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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).

Matt poses. . . err, plans programs while he is off duty as well.  It’s always a plus to be passionate about the subject matter of your tours.  Accordingly, historians often spend a fair amount of time in the field to have a better understanding of their topic.  Having a sense of the terrain and comprehending the physical (not to mention psychological) obstacles Civil War soldiers faced will allow you to sharpen your tour in many respects.  Here, Matt stands at the peak of Little Round Top and points past the 155th Pennsylvania Infantry monument into the Valley of Death.

In-depth research in the park archives and library is often the next step in the process.  Many refer to the War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies also known as “the ORs.”  Filled with primary sources of first hand battle accounts and correspondence by officers, generals, and politicians of the war era, the collection is a fantastic resource.  Published between 1881 and 1901, the set includes 128 books.  They include after action reports, telegrams, letters, and other very useful material.  While Matt likes to head down to the park reading room and browse the indices for his research material, I prefer browsing the ORs online at sites like Cornell University’s Making of America Library collections.  Photo courtesy of Bibliopolis.

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.

 
Rangers offer tours not only to members of the general public, but also training for new park interns and seasonal staff.  Here, Matt discusses the uses of artillery near the Abraham Bryan Farm on Cemetery Ridge to a group of new colleagues.  Perhaps the best resource a park ranger has available to them is their co-workers, many of whom have worked for the NPS for twenty or thirty years.  Their experiences and knowledge is something not to be underestimated.
Finally, rangers assist and collaborate with other parks as well.  In July 2011, Matt helped out at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of First Manassas (in the oppressive heat).  Although there are 400 National Parks across the country, the NPS is a close-knit community.  Because rangers often work at multiple parks before they settle down, they know a wide spectrum of other rangers nationwide, each with their own methods of planning and assisting with programs to make your visit memorable.  Make use of and support your parks.  Enjoy not only their scenic vistas and history, but all the exciting and interactive opportunities to experience therein–including Battlefield Programs.

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Learn more on this topic from our recommended AP history review books.

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