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.

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