Sometimes one reads a book that you cannot put down until it is finished. Our Man in Charleston by Christopher Dickey is one such volume. Subtitled ‘Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South’, it tells the fascinating story of Robert Bunch, the British Consul in Charleston, South Carolina from 1853 to 1863.
Now one might not think of this as the subject matter for a gripping page-tuner, in which case one would be wrong. The narrative follows Bunch’s ten year stay in Charleston during the lead up to, and the first two years of, the American Civil War, some of the most turbulent times in American history. Indeed as the author says:
“…an assignment in Charleston was a treacherous one for a British envoy. It was the epicenter of all the contradictions that London, whatever its passions, found difficult to face. England hated slavery but loved the cotton the slaves raised, and British industry depended upon.”
Bunch’s role as the consul was multifaceted. He was expected to look after a whole range of British interests in the busy port, and his duties ranged from making sure local authorities observed treaty obligations regarding British shipping, liaising with US customs and representing the interests of British sailors and citizens if they got into trouble, to issuing passports and recording the births, marriages and deaths of British residents within his fairly extensive area of responsibility. Indeed, as is quoted in the book, Bunch once wrote to a colleague that:
“With the exception of the administration of the sacrament of baptism and exercising the business of executioner, it would be difficult to say what duties I cannot be called on to perform.”
However, as the book’s subtitle alludes, the most important role that Bunch performed during his tenure, as was common for diplomats at that time, was to act as the eyes and ears of the British government in what was rapidly becoming the centre of unrest in the United States. As such Bunch was in a precarious position in which, as the United States slid towards Civil War, he found himself having to lead a double life. On the one hand he was the friendly and engaging consul whose social circle included many of his slave owning neighbours, whilst on the other hand, fuelled by his personal revulsion of slavery, he made every effort possible to make sure that Great Britain did not recognise the emerging Confederacy. The central narrative of the book charts Bunch’s work in this respect, as he produced an almost constant stream of dispatches to his boss, Lord Lyons the British Minister in Washington, and ultimately to the Foreign Secretary in London. The story of Bunch, his work and tribulations is superbly executed and provides an incisive and illuminating insight into the international political machinations of the period.
In addition to Bunch’s story Dickey also paints a vivid picture of Charleston at this critical moment. The book is alive with descriptions of the place and its people; and it was a colourful place with an eclectic and interesting cast. From this one gains an excellent picture of the environment in which Bunch was working, the challenges he faced and the intrigue and politicking that was going on.
It should be noted that whilst an engaging and entertaining read, this book is also a very professionally produced and argued history. As the endnotes and bibliography highlight, Dicky has done a great deal of research, accessing hitherto largely untapped sources, including Bunch’s own unpublished private correspondence.
In short this is a great read and an important contribution to the vast library of literature on the American Civil War and its causes. Its content will certainly appeal to American Civil War aficionados, but its style and pace make it very accessible to the more general reader too. Highly recommended.
Even when you are as fascinated by the American Civil War as I am, one sometimes wonders if there is much more that can be written about this momentous conflict. It seems that almost every aspect of the War has been covered in great depth. In my own modest library for example, books on the Battle of Gettysburg alone take up almost three shelves, whilst visiting the bookshops at any of the well-preserved Civil War battlefields maintained by the US National Parks Service one is presented with a vast array of Civil War books to choose from. It is therefore against this background that one can be somewhat sceptical when picking up another new book, particularly one that claims to examine ‘Civil War Controversies’.
“…revisits eleven episodes of the Civil War era—some lesser known than others—that, upon reexamination, may challenge our received understanding of the course of that conflict. It is hoped that this small volume will promote discussion and debate among those who enjoy Civil War history and contemplating alternatives to conventional conclusions and analyses.”
And it does exactly this, covering episodes that are both diverse and interesting.
