Pohanka Reflection: Megan McNish at FredSpot

By Megan McNish ‘16

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. 

For many people, the past can be a murky thing. As historians and interpreters, it is our challenge to connect people with a past that they may or may not understand. Some visitors to historic sites come in with their own connections, but for those who don’t, we’re responsible to make that connection for them. In my second summer as an interpreter for the National Park Service, I’ve discovered that most people connect best when we tell stories. Visitors often don’t care about troop movements on a map, unless they are tracing the story of an ancestor. What people crave, what we as humans crave, is a story. As interpreters, it’s easy to reel people in with individual stories, but more difficult to connect them to a broader historical narrative.


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Pohanka Reflections: Meg Sutter on FredSpot

By Meg Sutter ’16

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. 

In the six weeks that I have been interning at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, affectionately known as FredSpot, I have not only grown personally in my knowledge of the Civil War but have also gained a further appreciation for the National Park and for my own role as a public historian. If nothing else, my internship here at FredSpot has reassured me of the public’s appreciation for history. Whether it be a visitor following an ancestor who fought in the Civil War or someone who just “saw the brown sign” and decided to stop in, many of the people visiting the park are really encouraging and enthusiastic individuals interested in their nation’s history. We also get a lot of foreign visitors who are captivated by a war fought by brother against brother. While some of my findings at FredSpot ring true with Rosenzweig and Thelen’s research, I feel we should give more credit to those individuals who visit Civil War sites not on a personal hunt for ancestors but just because the Civil War fascinates them.

Sutter at Spotsylvania

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Pohanka Reflection: Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park

By Emma Murphy ‘15

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. 

The beauty of working at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania is the opportunity it offers to engage visitors on four different historical fronts. 1862 demonstrates the slow shift to hard war as the battle of Fredericksburg provokes political change in the war with the Emancipation Proclamation and increased destruction of private property. Chancellorsville demonstrates changing mentality on part of the commanders, making 1863 the year of taking unprecedented risk. Throughout 1864, the war rages on with bloody carnage and stalemate at both the battle of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House as trench warfare foreshadows the grim future of combat. With this opportunity comes an interpretive challenge, both for me as the interpreter and for the visitors themselves. How can visitors relate or connect to the twenty-two hour blood bath at the Bloody Angle? Should we attempt to answer their questions of humanity while we tell stories of destruction?

Emma Murphy FRSP

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“Years of Anguish” at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

By Avery C. Lentz ’14

Back in February of 2014, I was rather surprised to receive a phone call from a Mr. John Hennessey, head of interpretation at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. John had been chatting with my advisor, Dr. Peter Carmichael, and had heard the story about my interesting ancestry and its connection to the Battle of Gettysburg. John then called me after getting my information from Professor Carmichael and invited me to be a part of the “Years of Anguish” Program that was being held at the Salem Baptist Church on April 5th, 2014. The themes of the panel were presidents, generals, and descendants of the American Civil War and John invited me to share the story of my ancestors’ involvement in the war as part of the lecture. I was truly honored and hit with a jolt of excitement when I realized that I would be telling my story to a crowd of people who were just as passionate about the Civil War as I was.

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Realization: Reflections on the 150th

By Bryan Caswell ’15

Though my own musings have led me to doubt the traditional interpretation of the Battle of Gettysburg’s military importance, I still hold Gettysburg to be the greatest battle of the American Civil War, without question worthy and deserving of continued study. In order to reconcile these two points of view I pondered further, attempting to unearth other, less-thought-of reasons for the importance of the Battle of Gettysburg to the course of the American Civil War.

Again my thoughts turned to the summer I spent at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. As one of my duty stations that summer had been Spotsylvania Court House, the second battle in Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, I had gained much experience explaining the concepts of this crucial campaign. The most famous aspect of Grant’s series of south-east movements in the spring and summer of 1864 is, of course, his unswerving determination to keep moving towards Richmond, no matter the cost. Grant’s fearless use of the North’s superior manpower and industrial capacity to defeat the waning strength of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia has become legendary in American history. Yet mention of this war of attrition in the American Civil War only truly begins to rear its head in the context of ending the war with the opening of the Overland Campaign. Though Grant and his generals may have been the first to integrate attrition into their strategies, the attrition of Southern armies began almost as soon as the war started. Though victorious at nearly every battle, Robert E. Lee continually lost a higher percentage of his men than did his opponents, and it is this idea of Confederate losses that brings me back to Gettysburg. It is estimated that, out of a total of approximately 70,000 effective soldiers at the start of the campaign, Lee’s army suffered a total of around 23,000 casualties, fully 33% of its force. Among those casualties lurks a second, even more devastating fact. This same percentage of losses was reflected in the Army of Northern Virginia’s officer corps, with at least a third of them becoming casualties over the course of those three days in July, 1863. In an army which has, rightly or wrongly, time and again been lauded for its superior leadership, the loss of so much of that leadership can only have been devastating to the continued performance of the army. In light of these figures, could it not be better to think of Gettysburg as one of the greatest disasters for Southern arms not because of the defeat itself, but due to the cost of any battle so bloody, be it a victory or a defeat?

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A Summer at Chatham: Thoughts of a Pohanka Intern at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

By Estee Reed ’16

At 8:30 in the morning I step out of my car and head up to the imposing manor house situated on a hill overlooking the quant town of Fredericksburg. While most people might be put off by it’s creaky floor boards, the cracks in the ceiling, or the delightfully surprising way the two front doors like to open by themselves; I love it. I love working at Chatham.

Chatham Manor

Having been built in 1771, the manor house has played host to many famous people and has been present for some of the most significant historical events in American history. And while the history of Chatham is absolutely fascinating, it is the visitors that come to Chatham that make me love working there. Continue reading “A Summer at Chatham: Thoughts of a Pohanka Intern at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park”

Painting the Stories of Our Grandfathers

By Rebecca Duffy ‘16

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.

The Innis House along Sunken Road at Fredericksburg

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Interpretation and Revelation: A Training Odyssey

By Bryan Caswell ’15

Three weeks of training. Just the thought of what awaited me in my first days as an intern at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park made me want to groan. Yes, yes, I realized that we all needed to be introduced to the National Park Service and walked through the policies of the park, working the information desk, assisting visitors, and other administrative trivialities. But could that not be accomplished in a few days? When would we get to what I was really interested in, what I couldn’t wait to do and what (I thought) I didn’t need any preparation for? When would I start giving walking tours?
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