“Battlefields Mean Business: Economic Benefits of Battlefield Preservation”

Many of our readers are familiar with heritage tourism. In fact many of us would say we are heritage tourists! Historic sites and the communities they reside in can mutually benefit from the visitors that they receive. The Civil War Trust recently released a detailed report of the benefits for these communities as they play host to our nation’s history and the many visitors that come to see it each year.  

The Civil War Trust released a report detailing the economic benefits that battlefield preservation can provide to U.S. communities. After investigating geographically diverse locations across the United States, the study found that historic sites support jobs, attract visitors, create opportunities for local business, and contribute to state and local coffers. Revealing what enhances the economic benefits of battlefields tourism, the report demonstrates that when more land is preserved, sites can become an even more powerful economic engine.

A Conversation with Emma Murphy (part five)


Andrew Johnson’s grave

(part five of five)

For Women’s History Month, we’ve been talking with women who work in Civil War public history. This week, we’ve been sharing a conversation with Emma Murphy, park guide at Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. While earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees, Emma did stints as a seasonal ranger at Richmond, Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania, and Gettysburg before arriving in Greenveville, Tennessee earlier this year for her first full-time permanent position with the Park Service.

Chris Mackowski: So you mentioned that you’ve been there for two weeks, so you’re still learning your park. What do you love about the park so far?

Emma Murphy: There’s a lot to love. I think that I love the fact there’s room for the park to grow through more planning and community outreach. There’s a lot we can do with the national cemetery. The national cemetery not only has President Johnson and his family, but has veterans from decades all the way up to modern day. The cemetery is something we can still talk about up through the modern day because these veterans want to be buried in the same cemetery as President Johnson. That’s saying something about his place in the community, his place in Tennessee, and the legacy that he leaves. It’s a huge honor to be able to be buried alongside a president of the United States. 

I also love the ability to grow and to find new ways of interpretation and challenging the visitor, whether they just came for a homestead tour or something else. Many people come in for a furniture tour, or they’re presidential junkies, but there is a lot of context to work with. Johnson and his story basically sit right in the center of Reconstruction. Not many people know about Reconstruction, so I like to fill in that whole a little more.

Johnson’s trunk, on display at his homestead

I also hope to have more community outreach to bring in the neighboring communities, to be able to partner, to try new programs. It’s basically like what we did with History at Sunset [evening programs at various National Parks that expand the story beyond typical park resources.] Rangers would go and make a relationship with either a family or a community and make that connection work alongside their programming. I love how Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg did that.

The Park Service is well known in this community, and if we start showing ourselves, going out and building that community outreach, I think we could really make the park on the map. That’s what I really love about it: the ability to grow and to reach out.

CM: I was wondering, as I got off the exit from the interstate, what I was going to find out there. I was so pleasantly surprised and delighted to see all the stuff there was in Greeneville and at the park to look around and see and learn about.

EM: There’s so much to learn about, and there’s a local history museum right across the street from the homestead and a college that basically has a whole Johnson library. We have programs that are at the local state campground, Davey Crockett State Campground. I haven’t been out there yet because they haven’t started their programs yet since that’s usually more of a summertime thing. That’s a huge partnership because not only are they short-staffed, but they want to have something that engages the visitors of the local history and history as a whole. That gives us a great opportunity for community outreach that grows, because they can’t stay there forever, they travel. Word of mouth is sometimes the best way to get visitors to come to your site. That is so relevant right now that it’s important to help put us on the map.

CM: It sounds like there’s plenty of opportunity for a young professional who is just getting her foot in the door of the park service.

Johnson’s room

EM: I’m excited. I have so many ideas, and I’m writing them all down because my brain moves a mile a minute, and something I have to understand that this park is very small compared to other parks I’ve worked at. The staff total is nine people—but the nine people we have do so much, and they are truly incredible rangers that are multifaceted and multitalented because they do everything. They organize the functions of the park like a well-oiled machine. The ability to have that structure already there means we have the ability to branch out and try new things without risking that something else will crumble or be forgotten about or let go. We have the ability to all work together. It’s obvious they’ve worked together a lot. They work hard to keep the park functioning and clean and acceptable. I’m a fresh pair of eyes and someone who is all geared up and ready to go. I would be more than happy to come up with new ideas and new programs and, if they like them and want to use them, I’m absolutely ready for it. It is a great creative ground on which to build—a foundation and a base that hopefully leads to a wonderful NPS career.

