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A National Park Service Living-History Volunteer's Story

By Neal West 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: July 15, 2011 
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Henry Hill at Manassas National Battlefield Park. Across America, volunteers help the Park Service provide visitors with more enjoyable and immersive experiences. Photo by Neal West.
Henry Hill at Manassas National Battlefield Park. Across America, volunteers help the Park Service provide visitors with more enjoyable and immersive experiences. Photo by Neal West.

As America observes the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the staff of National Battlefield Parks are gearing up for the expected increase in visitation. Working with National Park Service employees are the volunteers who, year in and year out, willingly give of their time to assist with tasks ranging from maintenance to living history programs. HistoryNet asked one such volunteer, Neal West, who can often be found at the Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia, to tell our readers about his experiences as a volunteer at a Civil War–site park.

The National Park Service and the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission will sponsor four days of special events July 21–24, 2011, in observance of the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas/Bull Run. On Sunday the 24th, C-SPAN3's American History TV will broadcast some of the weekend's presentations, including a taped edition of Thursday's opening ceremony. Check the American History TV Website for updates.

The Department of the Interior's National Park Service manages almost 400 national parks throughout the United States. The Park Service employs over 21,000 full-time and seasonal workers to manage and preserve these 8.3 million acres of public lands. Additionally, in 1969, Congress authorized the formation of the Volunteers-in-Parks (VIP) program in order to allow the public to serve in the nation's National Parks. As of 2008, 172,000 volunteers have donated 5.5 million hours of their time providing support and skills for the enhancement and protection of America's almost 400 parks.

Volunteers-in-Parks perform a variety of support functions that help relieve the burden on full-time NPS employees. Some of their activities include:

  • Working at an information desk answering visitor questions
  • Presenting living history demonstrations in period costume
  • Building fences, painting buildings, and making cabinets
  • Giving guided nature walks and evening campfire programs
  • Assisting with preservation of museum artifacts
  • Maintaining trails and building boardwalks
  • Designing computer programs or park websites
  • Serving on a bike, horseback, or beach patrol

Neal West portraying a Confederate volunteer from Georgia. Click to enlarge.
Neal West portraying a Confederate volunteer from Georgia. Click to enlarge.
Since 2004, I have been one of those volunteers at Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia, a Civil War site about 25 miles west of Washington D.C. I present Civil War living history impressions and historic weapons demonstrations, usually during the prime visitation months in the spring and summer but also at special occasions throughout the year such as the 150th anniversaries of the battles of Bull Run/Manassas, in July of 2011 and August 2012.

The hills and fields outside Manassas were the scene of the Civil War's first major confrontation between Union and Confederate armies on July 21, 1861. Called the Battle of Manassas by Southerners and Bull Run in the North, it was a relatively minor affair compared to later battles. But its casualty toll of almost 5,000 killed and wounded came as a shock to a nation innocent of the realities of mid-19th-century warfare. A much larger battle (known as the Second Battle of Manassas/Bull Run) fought over much of the same ground 13 months later cost over 13,000 casualties. Both ended in Union routs when Confederate reinforcements arrived on the Federals' flank.

The contingent of living history volunteers at Manassas National Battlefield Park today tries to give the park's 900,000 annual visitors a short glimpse into that past reality.

The park's size—over 5,000 acres—along with its two battles, gives volunteers a cornucopia of different stories to tell. Over the years, I have portrayed historical figures, such as Major General John Pope, the Union commander at Second Manassas, as well as fictional composites of participants of each battle—both Yankee and Rebel. While I had several ancestors from Georgia who fought at Manassas, I choose to remember their opponents as well as my kin because, while their respective causes were morally opposite, their bravery was equal. While I do impressions of both Yankee and Rebel infantrymen, other members of "Manassas' Own" only do Northern or Southern impressions depending on their interests. The one time we get together as a group is to serve the park's "Parrott gun," a replica of the Civil War field artillery piece that was designed by Robert P. Parrott.

Neal West portraying a Union volunteer. Click to enlarge.
Neal West portraying a Union volunteer. Click to enlarge.
My infantry impressions are usually done solo at one of the battlefield's two visitor centers; one on Henry Hill (where Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson received his nom de guerre during First Manassas) or at Brawner Farm, where the first shots of Second Manassas were heard. At either location, my preparation is the same. I first put on cotton underdrawers and then either an army issue (Union) or civilian (Confederate) cotton shirt. If I am Union that day, I will don blue wool "trowsers" and a "sack coat" of blue wool. Confederate trowsers are of a coarser jean cloth (wool/cotton blend) and I wear them with a butternut-colored wool jacket.