The book opens with two examinations of what the author terms ‘The Greatest Confederate and the Greatest Federal’ errors respectively. In these opening chapters he lays out his approach, which is essentially to challenges some of the prevailing, and in cases, long-held ideas about the Civil War. Thus in these chapters he highlights the Confederacy’s mistaken reliance upon the power of ‘King Cotton’ to create international influence, and the Union’s failure to invest in breech-loading and repeating rifles early enough which, had it done so, might have helped shorten the War. In the subsequent chapters the author considers subjects as diverse as how banking in America was transformed under the leadership of Salmon Chase in order to finance the Union War effort; the responsibility for the burning of Atlanta; the relative merits of George H. Thomas and William T. Sherman as successful Union generals, and the relationship between McClellan and Lincoln. And of course the eponymous ‘Lost Dispatch’ receives its own chapter in which Leigh explores how the famous set of orders from Robert E. Lee’s headquarters in September 1862 fell into Union hands and should have gifted George McClellan the means to beat Lee. He considers the various theories as to how this situation occurred and concludes:
“Only the ghosts of those involved know the truth of how the Lost Dispatch came to be misplaced. But give the burgeoning access to historical information enabled by the Internet, more theories are surfacing. They range from the bizarre to the thought provoking. Perhaps you, dear reader, shall discover the answer.”
In all these and other subjects covered, the book provides thought provoking insights and observations on the American Civil War.
This is not a book that the average reader will pick up. As the author alludes to in the quote above, this book “revisits episodes” in the Civil War and a degree of prior knowledge is necessary to appreciate the discussion. However, this book is one that Civil War buffs will wish to read in order to have norms challenged and interest reinvigorated, and it will be retaining a place on the shelves in my library, despite the fact that they already bowing under the weight of Civil War literature!
Paperback Pages: 224 Westholme Publishing Published: 21 May 2015
June was a busy month with a great deal of travel that kept me from my computer. The highlight of this travelling was attending the Civil War Trust Annual Conference held in the evocative surroundings of Gettysburg. For three and a half days I was able to immerse myself, alongside five hundred like-minded enthusiasts, in the fascinating and inspiring history of America’s greatest battle. Superbly organised and executed, the conference also brought together a veritable ‘Whose Who’ of American Civil War historians and authors who delivered talks and conducted a whole range of very illuminating battlefield tours.
I participated in two tours both of which proved fascinating and educational. The first was led by lawyer and author Eric J. Wittenberg and followed the route of JEB Stuart’s ill-fated ride round the Union Army in the lead up to the Battle of Gettysburg. Picking up the ride in Westminster, Maryland, we followed Stuart’s ride northwards via Union Mills, Hanover, Carlisle and Hunterstown during which Eric’s understanding of this oft misunderstood part of the Gettysburg Campaign became very clear. The debate about Stuart’s conduct during that period quickly developed. Did Stuart neglect, or exceed his orders, and deprive Lee of his ‘yes and ears’? Or did he interpret his orders correctly and take the initiative to cause disruption in the Union rear and gather important supplies? These questions and many more will undoubtedly continue to be discussed for years to come, but Eric Wittenberg’s tour shed light and insight on the whole affair and certainly provided participants with plenty of food for thought.
The second tour was, for me, the highlight of the conference. Entitled ‘Walking the Union Fishhook’, it took the form of an eight-mile hike right around the Union defensive position that had developed by the morning of 2 July 1863. The map below show this position very well and how it fitted into the overall narrative and flow of the battle.
Guided by two qualified Gettysburg Licensed Guides – the Civil War Trust’s own Director of History and Education, Gary Adelman, and serving US Marine Corps Colonel, Doug Douds – we started the tour on the summit of Little Round Top at the southern tip of the Union line. It was immediately clear that we were in for an informative and entertaining day as both guides launched into their delivery with gusto. Readers may recall that I sung the praises of the Gettysburg Licenced Guides programme in a previous blog post, and these two gentlemen certainly lived up to my previous billing. This programme produces guides with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Battle of Gettysburg, its terrain, its history and its participants, as a result their ability to engage an audience is without exception outstanding.
The actions of Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren in highlighting the Union’s exposed flank on 2 July 1863, and the actions of Colonel Strong Vincent’s Brigade to hold Little Round Top were explained by Gary and Doug, and with these fresh in our minds we started on the hike. Moving off the top of the hill and we transversed the close country of the Western slopes of Little Round Top, passing through a little known, nor visited, rocky feature know as the ‘Devil’s Kitchen’ before arriving in the better known ‘Devil’s Den’. Here the complementary skills and interests of our two guides came to the fore. Doug regaled us with the story of the battlefield actions in this part of the field, whilst Gary talked about the photography that was conducted shortly after the battle to record the event and the rise of the battlefield as a tourist attraction, including the facilities, such as a railway, put in place during the nineteenth century to facilitate this trade.