CM: The other day, [a mutual friend, ECW author] Doug Crenshaw, said, “I’m so glad you got to talk with Emma. She tried real hard to get the job out there.”

EM: Doug was on one of my programs at Cold Harbor in 2013 where we had a couple that had no concept of the Civil War, and asking if Grant was in the trenches at Cold Harbor, and if Cold Harbor was the beginning of the Civil War. They had no idea, so I was trying to give the Battle of Cold Harbor tour and it just kind of turned into a basic Civil War explanation: this is the Confederate side, this is the Union side. Doug said, “This isn’t your normal tour.” I said, “No, it’s not, but don’t worry about it—they’re trying really hard.” He was just enamored that I brought it down to their level, and he said he’d never seen a ranger do that. But they’re visitors, too, and I wanted to make it as accessible to them as possible, even if it meant I had to sacrifice all of the details of the battle of Cold Harbor. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that they walked home with an idea of the significance of the Civil War and what that significance means. Maybe Cold Harbor is tucked in there somewhere, but not the main focus, because if it had been, they would’ve been confused and unhappy.

CM: Good luck as you get settled in at ANJO!


A Conversation with Emma Murphy (part three)


Murphy Ranger Hat(part three of five)

We continue our conversation this week with Emma Murphy, a park guide at Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. Emma started her job at the park back in February, so she’s still learning her new park and her new subject matter.

Chris Mackowski: Now that you’ve found yourself at Andrew Johnson, what do you like about the park? What have you discovered about it that has excited you so far?

Emma Murphy: There’s so much in the Johnson story that influences Andrew Johnson himself in his push against Congress during his presidency—there’s a lot of that in his growing up in Tennessee but also because of the political ramifications of being a Democrat from a Unionist territory. 

Something that is difficult to reconcile—for us and the public—is his view on race and his view on how the Constitution should read. I hate to say this because it always burns off into the reasons for the Civil War, but Johnson is super-focused on States Rights: the right for a state to run their own Constitution to then reapply to the Union. He wanted it not to be Reconstruction, but reconciliation only, and not much of a rebuilding and reconstructing. He wasn’t concerned with destroying the lifestyle from before the Civil War started, in the Antebellum Period. He wasn’t focused on trying to pull it apart and make a social, political, and economic change to the American South.

That’s hard for us to reconcile with because we always hear about Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, but not of Johnson, who is like the polar opposite of Lincoln, not just in personality, but in political views. So that’s really exciting to try and bring forward a lot of the story.

Obviously, a lot of the story we tell is about his impeachment because he’s the first one to get anywhere close—only acquitted by one vote. It’s a very dramatic story. But there’s a lot that can get left out from right after the Civil War is over to his impeachment trial.

Something I didn’t realize until I was researching his presidency was that he was trying to charge the Confederate hierarchy—not only the placeholders, but also the Confederate leaders—with treason, and when you bring out the word “treason,” it makes you cringe, but Johnson is ranting and raving against the South and ex-Confederates. He wanted to bring up charges on Robert E. Lee, and the only person who stopped him was Ulysses S. Grant—and that blew my mind.

The whole conversation on reconciliation, not reconstruction—and what the ramifications of it were even all the way up to today—kind of centers around how the Civil War ends and the definition of victory and defeat for both sides. Johnson is really trying to take a stand against the Confederacy, but not necessarily the social hierarchy. I am super pumped to bring that into the tours of his homestead, of his house, because the house itself is kind of a representation of not only the country, but of himself and his family. It is damaged and destroyed during the Civil War, by both sides, and the Johnsons have to go back and rebuild the house after his presidency. A lot of that has to do with what he wants to present to the public, but he also wants to provide for his family, for the town of Greeneville. In a way, what he’s trying to present to the country is a way to go back to normal, but when Congress isn’t controlled by Johnson’s party, what is normal for Johnson is not normal for the rest of Congress or the rest of the country. East Tennessee is kind of a pocket of Union territory, Union sentiment. It is difficult to spread that idea over the entire South. It’s almost impossible.

CM: You mentioned he was an advocate of States Rights, but it’s sort of a different vision of States Rights than the view the Confederate states had set up as their reason for seceding.

