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 have not been able to escape Freeman Tilden’s grasp over the course of my three summers with the National Park Service. His writings and ideas seem to be everywhere, not out of pure coincidence, but because of the fact that nobody has eloquently and concisely gotten at the heart of what historical interpretation is quite like he has. In Interpreting Our Heritage, a book so ubiquitous that it might as well be hailed as the interpreter’s holy scripture, Tilden asserts that “the chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.” This isn’t meaningless fluff; rather, it’s an important concept that guides what I do every day on the job. Visitors should walk away from an interpretive program with more than just a story in their heads, and it’s up to interpreters to make sure that’s the case.
The sites contained within Minute Man National Historical Park, where I am spending the summer, enjoy a timeless historical relevance due to their association with the opening of the American Revolutionary War. As a result, just about everyone who visits knows something about what happened here. Indeed, the “shot heard round the world” still seems to be ringing in people’s ears today. Some of the knowledge people bring with them is true, while other parts of it border on myth. The relative comfort afforded by a largely shared past seems to give visitors at Minute Man NHP the confidence to share their thoughts candidly in exchanges with historical interpreters throughout the park.
The famed “minute men” from which the park derives its name are the subject of a great deal of mythologizing. Many enter the park with an idea of “embattled farmers” with no military training somehow managing to fight off one of the most powerful armies the world had seen since the legions of Rome. While a popular misconception, it is one I frequently address in living history programs, in which I adopt the appearance of a member of a colonial militia company.
Last fall, CWI Fellow (and now Gettysburg College graduate) Megan McNish ’16 shared this reflection on the experience of commemorating the Civil War in spite of having no family members who were in America during the conflict. A few hours later, we received a notification that someone had responded to the post.
We receive many comments on the Gettysburg Compiler, and not infrequently do they come from adherents of the Lost Cause mythology. Few comments, however, have been as detailed and historically problematic as the one Megan’s post received. We invited the Fellows (past and present) to respond with their own comments to different parts of the argument, and now we are publishing their compiled responses along with the original comment.
The text in the gray boxes below was originally published by the commenter as one long paragraph. We have divided it into sections (though maintained the original order) so that the Fellows’ responses could be inserted immediately after the sections to which they refer. We have also changed visible URLs into hyperlinks for the sake of aesthetic appeal. Apart from these tweaks, no edits have been made to the content, grammar, style, or spelling for either the Fellows or the original commenter. Not every possible critique of the comment is included below as each student was asked to hone in on one or two parts that they thought would most benefit from further discussion and context.
Feel free to share your own impressions and reactions in the comment section.
The comment begins:
I commend your passion on this subject and it is truly an honor to read about a youth that studies history. I would however like to set the record straight about the Civil War and the real reasons it was fought. This War just like many others throughout history were fought over greed. The South did not betray their fellow countrymen but rather the North oppressed the Southern states with unfair taxation and think about that for a moment UNFAIR TAXATION. Does that ring a bell think the Boston Tea Party.
Ryan Nadeau ’16: What makes a tax unfair? Certainly, the case can be made for taxation without representation, as it was during the Revolution. By our standards of representative democracy, that’s just fine. However, prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the South had plenty of representation. In the Thirty-sixth Congress, which sat from 1859 to the opening days of 1861, the states of the Confederacy held twenty-four of the sixty-six seats in the Senate (two for each state) and sixty-six of two-hundred and thirty-eight seats in the House of Representatives. Admittedly, this number for the House seems unusually low– and it was. Had the South abolished slavery, they would have received significant increases to their political representation. The Three-Fifth’s Compromise, as outlined in the Constitution, recognized only three out of every five slaves towards the population of a state when accounting for representation. Continue reading “Civil War Mythbusters: Grappling with the Lost Cause”
One of the most enduring archetypes of heroic storytelling is the triumph of the underdog: a figure who overcomes great and powerful foes due to their innate virtues, the nobility of their goal, or the hubris of their arrogant and highly flawed enemy. Their triumph illustrates the existence of greater forces of fairness, justice, and righteousness in their story world: a world in which they who are truly deserving of victory find it, and they who are unworthy are cast down – a story which has a spotty record at best in the real world. The narrative does not necessarily have to be so grand, either (the casting down of an enemy is completely optional). The enduring narrative of the self-made-man, for instance, follows a similar path: here is a person who has no material advantages to speak of, but is able to rise to the top of society through their own virtue and skill, triumphing against all odds.
As a human society, we love underdogs – from sports teams, to politicians, to businesses, to even something as mundane as a high school debate team. Why? Because their their success makes a good story, and is a hopeful suggestion that there is a force of fairness in the world that will reward those who work for their success. This is why, for instance, sports fans go nuts for a successful low-seed team during NCAA March Madness. The very fact that we call such turns of fortune “Cinderella Stories” reflects our affection for the fairy-tale of the underdog. Continue reading “The Clash of Storytelling and History”
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.