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The Future of the Past....

Perry Cuskey

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For as long as I can remember, my preferred way to visit a battlefield park has been on foot. If you really want to experience a battlefield park - not just see it but experience it - tramping around on foot is the only way to go. In the past my typical tramping gear would usually consist of me, my camera, my camera bag, and however many books, magazines, and snacks I could cram into the bag and into my pockets. The suddenly homeless camera would be slung over one shoulder with the over-stuffed camera bag slung over the other one. And off I'd go.

If it sounds a little nuts, it probably is. But it's also something else. Grand fun. Not many things I enjoy as much as tramping around a battlefield park with a few books, a magazine or two, my camera, and smushed granola bars. That to me qualifies as a good day.

Anymore though, it would probably also qualify as an "old school" way of visiting a battlefield park. At least, taking along actual books and/or magazines would be considered old school. Not that this will stop me from doing it you understand. At least sometimes, just for old habits' sake. But you're more likely anymore to find someone walking around a park pulling up something about the battle on their favorite portable electronic device instead of hauling a copy of the Official Records out of their camera bag. (They have no idea what fun they're missing, either. Especially when it's time to figure out how to put the book back in the bag.)

Truth be told though, this isn't really surprising. And it isn't really new. People have adapted to new ways to learn about and study history the same way they've learned to adapt to doing all sorts of things in new ways. Visiting a battlefield park, or just learning about the war itself, is no different.

Technology has changed, and continues to change, the way we learn about the war. And even the experience we can have when we visit sites that are related to the war, including many of the various battlefields. For instance, if you have a Kindle or similar e-reader, you can now walk around a battlefield with, quite literally, an entire Civil War library in your hand. Or in your camera bag for that matter. (And even have room left over for your camera. Happy days!)

And the difference isn't just limited to paper books transforming into electronic books. There are many other examples. Heck, the fact that you're reading this blog entry right now is an example of how technology is transforming the way we learn about the war. Thanks to the Internet we all now have access to information that, for decades, only history scholars typically could access. And often with the kind of ease that scholars from years past could only have dreamed about. Old books, maps, transcripts, reports, photographs, drawings.....if you're looking for it, chances are you can find it online somewhere. Some people call this an information revolution, but I think of it as being more of an information access revolution.

And if you want to visit a battlefield park but don't have the time to do so, well hey, you can do so anyway. Just head over to a site such as Google or Bing, pull up their astonishingly clear maps, and your birds-eye visit to your park of choice is underway. You can almost literally visit an entire park without ever setting foot in it, and without even leaving your home.

What would Douglas Southall Freeman and J.F.C. Fuller have thought about that?

And the technology continues to evolve, and change the way we learn. On some battlefields you can now download and use an app on your cellphone (if it's so equipped) to watch a video about the area of the battlefield you're visiting. Which I don't mind telling you, pretty much blows me away. Even if it's not quite the same as a book pulled out of your camera bag. No doubt such apps will become more popular and widespread in the pretty-darn-near future.

And in time, we will also no doubt see more interactive displays at visitors centers and even out in the parks themselves. Some day, you'll be able to walk out into the remotest part of the woods and ravines east of the Peach Orchard at Shiloh, and watch a complete interactive multimedia presentation about what took place around where you're standing, even beyond what the present-day apps can do. (Or around where you're sitting, if you get tired. Climbing up and down those ravines can wear you down a little. And require snacking on one or more smushed granola bars.)

Time was you would visit a battlefield park by taking a train or boat ride, or on horseback. Once there you would go out in the park on foot, horseback, or in a carriage. Sometimes, if you were lucky, you had an actual battle participant along who could give you a perspective that no future generations would ever be able to have. There were few if any park rangers, information pamplets, park maps, or numbered tour stops with explanitory tablets to help guide your visit, if you were on your own. Over time, the veterans began to thin out, and the way we arrived at and visited their former battlefields began to evolve. They evolve still, and will continue to do so.

Someday, perhaps, a student of the Civil War will be able to wander out into his or her favorite park, press a button on some kind of futuristic device, and be swept up in a three-dimensional experience the likes of which we can only now imagine. Or quite possibly, have that exact same experience just sitting at home.

Time often seems to be almost frozen in place to me when I visit a battlefield park. As if that little patch of ground has somehow been past by, and allowed to remain exactly as it was so many years ago. It's an illusion of course. Or at least, it's mostly an illusion, although not completely. But as timeless as the parks often seem, the way we experience them, as well as learn about them and from them, continues to change. History keeps right on marching into the future, and we're along for the ride.

But you'll forgive me if I bring my book-stuffed camera bag along, just for old times' sake. I love the new school gizmos, but deep down I'm still an old school kinda guy.

Perry



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