Developing a Battlefield Program
With Park Ranger Matt Atkinson
Park Rangers, historians, teachers, and battlefield guides all possess different manners of presentation while conducting tours and programs at sites such as Gettysburg National Military Park. Some specialize in educational outreach, making the past relevant and similar in the lives of young students. Others elaborate on tactics, maneuvers, and heroism for the military-minded park visitor. Meanwhile, some seek to instill ideals of civic engagement, active citizenship, and responsibility. All in all, the beauty of National Park Service programs is their diversity. One could take six Pickett’s Charge tours with six different rangers and receive six different stories completely unique. Today, we’ll be exploring some of the techniques and methods of Ranger Matt Atkinson. You are likely to remember if you have been on one of his tours, because his knowledge of the battle, his fondness of Robert E. Lee and all things Southern, and especially his humor are all traits that make him a memorable aspect of many a tourist’s Gettysburg experience. In the photo above, Matt illustrates one of the first steps of creating a battlefield program: surveying the battle site and planning the path of one’s tour (sometimes invoking the spirit of Shelby Foote with a prop pipe no less).
For proposed special programs such as anniversary Battlewalks or Hikes with a Ranger, the folks at Gettysburg usually have to first verify the feasibility and subject matter with Supervisory Historian Scott Hartwig. In this position, Scott is responsible for outlining interpretive programming for each season, writes the program schedules, coordinates tour guidelines, and a vast array of other duties (including writing for the official park blog). He also serves as one of the main speaking heads on park history and policy, showing up on the History Channel and such multiple times over the past years. Above, Matt discusses a potential new program with Scott.
After some brainstorming, Matt gets the thumbs up from Scott regarding a new Battlewalk. Now the research begins in earnest. In the park library (or “the Stacks”), there are not only thousands of books available for reference, but also several cabinets known as the Vertical Files (as seen above). Each drawer is categorized by state, regiment, or historical topic. A file exists for nearly every regiment–North or South–that fought at Gettysburg. Each folder includes copies of original letters, newspaper articles, or photos pertaining to each unit in the campaign. Also in the library is a large cabinet of large maps including those of historian John Bachelder, the U.S. War Department, and park officials. There are also film and music collections for program implementation. The collection is an unbelievable asset for rangers. But wait! You too can have access to this treasure trove of sources simply by calling the park and scheduling a research appointment.
Individual ranger supervisors often ask for a typed program outline before the tour is delivered to the general public. Once handed in and reviewed, supervisors will go over your program with you and discuss its strengths and weaknesses. After some possible revisions, you are now ready to present! Over time and with practice, you will continue to fine-tune your tour and present it with skill and hardly with any notes.
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Learn more on this topic from our recommended AP history review books.