Sunday, September 2, 2012

Memories of Fighting for Home and Hearth

It's that time of year again! No, I'm not talking about the start of college football, nor the arrival of the Pumpkin Spice latte at Starbucks. I am talking about the Fighting for Home and Hearth living history program at Stones River National Battlefield! The media of social sorts reminded me of the weekend through posts, tweets, and photos.

I can smell the black powder from here.
(Courtesy of Stones River National Battlefield)
For the last three years, I planned and implemented this particular living history weekend. I had been given the opportunity for the experience. I also think my former coworker secretly liked to torment me, assigning me the Confederate-themed weekend every early September. Once upon a time, a visitor left a comment card about one ranger's "Yankee bias" after said ranger went so far as to talk about how slavery contributed to the causes of the American Civil War (gasp). That rootin'-tootin' Yankee ranger was me. That rootin'-tootin' Yankee ranger had no problems with engaging with those who wanted to deny slavery's role in the war's causes.

My first year planning the program was a complete struggle, for I feared I would mess up. This was a big deal, after all! What if I misspoke?! What if I spaced out?! I did not want to appear the dummy! What if I shamed the arrowhead?! Nerves wracked my body for weeks as I freaked out about all that was bound to go horribly wrong. I chickened out and had the experienced ranger do the talking about the infantry shooting part while I did the storytelling part. I think I operated from an outline that had been prepared before my arrival, adding a few tweaks. If I recall correctly, the few tweaks included some extra sappy quotes from soldiers to tug at the audience's heartstrings. Yes, I had an outline on a paper that I read from. Shameful.

A recruiting poster for the Confederate Army.
I like playing with the idea of freedom's meaning.
I never ended up using this in my program, though.
My second year, I struggled, too. Oh, I grew up a little and decided that I was a big girl and could talk about the steps involved in the physical act of shooting and the maneuvers of infantry units. This time I struggled for different reasons. I knew that I was not comfortable telling just the Confederate side of the story. I also knew that the program allowed me to talk about things beyond the battle (life on the homefront, complexities behind soldiers' reasons to fight, etc.). A large portion of the interpretation included talk about the Rutherford Rifles. Seeing as only 11 of the 150 who marched off to fight returned after the war, I tried to focus on what devastation meant after the Civil War. I tried to focus on what the battle physically did (to the men fighting and to the surroundings). It becomes easier to evoke visitor emotion when you focus on those ideas, telling the stories of the soldiers who died on lands where they grew up.

But then, I knew that if I talked about the reasons why these soldiers were fighting, I would have to delve into more than just the difficulties of battle. Soldiers' definitions of home or property would often include enslaved laborers. In fact, nearly half of Rutherford County's population was enslaved at the outbreak of the war. So those "fighting for home and hearth" from Rutherford County were defending slavery. They wanted "freedom" from their perceived oppressors. One soldier wrote of fighting "the implacable enemy who seeks to destroy our liberty and enslave us." I decided to include more than just soldiers' experiences in my program this time, including causes and effects (though, not delving too deeply beyond what related to the soldiers). Once the weekend arrived, I dealt with a whole other set of problems as I delivered the program. I survived, but knew I still shrugged off taking on the bigger challenge.

Last year was the last time I planned the weekend. By that time, I had finished my thesis and graduated. My thesis was about using place to tell a story. Specifically, it was about using landscapes to tell difficult histories. Specifically, specifically, it was about using the battlefield environs now managed by the National Park Service at Stones River National Battlefield to tell the fuller story of the American Civil War by broadening the interpretation of the place and its history. So it only made sense to me that I include these larger ideas, presenting the conflicting ideas of freedom to varying groups of people. This was the academic topic I had been nesting on for years and now was the time for those ideas to hatch.

AND YET. I still struggled. I even had a meeting with my supervisor about it. People were expecting to come see a program about the local Confederate soldiers. How do I tell the stories of the men and women who were literally enslaved  by those in grey when I have a group of guys ready to shoot, acting like they were those who were fighting for this version of home? Visitors just come for the "boom!" anyway! Maybe I should not push so hard. Maybe I should just give visitors what they want. Talking about all this war stuff makes people uncomfortable, anyway. What if people leave unhappy?

Ding ding ding ding! 

Exactly! I am talking about a war! I am talking about battle! I am talking about major inhumanities! These are not "happy" thing! Yes, I want visitors to leave with a positive experience, but I also want people to take away more than a ringing eardrum with they leave the program. The soldiers represented by the living history volunteers play only a small part of a larger story! I took that and ran with it. I centered my theme on "freedom" and did less talking, more asking. I presented one idea of soldiers fighting for freedom (since that is what the visitors came to see and indeed could visualize with the help of the volunteers dressed in grey). I also presented another idea of what the definition of "home" might look like in the area during the 1850s and 1860s. I did not necessarily go full throttle with the contrast of the ideas, but neither did I neglect to tell the fuller story, neither.

And then I let those muskets go "boom."

I can't say I was fully satisfied that program, though I know I did better than in previous years. We keep pushing forward, seeing what works and what doesn't (I am not the only one who does this, by the way). That program was my last living history event before moving to Louisiana and I haven't had much of a chance to try my hand at that story again. I have shifted the direction of where I push and prod in the world of interpretation, but I certainly haven't stopped provoking. I still struggle with "getting good" at interpreting, but know tomorrow is another opportunity for improvement.

*Note: These thoughts are my own and do not officially represent that of the National Park Service.

**I am forever grateful for the opportunities Stones River National Battlefield provided me during my time there. I am especially grateful for the struggles, as I know I did the most growing during that time.

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