ECW is pleased to welcome back guest author Sam Smith.
Not long ago, the battlefields of the Civil War were filled with smoke and blood, frightened civilians and fighting men. Now they stand silent, hallowed by the heroism they have hosted.
As historians, we like to boast that we can still hear the guns. We can still feel the power of the land. But for many, the silence is deafening. The power is lost. As historians, we take for granted fundamental understandings that are essential to tapping the emotional reservoirs that battlefields contain.
Imagine a first-time visitor. They don’t have any clue. They’ve never seen an image of a soldier. They can’t visualize a regiment in battle line. They don’t know how the cannons would have leaped and crashed and smoked as they sent iron downfield. As historians, we can populate a field with imagined sights, sounds, and smells enough to create the appropriate emotional theater. As for newcomers, our black powder smoke is their impenetrable fog.
The future of Civil War history should be accessibility. The land will always have meaning, but for the land to impart meaning, it must be understood by its modern witnesses. Our time spent on a battlefield is limited. As historians, we quickly grasp the backdrop and commit most of our energy to absorbing the power and nuance of each scene. Newcomers commit most of their energy to understanding the backdrop and most of the rest to hoping they are right, leaving far too little for them to appreciate the land’s power.
We should make it as easy as possible. We should remove barriers to understanding and use modern and clever tools to build windows into the past.
By making these fields more immersive, visitors will more deeply connect with the power they contain. At the Civil War Trust, we are extremely interested in putting these theories into practice in the near future. Please offer suggestions in the comments below.