Category Archives: Public History

When It’s Gone, It’s Gone.

Within the past few weeks, there has a steady stream of Virginia history-related news. In Newport News, the Mariners Museum has been forced to close its lab housing the USS Monitor gun turret and other large artifacts recovered in the early 2000s. is the link to the Mariners online petition form requesting federal funds to conserve the collection.

The chance to see the lab at the Mariners is gone for now, hopefully not for good with petition and email support, plus word of mouth. There are also two other opportunities to learn more: Dr. Anna Holloway of the Mariners Museum will speak this Monday, Feb. 3, at 7 PM, at the Williamsburg Regional Library (under the auspices of the Williamsburg Civil War Round Table). On March 13, Colonial Williamsburg will broadcast “The Iron Clads,” an account of the epic two-day naval battle in Hampton Roads in 1862, and the men who served on the Monitor and Merrimack. is a list of local broadcasters for the 10 AM and 1 PM programs.

This collection, Dr. Holloway’s talk, and the Electronic Field Trip  highlight and honor one of the most significant battles of the Civil War. Take time to check them out, and help support some of America’s great historic artifacts.


The Past Comes Home

In the museum world, provenance is essential.  Objects without a history are lost over time, orphaned by chance and lack of documentation.  Sometimes, the information embedded in the piece itself is enough to secure its protection as a cultural relic, despite the loss of human information.

Archeologists, curators, and other professionals bemoan such disconnects: Simply put, objects outlive their owners or become separated from them.  All too often, they float incognito in antique shops, resale stores, and yard sales, seldom rediscovered except by those who sense their significance and pursue it.

The ability to tie an object to its history is a connecting link between the past and present.  Whether it’s in a museum collection, the media, or someone’s home, what we as humans really want is a story.

Who made it?  How?  What was its purpose?  No matter what an object may be, it undeniably carries different meanings to different people:  One person’s passion for vintage  stoneware jugs equals another person’s love of first edition books or stamps.   The story below concerns sentimental objects within families and the occasional miracles surrounding them, and this writer saw it unfold.

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The “Storm Over Suffolk” in Memory and History

One of the most interesting aspects of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is the critical intersection of history and memory.  History is transmitted through published works, often institutionalized, and subject to change as society and as scholarship change.

On the other hand, memory resides with people who lived through the experience,with those who passed it down to others, and in the case of Kermit Hobbs, with someone who joins historical accounts of the 1863 siege of Suffolk  to actual sites where the April 11-May 4 engagements took place.

Hobbs played in the Civil War trenches near his home as a child and for almost 50 years, he’s explored woods and areas along the nearby Nansemond River for forts, batteries, and fortifications.  In 2003, Hobbs’ continuing interest led him to create a popular annual tour of  Civil War sites in and around Suffolk.

Kermit Hobbs with tour at site of Fort Huger, overlooking the Nansemond River

In the opening years of the Civil War, Suffolk was a hub for railroad and river travel.  By October 1862, US Brig. Gen. John J. Peck and some 15,000 Federal troops had taken command of Suffolk and occupied it.  “General Peck had experience in laying out defenses,” Hobbs said. “That is one reason why he was chosen, to lay out defensive works and fortify the backdoor to Norfolk.”

According to John S. Salmon’s The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide, Gen. Robert E. Lee sent Lt. Gen. James Longstreet with about 20,000 troops into southeastern Virginia in February 1863 to protect Richmond from the south and to assess the likelihood of capturing Suffolk.  Here’s where the narrative takes a turn:  Hobbs believes Longstreet’s primary purpose was to forage for food that the Confederates needed from southeastern Virginia.  “There’s not total harmony among historians,” Hobbs said. “From the Union perspective, Longstreet’s intention was to capture Suffolk.”

Hobbs helps tour participants to visualize how the April 11-May 4, 1863 campaign unfolded at fortifications along the Nansemond River, like Fort Huger. He tells how that Confederate position fell to a Union amphibious assault on April 19, but also how those Union gunboats could not withstand Confederate attack earlier in the siege.  That meant the Nansemond was left unprotected by troops when Peck pulled them back to complete the ring of earthworks he was constructing around  Suffolk. Afterwards, Peck was criticized for disastrously leaving the gunboats as targets for Confederate artillery and sharpshooters.

Just as historians disagree about Longstreet’s priorities, Hobbs said they don’t concur on why the Confederate general chose not to cross the Nansemond and capture Suffolk during a strategic 72-hour period when he and his Confederate troops had the chance.   Hobbs said, “Just before the siege, Longstreet had written to Lee that unless a great opportunity arose, he would not cross. So when the opportunity presented itself,  either Longstreet was totally inept, or it was not his intention in the first place.” Although they did not take Suffolk back from Union control, the Confederates did forage successfully and block the way to Richmond from the south.