Next come the accoutrements: a leather or canvas strap slung over the left shoulder and crossing the chest with an attached cartridge box resting on the right hip; a leather waist belt, with percussion-cap box, bayonet and scabbard, above the cartridge box to keep it from bouncing around; over the right shoulder and resting on the left hip is a 1–1 ½-quart tin or wooden canteen of water and a haversack. The haversack a sort of soldier's satchel that contains his personal belongings including food, tobacco, eating utensils, playing cards, harmonica, books, newspaper, shaving gear, prayer book, soap, sewing kit (called a "housewife"), and other assorted items subject to the soldier's whim. Items too big to fit in the haversack—tent halves, extra clothes, etc.—are carried in a knapsack (backpack) or, more commonly, wrapped up in a blanket/poncho and worn over the left shoulder. To top off the impression, literally, is period headgear such as a French-style kepi or the more commonly worn American slouch hat. Finally, I'll shoulder a reproduction smoothbore or rifled musket to complete the impression. In all, the Civil War soldier (and his modern counterpart) carries about 45 pounds of gear. The park carries a small supply of uniforms for volunteer use, but it is rare to find a good fit, especially with shoes and headgear, so most of us pay for our kits out of pocket, purchasing from the various "sutlers" found online.

Once at the park, it's show time and the most rewarding part of the volunteer experience—interacting with the visitors. Living historians and re-enactors use similar methods and have similar motivations. Indeed, the two terms are interchangeable, and some re-enactors are also living history volunteers at parks, but I believe there are also differences. Re-enactors primarily participate solely with organized re-enactment units, the ones you will see at full-scale battle re-enactments. Battlefield living historians at national parks provide more one-on-one experiences: leading tours, demonstrating historic weapons, and generally providing visitors with a more intimate impression of 19th-century military life. As noted, there are exceptions and some living historians also belong to re-enactment units and vice versa. The differences lie more in the degree of interaction with the public.

Visitors to national parks come in many ages, races, sexes, and cultures. They come from California, Ohio, and Maine as well as Germany, Great Britain, and Japan. Each visits for his or her own deeply personal reasons. Some are motivated to visit in order to walk where an ancestor tread, to satisfy a school assignment, or just to hike the many park trails. Volunteers-in-Parks (VIPs), with help and training from the National Park Service, try to discover the visitor's motivation and tailor their interpretations to satisfy that motivation.

Some visitors are Civil War buffs and know as much, if not more, about a particular unit or action, than the volunteer does. The buff wants to hear about tactics, units, casualties, generals, and personalities. Students and younger people are curious about the weapons, how they were loaded, how much they weigh (over 10 pounds), their range, accuracy, and so on. Others, mostly women, are interested in learning about the uniforms and the accoutrements (the most common question: "Wool uniforms in July, aren't you hot in that?" The answer is yes—very). Older visitors often come to reconnect with their family tree and to look up information on ancestors. A few are curious about the people who lived on the battlefield before and after the battles or the history of the historic buildings in the park. Still others ask about the types of flora and fauna found in the park.

Here lies the primary difference between battle re-enactors and VIP living historians. Civil War re-enactors immerse themselves in the history of the unit they are recreating and the Civil War in general. National Park volunteers have to know their chosen impression as well as local history (pre– and post–Civil War), architecture, biology, preservation, conservation, geology, park history and rules, fees, or location of trails. We also get asked, "Is there a good place to eat nearby," or "How do I get to Antietam/ Gettysburg/Fredericksburg from here?" It sounds corny, but the variety of questions does indeed match the variety of visitors!

Being a volunteer on a National Battlefield is a tremendously rewarding experience. At times I cannot quite believe that the government actually allows us to do what we do and not have to pay for the privilege! Volunteers all feel a tangible link between themselves, their park and the mission of preservation and remembrance. This is especially poignant during the years 2011–2015 as we memorialize the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Some Manassas Rangers and volunteers will put in 10-to-12 hour days to accommodate the tens of thousands of visitors anticipated. However, there are advantages: we get our pictures taken a lot and often show up in regional newspapers or in family photo albums. But when people nod and say, "Thanks for doing this," we forget about our sore backs and the sweat pouring off us. Best of all is the light in the eyes of the boys and girls seeing characters standing in front of them in living color, as if we have just stepped out of a cracked and faded photograph.

Weider History Group salutes all the National Park Service volunteers who do so much to enhance visitors' experiences within America's National Parks.

About the author:
Neal West lives in Southern Maryland and is a retired USAF E-7 and continues to serve as a USAF civilian. He is working on a Master's Degree in Military History with a concentration on the Civil War, in addition to his volunteer work with the National Park Service. When he is firmly in the 21st century, he sometimes writes book reviews such his recent one on Guns of the Civil War, which appears on HistoryNet's partner site, ArmchairGeneral.com.


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4 Responses to “A National Park Service Living-History Volunteer's Story”


  1. 1
    Linda says:

    A very nice job of clarifying the differences and similarities between us reenactors and living historians.

  2. 2

    [...] War 150th anniversary events at Manassas and Arlington National Cemetery. Read his article about life as an NPS volunteer, on our partner site, [...]

  3. 3
    Mark Frantz says:

    "At times I cannot quite believe that the government actually allows us to do what we do and not have to pay for the privilege!"

    I loved that line. I do wonder once a while why some people have money for plastic surgery while some don't even have for their meals each day. It's saddening to think that the government does take some things for granted at times, but I do think their not always the one to blame.

    I wish I had that get-up though my friend Neal, seems very nifty!

    Regards,
    Mark

    • 3.1
      Palmer says:

      I agree with you Linda. This is indeed a very useful post. Thanks to the author for this very interesting and informative post.



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