Friday, April 3, 2009

My Civil War History

In conversations, when people get to know me better, they often ask me, "when did you become interested in the Civil War?" That's a fair enough question, and one that I always like answering because it brings back such great personal memories.

I have to say that my real interest in history began at about 10 years old, when I was in the 4th grade. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had a great 4th grade teacher, Ms. Owings, who made history come alive for me. So, you could say that started the ball rolling, but what started my specific interest in the Civil War, I would have to contribute to my father and the book pictured above.

Dad had taught some high school history in the 1960s, and had collected a nice little personal history library that I found fascinating. But, the greatest book of all in the collection was the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. And I have to be honest it was the pictures, not historian Bruce Catton's skilled writing that captured my imagination...although I would later very much enjoy Catton's works. This book was first published in 1960, at the beginning of the centennial of the Civil War. I literally wore this book out. In fact, my mom still had my dad's tattered copy. I have a 1988 reprinting of the original edition. I understand a few years ago they updated the edition with new pictures and illustrations. Not to be biased, but I can't see how this book could have been improved. If you have ever seen this book, I am sure the one thing that you remember is the battle maps. These impressive pictures show a number of battlefields from a birds-eye-view that display terrain features and troop positions. To a 10 year old boy this was just about as close as I could get to being there.

When I was around eleven I finally got to see my first battlefield in person. We had moved to Indiana from Tennessee when I was nine, and if you know your history, there just aren't a whole lot of battlefields in Indiana. But, both sets of my grandparents lived in Kentucky, so as we went to see my Grandma Tedder one time, I asked if we could stop by Perryville State Historic Shrine (that was the name at the time), which wasn't too far out of the way. I was so excited to get to go. I remember climbing all over the cannons; the visitor's center with the huge (seemed huge at least) mannequins; and all of the amazing artifacts; the stonewalled Confederate cemetery, and the stout Union monument. I remember stopping at road-side antique shop on the way back to the main road, and dad bought me a minnie ball (found at Perryville) and a rusty old bayonet (not a real Civil War bayonet, but I didn't care). For a long time it was the happiest day of my life.

A year or two later I returned to Perryville as a reenactor. Yes, they actually let 12-13 year olds fire guns in reenactments way back then. Mom drove me and my best friend down on a Saturday morning. Lord knows what she did all day while we were being soldiers. We stayed at my grandmother's house that night and then were back at it on Sunday. What a great experience for a boy who loved the Civil War.

I remember at about this time the mini-series The Blue and the Gray came out. We didn't have a VCR at the time so I had to make sure that we got out of church Sunday night (my dad was a minister) on time to see the first episode.

I kept up my interest for a few more years. I remember when my brother got his driver's licence and an old Jeep, I made him promise me he would take me to Virginia to see all the battlefields there (we never made it). I became more interested in sports and other teenage things during those coming years. I really didn't get back into the Civil War until I was in college...back in Tennessee. I found another reenactment group to fall in with and started reading voraciously on top of my normal studies. I guess I didn't change my major to history because I was so far along, but I kept up my interest through reading, a little reenacting, and movies like Gettysburg and Glory.

After college, work took over most my free time, but I still read some history from time to time. After about 10 years of work I decided to return to school part-time and get a bachelor's degree in history and see where that would take me. Classes at East Tennessee State were great. Historical Methods under Dr. Page really got me excited about research and writing. After completing my degree I knew I wouldn't be satisfied if I didn't try to find an occupation that involved history, so I talked to some museums and some of the history faculty at ETSU, and they recommended I get a master's in Public History. A little online research led me to Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. I had a great two year experience there that included a wonderful summer fellowship at the Stonewall Jackson House in Lexington, Virginia. After graduation I landed an education position at Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier here in Petersburg, where I worked for three years.

So, there is my Civil War history. Yet again it brings back fond memories of great times, and wonderful people who have helped me along the way, especially my parents. To them I am truly thankful for their support and ever-present encouragement.

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