It was a beautiful summer day last Sunday and I took the family to Antietam battlefield to see some blue skies, cornfields, and monuments. As a former infantryman and (Korean) battlefield tour guide, I explained nothing and said very little. I hate battlefields dressed up as public parks, but I like public parks very much when taken on their own merits.
As we meandered, we crossed paths with a tour group; they were as passive and as relaxed as we were but with enough spark in them to have enlisted a tour guide to inform them of this and that. This park historian, absurdly costumed like a Smokey-the-Bear forest-fire species-protecting give-me-those-matches ranger, was being a good guide. Her energy level was at least two notches above the crowd’s. She was well spoken and she was shouting:
“The irony, the greatest irony of this entire battle was that these Dunkers, who were pacifists, who were abolitionists, who were prohibitionists, lost their church in this battle…”
The poor thing, no doubt an avid reader of pop history, had made a pop history blunder. She had substituted a literary effect for historic truth. The battle was not fought on a Sunday, there were no Dunkers in the church to reap any irony, and no one seems to have checked in with the congregation after the fact to find out how they felt about damage suffered by their precious real estate during an invasion of rebellious slaveholders. Did they have an irony attack? Did they lament the defeat of vile treason at the cost of a church? Did they gripe about lower property values? And, in the scale of historical significance, do the Dunkers’ feelings merit one whit of consideration?
If you want to make false history, project assumptions and then reactions to assumptions. Dress up some nice piece of symbolism in irony. Stage a literary effect. Take the historic meaning of an event and park it under the shade of metaphor, under wordplay, painted with literary effects and analogy. Have a good time. At least you’re in a park, where good times are authorized. Given the high literary quality of today’s Civil War histories, you’ve followed the leaders.
As long as the public understands that historical truth is subject to literary technique, this park ranger will represent history at its best. She is an apt student of the here and now and she knows her audiences.
Given time and some luck, this may change. Imagine park historians doing real history; I'll give a real life example soon.