Thursday, February 27, 2014

Living in Hearts Left Behind

For the first time in almost 18 months, I donned my flat hat. I had accepted the opportunity to work as a park ranger at Andersonville National Historical Site in Georgia last week and arrived Sunday. It was an emergency hire situation, and over the next several weeks I will be working here as a member of the interpretive staff. To say I am excited about the opportunity might be an understatement. To say I am daunted by some of the challenges I know I will face here is even more of an understatement.

A south Georgia sunset welcomed me to my next few weeks here.
This past week the place existed through its 150th year anniversary of the first Union prisoners to arrive here. It rained some days. The sun beamed on other days. Each day passed, marking the advance of time with sunrises and sunsets.The park staff commemorated both physically at the park and long distance through varying media.
These days are just the launch of a 14-month long series of dates and anniversaries that commemorate the 150th anniversaries the events that took place here during the American Civil War.

"To live in hearts, We leave behind, is not to die." 
 The interpretive staff at the park crafted a presentation of ideas, a foundation that drives some of the commemorations here
 "But, in a sense, these dates are somewhat arbitrary as they mark not an end, but a beginning. For the men who fought in these battles, their memories and sufferings did not fade with the cessation of fighting. February 24 may be the anniversary of the first prisoners arriving, but for the 400 or so men who entered these gates 150 years ago today, this date was not an ending, nor a culmination of planning. It was the beginning of a journey that took these men into the darkest recesses of human experience, where they would be joined by 45,000 of their comrades. It was the beginning of a journey that for many, ended here in a shallow trench. For those that made it out of these gates, this date marked the beginning of a journey that would carry them to other prisons and into years of physical disability and mental anguish. This is the first day of an ordeal that tested the courage, strength, loyalty, and endurance of thousands of soldiers, an ordeal that affected each one of these men for the rest of their lives, from the first man to die on February 27th, 1864 to the last survivor in the early 1940s."
A variety of people and organizations acknowledged this week's anniversaries in blog posts, in tweets, in posts, and news sources. What does it mean to see that a prisoner of war site of the American Civil War would be launched this day in history 150 years ago? I think there will be those already interested in the history following what the site does. I think some will stumble upon this history. I think there will be those who make connections of the past to relevant happenings of today. I always hope there will be more.

The staff at the park actively works to not forget. The park staff works to remember what happened here and fill in the gaps specifically ignored or even altered over the past 150 years. Remembering has been a tradition going on for decades. Now, however, is the time-the big 1-5-0. Now is the time the site has an audience attentive to the significance of the anniversary. Now begins the work of breaking myths and voiding the deliberate acts of forgetting while there is a semi-captive audience. That work, my friends, is messy and heavy and difficult. I am speaking from my few days of experience, never-mind the folks here that have been at this for years. However, after constant immersion of primary sources and accounts of one of the most notorious portals to hell, a sense of duty and privilege begins to grow out of the darkness. "I have to share these stories." The awareness creeps in that is an honor to be the one to perpetuate these memories, to be the one to make sure nobody forgets what humans endured here. Maybe, ultimately, that is why I do what I do.

Stay tuned for the struggles and mind tangles I will use this blog to sort out over the next few weeks.

*AS I USED TO DO AS A FEDERAL EMPLOYEE: This is my disclaimer that all thoughts here are my own, written in my free time and DO NOT reflect that of my employer. If this sounds obnoxious, so is the fact that I have to include this. Please prepare yourself for future snark as I never fully got over the time while with the NPS, I got reported for the fact that I used this medium as one way to illustrate my competencies on my free time only to be reported to powers at be for my writings. That won't happen again! Yours truly, Elizabeth.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Somebody Forgot to Carry the One

You'll have to forgive me. This post is nearly five weeks overdue. Better late than never? But it relates to time and dates, so I am going to pretend I am writing this one late on purpose. What's the point of remembering the actual date, anyway? What's the big deal? (I know some of you interpreter-types have ideas about that and I love to hear them).

A better question is what is the big deal with magic number anniversaries? I have asked this before and will ask it again... why is "150" more important than "151?" That was a thought I had about 11:45am this past New Year's Eve. On that morning's run on my favorite paths (that *happen* to traverse through battlefield property), I had to stop myself when I saw this:


"It's grass, Elizabeth. So what?"

One hundred and fifty one years ago to that moment thousands of soldiers were fleeing through that very space. The Confederate soldiers would have just snapped the Union forces that had been using the Slaughter Pen as a defense position. The Confederates would have been chasing the fleeing Union soldiers through these fields and surrounding patches of woods. They were running just like me... weeeeell, not just like me. Nobody was chasing me. Nobody was shooting at me. I wasn't bleeding, I had no broken bones, no twisted ankles, I wasn't covered in blood. There was no screaming, no firing, no chaos, no booming. In fact, my moment in almost every possible way contrasted what had happened one hundred and fifty one years prior. It was a cool, quiet, sunny day and nobody was around. I had the path entirely to myself. That was my moment of contemplation and remembrance. My heart could break once more for the countless stories I had read of the soldiers (and the thoughts of the stories that remained there, untold). 