EM: It’s the right of the states to change up their constitutions, with only three things that needed to be added to be admitted back into the Union. First, basically, ratifying the 13th Amendment. Then taking an oath of allegiance. Then a proclamation that said that anyone who could have possibly been an ex-Confederate could not have $20,000 worth of property—so he’s taking the war out on the plantation and planter class. If you have certain amount of money, you’re not allowed to vote and you won’t be able to have representation in Congress. But if you take this oath of allegiance and write into your state constitution that you disregard and basically erase any sort of secession sentiment—as long as you met those requirements, you would be allowed back into the Union and have a representative in Congress.

CM: That was very similar to Lincoln’s “Let ‘Em Up Easy” philosophy, wasn’t it?

EM: It’s based off of Lincoln’s initial push to have the freemen have some rights, but Lincoln doesn’t get far enough to where he can define that, so the Radical Republicans are pushing really hard to try and get the Freemen’s Bureau Act and enfranchisement for these African-Americans who are now no longer in bondage, but also have no representation in Congress. What the Radical Republicans are afraid of is that the planter class, these white citizens, are going to be reinstated in their powerful places in their governments and be able to reintroduce laws to disenfranchise African-Americans—basically set up Black Codes, which they did. And the Republicans don’t want that, so they fight Johnson to keep the states from rejoining the Union if they only ratify the 13th Amendment. Republicans also want the states to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments and take in the Civil Rights Act and the Freeman’s Bureau.

So Johnson and Congress keeping have vetoes back and forth, back and forth. Because Johnson is vetoing this, and it’s not just because of his view on race—he flat out admits that he doesn’t believe in the equality of the races—but it’s more on the principle that he doesn’t want the states to be controlled and be told what to do from a big government. He is against that.

So, to Johnson, the Freeman’s Bureau and demands about who has the right to vote is unconstitutional because it should be the state’s right to designate who has the right to vote and who doesn’t. He’s basically stepping back and saying, “In South Carolina, if they decide to let these freemen vote, then have it, but if the state decides not to, the state doesn’t have to.” But Congress does not want that.

The Southern states want to basically reinstate the old social hierarchy, and that, unfortunately, ends up happening because—I guess this is kind of personal opinion—there’s so much time between when Johnson starts presidential reconstruction until Congress starts Congressional reconstruction. When Johnson is in, while Congress is out of session, he’s throwing out all these proclamations, amnesty policies, to say to Congress, “You didn’t have to do anything, I did it. Ta-da.”

Johnson described himself as Moses leading the way for African-Americans, but in reality, he’s not giving them any right to vote or right to citizenship at this point. He wants it to remain at state level. But that takes so long and a lot of it floods up against the policies that Congress is trying to pass, which is why there are so many vetoes. That’s why Congress ultimately brings in and ratifies the Tenure of Office Act, because they’re sick and tired of Johnson not cooperating, so if he isn’t cooperating, let’s just take him out of office and we can get our way.


The Tenure of Office Act sets up the showdown that leads to Johnson’s impeachment. In tomorrow’s segment, Emma will explain more about that—which is happening 150 years ago right now.

A Conversation with Emma Murphy (part two)


Emma Murphy at Gettysburg

Emma Murphy during her days at Gettysburg

(part two of five)

As we continue our Women’s History Month commemoration, we’re talking his week with Emma Murphy, a park guide at Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. Prior to landing her full-time permanent position there, she’d been working most recently as a seasonal ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park. Yesterday, she explained a bit about the complexities of getting a full-time permanent position with the Park Service.


Chris Mackowski: You mentioned to me the other day that there were a number of other people at Gettysburg, where you’d previously been stationed, that were in the system and waiting for a position to open up, and you had equated the situation to loving your troops enough but then having to send them into combat, because a supervisor ultimately has to make some hard choice about which one of those people to hire if a position does open up. What do you think about all those folks that are like airplanes circling the airport, waiting for their chance to land? 

Emma Murphy: I think that’s very risky. I fully admit that you can fall in love with the park and want to stay there because you love it so much, and your goal is to be there for the rest of your career—but that’s not how the Park Service is designed. It was for a little while, where families could stay there and settle, but we’re starting to see a shift. There are a lot of people who want to move up in the Park Service, but you have to be willing to move and be willing to sacrifice your time to come circle back. It’s almost like the plane landing: to get there, your goal might have to change along the way.

