Reflections from Vicksburg: Kaity Wasinger Discusses Her Internship at Vicksburg National Military Park
by Kaity Wasinger | | Tuesday, October 4, 2022 - 10:28
My name is Kaity Wasinger, and I am a fourth-year student majoring in American Studies and Art History at UVA. This summer, I traveled way down south to Vicksburg, Mississippi where I worked with the Interpretation Division at Vicksburg National Military Park. This 2,000 acre battlefield park contains more than 1,300 monuments and markers that tell some of the many stories of the Vicksburg Campaign. Although it was far away from my Virginia home, and far away from my typical field of studies, my time in Mississippi was filled with new experiences. Through frontline interpretation, supporting special programs, and developing new resources, my time spent at Vicksburg National Military Park gave me a new opportunity to see how public history in the National Park Service works.
On a normal day at the park, I would spend some time in the Visitor Center greeting guests and helping them get started with their visit. Giving guests directions, pointing out key areas in the park to see, and answering questions they had were some of the main ways in which I would get to engage with guests. Occasionally these conversations would turn into research requests, where I could help a visitor find a particular regiment marker in the park or a relative’s grave in the National Cemetery. Some holidays, like Memorial Day, Juneteenth, and July 4th, brought events to the park which provided opportunities for specialized programming. During the annual Memorial Day Symphony Concert at the park, I worked at the Discovery Table— the park’s mobile kid activity station— where we built fortifications with kids out of kinetic sand and showed them replica artillery pieces. On Juneteenth, we set up a booth at the city of Vicksburg’s gathering where we talked about members of the United States Colored Troops who served at Vicksburg and the many meanings of emancipation. Towards the end of the summer, I was also able to support the park’s Junior Ranger Day camps, which give kids from the local community a chance to come and engage with the park. The “Soldiers Life for Me” camp showed kids what the daily routines of a soldier were like and how soldiers kept up their spirits— like with the 43rd Mississippi Regiment’s mascot “Old Douglas” the Camel.
Prior to my time at Vicksburg, using public history to engage with children was not something I had thought much about. To me, public history was a way to engage with adults in conversations on complex ideas— something seemingly difficult to do with younger visitors to the park. However, as I was introduced to different methods of historical interpretation, it became easy to engage with younger visitors and share the many stories of the Civil War that there are to tell at Vicksburg. To introduce the many military strategy methods used at Vicksburg, we used kinetic sand and showed younger visitors how to build up different fortification shapes. The exciting box of kinetic sand drew the younger folks in, and the act of building up earthworks in the sand and placing toy soldiers in lines helped solidify the significance of the shapes. Then, once they left my station, these younger visitors would be able to identify redans, redoubts, and lunettes— seemingly abstract military terms— in the earthworks throughout the battlefield. For me, this was a great opportunity to build skills in interpreting for younger audiences. This program did not require changing the information we were sharing with these kids, but instead simply changing the approach of sharing it so that they could better understand the importance of what they were seeing in the park.
Outside of my responsibilities in frontline interpretation at the park, I was able to complete some research to add to the park’s resource archive. My main research project for the summer combined my interest in history and art, as I helped create an Art of the Park self-guided tour that will be added to the park’s app. This guide will help widen the potential audiences for Vicksburg National Military Park, giving visitors a new perspective on the landscape of the park by highlighting some of the more than 1,300 monuments and memorials spread throughout the tour route. I worked to identify 40 art-related landmarks of particular significance and wrote a short narrative for each that detailed the time they were put up, the significance of where they were placed, and the cultural messaging associated with them. For example, in this tour visitors will see that it took former Confederate states more than a decade to begin participating in what some considered a “Yankee project” at Vicksburg National Military Park. Mississippi’s state memorial was the first southern state memorial to be erected, and other Confederate states were slow to follow their lead. This guide also gives visitors details on the contemporary monuments that have been erected in the park, like the most recent Mississippi African American Monument. The funds for this monument were raised by local community members after Mayor Robert M. Walker proposed the idea in 1999. It was dedicated in 2004 to honor the 1st and 3rd Mississippi Infantry Regiments (African Descent), two of the state’s first Black Union regiments. More broadly, it honors all Mississippians of African descent who participated in the Vicksburg Campaign. Stories and context like this are lost when visitors simply engage with the park alone, so this new self-guided tour will be a resource for visitors to better understand the historical context and ever-changing landscape of this park. With this resource, visitors will get to engage with the art and history of Civil War memorialization within the Vicksburg National Military Park in addition to the traditional military-narrative of the Vicksburg Campaign.
Overall, this summer gave me new insight into the National Park Service. Through my work in frontline interpretation as well as in research and resource development, I now have a better understanding of the different ways in which public historians can engage with their audiences. By being a part of the day-to-day operations of the Interpretation Division at Vicksburg National Military Park, it is now clear that there are many ways in which one can be involved in public history through the National Park Service.