Robert Kirby, Gettysburg Nation- al Military Park’s new superintendent, has worked at historic sites from San Francisco to Europe. He came to his new assignment on March 1, 2010, after nine years at Petersburg National Battlefield in Virginia.
Kirby fell in love with Petersburg because “the story was fabulous,” and “to a large degree Petersburg is the home of the Confederacy.” Realizing that the battlefield’s “resources were in desperate need of someone to help them get back on track” in 2001, he swung into action, hiring new staff members and holding about 60 public meetings. As a result, he notes, “We went from being a pariah in the community to one that people began seeing that through the park their heritage could be preserved.” Kirby—now 61— recently talked about how his experience has prepared him to become the chief steward of one of the nation’s most revered historical landmarks.
Your thoughts on the casino threat and debate over demolishing the old Cyclorama Center?
Every park you’re in, wherever you are, people—and this is a good thing—people take ownership in their parks. It’s tangible, one of those government things that the people can relate to. They are concerned about it, whether the issue is a casino, a cyclorama, whether it’s reenactors, a cell tower, whatever. I think I’m prepared to deal with those issues. We’ll take them on one case at a time.
What do you think about the Cyclorama building?
The building itself is architecturally quite interesting, but to me what’s more interesting is the cultural landscape. The park spent considerable time and effort in vetting with the public the idea that the cultural landscape is more important than the building. Nobody likes to destroy buildings, but sometimes you have to move them to facilitate what this place was established for in the first place. I think the Cyclorama Center is in an inappropriate location.
Are you going to continue the landscape restoration?
Yes. It’s been very well thought out, and we have to be careful so that we can sustain what we’ve done. If there’s any change, I may make sure that we can sustain what we’ve done before we take more bites.
Meaning you’ll maintain the grassland, for example?
Sure. If you take the trees out of an area and then don’t get back to mowing it or removing woody vegetation, they’ll come right back.
Are there differences in the local attitude between a park in Virginia or a park in Pennsylvania?
There are huge parallels between Petersburg and Gettysburg. The big difference is the scale—and the fact that we didn’t have a foundation. There are also some other distinct differences. Down in Petersburg the community is 80 percent African American; historically with the Civil War battlefield, its constituency was mostly white male enthusiasts, middle-aged and older, and generally the twain didn’t meet. Once when an education specialist was offering a program, I saw this black kid with his arms crossed and a dour look on his face, and I asked: “What’s wrong? Don’t you want to be here? And he said: “No, man. That’s his story.” That launched me into really making a focus on telling the story of the African-American involvement there. But most of the community could care less about the battlefield in Peters burg. There was not much passion. Here it’s everybody’s passion. People are wrapped up in what happens in Gettysburg. They take ownership, they have strong feelings about it. I’m finding this quite invigorating because for a long time I worked very hard down there to get enthusiasm that bubbles out of the doors around here.
You obviously did a lot in Petersburg. What do you really want to accomplish here?
At the top of my list is to make sure that we are meeting public expectations about the Sesquicentennial. That’s vitally important. The nation looks to us to do that right, and we’ve got to work with the community and a lot of players to see that happens.
How many different organizations do you have to coordinate with?
I’m still counting. There’s a Bureau of Gettysburg, Main Street Gettys – burg, the college, the seminary, the Steinwehr Avenue group, the friendships, several townships, the friends of the foundation, Adams County Historical Society….Because of the constraints the Park Service has on its websites, firewalls, etc., we’re not the big website in town for the Sesquicentennial—the Convention and Visitors Bureau folks are taking that on. We don’t have the resources or the where withal and cannot command local law enforcement to manage traffic and all the stuff that’s going to come, so they’re going to have to take on that piece. Because we don’t allow opposing fire on the battlefields for reenactors, that component is being done by another entity outside of town. So what we have here is a consortium of shared interests, and we need to figure out how we can have interoperability.
What is your take on Dan Sickles’ III Corps moving forward on July 2?
First off, I’m very careful not to proclaim myself a historian. I’m more of a park manager. When I reread the whole story of Sickles moving to the higher ground further out and Meade being angry, what went through my mind was its relevancy. I was thinking, This is a management lesson. And I’m always fascinated about how they got things done when they didn’t even have radios or decent communication. So I don’t judge—I try to learn from it.
What are your favorite places on the battlefield?
I’m in temporary quarters in the Codori House. What’s so interesting is that you begin feeling this relationship to the resource. So when I looked at the Cyclorama, my eye was drawn to where the Codori House was, and when I was rereading sections in the Trudeau book [Noah Andre Trudeau’s Gettys burg: A Testing of Courage], I was looking for the Codori House. It sets my frame of reference. I’m really in awe of the fact that Pickett’s Charge went right past the kitchen window. At night I get out on the trails. I’m discovering new things all the time.
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.