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Thoughts on History

As we were preparing this issue of American History, which includes on page 16 an article by Mark Dunkelman about Amos Humiston, a Union soldier who died during the Battle of Gettysburg, leaving a wife and three small children behind, we received a letter from a reader named Anna Pansini, which struck a chord. Ms. Pansini wrote that she was outraged over a television commercial being aired by the Disney company, in which children are told by their parents that they will be visiting all the Civil War battlefields during the family’s vacation this year. The youngsters are distraught until the parents reveal that they were only joking; they would be heading instead for a Disney attraction. Now the children are jubilant, the clear inference being that the battlefields would have been boring, not something a couple of kids would want to endure.

I have to say that my reaction on seeing that commercial mirrored Ms. Pansini’s, not only because I have spent my whole adult life working in the history field and firmly believe that such a trip would be both enjoyable and beneficial, but because as a child, I so looked forward to the regular excursions my mother and I made to the various museums and historic attractions in New York City. My own sons, since my husband also was in the “history business,” spent much of their childhoods–including most of their vacation trips–in and around historic sites. If we had told them that we were planning to visit every Civil War battlefield, they would have been overjoyed.

So, I know from experience that it is possible for children to look forward to such holidays. Moreover, I firmly believe that young people need to visit such places. In her letter, Ms. Pansini aptly quotes Maine’s Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who became more widely known a few years ago thanks to the movie Gettysburg. In 1889, on a return visit to the Pennsylvania battlefield, the hero of Little Round Top said: “On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger. . . . And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream. . . .”

There is a monument to Amos Humiston in Gettysburg, the only one among more than 1,300 on the battlefield erected to honor an individual enlisted man. Etched in the stone are the faces of his three children, taken from the photograph he was clutching when he died and which was used to identify his remains. It brings home Ms. Pansini’s reminder that the men who fought there, and in many cases died, were ordinary citizens “doing their duty–homesick, fighting disease and starvation, pushed to their physical limits, and witnessing the horrors of war–on a daily basis. . . . To them, we owe all we have.”

Visits to America’s battlefields, indeed to any of its historic sites, are not boring, and seeing firsthand the places associated with our history is to be preferred to viewing facsimiles in an amusement park. Why see the “Hall of Presidents” when you can visit the homes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Abraham Lincoln? Why take in make-believe “Mainstreet, U.S.A.,” when you can stand and wonder at the Anasazi ruins in Arizona and Colorado; tour Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia; walk the “Freedom Trail” in Boston; visit stops along the Underground Railroad in many different cities; or experience the impact of landing on Ellis Island in New York Harbor? These, not “Frontierland,” are our heritage. They, like the battlefields, as Ms. Pansini concludes, are “not the product of someone’s imagination, but the reality . . .” of what it took to make the United States one of the greatest nations in the world. Children should be taught to cherish, not disparage, them. *

Margaret Fortier is the editor of Women’s History and American History magazines and a historian with extensive experience in research and writing for historic sites and museums.