How the Past Made Me Who I Am Today

Editorial note: We’re often asked how to connect younger audiences with Civil War history. Below is one personal narrative about how someone came to deeply connect with the stories and places connected with the events of the past.

ECW welcomes guest author Jordyn Salzmann

I’m a 24-year-old girl who has a strong passion for preserving our history: namely the Civil War. Now, you may find it odd that a girl is passionate about such a bloody war rather than nail polish, makeup, and clothes. For the record, those things didn’t shape our nation’s history, therefore they don’t interest me. So where did I get my love for history? Did I grow up in a house where my mom and dad were history buffs? No. In fact, my parents are the opposite; my mom’s an accountant, and my dad works as a government contractor. My passion for the Civil War started when I was a teenager.

I grew up intrigued by the stars, intrigued by the marine life that swims around in our beautiful oceans, but never once gave a second thought about the historical figures who saw these before me. As I got older, I realized that if I went down the science path, I’d have to do math, and let me tell you: I am as bad at math the way McClellan was at pursuing Lee during the Civil War. I was not the best at it. All I could really do was rattle off facts about dolphins or the planets. And then I went into my junior year of high school.

You hear people say how much a movie changed them, or maybe even a book or song. I never thought it was possible, seeing as no movie or book really changed me. However, at the end of the semester, my history teacher decided to show us a movie. It was the 1989 movie Glory. I had never heard of or seen it before, but the story line was incredible. For once I wasn’t learning the same facts over and over again when it came to sitting in history class. Here was some fresh information about a topic I never knew about. I instantly got attached to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, how he was a young man who did something daring for a time period where most men wouldn’t dare lead a group of African American soldiers.

I was fascinated by Shaw. I bought books on him and even bought Glory just so I could keep watching it. I became obsessed with the Civil War, hungry to learn more about the war and anyone else who was unknown to me the way Shaw was. I began buying more books on the war itself, learning all sorts of new facts that blew my mind. I can’t fault my history teachers entirely for not teaching me this information, seeing as we have a lot to cover in such a short time, yet I was still shocked at just how much I didn’t know about the war. For starters, I was always taught that it was Grant versus Lee for the entire four years, not realizing that Lee assumed command in 1862 after Joseph Johnston was wounded, and that the Union army rotated through a series of commanders before Lincoln settled finally on Grant to finish the job.

Jackson’s statue at Manassas. Photo by author.

I was overloaded with new information, and I was excited to see where these battles were fought. New Year’s Eve of 2016 came, and I decided to take a trip to Manassas, which is only thirty minutes from my house. I had no idea a battlefield was so close to me, which made me very happy because it meant I could retreat there on the anniversary if I was able to. On that cold winter’s day, my aunt and uncle took me to the battlefield where Thomas Jackson earned his rightful nickname, “Stonewall” Jackson (given to him by Bernard Bee). I was as excited as a kid in a candy store to tour the battlefield, taking all kinds of pictures on my iPad and even buying souvenirs that I will forever and always keep in my possession. Manassas was the very first battlefield I have ever toured, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

As time went on, my love for the Civil War grew. I toured Gettysburg, Antietam, Ball’s Bluff, Spotsylvania, and Appomattox; I ended up developing a library of any Civil War book I could get my hands on, and I even realized that I was going to major in history. In June 2020, I found out that I got accepted into William and Mary after completing two years at the Northern Virginia Community College. As a history buff now turned history major, I was ecstatic to be going to the second-oldest college in America (Harvard is the first). While Williamsburg is known for the Revolutionary War, the Civil War touched it just as much, and I was in my glory down there. Sadly by this time, the Revolutionary War was overpowering my love for the Civil War, but it didn’t last long.

In January 2023, my friend and I took a trip up to Gettysburg on a blistering cold day. Let’s just say, I would have welcomed the blazing hot sun the soldiers faced in July 1863 in Gettysburg. It took one trip back to Gettysburg to make me realize that nothing could prevent me from ever leaving behind my love for a war that changed our nation in a span of four years. I went from obsessing over Sam Adams to once again obsessing over Robert E. Lee and Ulysses “Sam” Grant once again. I even bought new books from the gift shop, which are Jeff Shaara’s books about the western theater of the Civil War. For all you bookworms out there, I recommended reading A Blaze of GloryA Chain of Thunder, The Smoke at Dawn, and The Fateful Lightning. All four are fantastic, and they introduced me to new Civil War figures, such as generals Patrick Cleburne and George Thomas.

The Gettysburg battlefield. Photo by author.

In addition to reading books and watching movies about the Civil War, I began watching videos about it on YouTube from the American Battlefield Trust. The organization does an amazing job in giving the viewers straight facts and not sugar coating anything, and they make their videos at the battlefields themselves, allowing for the viewer to get a “tour” from their homes. I absolutely love the American Battlefield Trust and one day hope to preserve battlefields with them.

While history may be the decline in interest nowadays, I personally believe that it should be on the rise. If one neglects to learn history, it truly does become full circle. We make the same mistakes that we did in the past, and it’s because people fail to learn it. Dear Reader, history is truly something that we should all take an interest in. I get it that it can be very repetitive. I truly do. I got sick and tired of hearing how Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 from kindergarten to my senior year. Yet once I watched Glory and toured battlefields, I became a proud history buff who now has a degree in it. If you, Dear Reader, wish to take more of an interest in history, my advice is to tour any Civil War battlefield you can. You will develop a new interest in history.

9 Responses to How the Past Made Me Who I Am Today

  1. Thanks for sharing your story Jordyn! I too have vivid memories of the first time I saw Glory. Now, I use Shaw’s letters and clips from the film in the classes I teach. Best of luck at William and Mary. Keep learning and keep sharing!!!

  2. I am impressed with your enthusiasm, Jordyn. We need more young people like you studying the Civil War. Please recruit your friends to go with you on future Civil War battlefield trips. Thank you!

  3. Thanks for sharing your story, Jordyn. It really speaks to the power of place AND the power of pop culture as gateways and touchstones.

  4. Thanks for writing this! This post sent me right down memory lane, which is too far down the road, but I remember that watching a movie on the Civil War hooked me as well. As goofy as movies can be at times, they are an important tool when used to draw interest to a subject or person. I can also confirm that the history community is the greatest on earth. It is filled with all sorts of knowledgeable people who have so much to teach. The greatest thing about being a history buff is that there is always something to learn. This was an absolute awesome post to read!

  5. I had a similar experience with the movie Gettysburg when I was in elementary school. It’s awesome to read stories like yours about finding a passion for history. Congrats on your ECW debut!

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