One soldier wrote of the scene:
"No language could picture it, no genius could paint it: No one person could see but a small portion of this magnificent panorama of barbaric warfare, none able to comprehend a tithe of its volume, power and terrible grandeur; but all who did hear it and all who did see it, though every nerve of the body was twice dead, could not help but feel it."[M.B. Butler
I will never fully understand what the soldiers experienced. I have been accused of caring too much about historical characters, about making the past too personal. That's just what I do. I can't be a purveyor to the past, I can't make the past "come alive," without making these stories personal. So I took that moment and I pondered. I used my human desire to create meaning by connecting to moments. And even though somebody forgot to carry that one, likely because there is no fancy word equivalent to "sesquicentennial" for "one hundred and fifty one years," the idea of connecting to the place at the time fueled more meaning to my remembering. 

Besides, when you visit a place on the 151st anniversary, you don't have to deal with as many crowds.

Monday, February 3, 2014

There Stands Jackson (Like a Stone Wall Standing Like a Stone Wall Standing)

Since I currently do not hold a "real" or "permanent" or "full-time" history job, sometimes I feel like I don't contribute as much to the historical education, preservation, or interpretation world (and feel as if this blog is just a place where I "fake it"). I know. That doesn't make sense and I should give myself more credit. I actively engage in formal and informal interpretation weekly during historic tours of Nashville. I volunteer my interpretive services at a local battlefield. I even still read boring history books. Ha. But since I also hold a mind-numbing, part-time, non-history job in addition to my history "projects," I tend to fall out of the thinking-about-how-to-share-my-passion groove and just try to get through some days. 

I am finding the value in this period of my life rests in the constant exposure to non-historically thinking folks. I seek out friends and colleagues to exercise my historical thinking and interpretive practice, but my day-to-day does not naturally include these things. So when anything, and I mean anything, related to history pops up, I get excited. Recently, I attended a broadcasting and taping of a Music City Roots show. The weekly show hosts bluegrass, Americana, country, folk, and other assorted genres. I went knowing two of the artists, interested in a third. I left blown away by all of the acts. What does that have to do with history? Well, the first band opened the entire show with this song:

If you haven't already, the Westbound Rangers are definitely worth checking out for their other non-history songs, too.

Catchy as hell, it got the audience tapping toes and clapping hands. "There stands Jackson like a stone wall standing, like a stone wall standing like a stone wall standing..." Did you see that? I can't even enjoy a lovely, music-filled evening without reminiscences of the American Civil War echoing. Oh, wait. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening AND the song. It did, however, get me thinking of how people connect to the past. (Because even though I admitted earlier to not feeling adequate because of my lack of "real" history in my life, I can't just turn off my natural tendencies and past trainings).

This rowdy bunch connected to the past by writing a song about it, although they are certainly not the first to write or record a song about Stonewall Jackson (standing like a stonewall standing like a stonewall standing). In fact, it isn't even the first time somebody wrote a catchy tune about the past. I don't know their motivation for the subject matter, but obviously they had to at least read up on the subject. I don't know if that song inspired anybody to go out and read a book about Stonewall Jackson (standing like a stonewall standing like a stonewall standing), but they had to at least activate that part of the brain that was likely filled in fifth grade. "Stonewall Jackson... that's the Civil War... oh, right and the Mexican War..." And the audience had this history slipped into their expected music-filled evenings. 

As I thought of the Westbound Rangers and their catchy, historically-based song, I remembered another modern song involving the Civil War. The staff at Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia exposed me to this song. Now, the thing that seemingly detracts from this song is the fact that the members of Quiet Hounds wear masks. To clarify, that is more or less the band's "thing" or identity; they don't mean any disrespect. But they visited Andersonville National Historic Site in order to learn more of what they knew was a horrific part of American history. They then created a song and video that both reflects the history and adds layers of interpretation: 

Some of the neatest shots are of the park. [Note: The band filmed according to park regulations.]

These musicians were moved by the stories they heard of the place. They understood the significance of the place. In their own way, they contributed to the preservation of the place by creating awareness of the history and the site while humanizing the story. Folks listening to this band may not naturally think "I think I will visit a local site of historical conscience today"but possibly after watching the video (and reading some of the descriptions), they may decide to make a trip to Andersonville. Or read about the place. Or heck, just run a quick Google search and allow twenty seconds of thought to filter through their budy lives. 

In either case, people made their own connections with the past and then created something they could share with others. The spark that ignited them to create is what I consider the essence of "interpretation." 

*I don't want to take away from the marvelous staff at Andersonville. I believe they could share the story of the development and depth of the "Beacon Sun" song and video better than I. The masks worn by the band tend to turn folks off from what the band was trying to do, but there is weight to the song.