Saturday, July 12, 2014

Round Numbers and Linear Intersects

Elizabeth blogged about her thoughts about the Andersonville Raiders, who were executed 150 years ago yesterday.  Elizabeth has been doing a lot of research on the raiders - who seem to be everywhere in the primary source materials while at the same time seeming to not exist.  She asks, "Who Hallows?" these places, men, and stories? But I thought I'd take a moment and share my thoughts.

Yesterday afternoon I was driving back from Atlanta, where I helped lead a teacher's workshop on teaching Andersonville and the prisoner of war experience.  We got back around 5:30pm after the park was already closed, but had to go into the park in order to get my car and sign some travel related paperwork.  We know from prisoner's diaries that these six men were hanged in the stockade at around 5:00pm.  Given that daylight savings time wasn't a thing back then, it meant that I was on the site about 30 minutes before the 150th anniversary of the exact moment of the execution.  So I walked out to the south field of the prison site, and paced off the 100 yards from the south gate to the spot where the gallows were constructed (which, incidentally was probably about 100-150 feet farther south than where a white post marker has stood since the 1930s that supposedly marks the spot of the gallows).  And I stood there and waited.  It was surprisingly noisy - the rumble of the trucks on the highway and the staccato of the nearby gun range.  A strong wind blew, filling my ears with a whoosh and mercifully keeping the gnats at bay.  A lot of birds (presumably sparrows, but I don't know.  My knowledge of nature is famously lacking for a park ranger) flew overhead chirping away.  It was partly cloudy, yielding a gray and pink sky with pockets of blue as the afternoon turned into early evening.  It was actually really nice.  I forgot where I was for a moment.  Then I looked down at my phone and realized that it was right at 6:00, and I thought about 12 feet dangling in the space my face occupied, which admittedly made me feel a little uncomfortable, but just for a moment.
The exact moment and location where the raiders were hanged.

But here's the thing.  I didn't feel anything. No emotional connection.  No period rush.  No sense of awe that I was in a spot where something important happened exactly 150 years ago to the exact moment.  There are people who would almost have killed to be standing where I was at that moment.  That exact moment of 150th anniversary Civil War Sesquicentennial is never coming back - it's gone forever.  And I didn't feel it.

What is it about round numbers that make people feel the past?  July 1-3, 2013 there were probably more visitors in Gettysburg for the 150th than there were soldiers who fought there.  My Facebook newsfeed exploded with history stuff those few days last summer. But July 1-3, 2014 for the 151st?  Crickets.  Looking at Gettysburg's Facebook page, they shared some photos of ranger programs (that appeared to be about 1/8th as well attended for the 150th).  I think the only interpretive commentary I saw that noted it was the battle anniversary was this blog by good friend John Rudy.  So what is it that makes us care about the 150th but not the 151st?  What is it that would make some people jealous that I stood in the spot of the raiders gallows at Andersonville at the exact moment of the 150th anniversary?  That field is still there today, on July 12.  Heck.  It'll still be there on a Tuesday in January if you'd like to wait for cooler weather.   When we get caught up with anniversaries, we forget that those anniversaries mean something to us.  I got so wrapped up in thinking about how cool it would be to stand there at the exact moment, that I forgot to ponder what that exact moment meant to the men who stood on that field and what it means to us today.  And I drove home unsatisfied and thinking about what I would cook for supper.

Interpreting the past does not require us to focus on specific moments.  Sure the events happened at a specific moment, but we get to come to those events at times of our choosing.  Of our convenience.  Events happen at a fixed point, and then memories and meanings radiate in a linear fashion onward through the years.  We can intersect that with that at any moment we chose.

Next week I'll be in the Harper's Ferry/Gettysburg area.  No.  I won't be there for any important anniversaries round numbers or anniversaries.  But I don't have to be.


As usual - the commentary expressed in this blog does not reflect the thoughts & opinions of my employers, and this was written on personal time at home.  

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