To Tell the Truth
Last night I had a great conversation with a historian friend of mine over the economic crisis in Washington DC, or as he called it, an EPIC FAIL on behalf of our government. He is a freelance political journalist who often covers White House events and although he didn’t cover this train-wreck, he did pen an editorial that will hopefully get some play in the local papers. One topic that came up during our discussion was how this debt-ceiling debacle would be recorded historically and even more importantly, how would it be ‘spun’ in order to make America look less like the disappointment we have become.
After all, isn’t that what we have done in this country? We manipulate, revise, and ignore our true history in order to present a more appealing heritage that we all can live with. Ask a foreigner from any other country what we think about American history and they will likely say we are full of bullshit. Frankly, it looks like we’ve been trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes for generations and now that we live in the Age of Information, it’s harder to pull off. Several bloggers have brilliantly summarized the dishonesty that exists in our historical memory and what we must do to overcome it:
“[Thomas] Jefferson's story reminds us that history is complicated. As Christians, we must always remember that there are no heroes in history. …History reminds us that when we put our confidence in people, whether they lived in the past (such as the founding fathers) or live in the present, we are likely to be inspired by them, but we are just as likely to be disappointed.” – John Fea, author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?
“I believe we can honor our ancestors for their admirable qualities and their misdeeds, without needing them to be infallible or blameless. I believe we can look at atrocities and injustices honestly, whether perpetrated by the victors or the vanquished …and start taking responsibility to give an honest appraisal of the evidence of history and its legacy today.” – Tim Abbott, “Pride and Shame 150 years after the Fact,” Walking the Berkshires
“Therein lies the danger of American exceptionalism. It discourages compromise, for what God has made exceptional, man must not alter. And yet clearly America must change fundamentally or continue to decline. It could begin by junking a phase that reeks of historical arrogance and discourages compromise. ‘American exceptionalism’ ought to be called ‘American narcissism.’ We look perfect only to ourselves.” – Richard Cohen, Washington Post
To acknowledge our faults and failures as a nation (past and present) is not at all unpatriotic, nor does it mean that we hate our country. It’s simply acknowledging the truth. As historians should we not question the lives and legacies of those who came before us? Isn't that the whole point of research and analysis? In recent years I have, albeit painfully at times, come to accept that it doesn’t matter if we like the answers we may find. What matters is that we find them.
The War of 1812 (Official Website)
Premieres on PBS, Monday, October 10 at 9 p.m. EST
Last month the good folks over at WETA/PBS asked me if I would be interested in reviewing their upcoming documentary The War of 1812. Not knowing half of what I think I should know about this particular conflict, I eagerly accepted the opportunity and received a preview DVD along with a media kit. As a historian and documentary film producer, I feel that I have a broad understanding of what goes on in front of – and behind the camera. No doubt the biggest challenge when making historical films like this is finding a balance between education and entertainment. Great filmmakers can do this without compromising either side and I am pleased to say that the folks who produced this film exemplified this concept.
A production of WNED (Toronto), Florentine Films/HOTT Productions, in association with WETA, Washington DC, The War of 1812 is a 2-hour documentary that not only presents a historical look at the War of 1812, but also how it has been remembered and forgotten today. The film includes interviews with 26 leading American, British, Canadian and Native historians, first-hand accounts, battle re-enactments and period artwork which all help to define this war. In addition to battlefield exploits, the experiences of civilians and politicians are included. This includes familiar characters such as the Indian warrior Tecumseh and first lady Dolley Madison.
Of all the wars participated in by America, the War of 1812 is clearly the most overlooked one. According the film’s overview author and noted scholar Donald Hickey, the War of 1812 was “a futile and costly struggle in which the United States barely escaped dismemberment and disunion.” In other words, the Revolutionary War may have granted us independence but this conflict showed what we would do with it. Our friends in the Great White North see it differently. According to the film’s website:
Some would forget the war, and some would remember. If in time Americans largely forgot a war that had gone only sporadically well, and the British forgot a small war that was a distraction to the main event, the Canadian colonists were happy to remember the War of 1812, and Canadians still do. They remained British colonies, but many Canadians today see the war as the time when a disparate group – British, transplanted Americans, and French-Canadians – banded together to protect their land from invasion. The war united Canada in spirit. It's not only historians, but average Canadians, who often see the War of 1812 as a critical event in Canadian history.