The next stage of the tour took us to the infamous Wheatfield the site of some of the bloodiest fighting on the battlefield and a location that changed hands six times during the course of 2 July 1863. As we moved through the terrain from Little Round Top to Devil’s Den and on to the Wheatfield our guides flagged up a truism that can be easily missed on this battlefield, and many others, if one explores them in the traditional manner. All too often tours will take one, in a car or a coach, from location to location and each stop or stand is treated as an isolated action on the battlefield. What is often missing is the narrative or interpretation of how that action fitted with action happening in adjacent locations geographically or with that happening at the same time elsewhere on the field. Walking the whole Union position quickly highlighted how all the actIons and activities were inextricably interrelated and how something happening in one location often had a knock on effect elsewhere.
This cause and effect inter-relationship was nowhere clearer that when we reached the Trostle Farm and discussed the actions of Major General Dan Sickles and the Union Third Corps. As Sickles moved his corps forward to occupy what he felt was better ground, he created a gap in the Union position that then require others, in particular Winfield Scott Hancock and his Second Corps, to fill. Walking from the Trostle Farm to the heart of Cemetery Ridge it became very clear just how big a gap was created and problems it produced elsewhere in the Union lines.
The tour continued along the centre of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge where we stopped to discuss the awesome Pennsylvania State Memorial and the action at the famous Angle which has become known as the ‘High Watermark of the Confederacy‘. From there we moved on through the Gettysburg National Cemetery, the resting place for more than 3,500 Union dead and where at the cemetery’s dedication Abraham Lincoln delivered ‘…a few appropriate remarks…’ which turned out to be one of the greatest speeches of all time, and is now referred to as the Gettysburg Address. The tour concluded with the eastern most portions of the Union line and took us over the wooded Culp’s Hill finishing at Spangler’s Spring. Again throughout we were able to appreciate the terrain from less well-visited viewpoints and to continue to build our understanding of the inter-relationship between the various parts of the battle.
At the conclusion of this walk I, and many of my fellow participants, commented and reflected on the new and different perspective we all had gained. Whilst most of us had been to the battlefield, many on numerous occasions, and had toured in many different ways, be it by coach, by car or even walking parts of it, few if any had completed such a complete and in-depth study of the Union position. The insights gained and understanding enhanced by doing so was marked. The lesson learned here, and that I for one took away was relatively simple. It is dangerous to attempt to understand history, particularly of such a complex event as a battle, by picking a few salient points in isolation and it is crucial tolook at new perspectives and appreciate the often complex interplay of activities in order to build a full and accurate picture. And that is my excuse when my wife enquires as to why I need to need to spend yet more time on a particular battlefield!
Some one hundred and fifty three years ago, on 2 May 1863, one of the most well known friendly fire incidents in history took place. Its consequences have caused debate and discussion ever since and it is often argued that it had a profound impact on the outcome of the American Civil War. The incident was the shooting of Confederate commander, Lieutenant General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson by Confederate troops during the Battle of Chancellorsville.
On 27 April 1863 Union troops under Joseph Hooker began crossing the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers above the town of Fredericksburg, where General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had been encamped since the latter part of 1862. Hooker concentrated his forces in the area of Chancellorsville, and Lee decided he needed to act. Leaving a small force in Fredericksburg he marched the rest of his Army west to meet Hooker. As Lee approached, Hooker entrenched his force around Chancellorsville. On finding out about the Union defensive position, Lee and Jackson came up with a daring and aggressive plan.
At 0730hrs on 2 May 1863 Jackson set off on one of the boldest flanking actions in military history. He would take with him two thirds of the Confederate Army, an Army that only numbered some 43,000 compared to the Union Army of about 70,000, leaving Lee to pin the Union Army with the remaining third. He would then lead this force on a twelve mile march that would, at 1530hrs that day, place the head of the column in battle positions on the right flank of the Union lines.
