The Civil War Zoom Boom, part four: Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

Sacco and Dabney
Nick Sacco (right) and Emmanuel Dabney on the “U.S. Grant History Chat”

(part four in a series)

When the online “Zoom Boom” started in late March, Nick Sacco saw an opportunity. Sacco is a historian at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, and he already knew, with the History Channel’s Grant documentary on the horizon, that interest in the general-turned-president was already on the rise. The sudden influx of home-bound people hungry for history-based entertainment opened even more doors.

However, National Park Service regulations posed some challenges that other historians didn’t face, and so the Zoom Boom wasn’t as easy for Sacco to take advantage of as it was for others.

CM: What inspired you to start using Zoom to do interviews on Facebook?

NS: At the beginning of my time working from home, I spoke with Chris Barr, a park ranger at Reconstruction Era National Historical Park in Beaufort, South Carolina, and he mentioned to me that he wanted to start interviewing scholars and local community members who specialize in the Reconstruction Era. I thought that was a great idea and figured that our social media followers would appreciate a similar interview series with scholars who either specialize in Ulysses S. Grant’s life or the Civil War-era more broadly. Thus the “U.S. Grant History Chat” was born. Chris’s interviews have been wonderful, and I hope mine have been appreciated as well.

(CM: You can watch Chris Barr’s interviews here. I agree with Nick–they’re excellent.)

CM: Did you face any particular challenges?

NS: Technically speaking, the Federal government is very restrictive when it comes to using Zoom. Initially we weren’t allowed to use it all because of security issues with the platform, but about a month ago, we received further guidance and are now allowed to join a Zoom call—but we are still prohibited from initiating any Zoom calls. So, I’ve been able to do virtual programming with schools by joining Zoom calls, but for this interview series I’ve been using Microsoft Teams as our videoconferencing technology. So far it’s worked well, but I’ve had to take some time explaining how Teams works to some of the interviewees.

Another aspect of this interview series is that all videos must be captioned per Federal law. So after the interviews are concluded I have to spend more time afterwards captioning the video, which is fine! Partly because of captioning and partly because of attention span, I’ve tried to keep these interviews no longer than 15 minutes long.

CM: Because you’re an NPS site, is there anything else you’ve had to keep in mind about these interviews?

NS: I’ll add that I think we’re all learning about body language and how people come off on videoconferencing software. Making sure to speak clearly, looking at the camera the right way, etc. have all been a small learning process along the way.

CM: There’s a lot of content out there now. Is there anything you do in particular that makes yours stand apart from the others?

NS: I believe the quality of the interviews and the clarity of the interviewees has allowed us to share content that is nuanced and complex, but also clearly stated. And of course we have an opportunity to really get into the particulars of Ulysses S. Grant’s life in a unique way. The four interviews already posted to our social media have been great, and we have some great interviewees coming up over the next few weeks.

CM: With the Grant biopic on the History Channel, has there been anything you’ve done to take advantage of that?

NS: Right before we got orders to work from home, another colleague and I hosted a virtual tour of Grant’s White Haven home that went semi-viral on Facebook (more than 20,000 views). We also recently made the decision to create a YouTube account for Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, so we would have another platform to host some of our video content beyond social media.

So when the Grant documentary aired, we used it as a chance to promote the virtual tour, our YouTube account, and future video content. Next week I’ll be interviewing Elizabeth Samet for the U.S. Grant History Chat.

CM: How have your interviews helped increase the visibility of Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site?

NS: I think the park’s efforts on social media more broadly have been very good for the park. It’s not just the videos we’re posting, but the daily bits of historical content, cool photos, and educational materials we’re sharing. Our staff has done a wonderful job of creating some virtual content on the park website that really allows students to learn more about Ulysses S. Grant from home, and I think educators of all types appreciate that sort of material at this time.

CM: What’s your viewership been like, watching live and watching later?

While the virtual tour we did in March was recorded through Facebook Live, we are no longer allowed to use Live because of accessibility issues and the lack of reliable captioning. Therefore the video content we’re posting is all pre-recorded. You lose some of the intimacy of a live conversation in the moment of making a video, but we want everybody to have access to our content.

The virtual tour has had more than 20,000 views, and our U.S. Grant History Chat series has normally hovered around 1,000 or 2,000 views per video. My interview with Emmanuel Dabney was re-shared by the main National Park Service Facebook account, and that got more than 10,000 views because of that share. One we start moving some of these videos to the park’s YouTube account, we’ll get even more views!

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