part six of a six-part series
I’ve been talking this week with Garry Adelman, chief historian at the American Battlefield Trust. Garry wears many other hats, though, including Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg and co-founder of the Center for Civil War Photography. As Garry mentioned in the first segment of our interview, Civil War photography really got him hooked on Civil War history.
Chris Mackowski: I want to circle back to your interest in Civil War photography. It eventually led to your involvement with the creation of the Center for Civil War Photography. We’ve been talking a lot about the Trust, but I know the CCWP is really important to you. Tell me a little about that.
Garry Adelman: The CCWP has been critical in my journey in the field and among the most enjoyable parts! Given that Civil War photography was my spark, I suppose that’s not surprising.
It started coming together when I was delivering a photo program in 2000 at the Capital District Civil War Round Table in Albany at the behest of the late Sue Knost, who brought together some people who knew the subject. Among the participants were wet plate photographer Rob Gibson, whom I already knew from living in the Burg, and Bob Zeller whom I met there for the first time. It was stunning; we were three people who all knew the subject but with different areas of expertise. One knew how to make Civil War photos, another knew how to view and understand them and another how to use them. We decided soon after to host a seminar of our own in Gettysburg which we called the Image of War.
Meanwhile, Bob and Rob had already founded in concept the Center along with the late Al Benson. I and another came on as founders. I was vice president and seminar coordinator. Bob Zeller was president—roles we both hold two decades later.
The Center stared publishing a newsletter, which is now a journal, with great content. We started advocating and raising money in support of digitization and trying to be out front in scholarship. We have held an Image of War seminar every year since 2001—and for the coming 20th seminar we will be back in Gettysburg this October. Being in the Center and planning the seminars has resulted in my having great relationships with people who are excellent at what they do including Will Greene, Mike Gorman, Ron Coddington, Wendell Decker and many, many others. I’m extremely proud to be a part of the CCWP.
Chris: Looking at the photography, the preservation, the social media—looking at the whole package—it really seems like you’re living the dream.
Garry: It’s not only a dream job, it’s beyond any dream job I could’ve conceived if somebody would’ve asked me “What’s your dream job,” you know? I keep saying this, but I marvel at where I find myself.
I thought this obsession would taper off eventually, but I can honestly say I am more into this stuff now than I’ve ever been. I have a job that not only helps to educate people about this, but that everything I do goes toward permanently preserving those places. It just never ends, and it’s great to have a life’s work that you’ll never complete. It’s really good.
Chris: What a great life.
Garry: I’m like a lot of older people who’ve had a satisfying life, and I marvel at what I’ve seen and what I’ve done and what I’ve been able to be part of. I’m living it right now, and it’s just great and it keeps getting better.
Chris: You’ve been at the American Battlefield Trust since 2010, so you’re going on ten years. That’s a pretty good run so far.
Garry: These words might seem trite later, but, man, I have an incredible team. ECW folks know Kris White, who helped found ECW. [Kris is the Trust’s education manager.] Kris not only a workhorse but knows more about history than I do. He’s very organized, and we’re able to do a lot more because I have him.
More recently, we’ve also had Dan Davis, who ECW people also know. So I have this core team of history nerds supported by a great video guy, Andy Poulton. Between them and the rotating interns we have, and some great contractors we use, the impact of what we see educationally is just mind blowing. We can—on battlefields, in books, in print, through the media, at events and on social media—provide this education to a broader group of people and better than we’ve ever done it before. Our videos and programs are better than they’ve ever been.
In any given week, people will watch more than a million minutes of our videos on YouTube alone. That’s to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of people who engage with us on Facebook and the tens of thousands on our other social media platforms. That we’ve become the leader in Civil War video in a program that didn’t even exist until six or seven years ago at the Trust is very gratifying.
We have the best animated maps, I think, of anybody out there. Our short four-minute videos, intended for adults but great in the classroom, have really exceeded my expectation. We have our interactive war department, which has really taken off in the YouTube era, and we have this new series called “Battlefield U” to answer people’s most basic questions.
And I’ll say a lot of our rise started with that. When I got there, we weren’t answering people’s most basic questions. What was the Civil War? Who fought in the Civil War? How many casualties were they? What happened to the prisoners? What happened to the dead? Things people ask you on a battlefield tour. So one of the first things I did was implement a Civil War facts page, and within a month it was our most popular page, and it has remained that ever since, for something like eight years with a few exceptions. When there’s a big controversy in Civil War land, our Confederate flag videos do well, our monuments assets might do particularly well. But, overall, it’s the basic facts that people crave, that the masses crave.
So, we’re trying to be out there for students and for strollers who might be interested, and we find that as many as half of our website visitors—and we had about ten million unique visitors last year—were students, which is just great because that’s who’s going to perpetuate our democracy. We have to teach history to each other, and that includes young people who might not support the Trust financially for decades. This is why we do a teacher institute.
Our education program has also gone beyond the videos and beyond our website and beyond the teacher institute to where we do these generation programs where they’re free to parents who bring kids out on battlefields. And we found that our members support things like this. We have a fieldtrip fund that wasn’t even around five years ago, and now more than 25,000 students have been on battlefields because of this fund—or at least with the help of this fund. And I’m sure I’m leaving out a whole bunch of things.
Chris: Wow. So, let me start to wind things down by asking about an article that appeared a little while ago in Civil War Monitor, written by Jenny Johnston (read it here). It called you “the unintended expert.” And I think that sort of brings us back to where you and I started this conversation.
Garry: That was a beautifully written story by Jenny.
Chris: I thought it was an interesting way to characterize you.
Garry: It’s really true, though. I mean, I was a 16-year-old kid from Illinois who was a C and D history student, who had some things that he loved about the past but was not a serious student about it and hardly knew anything about history—even about Illinois history. I didn’t read for pleasure. So it really was unintended.
My obsession with Gettysburg initially was to go through all this photographically. Only later did it morph into this idea that “Ahh, Frassanito taught me that photos are primary sources. What is a primary source?” Ah ha! Something that actually documents something at the time at which it happened. Only later did it become a general history obsession. What’s interesting is that I had little interest in other areas of history. Right now, I’m reading a book called On Grand Strategy and I’m learning a lot about the Peloponnesian Wars and other things like that—things I’d had no idea about it. I’m spending a lot of time learning about the Rev War now because the Trust is in those areas, and I need to be good at it. And, you know what? I’m fascinated with them.
One day, maybe I’ll finally get interested in the Civil War navies or about cavalry or something like that. But you can’t do it all.
It’s just great to know that you’ll never ever finish what you’re interested in. Not everybody has that, and I wish they could.