Hobbs has shared his knowledge in a guidebook about Suffolk and gives a lecture entitled “Storm Over Suffolk” in which he describes how residents experienced the war, in their words.  Now a retired executive and engineer, Hobbs is using a personal GPS device to go around to the sites he knows so well,  to record their locations before they disappear or as he says, ” become a parking lot.”

To learn more about Suffolk’s upcoming Sesquicentennial events this May and beyond, go to the Suffolk Nansemond Historical Society’s website at Kermit Hobbs’ guidebook about Suffolk in the Civil War is available on the SNHS website, and at the Suffolk Station Railroad Museum and Riddick’s Folly, the restored Union headquarters of Gen. John J. Peck.

George, Meet Erwin

History intersects itself in unexpected ways, especially during commemorations such as Jamestown’s founding or the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. In the latter case, Virginia ‘s strange bedfellow is Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox” of World War II.

Erwin Rommel with German 15th Panzer Division in Libya, 1941 (United States National Archives and Records Administration)

Earning an Iron Cross for valor in World War I,  Rommel served afterwards as a company commander and instructor. According to historian Martin Blumenson in Hitler’s Generals (1989), he taught at the Dresden Infantry School 1929-1933, when he wrote Infanterie greift (Infantry Attack). By 1935, he had been promoted to lieutenant-colonel and instructor at the War College in Potsdam. After assignments as commander of Hitler’s bodyguard and commander of the 7th Panzer Division, Rommel assumed leadership of the Africa Korps in 1941, earning the nickname “Desert Fox”  for his effective surprise attacks in North Africa.

Rommel’s prowess as a military strategist has been linked online and in print  to Virginia’s Civil War sites, in regional stories that he visited specifically to learn about Civil War military tactics. Columnist Worth Richardson wrote in the Culpeper Exponent-Star that Rommel visited Culpeper in 1937 to study Confederate Army military tactics during the battles of  Cedar Mountain (1862) and Brandy Station (1863). The hotel where he supposedly stayed is now an office, according to Richardson. Recently I wrote a piece for mentioning the Rommel-Culpeper connection and became intrigued, leading to more research on line and in the library.

Googling this topic on the Internet led to some interesting claims.  According to the Insiders’ Guide to Virginia’s Blue Ridge, Rommel also visited  Highland County prior to World War I(not II) to study Stonewall Jackson’s tactics at the Battle of McDowell in 1862. The book Exploring the Small Towns of Virginia and Maryland places Rommel  in Monterey, Va., to follow  Jackson’s tactics in the Shenandoah Valley. At one website, Erwin Rommel is credited with helping Robert E. Lee to win the Civil War–which one can only hope is a parody.  The references to Rommel in Virginia as real or apocryphal recall similar stories of George Washington sleeping in a statistically impossible number of period homes. How do these stories originate?

This parallel is not intended to make light of local oral history or legends. Both can have degrees of truth and may lead to new interpretations of history.  In Rommel’s case, the Highlander Inn where he was purported to stay in Monterey refutes that Rommel was there, stating that Virginia Military Institute historians and Rommel biographers found no evidence of Rommel ever coming to Virginia or the US.  On the other hand, there is an alternative possibility that German Embassy Military Liaison Friedrich Von Boetticher reportedly visited Civil War sites with historian Douglas Southall Freeman. Von Boetticher was officially assigned to Washington, DC between 1933 and 1941.  He was Germany’s only official military observer in the US during that period, according to historian Alfred Beck, author of Hitler’s Ambivalent Attaché: Lt. Gen. Friedrich Von Boetticher in America, 1933-1941.

I don’t have the final word on whether Von Boetticher was that mystery guest in Monterey or possibly Culpeper, but the bottom line is that Internet sources, like all history sources, require verification. This fact is increasingly a concern in light of students’ use of online texts across subjects and disciplines. Two professors at Syracuse University and Drew University have revealed their findings that many first-year composition students at 15 colleges copied online text passages for their research papers without regard for argument, quality, or context within those texts. If there is a cautionary lesson here, it may be that history and education professionals more than ever have to model research as an active verb.

Public History and Light Bulbs

Author Stephen Vizinczey observed, “We now have a whole culture based on the assumption that people know nothing and so anything can be said to them.” Ask those working at museums and historic sites about their in-the-trenches experiences. The replies may make you wince, smile, or simply shake your head in disbelief.