It would take almost two more hours before enough of the force was in place and ready to launch its attack. The fighting was ferocious and confused with the two armies fighting in very close wooded terrain with thick undergrowth that slowed down the attack. Whilst the assault was successful, the terrain and the added friction of dealing with increasing numbers of Union prisoners, who had to be chaperoned to the rear, began slowing things down. By about 2030hrs darkness was falling over the battlefield and the attack was petering out. Jackson ordered a halt to reorganise and await AP Hill’s division, which was still marching. But assessing the situation, Jackson decided he needed to keep the momentum and that this would only be a pause because if he stopped the attack at this point he would be ceding the advantage to the Union forces. In order to understand what was in front of his position Jackson took a small group of his staff forward to conduct a reconnaissance.
Riding out from the main Confederate position through the lines of the 18th North Carolina Infantry, the small party proceeded two hundred yards further stopping just behind a picket line that had been deployed ahead of the main Confederate line. Here they listened for the Union forces, themselves barely a quarter of a mile away. In the distance Jackson could hear the sound of axes felling trees and shovels scraping the earth. The Union troops were putting up defensive positions, so he realised he would have to act quickly, and turned the party around to return to the Confederate lines.
At much the same time, a little further south, some Union troops had blundered into the Confederate line and been captured. This had the effect of making the Confederates worried that other Union troops were approaching their lines. As a result the men in the frontline began to get jumpy. One Confederate soldier fired at a shadow and this in turn caused another to do likewise, and in seconds a wave of fire erupted from the Confederate position rolling northwards up the line just as Jackson and his reconnaissance party approached.
A volley of shots ripped into Jackson’s party. Jackson himself was hit three times, once in the right hand and twice in his left arm. One of his staff, his brother-in-law Joseph Morrison, called out for the troops to stop firing as they were shooting at their own men. However, the 18th North Carolina were a seasoned unit and had heard that Union troops used such ruses, so continued to fire! When they eventually did stop firing one member of the party was dead, and Jackson and another were both seriously wounded. Members of his staff helped him from his horse and carried him to the rear where he was placed on a litter and evacuated. The rearward journey itself was traumatic as he was thrown from the litter at least once, causing further injury!
He was eventually taken to his doctor and the following day his left arm was amputated. For a few days it looked as though he would recover but then caught pneumonia, and on 10 May 1863 he died. His body was taken to his hometown of Lexington, Virginia where his funeral was conducted and he was buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery, now known as the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery.
The impact of the loss of Jackson was immediate. The day after he died, Lee issued the following General Order:
“Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia,
11 May 1863
General Order No 61
With deep grief the commanding general announces to the army the death of Lieutenant-General T. J. Jackson, who expired on the 10th instant, at quarter past three P. M. The daring, skill & energy of this great & good soldier, by the decree of an all-wise Providence, are now lost to us. But while we mourn his death, we feel that his spirit still lives, & will inspire the whole army with his indomitable courage & unshaken confidence in God, as our hope & strength. Let his name be a watchword to his Corps, who have followed him to victory on so many fields. Let officers & soldiers emulate his invincible determination to do everything in the defense of our beloved Country.
R. E. Lee
His loss was both personal and professional to Lee. Over the ten months they had worked together they had developed a personal and professional relationship that was very close and very effective. Each knew how the other thought and behaved, and each trusted the other to play their respective parts on the prosecution of Confederate strategy. They were exemplary exponents of what today is known as Mission Command. The current US Army Mission Command Doctrine (ADRP 6-0 Mission Command) states:
“Mission command is the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.”
What does this mean? Well in means trusting a subordinate to act under their own initiative to carry out an order and meet the intent the commander wants delivered. This is exactly how Jackson and Lee operated. In an age before radio, telephone and instantaneous communication this meant Lee giving some fairly broad brush orders, but with a clear outcome in mind. This in turn allowed Jackson to be out of contact, sometimes for weeks at a time, but with Lee always confident that he would deliver, and by and large he did. The same US Army manual lists the principles that underpin Mission Command, the top two of which are:
– Build cohesive teams through mutual trust.
– Create shared understanding.
