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.
To Freeman Tilden, provocation was an essential ingredient to effective interpretation, and I tend to agree with that idea. Both my walking tour at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center and the interpretive exhibits at Chatham Manor utilize provocation in different forms, with different challenges and opportunities. Overall, the atmosphere of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park is one that supports and encourages provocative thinking by visitors.
As with other battles, the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862 yielded shocking results. Homes were destroyed, thousands died, and military doctrine was challenged and changed. One particular story, however, has emerged from Fredericksburg to represent a different narrative, one of compassion. The actions of a 20-year-old Confederate sergeant named Richard Rowland Kirkland are enshrined in stone at the end of Fredericksburg’s infamous “Sunken Road.”
I wrote a post about this statue and its meaning last summer while I had the privilege of interning at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Military Park. I was asked to write about a monument and its historical connotations, and Kirkland immediately came to mind. After all, it is perhaps the most popular monument in the park. Kirkland’s story became very popular in the 1880s, and the statue was erected in the 1960s—both times during which Civil War commemoration followed a particular bias which I attempted to trace. If you want to read about historical context, check out my older article. Today, though, I wish to revisit the Kirkland story because there are some factual controversies that call into question its usefulness as an interpretive resource.
War games and drilling, though essential to military training, are no substitute for the real thing. They have their place: soldiers must be able to react automatically in the most straightforward of circumstances so that they can focus their energies on the less-predictable aspects of battle when the stakes become real. As the Dauphin County Regiment dove into its first battle, fresh from guard duty, the men had no idea of what they would face on the slopes of Marye’s Heights. The regiment showed courage and valor, but ultimately lacked discipline in the face of fire.
After three months in Washington, the Dauphin County Regiment was at last headed south. Resentment in the ranks at the last-minute transfer had been replaced by enthusiasm for the coming battle. At last, the men were to see the fight they had enlisted to join.
As the regiment marched across the Rappahannock River, General Oliver Howard chided the men who ducked away from shells, which were “‘not half as dangerous as they seem[ed].’” Perhaps not, but they were certainly dangerous enough to make Captain William Fox – a disinclined Confederate draftee who had deserted in favor of the Union – the regiment’s first casualty of battle. A shell landed directly beneath Jennings’ horse, but fortuitously it was a dud. Minutes later, when Howard himself was caught flinching away from an incoming shell, an anonymous member of the regiment smugly reminded him of his own advice. Humbled, Howard admitted that “dodging appears to be natural.”
At Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park I, as an intern, began my summer with nearly two weeks of training. Of course, we interns wear many hats. We are the frontline historians: friendly faces behind the desk at the visitor’s center, voices over the PA system reminding visitors that the “twenty-two minute film on the Battle of Fredericksburg will be beginning momentarily.” We are the authors and guides of most of the daily tours. Thus, with all of that information- from park operations to living in quarters to the site specific facts our visitors came to learn-we need every second of that training. Yet the most difficult job we have, interpretation, using the tangible objects around us to bring the stories of the war to life, cannot really be taught. It’s learned best on-the-job.
by Emma Murphy ’15, Battlefield Correspondent It???s done. Thank God. I thought as I slammed my textbook down on the ???cash for textbooks??? counter. The end of the semester ritual of selling unwanted textbooks was complete. ???Alright,??? the scruffy youn…