Noah Crawford is a second year history graduate student. He graduated from Christopher Newport University with bachelor’s degrees in history and American studies. His research interests include the American Civil War and early American history. Specifically, he is interested in refugee studies as it relates to the Civil War. This summer, he had the opportunity to intern at Appomattox Court House National Historic Site in Appomattox, Virginia.
- Explain why you said “yes” to this particular internship. Why did this particular opportunity make sense for you in light of your research interests, career goals, the skills you already have, and even your personality?
An internship at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park was the perfect opportunity for me to develop my ability to interpret sites with both military history and social history significance. My primary area of interest during my undergraduate years was the military history of the American Civil War. I pored over historic maps, soldiers’ diaries, and the dry, matter-of-fact writing that typifies officers’ post-battle reports. As interesting—and important—as such sources are for understanding history, I realized that focusing exclusively on military events of the war years inadvertently omitted vast swaths of people and how they experienced the early 1860s. The Civil War affected everyone in the country to some extent, and this becomes especially evident when I began reading accounts of people who were displaced by the military campaigns I had read about for years. The destruction of lives did not occur only on the battlefield, but at nearly every point through which armies passed during an active campaign as noncombatants’ livestock and crops were taken and their homes damaged or demolished.
My masters thesis seeks to deconstruct the perennial habit of Civil War historians to relegate noncombatants to the realm of social history rather than as an integral part of the war’s military history. Likewise, it intends to illustrate the heavy influence that these noncombatants exerted on the military situations around them and how social history and military history can supplement each other in vibrant and meaningful ways. Few sites better embody a relationship between social history and military history than Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. Although one of the most important events in the military history of the Civil War occurred on the site, the history of Appomattox Court House and its inhabitants did not begin or end in April of 1865. The village of Appomattox Court House and its 19th century residents receives excellent interpretation and utilizes civilian experiences extensively to present a more holistic understanding of what life was like in Civil War America.
Although initially offered the opportunity to reside in a house owned by the Park Service for the duration of the internship, concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated that the internship be changed to a virtual one. Although I was initially disappointed, the virtual internship experience yielded a project that developed and honed valuable skills in historical interpretation which I previously lacked. My primary task was to create educational videos about various sites around the park, which meant I had to learn how to use video recording equipment and video editing software. My secondary task was to compile basic information on individual soldiers who fought at Appomattox Court House. The information about each soldier will be given to individual guests at future living history events at the park to help guests better connect with and understand the experiences of soldiers during the war. Thus my internship blended my familiarity with military records with multimedia opportunities I previously had not tried.
2. Present and analyze a primary source or object you’ve found that visitors or the public should know about. How did you find it, why did it resonate with you, why is it important beyond the site? This is basically a chance for you to explain why the work you’re doing is important.
In attempting to be concise, historical scholarship often relies on quantification of human experiences—that is, the lives and stories of many people are generalized to form a single “body” for narrative purposes. Military historians, especially, rely on this technique. “The 20th Maine Infantry Regiment,” a military history might read, “fielded 386 soldiers when it rushed onto the battlefield at Gettysburg.” For the rest of the narrative, these 386 individuals are defined collectively as the 20th Maine Regiment. Oftentimes, the regiment is given almost anthropomorphic qualities: it might “hurl itself” forward or “stagger backwards.” Obviously, such a manner of writing about a group of soldiers serves simply to provide the author to speak broadly of how several hundred soldiers experienced the battle. But in assigning human qualities to a group rather than the individuals in that group, the humanity and individuality of those 386 soldiers can become superseded or obscured. Rather than being seen as individuals experiencing all varieties of thoughts and emotions, soldiers are seen as numbers on a page or lines on a map.
Working on the aforementioned “soldier card project” provided me with the most cliché of all clichés–in trying to educate others, I educated myself. The park hopes that providing a more personal view of the soldiers who fought at Appomattox—where they were born, what they looked like, their occupation, their lives after the war—will encourage guests to understand the soldiers more meaningfully, which, in turn, will help them better understand the era in which those soldiers lived. As I combed through the park’s extensive records on the soldiers who fought at Appomattox, the battle and subsequent surrender became more comprehensible events. The 155th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment was no longer a blue line on a map southwest of the village; it was Private William Montgomery, 19years old, a laborer in his hometown of Pittsburgh’s steel mills, brown-eyed, brown-haired, 5 feet 6 inches tall and 115 pounds. Of all the primary sources, the most striking were (of course) the photographs of the soldiers. Government records often lend little insight into how a soldier felt or experienced life in the army; these photographs allow you to better understand what they were thinking and feeling, as clearly as if you observed their demeanor while crossing paths on a sidewalk. You can see it in their faces: “green” soldiers in their new uniform, full of pride and excitement; tight-lipped wounded soldiers exuding sadness, pain, defiance, or fear.
The case of Hiram W. Williams, 198th Pennsylvania Infantry, drew my particular attention. The 24-year old former printer was wounded in both feet just minutes before the ceasefire went into effect on April 9, 1865. He lost his left foot to amputation and was not discharged until October; the war had officially been over for 6 months when Williams finally arrived back home. His experience with the effects of war did not end at Appomattox in April of 1865 or with his discharge from the hospital in October. Williams tried to work as a wheelwright in Chester, Pennsylvania, in the following years, but his wounds plagued him and became inflamed. In 1909—44 years after he was wounded—he underwent surgery on his wounded legs to reduce the swelling, but the wounds he received on the war’s final day caused him discomfort until his death in 1925 at the age of 84.
The story of Hiram Williams has never been published in a historical monograph; he is remembered not by name, but as one of 700 soldiers who fell killed or wounded in the final hours of the war at Appomattox. But Williams’ story did not end at Appomattox. Two decades after his wounding, he married and started a family. Despite his terrible injury, he constructed hundreds of wheels that served hundreds of people in the decades after the war. What primary sources such as those in Williams’ file remind us is that the war comprised four very important years of these soldiers’ lives, but it was not their only years. When we use these primary sources, we begin to see the lives of soldiers outside the years 1861 to 1865, which offers us, in some small way, to better understand the 19th century more broadly.
4.) What experiences or advice can you share about keeping up good work or adjusting when it gets discouraging and hard?
Undoubtedly, the most important thing to remember when work on an internship gets difficult is to understand the work you do is valuable. You don’t have to be making a revolutionary breakthrough in constructing a new methodological approach to history to be contributing to the field. Public history internships are fantastic for getting young historians into meaningful projects that can have far-reaching impacts. It sometimes takes a lot of time and effort, but something as simple as compiling information for a spreadsheet or helping with a small task is a part in making the organization at large carry out its mission.
Secondly, communication is key. It sounds obvious, but it is especially important as an intern to be clear and deliberate in communication with peers and superiors, since you do not have a lot of time to build chemistry and figure out how you work together. Being sincere and honest, especially with mistakes or errors on your part, is a big piece of communication in this setting.
Finally, if you feel yourself getting discouraged, try to find some joy in unexpected places. By the very nature of the topic, dealing with Civil War documents can become demoralizing. As such, I made sure not to overlook documents that are on the “lighter side.” The aforementioned William Montgomery, for example, wrote a number of letters to his mother in which he cracked jokes; skimming through such letters was always a breath of fresh air. Finding a spot outdoors at or near the internship site is also beneficial. Appomattox is a solid 30 minutes from the nearest urban area, and a simple walk around the quiet park can be refreshing.
Overall, remembering the value of your work, communicating with your coworkers, and finding things that buoy your spirits are three important things that I have found kept me on track during my public history internship.