Even from a quick examination of the Lee/Jackson relationship it is clear that these principles ran through their relationship, like letters through a stick of rock. They trusted each other implicitly and had a clear shared understanding, resulting in Jackson knowing exactly what was needed, even as the tactical circumstances changed, without seeking additional orders from Lee.
So with the death of Jackson, Lee had lost a key lieutenant right at the time when he needed one the most. Less than two months later his Army was engaged in the biggest battle of the American Civil War, Gettysburg, where it became clear that other subordinates were less able to act within a Mission Command framework and deliver Lee’s intent. For example on the first day of the battle, Richard Ewell commanding one of Lee’s three corps, was sent a discretionary order by Lee to take Cemetery Hill “if practicable.” Many historians have postulated that had Jackson been the corps commander at that point he would undoubtedly have found it “practicable” and would have taken the initiative. Its highly likely that such an action could have finished Gettysburg with a Confederate victory by the end of that first day of the battle. In the same vein the following day Lee struggled with another Corps commander, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, whose somewhat sluggish deployment probably lost Lee the initiative he sought that day. In short neither Ewell nor Longstreet, or for that matter Lee’s other subordinates of that period, were Jackson and they did not act with the intuition Lee had come to expect.
It is certainly possible that Jackson’s presence at Gettysburg, and later battles, could have brought about Confederate victories. The American military historian James I. Robertson, in his comprehensive biography of Jackson, sums up the impact of his loss very well:
“Jackson’s passing marked a line of demarcation in the annals of the Army of Northern Virginia. In the ten months that Lee and Jackson were together, delegation of authority had been so lenient – orders permitting a wide latitude in execution so regular – as to create one of history’s great military partnerships. Thereafter, starting at Gettysburg, the system failed Lee. He had no executive officer of first-rate ability. He tried to do it all himself. It did not work.” (Stonewall Jackson, James I. Robertson, Macmillan, 1997)
Perhaps the best comment on the impact of the loss of Jackson comes from Lee himself who, on hearing of the amputation of Jackson’s arm, is reported to have said:
“Give General Jackson my affectionate regards, and say to him: he has lost his left arm but I my right.”
The implications of this statement are very clear. Lee as the commander relied on Jackson. As commander and subordinate they were ‘in each others minds’. His loss deprived Lee of someone he could trust implicitly at a crucial time for the Confederacy, with the Confederate’s armies on the ascendancy. Had Jackson not been killed there is every indication that this duo could have led the Army of Northern Virginia to continued military success through Gettysburg and beyond, and perhaps even victory in the War.
This book is a re-issue of a title that first appeared in 1998, and is part of Pen & Sword’s G.I. series about the American soldier, his uniforms and equipment. The blurb for this book is as follows:
“This volume examines a much-neglected aspect of American military history – the U.S Army artillerymen, named redlegs after the red stripe on their trousers. Artillery was a vital arm and proved its worth in diverse theatres of war. The photographs, most of them rarely seen in other sources, range from the Civil War and the campaigns against the American Indians through to the Spanish-American War.”
The first thing to say is that despite the typo on the front cover which states the period covered by the book to be 1861-1869, it does in fact cover the period 1861-1898! Second this is a book about the U.S. Army’s artillerymen and not about their weapons. If one is after a detailed exposition on ordnance and ammunition, then this is not the book to consult. The development of the weaponry and its employment is covered in a brief four page overview at the start of this book which really just sets the scene and explains what the U.S. Army’s artillery was doing during the period concerned. The bulk of the book is actually about the soldiers themselves and is profusely illustrated with a fascinating range of pictures and photographs, both colour and black and white, which show the soldiers in their uniforms and some detailed illustrations of particular items. The book is very well produced and does justice to the subject matter.
As the blurb rightly suggests some of these illustrations appear to be quite rare and give an interesting insight into how the uniforms and personal equipment of this branch of the U.S. Army developed. It also reminds us how the business of the U.S. Army changed over this short thirty seven year period, as a direct reflection of the process of nation building that was going on in the United States. At the start of the period the United States was on the brink of tearing itself apart in a bloody civil war, the outcome of which had the galvanising effect of creating the strong nation we now know. By the end of the period we see a country that is flexing its muscle and creating its own sphere of influence both in its immediate vicinity in the Caribbean and across the Pacific in the Philippines. The illustrations in this book tracks the impact of this change on the U.S .Army, as the uniforms and equipment developed from those appropriate to fighting the rather Napoleonic battles of the American Civil War to the much more ‘modern’ battle tactics used in the Spanish-American War. The latter brought the need to dress and equip the troops in an expeditionary force to work in the somewhat different climatic conditions and environments of the Caribbean and the Philippines, and this is also well-illustrated.