That’s something I’ve noticed with people who are very successful in the Park Service and move up: they have a goal in mind, but they don’t necessarily have a location in mind of where that goal will be. There’s a piece of advice that I got when I was trying to get in to the Park Service, and that was to not settle for a Civil War park, because landing at one is almost impossible. Everybody wants to work at a battlefield, and I don’t blame them because it’s one of the most fun things to do—which sounds terrible because there was so much bloodshed—but the effect you have on visitors is almost intoxicating and thrilling at the same time.

As Ernie Price at Appomattox told me one time, it almost becomes an addiction where you have to get your NPS fix, and no matter how much you try to step back, that nag is constantly there.

So all of the NPSers that are out there with me—I don’t want to say I feel bad for them, because I understand and don’t pity them for wanting to stay at a spot, but I also feel bad about the fact that they may be worried or scared to be adventurous and get out and try something new. And if you don’t have the means to be able to pick up and move across the country to another state, you may be stuck in this vicious cycle that the park has, and it can turn into years and years and years of waiting. I’ve seen a lot of people that have had their mental and physical health deteriorate because of that, and I didn’t want to do that. It does make me feel terrible to watch people physically and mentally and emotionally deteriorate. It’s something that shouldn’t happen, but it’s a reality that some people face when you’re unable to breach the wall of permanent position. It’s almost like a taboo to say that you want to be a permanent, but that small chance of getting in is enough for some people to keep going until someone finally asks themselves, “When is enough enough?”

My answer was, after 3 seasons at Gettysburg, I had to find somewhere that had a position open—I had to be willing to leave. A lot of that had to do with my contract, because my contract didn’t allow me to up and leave and become a permanent; I had to work the system and get in through the Pathways system. Had that not happened, I don’t know if I could’ve financially and emotionally kept going through season after season as a regular seasonal because of the qualifications: you have to beat veteran preference, and you have to try and push through different qualifications at each regional level.

So in 2017, that reality became a purpose: to find the answer within myself as to whether I wanted to just work for Gettysburg or for the Park Service—and it was the Park Service. So, knowing that at the regional level I wouldn’t get a regular seasonal position, I had to find another way in. It’s unfortunate that the question you have to ask yourself is “When is enough enough?”

CM: You said you’re now basically doing what you’ve always wanted to do. What is your Civil War origin story? How did you fall in love with the Civil War and decide that this is what you wanted to do with your life?

EM: That’s a funny story because everyone always assumes it was my fiancée or my dad, but it was actually my mom that got me into it. She wanted to be a Civil War reenactor.

We were from Illinois in south Chicago, and there’s not much Civil War stuff out there. You have Lincoln and you have a little Grant, and that’s it for out in the middle of nowhere in a cornfield. My mom wanted to Civil War reenact, and by the time she started, she’d made her own clothes and she’d started the hobby with my dad. After her second or third reenactment, she was obviously pregnant with twins: myself and my sister, Rachel.

So, growing up, being engulfed in the Civil War was normal. It was something that was just normal on a Saturday after soccer practice, and it became part of my life as something that I didn’t even think about—until a family movie night when I was about eleven years old. My mom was going through the tapes of movies she wanted us to watch, and she found one, and when she put it in the VHS slot, it was a recording of Starman and Glory. They accidentally cut off the beginning of Glory, so I didn’t get to see the start of it, but when we played it, I was so upset and disturbed at the end because basically everyone dies. I was just appalled and wondered how it could happen. They had been so dedicated and worked so hard, and it was ridiculous, and I never wanted to watch that movie again.

That didn’t last very long. It turned into this huge obsession with the 54th Massachusetts and Robert Shaw. I was in love with him and the unit and the movie. I was so obsessed; it wasn’t a normal thing for a 6th grader to be liking. I tried to buy the movie at Wal-Mart when I was 11 and couldn’t do it because it was rated R—they wouldn’t let me buy it, so my father had to take my $20 that I got for my allowance and purchase my copy of Glory and hand it to me.

It turned into an obsession there, but where it became a part of who I am is something that I’m very proud of: I don’t stop. I fight like hell, which is kind of the theme of Glory. In 6th grade, we had a research project, and I wanted to do it on the 54th Massachusetts, and it was pretty much a paper on Glory because I basically regurgitated what happened in the movie, and I made a poster that had all the pictures of stills from the movie and actual pictures of the unit, and Robert Gould Shaw, and I made it into the collage. I was horribly bullied and called a freak because “the Civil War is over and it’s not that cool and nobody likes that.” They used to shove my books off of my desk because I carried around the letters from Robert G. Shaw—that was my everyday reading for reading time.

