“The most persistent sound which reverberates through men’s history is the beating of war drums.” — Arthur Koestler
Last weekend (September 18-20, 2013) marked the 150th anniversary of The Battle of Chickamauga. I had the pleasure of joining historians and other visitors on the hallowed grounds of Chickamauga for the commemoration. I attended “real-time” events and explored the battlefield.
Chickamauga, Georgia was one of the first National Military Parks established by the United States Congress. The park came into being in 1890 along with the significant sites of Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Vicksburg.
As Chief of Interpretation at Chickamauga, Jim Ogden, pointed out in the final real-time tour, that by October 12, 1862 – just weeks after the battle – soldiers had already returned to the field to place markers showing important locations. Chickamauga was an honored place almost as soon as the fighting had ceased. The soldiers obviously did not want to forget what happened at Chickamauga; nor do we wish to forget about the past in today’s society.
2013 is the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. Commemorative events are being held all over the country and most have seen a great turn out. The sheer number of people in attendance shows that the public cares about our nation’s past. This past weekend, I witnessed the public join together not only to remember, but also to learn about the past. Attending the Chickamauga event was a learning experience, even for those with a background on the subject. The weekend made me realize that it is the responsibility of historians to host events and start conversations with the public in order to preserve our nation’s history.
The question “What is public about public history?” was recently posed in one of my graduate classes. After discussing many possible answers, we decided that the goal of public history is not to teach history to the public. Rather, the goal is to establish an easy-to-understand connection between the past and present. Chickamauga exemplified this notion. The 150th anniversary commemoration, along with countless other events related to the sesquicentennial, aim to engage and interest the public. Even though most of those in attendance probably have some interest in history to begin with, the events mold that interest into a more broad understanding. A connection is formed between past and present; this connection is the only way to keep our nation’s past alive.
Thousands of people attended the 150th anniversary of Chickamauga. To handle the crowd, the Chickamauga staff employed multiple historians. Each historian announced which topics they would cover during their tour. Visitors could select which tour sounded the most interesting. This was a great opportunity for attending historians interested in a particular brigade or officer and for visitors with ancestors who had fought in the battle. These “personalized” tours were unique, efficient, and allowed everyone in attendance to build a new connection with the past or develop an existing one.
Two days spent at Chickamauga reinvigorated my desire to become a historian. Not only was the environment surrounding Chickamauga remarkable, but the excitement and interest displayed both by attendees and staff was refreshing. I am sincerely looking forward to the upcoming sesquicentennial events and hope that many people will take advantage of these exciting opportunities.
Remembering the past is as complicated as the past itself. Keeping our nation’s past alive is a vital responsibility for historians. Events like the Chickamauga anniversary allow the public to more easily grasp historical events. Personally I have been amazed at the turn out to these events and the conjured efforts of both historians and the general public to come together in remembrance.