In short this is an interesting book that covers its subject matter well. Its appeal, like most of Pen & Sword’s titles, will be to a specialist audience, who like me have an interest in this period of history and/or military uniforms of the time.
Paperback Pages: 72 Pen & Sword Military Published: 4 February 2016
Much work is undertaken these days to maintain, repair and restore heritage sites, locations and buildings. Such work often causes debate, in particular related to how much work should be done, to what, and why. A recent project to renovate London’s Alexandra Palace produced much controversy and discussion about the nature of the proposed work and its purpose. It strikes me that in any work undertaken upon heritage sites and buildings, the key questions should of course focus on what we should do to such places in order to keep them for the future, but also very importantly, on how to make them relevant to today’s users and visitors.
Before I examine some examples, a few definitions. For the purposes of this blog post I am going to talk about three processes that can be applied to heritage sites – restoration, preservation, and recreation. There are a range of other terms that are used to cover similar ground, but to keep things simple I am going to use these three.
Restoration is essentially about taking something back to a former condition, such that it has an authentic appearance appropriate to the chosen period.
Preservation is about stopping an object, place, building etc. from deterioration or destruction, and preventing it from being altered or changed. These days this is often linked to the protection of architecture or the built environment. The key difference to restoration is that it is not the final appearance of the object, place or building that governs the process, but rather it is the retention of as much of the original fabric as possible, with minimal changes, that guides the final outcome.
Finally recreation is about replacing previously destroyed or removed objects, perhaps with a replica, or recreating fundamentally altered environments or settings, in order aid understanding.
Let me look at some examples. The first is the American Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg which has undergone a programme of what has been termed rehabilitation. A look at the programme highlights that it includes elements of all the above categories. Restoration works has seen the removal of lots of 20th century intrusions such as buildings and car parks, as well as non-period vegetation that had encroached on the battlefield since the battle. Recreation sees the replanting of vegetation appropriate to the period, and alongside, preservation work has ensured that those authentic elements of the battlefield remain in place.
The underlying purpose of this project has been to:
‘…restore the Gettysburg Battlefield’s historic integrity, to enhance visitors’ understanding of and appreciation for what happened here, and to help create a sustainable environment by improving wetlands, water quality and wildlife habitat…’.
To guide what was required to make the battlefield more understandable, an analytical process called KOCOA has been used. This means:
Key Terrain includes those areas that were seized, retained or controlled in battle.
Observation includes signal stations and fields of fire.
Cover and Concealment includes stone walls, woods, ridges and other features offering visual protection.
Obstacles include fences, buildings and field fortifications that affected military movement.
Avenues of Approach are the roads, farm lanes and open fields that led to the enemy.
By identifying these important locations on the battlefield the necessary action could then be taken to ensure the landscape presented to visitors was increasingly returned to, as near as possible, that present during the battle. This allows the visitor to understand the all important impact of the terrain on the conduct of the battle and to ‘feel’ the battlefield. The images below are just one example of where this work has been completed.
Gettysburg is not the only American Civil War battlefield going through this process and very recently similar plans have been implemented at the battlefield of Franklin (30 November 1864).
Another location that has been through a similar process in recent years, and one close to my heart, is Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England. The location of the Government Code and Cypher School in the Second World War, Bletchley Park produced vital intelligence, the value of which had a profound impact on the conduct of the Second World War.
The site has been through a major restoration project during which the wartime huts in which vital codebreaking work was conducted were restored to their wartime appearance, and the landscape around them returned to its 1940s feel. Prior to this project the huts were in an appalling state of repair and close to being lost. The rationale employed by the Bletchley Park Trust in restoring them was firstly to stop them falling down, and by all accounts this was very close to happening. But rather than just preserving crumbling wooden huts, they were restored and made accessible to the public with audio-visual interpretation and set dressing in order to allow visitors to understand and experience the rudimentary conditions under which the difficult cerebral work of Bletchey Park’s wartime codebreakers was conducted.
