Garry Adelman's job is to bring Civil War history to life for those of us who only know it from black and white photographs in textbooks. Adelman, Director of History and Education at the Civil War Trust, Vice President of the Center for Civil War Photography, and a renowned battlefield tour guide, explains how he helps connect battlefield visitors to history.
As a longtime battlefield tour guide, I know that people can really connect with the past when they can see the actual place where an event occurred. Standing at Bull Run where Confederate General Thomas Jackson earned the nickname "Stonewall," or seeing the top hat Abraham Lincoln wore to the Ford's Theatre at the National Museum of American History, are unforgettable experiences that can bring history into the present. In my experience, nothing shrinks the passage of time for visitors quite like standing where historic photos were taken. When they can see in front of them the boulder, house, or tree in the photo, the past is suddenly closer. Now, with so much attention on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the past is closer for a lot more people.
Comparing past and present views of historic assets like battlefields, houses, and museum objects can be powerful. By adding this temporal element to our natural 3D vision, we deepen our experience. I most often hear people describe the experience as "cool" or "wow," but anyone who has done this stuff knows that there is something else going on. This expanded, temporal experience is, to me, a fourth dimension. The entertainment industry has put considerable effort into convincing its customers that elements like vibrating seats, indoor snow, and smells pumped into theaters somehow open a "fourth dimension," but as cool as those things may be, a vibrating seat is not a new dimension.
So what can people interested in history do to have a 4D experience, especially during this Civil War sesquicentennial?
One simple way is to look at famous Civil War leaders' uniforms right next to historic photos of their owners in them, which helps bring these figures to life. The National Museum of American History has uniforms from George McClellan, David Farragut, and John Mosby on display in the Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibition.
If you are visiting a historic site, read an account of something that happened there; learn about the events that occurred right where you are standing. Interpreters can explain what happened at certain spots on a battlefield and help you get as close to an event as possible. You can align a battlefield photograph with what you see in front of you and see what the photographer saw.
Most Civil War photographs were shot in stereographic format, the 19th century equivalent of 3D. You can compare old and new 3D images of the same place and view them together in a then and now format. The Center for Civil War Photography and the Civil War Trust have made many 3D photographs available online for those who have red/blue 3D glasses. (Enthusiasts may request a free pair from the Civil War Trust here.)
As a battlefield guide, I have seen an array of emotions when people engage with the fourth dimension on battlefields. Some people are entirely unaffected, but I have seen others cry, lash out, pass out, or stand dumbfounded at the overwhelming reality of a scene connected to temporal assets. I have seen hundreds of people satisfy their desire to lay down where dead soldiers were photographed, and even among these visitors, the range is broad—some find it amusing while others seem to achieve some sort of transcendental experience.
Call it 4D or call it something else, experiences like these can open up windows of understanding into what the past was really like. If you are remotely curious about history, I recommend that you visit the sites where history happened and foster personal experiences to help you better understand the past.
Experience the Civil War in 2D with the new book, Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection, which features objects from across the Institution. The book may be purchased online or in the museum store. Garry Adelman is Director of History and Education at the Civil War Trust and Vice President of the Center for Civil War Photography.