So, anyways, I had to put the poster on the windowsill because it was too big, but coming back from recess, I found my poster completely crumpled and stomped on and in pieces. Everybody was like, “Oh no, it looks like you can’t do it. I guess you have to pick another normal topic.” So I stood there and had a moment where I had to either admit defeat or fight like hell. So I took it home—and I didn’t realize that laminating was an actual machine; I thought teachers just put packing tape on something until it became a solid sheet of plastic—so I taped my poster up with clear packing tape, and it was crumpled so you couldn’t really see it, but it was clear as day for me and, damn it, I still went up at the end of the year and gave my presentation and everybody was silent because I did it. That was kind of the moment where I realized this was going to be a lifelong thing.

But that was in 6th grade, and obviously there is a lot of time left before you decide what you want to do with your life, so I didn’t realize that this could be a part of an education and part of my own research and my career until I was about to go off for college. Originally, I was going to be a professional French horn player in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra was looking into having me audition and be one of their French horn players before going into the official CSO, but I had two facial surgeries in high school, and the last one had my mouth wired shut for nine months, so I figured it probably wasn’t a good idea to put my entire career on my facial muscles when they didn’t really work properly—and it was just a birth defect that I had to work with, everything’s fine now and has been since then, about 8 years ago, but I panicked. I was a junior in high school—I was 17—and I didn’t know what to do.

I will give full credit to Pete on this one that—thank God he did this—when I walked into my first internship interview in 2011, I was very nervous, although I thought it went really well. But because I was the younger of two freshmen to apply, the Park Service representative said he wanted the other student—but she wanted to go to a specific spot, not necessarily the one she was going to be offered—so he didn’t know who he should pick. Pete flat-out said that he should pick me. Coming straight out of that person’s mouth after the 150th of Fredericksburg event, he said the best decision he made in 2012 was to hire me as one of the interns even though he originally hadn’t want to. I appeared too young and didn’t have any experience, but Pete had told him he was making one of the biggest mistakes if he didn’t pick me. Even now, 6 years later, anytime I talk to him, he says, “So are you still talking really fast or have you learned to slow down?” [laughs]

So that’s basically my Civil War lifestyle all the way up to my Civil War career. It was a long road, but it was really worth it and really fun.


In tomorrow’s segment of the interview, Emma will talk about finding her way at her new park and what she’s discovering about Andrew Johnson.

A Conversation with Emma Murphy (part one)

Emma Murphy 01(part one of five)

As we continue our series of interviews for Women’s History Month, we spend time this week with Emma Murphy, a park guide at Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greenville, Tennessee. Emma has a bachelor’s degree in history/Civil War studies from Gettysburg College, and a master’s degree in public history from the University of West Georgia. Before landing her full-time gig at Andrew Johnson, she worked as a seasonal historian/ranger at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Richmond National Battlefield, and Gettysburg National Military Park.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Chris Mackowski: How did you end up at Andrew Johnson? 

Emma Murphy: I wish I could say that it was because I had a love and passion for the president who came after Lincoln and everything with Reconstruction, but it actually was by chance. It was from the Pathways database that the NPS has on their employee website. If you are a student and you are part of the Pathways program, you put your information in, and when you’re going to be graduating—either from undergrad if you’re lucky enough to get into the system when you’re still in college, or when you get your degree if you are in grad school. I put in extra details about my thesis topic and my field of studies.

Andrew Johnson is the only site that directly contacted my supervisor at Gettysburg, Christopher Gwinn. They wanted to make sure they had a candidate that would not only like to work at a site like this, but also had a career goal—that the NPS wouldn’t be just a job, but a passion and something they want to succeed in and continue on in. They asked about me, and I hadn’t heard anything in while, so I got kind of nervous because I wanted a job with the NPS so badly that I actually ended up putting on my big girl pants and calling the chief of interpretation here.

So that’s how I landed at Andrew Johnson. It was very much by chance, but I feel very fortunate and lucky to have gotten a site that is in my field of study, Reconstruction and Civil War memory. A lot of first-time positions that my other friends and co-workers had—they usually had to sacrifice a GS level [general schedule level—the pay scale of Federal government employees] or a job that they wanted at a certain park or theme at a park to get in where there’s an opening, which is usually a spot that’s out in the middle of nowhere, doesn’t have many visitors, or doesn’t have a lot to do with interpretation. I’m really lucky, and I do not take this job for granted, because I know that it could’ve been 8 hours a day in a booth, collecting fees. I think I would’ve jumped out the window after week one.

