Friday, October 18, 2013

Ranger-led walks: Tramping down trails, seeking insight and avoiding poison ivy

NPS photo
Jim Ogden (above) and other staffers at Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park last month led 16 “real-time” walks during the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga in North Georgia. He estimates at least 1,000 people participated in the walks across the battlefield, timed to the hour and dates events occurred. The park historian, 54, spoke recently with the Civil War Picket about the tours.

Q. What were the walks like, given you led 14 groups and were hoarse by the last one?

A. I did roughly 22 hours of interpretation over two and a half days. We did not really do anything strenuous and did not cover that many miles. The poison ivy is an issue because it is the predominant force on the forest floor. The other issue in the woods and trails is that people get strung out, and you wait for people -- not unlike what a military commander had to do.

NPS photo
Q. Tell me about the people who took part.

A. I think the groups that we had were a cross of the entire spectrum. Some people were very knowledgeable about the Civil War in general, and this battle and campaign more specifically. They know the battle story pretty well and are probably capable of giving a tour of some depth in and of themselves. There were people this was their first introduction to the Battle of Chickamauga. You have to be constantly watching your group and seeing how you are engaging them. Seeing the looks on people’s faces and sense whether you are offering a little to everybody in the group.

Q. How do you handle comments from participants with more than a casual knowledge?

A. I don’t mind interjection. Usually, some folks can offer something from a different perspective or put it in a different way where someone can better connect. I really encourage it with military groups (staff rides), whether there is a more extended multi-person conversation. The primary thing is to have an enhanced awareness that something utterly important happened on this ground. That this is hallowed ground -- an event that helped shape our country in utterly significant ways happened here.

Civil War Picket photo
Q. Tell me about your approach on some walks?

A. On Snodgrass hill, (Union Col. Charles) Harker used it essentially as a parapet behind which to position and protect his troops. He advanced them to top, fired, withdrew, advanced. I illustrated that by moving back and forth over the crest of the spur. I don’t care if someone remembers all of Harker’s tactics. I want them to understand a really complex fight went on in. I hope they (tour participants) would think about how individual choice made an impact on the battlefield. I present a lot of what they (commanders) knows right now and the condition right now -- who knows what will happen in the future? When Longstreet orders four divisions forward at 11 a.m., by pure dumb luck three of those divisions strike the Union line exactly where a Union division is in the process of being replaced by another and thereby find the weak spot in the line. There are innumerable places that decisions made at higher and lower levels changed the course of the action.

Ranger Lee White leads tour at Snodgrass Hill (Picket photo)
Q. What about soldiers’ descendants who take part?

A.  On a daily basis we have a couple people who asked about the walks. I try to tell them which program would be the best relative to their particular interest. We had one family that were descendants of 17th Indiana mounted infantry with Wilder’s Brigade. I brought that role in a little more specifically than I might have otherwise.

Q. Are there times you don’t have a ready answer to a question?

A. I do get stumped sometimes. I hope this happens on a daily basis. This is a multimillion piece jigsaw puzzle. We no longer have the box or all the pieces. We only generally know that it is a nationally significantly battle. We don’t know what that picture looks like. Some pieces we may not be able to put into the picture because we don’t know how they fit into the section.

NPS photo
Q. What about the appearance of the battlefield, compared to 1863?

A. It is important to preserve, restore and maintain the scenes of some of this action. The pattern of fields and forests here is close, about 80% of the way that it was. Some fields are too large, others are no too small. Some are entirely grown up. When you zoom in, a lot of work stills to be done. The difference now is the nature of the forest, which in 1863 was a lot more open than it is today. Reasons include agriculture practices at the time where unfenced livestock ate vegetation. Second is the absence of fire. Today, fire is suppressed. The final part is the plants. Chinese privet was not here in 1863. It has increased dramatically since my first summer here in 1982. It is an utterly detrimental plant in the forest understory.

Q. Tell me about source material at the park?

A. I worked at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania. I did some archives research at Gettysburg. This park does not have as much as Gettysburg or Fredericksburg. They have larger staffs and acquired more material. But it is not just staffing. It is the interest of the staff member. They may look at a descendant’s letter. They should ask for a copy.

Q. Studies indicate the age of national park visitors is increasing. There also is a question of diversity at Civil War parks. Is that a concern?

A. The hump in the bell curve has been moving up further up the age spectrum. There are fewer younger people involved in history activities. The average age of re-enactor is getting older. My observation, having been raised by educators, is that about 40 or 50 years ago there was a change in the way that history was taught in the United States. Many are not given that background -- that spark of interest. The National Park Service is addressing this problem of reaching out. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, has an urban wildlife refuge initiative in which they are reaching out to urban populations.

Picket photo
Q. How does technology affect what you and the park do?

A. The NPS has a cell phone tour here. The Civil War Trust rolled out their Battle of Chickamauga animated map. What I am doing is old school. I am not opposed to putting in new technologies. The question is practicality. We have the ability to present maps and graphics by a smartphone or tablet. But that is hard to show to a large crowd. 

Q. In March, you will be part of a Georgia Battlefields Association tour in North Georgia. What do you aim for?

A. My goal is for folks to have a great appreciation of that site and this history when they finish. I am trying to improve that experience.

• Plan now: Special programs in November to mark 150th anniversary of Chattanooga battles

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