A similar logic was applied to the landscape of the site which had been encroached upon by modern car parks. These were removed and the wartime landscape recreated, as can be seen in the pictures below, not only capturing the wartime feel but also providing much better space for visitors to enjoy.
The two examples I have cited above have been largely about the restoration of buildings and landscape in order to evoke a particular period. There is of course equally strong merit in just preserving sites and buildings, be it for their architectural value or because the cost of doing anything more would be prohibitive. Many a ruined castle would fall in this latter category where their reduction to ruins happened so long ago that the cost involved would be enormous. Equally in a ruined castle it is relatively easy to interpret the story and purpose of the building for a visitor, perhaps negating any more intrusive restoration.
Recreating lost buildings and places from scratch also has its place. Obvious, and timely, examples are the replica trench systems that have been dug in a number of locations in the UK (and abroad) to tie up with the First World War Centenary. These include the Coltman Trench at the Staffordshire Regiment Museum in Lichfield, and the Digging in project in Glasgow. In these cases replica trench systems allow students and visitors to experience the physical surroundings of the trenches, which is difficult to do on the actual battlefields where most of the original trenches have long since disappeared.
Debates about the merits of preserving a heritage site versus the more radical approach of restoration, or rehabilitation as undertaken at Gettysburg, will, I have no doubt, continue to occur in many different guises in the future. And the arguments either way are rarely likely to be clear-cut. What I have tried to suggest above is that at some heritage sites the careful restoration, and in some cases selected recreation of spaces, places and buildings, can provide a greater insight into the importance of a place. In doing so the aim should always be to engage a visitor, and/or an inquiring mind. If this can be achieved through careful and sympathetic restoration, then it is probably much better to follow this path than leaving derelict buildings preserved in aspic to attempt to talk for themselves!
One of the challenges facing anyone running a heritage site is how to interpret, or explain, the site to visitors. The aim is alway to impart information in a manner that engages, educates and entertains them. I deliberatly use the term heritage site here, as I am primarily envisaging large spaces, usually outdoors, rather than the more controlled environment of an indoor museum, where technology, immersive audio-visual techniques, and traditional graphic panels can be used in large quantities. On such heritage sites the interpretation may have to bring to life a building, some ruins, archaeological remnants or an empty field that was once a bloody battlefield. In this blog post I want to explore some of the methods that can be, and are being, used to do this.
The key to any such interpretation is to present a balanced blend of accurate historical facts, an understanding of the place being interpreted and engaging storytelling. These days there is a range of ways in which this can be done that go well beyond the humble, but still much loved, guidebook.
For many years the tried and trusted interpretive board has been a good start. The image below shows one of a set located on the English Civil War battlefield of Naseby (14 June 1645) in Northamptonshire. This board has all the essentials. A couple of maps to show the course of the battle, some images to show the sort of troops fighting the battle, a narrative and in this case a very useful panoramic photograph to help the viewer relate to the ground they are observing. Indeed this board, and its compatriots elsewhere on the site, do an extremely good job in providing the visitor with an understanding of the battlefield. They are also supplemented by some resources on the Naseby website to help orientate the visitor before they arrive.
The image below is an interpretive board at Bletchley Park that has to do a little less in the way of interpretation than the Naseby one, as it is sited in an already well-interpreted heritage site. But through the use of wartime pictures and quotes from veterans, an empty space within the site can be brought to life for the visitor.
Such interpretive panels of course have their limitations. They are inanimate, they can be damaged and they can’t answer questions posed by the visitor! Therefore for the many people there is probably nothing that beats a human interaction to bring a place to life. Indeed the less physical interpretation there is on a site the more this will tend to be so. A human guide has some obvious advantages over a static board. She/he can interact with the audience, understand their needs, answer their questions and provide a more bespoke experience. Today human guides are employed in a raft of heritage sites and by numerous organisations. These range from stately homes and heritage sites that have their own teams, to peripatetic battlefield guides taking groups of visitors on tours to sites around the world.
