Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Trippin' through Gettysburg

The Fourth of July holiday weekend is right around the corner. I’m such a military history geek, that thinking about the Fourth always reminds me of the anniversary of the Civil War battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863). This is the perfect time to tell you about my visit to the Battlefield while I was on my research trip in May.

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, my friend John works as a park ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park and rents a house on the battlefield from the NPS. Of course I wanted to visit my friend that I hadn’t seen in three years, but I was also looking forward to another visit to one of my favorite Civil War battlefields and getting a personal tour from the most knowledgeable person I know about the battle and the war.

I had visited Gettysburg on several occasions over the years since my first visit back in 1988. However, this was the first time I had toured the Battlefield and the town with a guide. Even for those of you who are familiar with the battle (as I thought I was), I highly recommend touring the battlefield with a licensed guide or attending one of the presentations given by the NPS staff. John was able to show me, on the ground, parts of the battle that have gotten little attention from both historians and popular culture. I won’t go into the history of the battle, but leave you with the guidance that there is much more to the battle than what is portrayed in the movie Gettysburg. The more you learn about it the more you want to know.

I invoke the Hollywood version of the battle (one of my favorites mind you), because during our tour John pointed out several items that the movie got wrong. He also gave me the background on a few of the monuments that over the decades since the battle have been placed for politics and tourism as well as honoring the sacrifices of our soldiers. Actually, the history of the battlefield as “hallowed ground” versus “tourist attraction” is as fascinating for me as the battle itself. For example, the term “high-water mark of the Confederacy” applied to Gettysburg, and specifically Pickett’s Charge, was coined by a tourism promoter years after the battle. If we are speaking in terms of Confederate military strength, one could argue that there are other points during the war when things looked much worse for the Union. In terms of geography, organized Confederate forces fought in the same campaign about 35 miles north of Gettysburg near Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, in what is known as the Skirmish of Sporting Hill.

Since I had visited the area before, it is interesting to see what is changing and what stays the same. The park is conducting projects to restore the terrain to what it looked like during the battle. Read about it in the park newspaper. There have been some trees removed around the Devil’s Den since my last visit. There are now some new peach trees in the Peach Orchard. The NPS has acquired a new “witness” house on the Emmitsburg Road, and the new Visitor Center opened in 2008 (which is fantastic!). Some things never change: the debate is raging in town about a proposed casino and hotel on US 15. That was voted down the last time I was there back in 2006. The casino promoters are back for another attempt at a permit.

Therefore, this trip to Gettysburg brought up several of those internal debates I have with myself. The primary being: At what level should we teach, or expect the public to know, history? Moreover, is a little drama such a bad thing if we can engage the public to tune in to the lessons of history? How far should we go to protect our historic sites? Does a place like Gettysburg deserve protection from what is built nearby? The analysis of these questions, whether I discuss and debate them with others or just in my head, is what excites me about public history.

I’ll close by saying, "Thanks again, John!" for the fantastic tour and a great steak dinner.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Army Heritage and Education Center

In my last post, I told you about my research trip during the first week of May. I started with the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. In this post, I would like to tell you about the Army Heritage and Education Center (AHEC) in Carlisle, PA. This was actually my first stop during my research trip for photos and primary documents on the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion.

The AHEC is several things in addition to a repository for primary source documents pertaining to military history. Originally, (and still its primary function) the AHEC was created to support the Army’s War College at Carlisle Barracks. In 2002, they moved to their current campus, off base, so you don’t have to have your vehicle and ID checked to park there. If you visit, plan an extra afternoon to visit the museum and the Army Heritage Trail. The trail is a walking path of about a mile that has interactive exhibits that are recreations from army history. For example, you can go into Redoubt #10 from the battle of Yorktown, get into a WWI trench, or walk through a WWII era tarpaper billet.

The fact that the AHEC is a library as well as an archive makes it a “first stop” for researching military history. Before you visit in person, look at several of the AHEC’s online resources, like their list of finding aids and the online catalog. Finding aids have been created for many unit histories and military history subjects. These documents are available online. With these finding aids and the online catalog, you will know what secondary works are available as well as primary source documents. Looking for secondary sources through interlibrary loan with your local public library will save you days of research time at the AHEC. Knowing the primary source material available will help you determine if you need to visit in person, and if so, estimate how many days you will need in the library.

When you enter the main building of the AHEC, you will have to sign in with security before going in the research library. Lockers are provided to store your coat and any carry cases. You can only bring laptops, cameras, writing paper, and pencils into the research room. A research assistant is available to help you fill out your “pull request” from the library. Don’t try to go it alone, use their expertise. The staff is extremely knowledgeable, very friendly, and eager to help you with your project.

While all libraries and archives have similar procedures, they also differ from place to place. Unlike NARA, at the AHEC you cannot bring in a flatbed scanner. I use a small digital camera to take pictures of documents (reproduction costs would kill you) that are too lengthy to take notes on. I used the same camera at AHEC to reproduce photographs. A photo station is set up in the research room for this purpose. You mount your camera on a photo stand and adjust two studio lights beside the table on tripods. I at first had my doubts, but this system worked beautifully. For textual items, I just set my camera to a “copy” preset and use it handheld. I reproduced 13 photographs and over 200 pages of documents in one long day at the AHEC.

I am a huge fan of digitizing primary documents so we don’t have to travel to an archive to look up this information. However, I know we will never be able to put every document and picture held in repositories online. There is just too much. You have to travel to where it is stored. Also, there is just no beating the thrill of holding the document in your hand, or to read the contents in its entirety for yourself, unedited and not interpreted for you by someone else. Again, I urge anyone who is interested in any subject to visit the appropriate archive and look up the information. I do not consider myself to be a scholar, an academic, or an intellectual. No one asked me what my qualifications or reasons were before allowing me access to any materials at either the AHEC or NARA. It is our history. Go get it.

Picture credits from the top:
  • Screen capture of AHEC website, 6/1/2010.
  • WWII in-service airborne recruiting poster, AHEC.
  • Text document from William B. Breuer Collection, AHEC.

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