Almost every historian, buff, and enthusiast has an origin story, a memory of how they became interested in history or their particular topic. How they got their “spark” so to speak. What is your story?
Mine is the story of an eighth grade girl dragged to Gettysburg by her parents. I had always been mildly interested in history, but not more than other subjects (except math which was the bane of my school life). I traveled frequently with my parents and we were never the amusement park-type family, so we always ended up in museums and historical sites all over the country. I was curious as a kid and always wanted to learn, so these adventures were interesting to me.
Eight grade is when students delve into the Civil War in New York; it was the beginning of our second year of American history in middle school. My parents decided that we would take a weekend that fall and visit Gettysburg, the closest battlefield to us. I did not want to go. I was not looking forward to spending a weekend walking around where thousands of people died (I have a major fear of death) and I foresaw a weekend of being the bored kid while the guides talked to my parents. But alas my parents ignored my whining protests and into the car we went for the five hour drive to Gettysburg (oh yeah, I hated long car rides too).
Bright and early the next morning our first stop was at the visitor center (when it used to be in its old location). We looked at the exhibits (and the gift shop of course) and watched the electric map. That is still the best map presentation of a battle that I have seen, I am sad it had to be scrapped in the renovations and move. Then it was time to actually get out on the field. My mom looked at all the desks in the lobby with the options of self-guided tours, ranger talks, and bus tours and walked to the farthest one with a sign for battlefield guides. These were the licensed guides that get in your car with you and take you on a two hour tour of the battlefield.
It was one of the best decisions she has made for me, and she didn’t even know it at the time.
Our guide was a nice, older gentleman and to this day I wish I knew his name. He was amazing, knew everything there was to know about the battlefield and more. He asked us where we were from. “Sugar Loaf, NY,” we replied. “124th NY Orange Blossoms,” added my mom. The guide proceeded to give us the tour of Gettysburg highlighting the perspective of our own local unit. Better yet, he talked to me as well as my parents, answered all of my questions, and didn’t brush me off as another bored kid. Best of all, he told us stories about the men and the monuments, stories that captured the imagination and curiosity of my twelve year old self and made me want to learn more. Our two hour tour stretched to three hours and he only had to look up one thing in his fact books (and that was the year the 124th NY monument was dedicated).
It was a life changing experience. I was hooked, fascinated by the stories of men in battle and particularly the meaning of the monuments. I took my allowance money and bought my first two books on the Civil War: a catalogue of all the Gettysburg monuments and Frederick Hawthorne’s Gettysburg: Stories of Men and Monuments. These books still sit on my shelf, worn and meaningful.
I became more interested in history, both the Civil War and American Revolution. Now it was no longer my parents dragging me around, but me dragging them to this fort and that museum and this historic site. I remember clearly the moment I decided that I would make history my career. My parents and I had gone to Boston for spring break to explore the Freedom Trail in my Junior year of high school. It was time to start thinking about college and I was agonizing about the choices I had to make about majors and goals. Talking to my mom about it on the way back to the hotel after dinner one night she stopped me.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“Boston,” I replied.
“Why are we here?” she continued.
“Because…I love history,” the answer clicked in my head.
She looked at with an expression that clearly said “DUH!” and finished, “Pick a subject that you love, not what you think we want.”
Since that day I have gone to college for history and taken every opportunity to explore the subject I enjoy. Upon graduation and acceptance into a Masters program, I also had the best opportunity to become a seasonal historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park which has also been a transforming experience. Now I have finished my PhD program studying the Civil War, with a dissertation topic that tries to answer some of the same questions I discovered on my first trip to Gettysburg.
And none of this would have happened if my parents had not dragged me to Gettysburg, or if my mom had not hired the battlefield guide, or if that guide had not been as amazing as he was. That experience, and all the experiences that had resulted from it, has brought me to where I am today and inspire me still in where I am going. Sometimes my mom teases me, wondering how her lovely little girl turned into a historians studying war and death and people killing each other. I just point at her, laugh, and say, "It’s all your fault."
Now it is your turn to share. How did you get your spark? What moment made you interested in history and the Civil War? Go to our facebook page and comment on this post to tell us how you got interested in history!
Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated with her Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2017. She earned her M.A. from West Virginia University in 2012 and her B.A. in history with a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies from Siena College in 2010. In addition, Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park from 2010-2014 and has worked on various other publications and projects.