A Conversation with Garry Adelman (part three)

Garry action shot
Garry Adelman, on Little Round Tap, ready for action! (photo courtesy of Garry Adelman)

Part three in a six-part series

Garry Adelman has been at the American Battlefield Trust since 2010 and currently serves as the preservation organization’s chief historian. In yesterday’s segment of our conversation, he talked about the career path he took to get there, beginning with an opportunity to lay out a new battlefield at Third Winchester.

Chris Mackowski: How did you follow that up?

Garry Adelman: We followed that up with work at the First Day Chancellorsville; we laid out and interpreted that. The Slaughter Pen Farm at Fredericksburg—we laid out and interpreted that. And then Mine Run, Payne’s Farm, which we laid out and interpreted. So those are my first four battlefields that I did before I was with the Trust.

In the meantime, while at History Associates, while doing other work there, I was spending about a quarter of my time doing Trust projects, preparing for Civil War 150. Remember the Sesquicentennial? I was doing research for donors and influential politicians who might be more likely to support particular efforts if they knew about their Civil War ancestry. I was helping out with Trust events. I was giving tours. I was helping with research. So, before long I was working most with Civil War Trust departments—or what was then still the Civil War Preservation Trust.

When my time at History Associates had sort of run its course—which, by the way, I’d still be working there because I loved that job. The only job I could conceive of that would be better would be working for the Civil War Preservation Trust, and since I knew everybody there, I teased the idea with them of working there. They were into it. Long story short: they created a new position called Director of History and Education. That was April of 2010.

The Trust had never really focused on education before then although they had an education person or two. My sort-of predecessor, Nicole Osier, was really taking the department in a good direction, energized by the Trust’s digital director at the time, Rob Shenk. But really, the Trust never really talked much about education, never appealed for money to support education, didn’t have a video program, nothing like that. So things really changed around then.

Chris: So you got the job and really start to transform things. How much of that, certainly, has to do with you coming in brand new, and how much has to do with a lot of the technology that the Trust hadn’t taken advantage of before? It seems like that must have been kind of a neat convergence—and a convenient one.

Garry: It really was.

When I got there, there was a teacher institute; there were some traveling trunks going around the country; there was a free downloadable curriculum—by our own admission, a pretty below-average curriculum—and I can’t think there was really much else going on.

But under Rob Shenk and Nicole Osier, they started building content. Instead of linking to other people’s websites, they thought, “Hey, maybe we should have these assets on our own website.” They built “This Day in the Civil War”; they started building out the biographies of some of the major people in the Civil War; and they started really started covering some bases and building out what was, until 2010-ish, a pretty crappy website. And now I’m pretty sure the Trust has the best website, at least for the Civil War, in terms of its breadth. It’d be hard to say otherwise, I think. But that was kind of the scene at the time.

In 2010, I think the education department’s record for a year of fundraising was $20,000. Five years later, we were raising $500,000 for education because we had more programs that we needed to support. So, it was an interesting time. Social media is there, and apparently there to stay. Anybody could take their phone or their SLR camera out and shoot video and propagate that video via email or social media. And all of us started recognizing that.

Chris: But I think you have been, in particular, on the leading edge of that. You’ve really embraced that in a way that a lot of the field hadn’t.

Garry: Yeah, let me weigh in on social media for a quick second. The Trust had a pretty lackluster Facebook page at the time, no Linked-In presence, no Twitter presence. I mean, this was 2010, so it was pretty early for some of that stuff. Instagram—the first time I’d heard about it was 2011. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t around in 2010. But there was this sea change sort of happening.

Under our digital director, Rob Shenk, he started really pushing this, saying, “Hey, we can send out an email and ask for money, and if we’re going to send out an email and ask for money to support a land deal, maybe we need an article about that. Maybe we need ten facts about that battlefield. Maybe we need to shoot a video about that battlefield. Oh, wow, if we’re going to shoot that video and put it on our website, maybe we can put that video on social media as well.” So all these things started coming together.

In the meantime, I had already come to the Trust. I was using Facebook a lot, and it didn’t take long before the dark side of social media affected me. I only had one page at the time—it was my personal page, which meant that my Civil War friends were subjected to my personal stuff and my personal friends were subjected to my Civil War stuff. And people who might not be crazy about something I did had access to personal things. So it didn’t take long before that got too murky and, for a particular reason or two I won’t say, I eventually established my own “Garry Adelman’s Civil War Page.” I can’t remember what it was called originally, but I had to change the name for some reason. Oh, it was called “Garry Adelman, Author.” And then people didn’t know which page was which. It was a disaster, and I had to use a friend of mine who had a friend that worked at Facebook in order to change that.

