The Seasonal Dilemma

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Michael Aubrecht

Slaughter Pen Farm (photo by Chris Mackowski)

One of the more commonly overlooked challenges of Civil War battlefield interpretation is what I like to call “the seasonal dilemma.” This is the act of touring battlefields at a time of year that is vastly different than that of the actual engagement. With four battlefields adjoining the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania area it is easy to experience such a dilemma. The reality is that most folks travel to our nation’s hallowed grounds on their annual vacation or simply when they have the time. This means that they may be in Fredericksburg in the summer and Gettysburg in the fall. Perhaps they can only get to Antietam in the spring and Shiloh in the winter. None of these battles took place in those corresponding seasons.

Although it is still entirely possible for them to have a rewarding visit, there is an obvious gap in the way that they will relate to the ground around them. Sometimes seasonal changes in the landscape, whether natural or manmade, literally transform the experience from one thing to another. Nowhere else (at least for me) is this more apparent than at the Slaughter Pen Farm on the Fredericksburg Battlefield.

As a local resident, the Slaughter Pen Farm has been a regular part of my every day scenery for years. A few years ago, I did a prep-tour there. That allows me to plan out my presentation in advance. I use that time to determine when I will use maps and when I will use photos. At the time (September), the corn fields that surrounded me were standing tall. This created an enormous wall of green vegetation that ran along the walking trail and shielded the path from the public’s view. As I trekked along the backside of the corn field I was completely masked from anything visibly “modern.” I stopped for a moment and turned completely around noting that the serenity of the view really gave me a sense of what it must have felt like before urban sprawl crept up on the farm’s boundaries. This isolation also obscured the NPS tabletop markers which ran along the trail.

Fast forward a month (October) as colossal John Deere combines rolled over the corn fields and completely stripped them of all vegetation. As a result the Slaughter Pen Farm walking trail was fully visible from the main street and the sheer vastness of the site was quite apparent. Those NPS markers seemed to sit miles apart and the impressive acreage in which this significant part of the Battle of Fredericksburg took place could now be experienced in a visual manner that was much closer to the way it appeared in the winter of 1862. Unfortunately, those early corn stalks that had provided privacy also prevented the battlefield to appear authentic. Once plowed the battlefield was revealed. Of course the corn returned the next year as it always does.

To a tour guide the story of what transpired at the Slaughter Pen Farm remains the same, but the use of visual references and descriptions will vary. Phrases like “picture if you will” and “if you were here in the winter of 1862” often become mainstays. The challenge is to present the story in an accurate and interesting way that is not entirely dependent on the scenery.

John Hennessy, Chief Historian/Chief of Interpretation at the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania National Military Park was kind enough to share his own insights into this issue. He wrote:

The problem is insurmountable. In December (Fredericksburg) and May (Chancellorsville, Wilderness and Spotsylvania) any crops present were either dead or just emerging, meaning that the crops themselves had little to do with the nature of the landscape.  You can’t sustain crops in a nascent state, and you can’t maintain open fields without making them useful in some form–that is, plant a crop.

The limits of what we do entail being able to 1) match crops (because we cannot simply plant, for example, corn year after year without rotation), or 2) match the emergent nature of the crops.  I think the highest goal we can achieve is simply to maintain the pattern of forest and field, putting the fields to productive use when we can.

There are some who object to, for example, the use of soybeans, because they historically were not present. But soybeans most closely match in the broad sense the sort of low growth that existed in May.  I personally favor them for that reason. Certainly, head-high corn–no matter corn’s presence on the fields of our battlefields–bears NO resemblance to what was there and, as you point out, works against the visitor in a big and tall way.

I am interested in how readers who lead their own tours, rangers and amateurs, deal with the immersion and explanation of battlefields according to the time of year they are there. Please feel free to comment on this post and share your own thoughts and experiences.

(NOTE: ECW’s Chris Mackowski wrote about the seasonal challenges of interpreting the Slaughter Pen farm in this post from Dec. 23, 2011.)

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