Living history, or costumed interpretation, has been a popular program on National Park Service (NPS) battlefield and military sites for the past forty years. Antietam National Battlefield Site and Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park conducted historic weapons programs as early as 1961, while Fort Davis National Historic Site in Texas is considered the first NPS site to put interpreters in period uniforms in 1965. NPS Director George Hartzog was a proponent of living history farms and period programs, claiming he would “not to have another dead and embalmed historical area.”
At Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park (FRSP), living history arrived in 1973 in the form of a Confederate “camp” established on the Chancellorsville Battlefield. The camp represented a Confederate ordnance detachment tasked with salvaging and cleaning up the battlefield. According to the interpretive prospectus, the camp was intended to represent a post-battle scene, in which Confederate soldiers would interpre the daily routine of Confederate soldiers and provide an opportunity to reflect upon the battle.
“Our goal for the coming season is to develop a scene rather than a demonstration – smoething that will go on continuously and quite naturally of its own accord and with no ‘script.’ It will be a slice of mid-19th century American military life – and the visitor can see as much of it or as little of it as he likes. He can walk through the ‘scene’ for the flavor of it, or he can stay and get totally involved. It will be very much alive, because the participants will be actually living it.” – Bill Meuse, “Thoughts on the Presentation of the Living History Program at Fredericksburg – Spotsylvania N.M.P. for the 1973 Season,” Copy in FRSP files.
The park service considered the living history camp “experimental” from the perspective that nothing like it had been attempted before at a national park. The camp was staffed by six employees – five soldiers and a female “camp follower” or washerwoman. With the exception of one permanent NPS employee, all of them were hired for the summer and strictly to staff the camp. They worked four-day weeks and lived at the camp around the clock for the full three months that the camp was operational. They cooked, ate and slept at the camp, while presenting interpretive programs during operating hours, which could often go well into the evening. On weekends, their numbers were supplemented by volunteers from the Williamsburg-based recreated 32nd Virginia Infantry, under the command of Les Jensen, who was employed at the Museum of the Confederacy.
The “stage” for the program involved a great deal of site preparation. The layout of the camp is described in the prospectus:
“…we propose a small camp scene, amid the reminders of a recent battle. We cannot portray the battle itself, but can talk about it as something which has recently occurred. Along one edge of the clearing…will be a freshly dug and badly battered line of Union breastworks, while off to one side at the edge of the clearing will be a few graves with crude markers scratched on boards – both reminders of what has just passed. A few private soldier tents will be set up facing on a hastily improvised company street. An officer will be quartered in an old shed which clearly shows the marks of a recent battle – perhaps something resembling an old smokehouse or similar outbuilding, and partially burned and displaying the scars of combat.” – Bill Meuse, “Thoughts on the Presentation of the Living History Program at Fredericksburg – Spotsylvania N.M.P. for the 1973 Season,” Copy in FRSP files.
Park staff cleared the campground, which was located in the woods off the eastern edge of the parking lot at the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center. A small shed-like wood structure was erected for use by the camp’s sergeant and pine arbors built to provide shade. As the park prepared to open the camp, it put the final touches on the scene by attempting to create a more authentic post-battle setting. Superintendent Dixon Freeland took the preparation to an interesting level:
“We are re-creating the early post-battle scene on a small piece of Chancellorsville battlefield for use as the stage for a highly developed Living History program. As part of the stage setting, we have perforated the trees and the one small structure with numerous .58 caliber small arms projectiles. To simulate the ravages of artillery fire, particularly solid shot, we have need of some dynamite work to blow the tops off a limited number of trees – perhaps three or four. This should constitute too sizeable a task for the properly equipped unit, but is beyond our park’s capabilities (strangely enough!). Is there a chance that your 103rd Engineers could get permission to do the pseudo-artillery work for us next Monday or Tuesday in conjunction with summer? We would be delighted and eternally grateful if it can be arranged.” – Dixon Freeland letter to Hal James, May 31, 1973, Copy in FRSP files.
It’s not known whether the park received the explosive assistance it requested.
Living in the camp, the staff strove to “learn” the way of Civil War camp life. Daily duties for the members of the camp included fatigue details such as digging latrines and garbage pits, chopping wood, building camp furniture, cooking meals, and other labor tasks. A contract with a local farm secured smoked meats, while park neighbors often dropped by with cakes and pies. The staff even brewed a beer-type beverage made of molasses, yeast and water flavored with new growth pine trees. The concept was to immerse the staff in a facsimile environment and encourage them to observe the experience. To that end, the camp staff kept daily diaries and journals, to record their thoughts and reflections.
Visitors were encouraged to wander into the camp and ask questions of the staff. “You will be warmly received, as would any civilian visitor to a Civil War camp,” read the program’s brochure. “Much of the activity you will see there is the relatively routine and everyday duty of running a camp and performing those tasks necessary for mere survival.” Some visitors spent hours in the camp. One copule stayed so late in the night that they pitched their own tent and the next morning sta down and shared a breakfast of grist and fatback with the staff. Public reaction to the camp was very positive.
“It’s amazing how much more you can learn from seeing actual practice than from just reading or even seeing a play. The whole family has been talking about how superb the whole idea was. Our boy will always remember seeing the lady cooking over the fire…” – Park Visitor
“While some of the parks demonstrate how to load a musket, fire a cannon, build fences, show slides, movies, etc., but you folks presented a live story.” – Park Visitor
“We are strongly in favor of the Living History concept of the National Park Service and we hope that this type of program will be expanded.” – Park Visitor
After twelve weeks, the camp closed for the season in early September. Unfortunately, no end of season review or assessment of the “experiment” can be found, but it must have been viewed as a success. The following year, the camp re-opened with a new staff of soldiers. Later, the park moved in a different direction with its living history. This is looked at in a follow-up post, which can be found here.
If any of our readers remember the living history camp and have some stories to share, please post them in the comment area.
Eric J. Mink