So, I started this page, in 2011, right in time for the 150th, perfectly, and just started making two posts a day. I didn’t know any rules, but I did pay attention to whether a photo did better, a single photo, a group of photos, a video, a question. And I liked every comment if I liked it—if I, in fact, thought it was a good comment. I liked every one. I used to like every share that somebody shared one of my posts, so I interacted.

Nobody else ever did my page but me, and I just started doing it two a day, and I slogged away for two years, doing two posts a day about my work, Trust work, Civil War photos mostly, until I got to 1,000 likes. It took a long time, and I remember it was right before Gettysburg 150, the greatest Civil War week of my life, that I finally reached 1,000. Now it’s at 24,500 as we meet right now, and it’s just great. For somebody who used to harass his friends—“Listen to me about the Civil War, it’s really interesting, let me show you this picture!”—and to be able to have the same conversation with thousands or tens of thousands of people is just not only mind blowing, but really gratifying.

And because of Facebook and because of social media and, of course, because of my position at the Trust, when I give a talk now, there’s usually more people there, so instead of talking to two friends of mine that don’t care about it, I can talk to 10, 100, 500 people, and then it can be preserved and shown on video later. So it’s this great world that we live in, and social media is an important part of it.

I have people that I have no idea who they are that somehow they know me. That was weird to me when it first started happening when I started going to round tables and whatnot. Now, especially in Gettysburg, it’s a really interesting and generally gratifying experience, you know, to have sort of historical cred.

Chris: Yeah, yeah. And people feel like they’re your pal. Because they interact with you, they read about you on a daily basis. It’s like the old news anchors where they come into your living room every night, and so you felt like you were friends with Walter Cronkite.

Garry: You feel like you knew him, yeah.

Chris: He didn’t know who the heck you were, but it’s an interesting rapport to have.

Garry: You’re right. They’re on a first-name basis with me, which is interesting—and sometimes first and second name. It’s really interesting, you know. “That’s Garry Adelman!” No, I’m just “Garry.” That’s who I am. So that’s been a really interesting thing, as well.

Chris: Were there other aspects of celebrity that took some getting used to?

Garry: Honestly, people write me a lot and basically say, “I want to take your job from you.” They don’t say it in those words, but that’s really what they want. They want to know what it took to get where I’m at. And it’s good. Reading back into my journal where I tried to predict the future—because of that, I remember what it’s like, and I hope to answer other people’s questions who might be in the same circumstance I was in twenty some years ago.

I actually shot a video for In4—I did it myself with a tripod—called “Becoming a Historian In4.” And I can now just send people a link that ask.


So what wisdom has Garry gleaned from his evolution and adventures as a historian? “Every day is a great day to learn about history,” he says. He’ll explain—and share more of his lessons learned—when we continue our conversation tomorrow.

3 Responses to A Conversation with Garry Adelman (part three)

  1. Having visited 3rd Winchester in 1996 after winning a grant from my school to follow the route of my great-great grandfather 1st Sgt. Timothy Carroll and his 65th NY regiment’s route in the 1864 Valley Campaign, then returning in 2016, I can personally say the transformation and preservation is amazing and deeply appreciated. Walking the trails of the battlefield today is so rewarding, even if much of the ground where Hamblin’s brigade (the 65th NY’s) is lost to development. Thank you Garry! And the Winchester National Cemetery is also a must-see site.

    –Chris Barry

  2. I first watched Garry on a battlefield live tour on Youtube and thinking, “This guy’s got so much energy, wow!” It’s been fun learning where he started and how he got to where he is now. I was bummed to miss him when he was down in Olustee earlier this year, just a few hours from me. Really wanted to meet him in person. Seems like a cool dude, if not a little intense.
    I will say, that video on “how to become a historian” seems to give false hope (to me at least). He makes it sound super easy. Real life is WAY more complicated.

    1. The job market is especially tight right now (and even moreso in the age of the virus). I can’t underscore enough the value of networking and volunteering as crucial ways for making contacts and gaining experience.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!