Jamestown Island, with James River beyond (Lisa Heuvel)

An interpreter was asked at a historic site overlooking a river, “Is that real water?” All kidding aside, how much do Americans know about their nation’s history?

In 2010, the Marist Institute for Public Opinion gauged 1,004 US residents’ knowledge about history and civics education in a telephone survey reported in The Washington Post. One standout result was that seventy-four percent of those surveyed knew that the US won independence from Great Britain. Of the twenty-six percent of those surveyed who did not, six percent of those respondents named other countries including France, China, Japan, Mexico, and Spain. Twenty percent were “not sure.” The table with data about this question breaks down the responses by region, income, race, age, and sex.

In comparison, the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)  indicated that “about two out of three American students at grades 4, 8, and 12 have at least a basic knowledge of civics.” The assessment evaluated results from more than 25,000 students in grades 4, 8, and 12 nationwide. The 2010 NAEP was administered in more than 1,300 schools nationwide and will be released this year, with many in history and social studies education waiting to see how the data compares to that of 2006 and 1998.

So those who spend years and decades honing historical knowledge plus their interpretive and performance skills face continuing challenges that mirror  how history and social studies education are faring, and how popular culture and other societal trends evolve. Some veteran knowledge workers resign themselves to correcting misconceptions; just ask interpreters who answered questions about “talking trees” after Disney’s Pocahontas.  Or interact  with people who are virtually out to lunch on mobile phones.

Eventually, some leave the field of battle for other professions. Others persevere because their inner sense of excellence demands it. And, there are those who keep the faith:  One colleague used to say she “worked for light bulbs.” Those were moments when in a steady stream of people on a crowded day, she saw a flash of insight cross someone’s face. Maybe that is the Holy Grail of history, whether it is at a museum, historic site, or in a classroom: that one by one, we make a connection, and a difference.

A Savior of History?

Recently on the “Hoarders” program (the Learning Channel), one man with an overflowing stash called himself a “savior of history.” His description made me stop and think about the commitment of collecting.

Exhibit, National Museum of the American Indian

Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, the American Pickers from Antique Archeology (the History Channel), regularly encounter Folks Who Just Can’t Let Go of Stuff. Maybe the Pickers’ determination to find treasures in the most daunting of places is far more normal than the determination of owners they meet to pack every nook and cranny.

Just how much psychic distance separates those who compulsively hoard everything from coffee can lids to collectibles amidst dirt and disorganization, from professionals who collect for profit or as a public trust? Taking care of objects is inherent to the latter community.

Curators and conservators study and protect objects; interpreters and re-enactors make and demonstrate their use. Collectors seek what they desire, while educators teach about objects’ meanings. All persist in the hope of preserving history or at least some of its fragments. Within families, sharing of memorabilia these days can represent a virtual collecting process through online photo galleries and social media.

Yet there may be a connecting link between those souls who can’t help surrounding themselves with things to extreme levels (sometimes up to the ceiling!), and those who gather with greater–and more socially acceptable–purpose. It may be the same very human urge to anchor our notions of reality in material things for the memories they contain and the value we attach to them.

Take away those memories and values – what we may call provenance – and an object is open to interpretation as junk or treasure.  But when we least expect it, history really can be saved.  Here’s a pending example. An alert Yale curator may have found an unknown painting by the Spanish artist Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) in museum storage, and he has spent five years documenting his evidence:

From a Bird’s Eye View, or Not

History has many entry points. For years, museums and living history sites focused on bringing visitors into direct contact with people, places, and things. The Milliner’s Shop at Colonial Williamsburg for years has offered a unique threshold experience for visitors, orienting them to 18th century fashion as art and business.

Milliner's Shop, Colonial Williamsburg

Yet, virtual experiences have taken hold of 21st century public history, and they also offer armchair visitors and classrooms intriguing views of historical sites.  Colonial Williamsburg and other history based organizations increasingly are bringing virtual visitors to their sites.

Keep an eye out for more media sources like The Richmond Times-Dispatch‘s bird’s-eye view of Richmond, Virginia’s many historic sites at treetop level, with accompanying photos and descriptions of Richmond’s Civil War past. (One note on this interactive map: You’ll need to install Google Earth to use it.)

Other content-rich websites await you. The Virginia Tourism Commission has Virtual Virginia, with 360-degree video views of listed museums and history/heritage sites. Virtual Jamestown presents primary source documents, images, and engaging inter-actives on the Jamestown colony in its digital research and teaching site. The Virginia Historical Society has extensive online information about its current exhibits, complete with curators’ blogs.

All these resources enrich today’s public history, complementing on-site visits and  providing fresh perspectives as we look at our past. There is undeniable magic in the face-to-face encounters of living history, and web resources extend their reach.