect with the past, albeit in a utilitarian way.
The saying “you learn something new every day” has always held true for me, but little did I know at the commencement of my internship at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park just how true that could be. As a student of the Civil War, I believed that I had a firm understanding of the surrender at Appomattox Court House, not in the sense that I pompously believed that I was an expert, but rather, that I grasped why General Lee was in a little town in South Central Virginia. However, from the first days of my training at Appomattox Court House, it became clear that my knowledge was greatly lacking. Continue reading “The Appomattox Campaign: A Lesson in What You Know and What You Don’t”