Here, I don’t have to worry about just being the person that collects money or who sits at the front desk all day. I get to design programs and try something new. They’re redoing their interpretive planning, so they wanted someone that had fresh eyes—not only fresh eyes out of masters of public history, but also fresh eyes that come from a massive park that does a lot of interpretation. They’re trying to revamp their interpretive plan and programming, so they wanted some of that experience while also having someone who has the knowledge base.

They asked me in my interview if I had any knowledge of Andrew Johnson; I did of his presidency and the aftermath of his presidency and his legacy throughout Reconstruction and reconciliation, but not much of him personally. But they already had so much on him personally that they wanted someone who knew about Reconstruction and the historical context of the time period, so that kind of hit the nail on the head. That’s a benefit of coming in fresh.

CM: I want to talk to you about Andrew Johnson in a second, but first, I want to circle back to something you said about being “in the system” for the Park Service. It seems to me a lot of people on the outside see the Park Service as this big, iconic entity, with the Smoky the Bear hats, but when you see how the sausage is made, it is a government bureaucracy. How is that to reconcile those extremes?

EM: It’s very difficult. It’s also very difficult to stay positive. There are a lot of people I know that have left the Park Service because they basically can’t wait any longer. From when I started in 2012 to now, it’s become increasingly, excruciatingly difficult to get in. There are a lot of sacrifices you have to make. If I had just gone into the private sector with a master’s degree and a lot of experience at different parks and programs, I probably would have been paid a little bit more and also had a career that isn’t reliant on whether the government had a budget or not. So it’s something you do have to renegotiate with what you want in your future. Also, you have to be willing to uproot and move anywhere. It is something you have to reconcile personally, but also career-wise.

The love of the job itself makes it bearable. It’s not just a job where, every time you put on your Smokey the Bear hat on, you don’t think about it. Of course you do! Every time I put my hat on, I think that I look awesome and like a superhero. [She laughs] Even if the uniform isn’t flattering [she laughs again], I still feel like I have this powerful presence even just walking in and opening the visitor center. That’s something that is empowering, and that alone is enough to overcome the other bureaucratic problems that you can face being a federal employee.

It is kind of scary if there’s a shutdown. You don’t know when you’re going to get paid or go back to work, and that is something that is kind of terrifying, especially in real life where you have student loan payments and bills to pay. I’m not there yet, but some people have a family to support. If I had a husband and a kid I was trying to support as the main breadwinner for a couple years, if I’m not able to go to work, that’s going to put a financial strain, so it is something you have to negotiate with yourself and people around you.

My family has understood since I started—and came to my first program at Chancellorsville—that this is what I want to do. I’ve wanted to be in the history field talking to people before I even realized the Park Service did anything like this. So I’ve always wanted to be in something like this and understood the sacrifices that might have to be made—like this year for Thanksgiving, my family is coming up here because, as a Federal employee, I work all the way up until Thanksgiving Day. I can’t travel very much, but they can, so they’re coming up here from Illinois.

In the end, the question you have to ask yourself is if it’s worth it. The fact that I burst into tears when this park called and offered me a permanent position shows, to me, that it’s definitely worth it. It’s a long process, and it’s very difficult to try and stay positive, but if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. If you know that’s what you really want to do, you just have to keep fighting through the bureaucracy, and that’s what I did. I’m not going to say that it’s for everybody, because it is soul-sucking at times. There are no answers, and you don’t know what’s going to come next, and it’s terrifying, but that spark and that fire that is burning under my butt that tells me to keep going—that doesn’t go away. I knew I couldn’t reconcile with myself if I didn’t try with the Park Service, and that was worth battling it out with the red tape.


In tomorrow’s segment of the interview, Chris and Emma talk more about the process she went through to get her first permanent position in the Park Service. “I fully admit that you can fall in love with the park and want to stay there because you love it so much,” she says, “and your goal is to be there for the rest of your career—but that’s not how the park service is designed.”

A Conversation with Caroline Janney (part three)


(part three of four)

As a scholar, Dr. Caroline Janney has explored a strong interest in Civil War memory. During our conversation with her this week, she’s also talked about the deep connection to place she feels as a historian. In today’s portion of her interview with ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski, she talks more about the importance of memory and place, and how she brings those topics into her classroom at Purdue University.

