Reflections from Manassas: Greyson Bettendorf Discusses His Internship at Manassas National Battlefield Park

by Greyson Bettendorf | | Wednesday, September 6, 2023 - 09:43

My name is Greyson Bettendorf, and I am a fourth-year student majoring in History and Psychology at UVA. This summer, I had the great opportunity to work as a Nau Center intern at Manassas National Battlefield Park, the site of the first major land battle of the American Civil War. The 5,000 acre park tells the story of both the First and Second Battles of Manassas and of the people who once lived in the area. My time at the park allowed me to dive into many different aspects of the National Park Service and public history. 

On a standard day on the battlefield, I began my duties as soon as the park opened. On some days, I monitored the front desk at the Visitor Center; on others, I started with research. Every once in a while, I was assigned to the Brawner Farm site, where the Second Battle of Manassas began. Being at the front desk was the most surefire way to interact with the public. Visitors came by to get a map, see what programs we offered, or simply to ask where the restroom was. Each person was unique and had their own reasons for being there.

What struck me the most was the large number of people who visited the park without history in mind at all. Many in the Manassas and wider Northern Virginia area saw the park purely as a place of nature. Birdwatchers came to view our rare ground nesting birds, and jogging clubs utilized the expansive trail system. These people helped me see how different communities view history and the land on which it took place. Those who did visit the park for historical reasons varied in their understanding of Manassas and the wider Civil War. I was able to have great in-depth conversations with people who had been interested in the war for years and with people who had never heard of it. These various interactions gave me new experiences in the realm of public history and how we can make places such as battlefields available for everyone. 

Another important way that I engaged in public history at the park was by preparing and giving guided programs. My programs focused on the First Battle of Manassas. By offering these programs, the other interns and I were able to use the knowledge we had gained in a practical way. The rangers at the park gave us some guidance: there were a certain number of stops we had to hit and certain points of the story that we needed to share. Beyond that, however, we were given free rein as to how we structured our programs and which themes we highlighted.

Leading programs allowed me to interact with a very different public than the one I saw at the front desk. Gone were the questions about the restroom and the bookstore, and in their place were questions about the battle itself and the land on which it was fought. Through these programs, I was able to share the story of Manassas with people in a way that hopefully made them care more about the park and what it represented. Of course, there were visitors whose previous knowledge may not have been correct and who may have had certain agendas, but these were not the majority of visitors on the programs. Most people came with an attitude of learning and wanted to leave with something new. These interactions made me love my summer at the park. I truly felt like I was making a difference by sharing the information that is so important to me with an audience that was extremely willing to listen. 

Standard programs were not the only events that I participated in this summer. I also helped develop kids’ programs, drafted content for the park’s social media pages, and assisted with the yearly museum inventory. However, the largest project I helped with was the battlefield anniversary. During the weekend of July 21-23, 2023, the park commemorated the 162nd anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas. As part of the commemoration, I helped park rangers with their special programs and spent some time at the kids’ station. I also had the privilege of wearing wool and taking part in the living history going on during the weekend. I participated in the cannon demonstrations, which are certainly a sight to behold. 

Overall, I greatly enjoyed my summer at Manassas National Battlefield Park. It gave me the chance to take my classroom knowledge of the Civil War and apply it in a real-world setting. By interacting with the public, I developed a new appreciation for how different people see the war and the impact it had on our country. I also gained a new appreciation for the National Park Service and how it protects these historical places. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to have spent my summer with the NPS and will never forget all that I learned.