From a producer’s point of view, I must say that The War of 1812 is a stellar example of what happens when intelligent and creative people come together to create what I call “smart art.” Visually the film is very pleasing to the eye, the re-enactments and character performances are not overly dramatic and the talking heads (albeit a bunch of them), add useful commentary. From a historian’s point of view I think the filmmakers did a great job of outlining what the War of 1812 was, obviously acknowledging that this subject matter is relatively neglected by the general public, and that most of us have no clue what we got out of it. Once again, the film’s website summarizes this beautifully:
The greatest myth about the war, for Americans, was who won it. For much of the war, the United States failed badly on the battlefield; but the final battle of the war, at New Orleans, gave Americans a false but powerful feeling that they had actually won. With the Treaty, they really lost nothing; and they had gained a sense of confidence, pride, and nationalism for the decades to come.
I highly recommend this documentary for anyone who wishes to learn about America’s forgotten war in an educational and entertaining way. After watching The War of 1812 I feel that I have a much better grasp on this event, and more importantly, a broader understanding of how American-British-and Canadian history intersects. For more information, visit the film’s website.
The BIG Announcement: New Company. New Purpose.
Like many of you, I have spent a lifetime traipsing around Civil War battlefields. For thirty-two of my thirty-nine years, I have maintained the belief that in order to truly understand the plight of the Civil War soldier, one must walk in their footsteps, on the very same fields in which they fought and fell.
Perhaps it was Joshua Chamberlain who best summed up the meaning of these hallowed grounds when he said, “In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field to ponder and dream; And lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”
From my very first battlefield jaunt as a child, to private tours I have given as an adult, I remain in a constant state of reverence for this sacred soil. As a historian, I work very hard to prevent people from forgetting what happened on these hallowed grounds. In the last few years I have been to Gettysburg, Antietam, Winchester, Kernstown, Manassas, New Market, Harper's Ferry and Fort Macon, while frequenting our local sites at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania and The Wilderness. It never gets old for me as I always see something new. Whether by writing books, giving lectures, or producing films, I firmly believe that it is my privilege to share the story of these unique places with others.
Even more so, it is my honor to present these sites to those individuals who may not have had the ease or opportunity to visit them before. It is therefore a tremendous pleasure for me to publicly announce my latest service, All-Access Battlefield Tours. This is a personal-turned-professional project that has already superseded everything that I do and it may redefine my work for years to come. AABT is now a registered business (LLC) that has already, and will continue to change me, and I ask that you share it with anyone you feel may have an interest. This weekend we are sending out a mass email blast to the media. Look for an upcoming article in The Free-Lance Star. Until then, here is our Press Release:
For Immediate Release, August 2011
All-Access Battlefield Tours for Wheelchair Travelers
Contact: Michael Aubrecht
Nestled on the banks of Virginia’s Rappahannock River is the historic town of Fredericksburg and the storied county of Spotsylvania. Four major Civil War battles took place in this area leaving behind acres of significant sites. Debuting in the fall of 2011, ALL-ACCESS BATTLEFIELD TOURS (LLC) is a new private tour service designed especially for wheelchair travelers who wish to fully explore and experience these hallowed grounds.
AABT’s all-accessible individual or group tours take visitors, their families and friends directly to historical hotspots while moving at their own pace. In order to provide a safe and comfortable expedition, visitors have the option of being transferred to customized travel wheelchairs that feature special wheels and canopies. These rugged outdoor chairs, combined with portable ramps, enable visitors to traverse fields, trails and roads that are otherwise inaccessible. Each experience includes complete accessibility assistance and the highest quality tours, featuring a unique staff of experts made up of local historians, authors and preservationists.
Founded by local Civil War historian and documentary film producer Michael Aubrecht, AABT is the area’s only tour service specifically catering to wheelchair travelers. Aubrecht explained the genesis of the business. He said, “I have a few friends in wheelchairs who are also history enthusiasts. Until recently, I had no idea how difficult it was for them to enjoy a battlefield-trekking experience. After some consideration, I decided to put together a special service that focused on them. I selected three or four locations at each battlefield that could be managed safely and then developed special tours that still present the whole story.” He added, “For example, our Fredericksburg Battlefield package includes a complete tour of the Sunken Road, Prospect Hill and the Slaughter Pen Farm. That’s a three-hour trek that is safe, comfortable and paced for wheelchair travelers and their families. We tell the whole story, even though we can’t get them to every hiking stop.”