Chris Mackowski: As you’ve written about the subject of memory, from the first paper you did about tracing your steps through the cemetery, what is it you’ve found about memory particularly that’s been so compelling to you as a way to look at Civil War history? 

Caroline Janney: In large part, what I try to convey to my students is that the way the memory, and not just war memory, but all memory, serves the present and not the past. We celebrate, commemorate, or forget things for personal and political reasons. It’s something that we do both consciously and unconsciously and is something we manipulate and take for granted at times. Memory shapes our everyday existence in ways that we aren’t even conscious of. It shapes our identities for good or bad. The myths we tell ourselves as individuals and groups, and as a nation, are instrumental in how we define ourselves. And in many ways, it’s about power and politics.

CM: When your students come to class at the beginning of the semester, does that challenge some of the expectations that they have?

CJ: I have a course just on Civil War memory. I teach a course on the Civil War where we cover the coming of the war, the fighting, and the conclusion—Reconstruction. But, during the spring semester, I teach a course on Civil War memory, and we spend a couple weeks, somewhat on a theoretical and philosophical level, examining what memory is. But then we grind down into looking at the first efforts of the war generation to commemorate the war through cemeteries, Memorial Day, through poetry, et cetera. For today’s class, I taught Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge.”

So we go all the way through to the present looking at the ways that, through the generations, northerners and southerners, Confederates and Unionists, blacks and whites, men and women all have tried to come to terms with the Civil War. It’s a process—an unfolding if you will. We peel back the layers as we progress from the 1860s, through the early 20th century, to the present.

CM: What would your assessment be of college-age students today? I hear at roundtables things like, “We need to get more young people interested in history.” Do you think there are enough young people interested in history?

CJ: It has been my experience that they certainly are interested in history. A lot of my students have a thirst and a desire to understand the complex, contradictory past, whether that’s U.S. history or world history. I think that every generation laments that not enough people are studying history. The Civil War generation certainly did, so I think that’s something that each generation will say, but in my experience that isn’t really the case.

CM: I like your phrase “complex, contradictory past.” How much of a challenge is it in this soundbite, social media world to discuss the complicated past?

CJ: Sometimes I think that’s what my students find refreshing. When you explain to them that it can’t be explained in a tweet, it doesn’t fit in a box with a headline, that people are inherently contradictory and messy, and at times ugly—but it’s also at times wondrous. I find more and more that they’re receptive to that and they like the untidiness of it all. Somehow, that rings true to them, despite what we might think about the younger generation.

CM: If you look at society as a whole, do you see that same sort of willingness to engage in the complicated past?

CJ: I don’t know. I’m not a social commentator, I’m a historian: I look to the past. I guess I’m not cynical enough to say that that’s the case. I think we do often live in a media world that is driven by soundbites, but when people have the time and/or inclination to address the complexities, I think they’re willing to, or I at least like to hope they are.

CM: One of the things I think you’ve been especially successful at is being one of those historians who has found an effective way to reach out to the general public or audiences beyond the academy. How does that public history component fit into your role as a historian?

CJ: Part of it is just how I see history. It’s who I am. My first job was as a guide at Luray Caverns. I loved being able to share with visitors how the caverns were created and why they’re there. I had a lot of history in my guided tours.

Being able to talk and teach, not just to students in the classroom, but to the general public, is just a passion that I have. I think it comes from my experience working with the caverns, working with the National Park Service for 10 years, and having wonderful role models in the field who were exceptional at engaging the public. I truly enjoy it. I consider myself incredibly lucky that I get to do all of the things I love to do. I get to research, write, and teach, not just college students, but also an interested general public.

CM: Where’d you do your NPS gig?

CJ: I worked at Shenandoah for about 10 years in college and grad school. My official title was Historian/Archivist. I was fortunate to work with a man named Reed Engle who came to Shenandoah to create the archives there and make them accessible to the public and revise the very outdated and offensive exhibits.

Getting to do research on the creation of the park and the new exhibits [at the Big Meadows Visitor Center] was a very formative period for me. I had no idea I was going to grad school; I had no idea I was going to become a professor. I just loved history—and this was a summer job that allowed me to engage it. But all of those experiences were leading me down a certain path that I didn’t quite see at the time.


Tomorrow, Chris wraps up his conversation with Dr. Janney by talking more about her efforts to bring history out of the classroom to the general public.