“I Found My Passion For The Subject”

Paige Gibbons Backus shares about her experiences in the history field.

Growing up visiting museums and traveling to battlefields, I always had an interest in history and knew what I wanted to work with it. Yet I didn’t really know how to go about getting into the field. In the end, you never really know where life is going to take you, and never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to be fortunate enough to turn my interests into a career where I get to do what I love every day, then go home and do it some more!

After ten years of exploring, hard work, and determination I now have the privilege of managing a 19th century courthouse and jail complex as well as a one room schoolhouse in Prince William County, Virginia. Along with my “day job,” I am proud to be a member and contributor of Emerging Civil War.

From all of my years in working in the field, I’ve found one of the most important things a historian can have is passion.

With my interest in Antebellum and Civil War history and as a public historian, I get to bring that history to life through programs and tours and get people excited about and engaged with the stories. Yet in order to do it well, I believe you have to have passion and the ability to make it relate to people’s lives today. For this reason, I do not classify myself as a military historian. I cannot provide a minute-by-minute timeline for any particular unit in any particular battle because I could never find a way to make it relate to me. Historically, I would not have been able to serve in the army nor I would have encountered some of the issues these men did during the war.

However, I find myself fortunate enough to work at historic sites that still relate to Civil War history where I have been able to instead focus on some of the topics that both interest me and that I can relate to. For the past two years I managed Ben Lomond Historic Site, a pre-Civil War plantation that was transformed into a Confederate hospital after the Battle of First Manassas. While I would discuss the events of the battle, the main focus of the site was the state of medicine at the start of the war. Talking with visitors about the lack of modern knowledge, the different types of technology (some of which is still is in use today), and the advancements in medicine throughout the Civil War was something that intrigued many visitors. As I gave tours of the site, I found my passion for the subject and storytelling got them excited as well and often encouraged them to explore more. Many times when visitors came to Ben Lomond, I was actually asked if I went to medical school when, in fact, I don’t think I could handle working in a modern hospital. Yet, when I fractured my fibula a few months ago and while getting prepared for surgery, I was asking so many questions that the anesthesiologist didn’t even have me count, they just shoved the mask on me, I’m sure to get me to be quiet.

Ben Lomond Historic Site

Since then, I transferred to Brentsville Courthouse Historic Centre, where I still get to bring in my passion for Civil War and medical history, as well as women’s and social history. As the seat of Prince William County from 1822-1893, the site has a plethora of stories to be told. Scores of cases of dramatic and sometimes scandalous nature were tried in the courthouse, from murder to theft, as well as civil disputes and more. Many of these scandals and issues of over 150 years ago still occur today, just in a different style. Additionally, as the political center for Prince William County, I get to relate to visitors the political climate of the time and how the local citizens reacted. For example, Brentsville Courthouse is where the county voted for secession as well as mustered in the Prince William Calvary and the Ewell Guard for service. I can also sneak in my passion for medical history as well because Hampton’s Legion used many of the buildings in town as hospitals.

I used to be intimidated by the fact that I was not as knowledgeable about the military tactics and units of the Civil War as others. Yet, as I have grown as a historian, I’ve discovered that you don’t have to be—there are so many facets of the Civil War, it is nearly impossible to know it all, and it is important to focus on a subject that’s interesting to you. I’ve also learned a good historian can relate times and facts, but a passionate historians makes it exciting and engaging for others to learn.

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