On the evening of October 8 in Gettysburg College’s Joseph Theater, Paul Reber ’82 spoke on the historic house museum. Reber presented for the History Department’s annual Alumni Lecture, despite the fact that when he was at Gettysburg College, he was a Political Science major. As Dr. Shannon, chair of the History Department, said, Reber eventually saw the light. Reber spent the majority of his talk speaking on various historic house museums he has had experience with, including Mount Vernon, the White House, and Stratford Hall, where he is the current director. Stratford was the home of the Lee Family on the Northern Neck in Virginia and is one of the sites of the Civil War Institute’s Brian C. Pohanka Internship Program. Stratford has a particularly interesting history. When it was taken into the hands of the historic preservation community in the 1930s, the home closely resembled what it had been like when Robert E. Lee was born there. During this period, however, the structure was restored to its Colonial appearance. Reber and his staff are attempting to restore various rooms in the home to their appearance based on various periods of the Lee family ownership.
She stood staring into the room, tears streaming down her face. The quiet tick of the clock in the background was an appropriate melody for the sad scene. The woman mourned the loss of a great man who one hundred fifty years earlier had rested his tired body in the bed just feet from where she was standing. Today this site is the Stonewall Jackson Shrine Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP in Woodford, Virginia. It is the death site of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, located twenty-seven miles south of the Battlefield at Chancellorsville where the famous Confederate general was shot. But the greater question is not where, but why. Why, after so many years, are people still mourning the loss of Stonewall Jackson?
Stonewall Jackson was an incredible phenomenon during his lifetime; he was one of the most well-known generals of the Civil War and his death on 10 May 1863 even made Northern newspapers. But what makes Jackson so appealing to people today? In many ways Jackson’s story is reminiscent of the American spirit, for it finds its beginnings in humble roots but ends in glory. Jackson was born in what is today Clarksburg, West Virginia (at that point still Virginia) and shortly after birth became an orphan. (1) He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, but only after another Virginia man returned home, thereby creating an opening. (2) By the end of Jackson’s four years of military education, the young man who had been woefully unprepared for West Point graduated in the top half of the Class of 1846. (3) Jackson would go on to gain recognition in the Mexican War, but it would be the American Civil War that brought true fame to Jackson.
On Tuesday evening Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute and Eisenhower Institute welcomed Robert Patton, grandson of the famous World War II General George Patton, to speak on his new book Hell Before Breakfast. Patton was welcomed to the college by Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of the famous World War II general Dwight Eisenhower. Ms. Eisenhower expressed her excitement to hear about the book. Hell Before Breakfast follows a few exceptional American war correspondents from 1854 through the turn of the twentieth century and its title draws from Civil War general William T. Sherman’s comment on the death of a war correspondent that soon there would be “reports from Hell before breakfast.” Sherman, Patton chuckled, was clearly not a proponent of these correspondents.
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.
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”