But is all cases the key to delivering high quality guiding is to have a good and effective training or development programme. Most sites using guides have their own and organisations such as Britain’s ‘Blue Badge Guides‘ provide training programmes for multi-site guides, whilst the International Guild of Battlefield Guides provides a validation process to set a quality standard for battlefield guides.
One of the best guide training programmes I have come across is the Gettyburg Licensed Battlefield Guides training programme. Why is this? Well first of all it has a very demanding four-stage selection process. A Written Examination is followed by a Panel Interview, then a Mandatory Information and Orientation Programme, and finally an Oral Battlefield Examination. Quite a few hoops to jump through before becoming qualified, and the end result is a high quality cadre of well-respected guides. But to me the most interesting thing about this programme is the underlying philosophy. Even before entering its selection process candidates are asked to answer a very important question. Is guiding for you? In particular they are asked to consider a set of more detailed questions:
Do you love to teach? Are you a storyteller? Are you an extemporaneous speaker? Are you a simplifier? Do you love people? Are you comfortable speaking to groups? Are you flexible? Are you patient? Are you humble?
A very quick analysis of this list will reveal that, and it should come as no surprise to any high quality guide, the key attribute needed is to place ones audience at the centre of things. Unfortunately this sort of focus is not always evident in some guides. Standing in front of an audience and interpreting a place or a battlefield requires self-confidence and a strong element of showmanship, traits that can be at odds with the humility and visitor focus outlined above. Sometimes the ego takes over and the guide becomes the end in itself, rather than a vehicle to interpret the place for the visitor.
Another challenge with human guides is quality control. The guide has to walk a fine line between being an historian and a storyteller. No one is going to stand for a hour on guided tour if the guide is not engaging and entertaining. But this should not mean that the guide lets the truth get in the way of telling a good story! I have been to guided tours in more than one location where myths have been more prevalent than reality. This therefore requires that the training programme must have a validation or quality control element to it. Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti human guides – far from it I’m one myself! But the limitations and issues highlighted above must be considered when they are used. And there is one other significant limitation to a human guide and that is that they are not always available! But these days technology is on hand to help with this particular problem.
Today, with a smartphone in many pockets, there has been a huge growth in app technology to assist the heritage visitor. These come in a variety of shapes and guises, but all have some overarching benefits to those trying to understand a price of heritage or those trying to interpret it. These benefits are principally the ability to provide consistent, accurate, high-quality and repeatable content. As a user you can be delivered hours of quality material on a handheld device which can be explored at ones own pace, both at the site being visited, or at leisure in ones hotel room or at home. For the interpreter, visitors can be provided with a whole raft of content, using a range of media and with a consistent standard of delivery to every visitor, so quality control is never an issue.
By way of a very good example of this genre, I would highlight the United States’ Civil War Trust’s Battle Apps® Guides series of guides to some of the key battles of the American Civil War. The screenshot above is taken from the app for the First Battle of Bull Run (21 July 1861). As can be seen the quality of the mapping is excellent and activating buttons marking stops and places additional content is exposed, as cab be seen in the screenshot below.
As mentioned earlier this technology also allows the embedding of a whole range of static and dynamic media, from contemporary photographs and maps, to sound clips and video. The example below, taken from the Bull Run app and featuring Civil War Trust’s Director of History and Education Garry Adelmen, demonstrates how a visitor can almost have the best of both worlds. A human guide recorded talking about a location, with the flexibility of having the information to take away on their own portable device!
This technological approach is of course not without its limitations too. At the moment it can’t answer a question from a visitor in the way a human guide can. There are also technical issues in the form of battery life and the need to download some content which might be difficult on a remote site without data connectivity. But as a mass method of providing interpretation there is much benefit in this approach. In the future I suspect that other technologies will emerge to enhance this form of interpretation. For example the potential to use wearable technology, such as a Google Glass style device, integrated with interpretation. There are teething problems to resolve in this area, but the possibilities are very exciting.
To conclude I have looked at a number of different methods of interpreting heritage sites. None should be looked at in isolation and there is great value to the visitor of a heritage site in having a layered approach that uses some or all of the methods highlighted. This gives the visitor choice and variety, and a range of opportunities for them to engage with the site, be educated by it, and have an entertaining day out.