Grateful for all of the support that he has received, Aubrecht credits the generosity and help of others in establishing AABT. Mark Jones, a local wheelchair-bound historian, and his wife Christine provided their experience and expertise by testing out battlefield locations, consulting on the accessibly requirements and identifying safety concerns. Mark is also assisting Michael as a guide. Local historian and author John Cummings will be lending his expertise at the Spotsylvania Battlefield and Bill Oberst Jr., a friend of Aubrecht’s and the actor who played General William T. Sherman in the History Channel’s “Sherman’s March,” has accepted an invitation to act as the spokesperson for the organization. Other sponsors include Right Stripe Media LLC, the independent film company that produced the documentary “The Angel of Marye’s Heights,” and The National Civil War Life Foundation.
The Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania National Military Park Service approved AABT’s permit to conduct the specialized tours. “The good folks at the local National Park Service have always been a tremendous help to me in all my endeavors, from books - to films - and now this. They are the gold standard for battlefield tours and I am studying very hard to live up to their expectations.” He adds, “I don’t think I’ve researched like this since I wrote my last book. We are using NPS staff historian Frank O’Reilly’s outstanding title The Fredericksburg Campaign as the reference source for our presentations.”
Troy Technologies, a travel wheelchair company based out of Los Angeles, generously donated two custom-made Pioneering Spirit Wheelchairs complete with the accessories required to make battlefield trekking on four wheels an enjoyable experience. “None of this could have happened if we didn’t have the proper accessibility gear,” Aubrecht said. “When I was starting to develop the concept, I sent petitions out to twelve wheelchair companies, asking for their support. Nathan Watkins, the president at Troy Technologies Inc. was the first to call me back.” He added, “I was immediately impressed by the durability and quality of their product line, as well as Nathan’s enthusiasm and willingness to help. Troy Technologies really came through for us and I look forward to sharing a long relationship with them. They are also dedicated to expanding the freedom and mobility of wheelchair travelers and we are truly kindred spirits. Many folks will want to use their own wheelchairs, and if they are suitable, they may. However, others may not have the proper equipment for traversing the fields, farms and roads associated with these tours. In that case we have these special chairs available for a very minimal rental fee that are safe and comfortable.” Portable ramps are also available to further enable touring comfort and mobility. All of AABT’s tour stops are fairly level, with minimal grades and are adjacent to suitable parking.
For a small fee to cover guides and operating costs, AABT is offering a primary three-hour wheelchair tour to Fredericksburg Battlefield, as well as optional trips to Chancellorsville, The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Battlefields. Stops among these choices include the Spotsylvania Confederate Cemetery, Salem Church and Ellwood. Special site requests may be accommodated if safety permits. AABT guides meet and greet patrons on site, at their location (home or hotel), or at one of the Visitor Centers.
Additional AABT plans are to offer special tours to the Wounded Warriors Project and find ways to benefit the Civil War Trust by bringing awareness to the importance of preserving battlefields. Thankful for the opportunity to share the past in the present, Aubrecht summed up the philosophy behind All-Access Battlefield Tours. He said, "Our goal is to make sure that visitors go where they want to go, see what they want to see, and experience what they want to experience."
All-Access Battlefield Tours officially opens for business on September 1, 2011 and will immediately begin booking weekend dates for the month of October. Tours will then run until mid-December, break for the winter season, and start up again in the spring. For more information, please visit www.pinstripepress.net/AABT.html, view AABT’s tour package brochure, or call 540-845-2767.
For more information on Troy Technologies custom, travel-ready wheelchairs, visit their website at http://www.travelwheelchair.net/.
CONTACT BIO: Michael Aubrecht has been hiking Civil War battlefields ever since his parents surprised him with a weekend trip to Gettysburg at the age of 6. For the last 18+ years, he has lived here in Spotsylvania. Among Michael’s books are two regional titles: Historic Churches of Fredericksburg, Houses of the Holy and The Civil War in Spotsylvania, Confederate Campfires at the Crossroads. Michael has written dozens of historical articles for the area’s newspaper The Free Lance-Star and most recently, he co-wrote, appeared in, and produced the critically acclaimed documentary The Angel of Mary’s Heights. Michael is the vice-chairman of the locally-based National Civil War Life Foundation, He has provided the voiceovers for local Hometown History Quick-takes on AM1230 radio, lectured at nearby Mary Washington University, and given private tours on and off for the last 5 years.