July 3, 2013, was one of the best days of my life. Not only did I get a job, but I also had one of my most meaningful experiences with history.
Kate Kunkel-Patterson ’13
I love history. Particularly the era of the American Civil War. The four-year conflict that divided the nation grabbed my attention and has not loosened its grasp since, which is why at Whitman, instead of studying abroad during my junior year, I participated in an off-campus Civil War-era studies program at Gettysburg College.
Being a recent graduate with a degree in history, people frequently ask me if I want to teach. “What will you do with your history degree?” That’s a fair question, and to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure I knew the answer until I learned about the opportunities the National Park Service has for public historians. Working as an interpretative ranger for the NPS would give me the chance to continue learning and researching historical topics, while simultaneously educating (some might even say teaching) the public about the lasting relevance and importance of the sites where Americans can find a common thread of history and culture.
The summer before my senior year, I worked for the NPS at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site right here in Walla Walla. I returned to the Whitman Mission after graduation to work for another summer, hoping to learn more while frantically applying for jobs in the NPS. My work at the Whitman Mission was interrupted by a long-awaited trip back to Gettysburg for the 150th anniversary of the battle.
I have spent a good chunk of my life in the tiny town of Gettysburg, Penn. When I pulled into Gettysburg on June 30 – the day before the 150th anniversary of the start of the battle – I hadn’t seen the beautifully tragic battlefield in more than a year and a half. My excitement as I pulled into town was replaced by a sense of completeness as soon as I got to the battlefield. It was as if a piece of me had fallen right back into place. As the anniversary events unfolded over the next three days, I went on many ranger-guided walks and talks, revisited special parts of the battlefield, and followed the progression of the battle where it happened 150 years before. In short, I absorbed and opened myself to the place, the history and the emotions.
I enjoyed all the programs on the first two days of the battle anniversary, but I was excited for July 3. Gettysburg National Military Park, an NPS site, had only one program planned for the day: a commemorative march across the ground where the Pickett-Pettigrew assault took place on that date in 1863. The park had one ranger representing each of the eight Confederate brigades that moved across the fields during that fateful charge. Visitors to the park had a couple of options: they could watch the masses of people come across the fields from the Union position on Cemetery Ridge, or they could walk across the fields from the Confederate perspective in one of the eight “brigades.”
On the morning of July 3, I got up early to enjoy some of my favorite parts of the town before I made my way to the Pickett-Pettigrew program. I had decided to walk across the field, seeing it from the Confederate perspective, in Gen. Davis’ brigade of Mississippians. As I was enjoying the morning, drinking my tea, my peaceful moment was interrupted by a phone call. The week prior, I had talked to staff at Fort Sumter National Monument about a job opening. But that morning, July 3, they called to notify me that I had been hired as a National Park Service interpretative park guide at Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Monuments in Charleston, S.C.!
The rest of the morning I was dizzy with happiness. My job in Charleston will give me the opportunity to continue learning about, and, interpreting Civil War history, while getting paid. It will be hard to get a better job. How many people can say that they got their dream job right out of college?
The day only got better from there. In the afternoon, visitors to the park began queuing up near where the Confederate line had lined up 150 years earlier. The Pickett-Pettigrew commemorative march was the big moment of the anniversary for me; in 1863, the assault had failed, and with its failure, it provided Union Gen. George Meade with a crucial victory for the nation. I chose to walk across the field from the Confederate side because I wanted to walk the exact same ground on which the soldiers walked toward near-certain death exactly 150 years earlier. As my “brigade” stepped off toward the Federal position on Cemetery Ridge at 3 p.m. that afternoon, I was accompanied by 15,000 others moving from the Confederate position – a number that was a actually few thousand more than the force Pickett and Pettigrew had. Ahead of us, there were 25,000 visitors at the Union line.
It is difficult to describe the emotions that swept over me as I walked across those fields. With every step, I was reminded of the Mississippians who had walked that same path. With each of their steps, deadly artillery shells burst over and around them, friends and relatives fell along the line, yet they did nothing but press on. Each one of the men who died walking across those fields on July 3, 1863, caused an immense and irreplaceable loss within each family and within each community.
Looking to my right at the thousands of others in the Pickett-Pettigrew commemorative charge, I understood more than I ever had before the possible feelings of Civil War-era Americans. Whether it was understanding how hot it was, how far the men had to walk, how it looked, or how it felt to experience the deep loss that struck thousands of families after the battle, something hit me on that march. That something helped me to better understand the war and its individual actors; it helped me understand the truly massive human cost of the Civil War, and it will help me in the future at Fort Sumter and beyond.