Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Interpreting the Past: Interpreting Civil War Battlefields

As most of my followers know, I contracted at two Civil War battlefields. Both battlefields lie upon the same mountain range known as SouthMountain. While it’s a great job to have, it does present some difficulties when it comes down to the visitors’ experience and interpreting the events of those battlefields. Over the last several years, most Civil War battlefields are adding newer themes and sub themes to their interpretive programs, to tell the story of the Civil War as a whole, rather than telling the story of that particular battlefield.

There is nothing wrong with presenting the average Civil War soldier to the male visitor, but what about the female visitor or the children in your group? South Mountain, for example is loaded with historical facts that can be turned into sub themes of an interpretive program such as mountain vegetation, landscape, civilians, local political views of the period, and last but not least the aftermath of the battle. It is also important to study your site’s interpretive plan or manual. Everything you need to know should be written down in your interpretive plan. The interpretive plans will provide you with an outline of the historical site or battlefield and what events are being highlighted.

When researching SouthMountain as a whole, whether it is the Maryland Campaign of 1862, the Pennsylvania Campaign of 1863, or Early’s Maryland Invasion of 1864, there are numerous stories that were written about the lay out SouthMountain. For example, several stories exists of battle lines breaking, not from the enemy, but from the vegetation of mountain laurel, bushes and briars: “In going to this position, the ground being uneven, and covered with bushes and briars, the regiment became a good deal scattered.” Major George. C. Cabell, Commanding Eighteenth Virginia Regiment during the Battle of SouthMountain, September 14, 1862.

During the Confederate Army’s retreat from Gettysburg, July 4-6, 1863, more stories about mountain vegetation were recorded: "We went over SouthMountain, [MontereyPass] and, while in the mountains; one of the men noticed a tree of mountain breech [birch]. He stepped out of ranks and brought back a sample. Soon every man in the company was chewing bark. We had to get it near to being a powder as possible in order to eat it. This was all the food we had for the fourth and fifth of July. There were very few blackberries along that road. In the defiles of SouthMountain, we gathered wheat, which is in "the milk," rubbed off the chaff with our hands and boiled it in out little cans at night. It never got soft by boiling, but it was food, and we had the digestion of ostriches." Private David Holt, 11th Mississippi Infantry.

Every battle or skirmish to erupt on SouthMountain had several stories about civilian life and the residents that were affected by those engagements. The Battle of South Mountain at Fox’s Gap had the Wise family; Crampton’s Gap had the town of Burkittsville and the inhabitants who lived there. During the Battle of Monterey Pass civilian men were pressed into service as guides as well as the the story of 12 year old Hitty Zillenger. Adding to that is the fact that civilians who lived in the area were all placed under arrest and housed at the Monterey Inn.

Relating historical facts to your group about the landscape is always good to do. You don’t want to bore them, but make mention of how the landscape appeared in the surrounding area. This gives the group time to catch up if you are walking long distances. For example, today many people think that mountains, especially SouthMountain was nothing more than forests and that could not be further from the truth. The forest within SouthMountain was heavily harvested in Pennsylvania, more so than in Maryland. Agriculture played a major role along the mountain ridges in areas upon SouthMountain.

Research the African-American experience of your site. For example, I didn’t think that MontereyPass had any stories pertaining to African-American history besides the captured freed men being sent back to Virginia as “contraband.” Upon further research, I found several items of interests on this subject. There were black servants captured by Kilpatrick that were part of the Richmond Howitzers, they later escaped, searched for their comrades in the Confederacy, found them and rejoined them in Hagerstown. In PennsylvaniaSouthMountain was part of the Underground Railroad. Stories like these will only take up to a minute, but they may be well worth mentioning, especially if it piques the interest of your participants.
Political sense of the locality also plays a major role. For example Maryland, although it gave its vote to John C. Breckenridge, remained loyal to the Union. Towns such as Emmitsburg were very split in their political opinions however, modern-day Thurmont, the next town six miles away from Emmitsburg, was mostly pro-Union.

When you add additional sub themes as mentioned above to your presentation, it will open up several opportunities, for you, the interpreter, to be able to connect with your participants. But as a rule of thumb, you’ll have to research your area first. The research to me is the easy part, how you present your program is what can be challenging. You’ll never have the same group twice. So learn your audience first and then you can adapt your program to make the visitor experience a good one while educating them in a fun way. Groups love interaction. Engage your group, but don’t go overboard. I had a question once about the Battle of South Mountain and to give three reasons where it could have went better for the Confederate troops. The first response I gave “was never fight a battle in or around a mountain”. The group laughed, but after I explained the other reasons involved, they understood my point.

Today’s trend of Civil War interpretation is becoming more of a tourism industry in which you need to please everyone that may come to your site. A few decades ago, people came to learn about just the battlefield itself and about a decade ago, the trend has slowly changed. As the tourism industry changes, so must your site. Today, people want the whole story rather than just talking about the approach to your battlefield or site and the destruction that took place upon the battlefield.

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