“The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.”
– Wilmer McLean
From July, 2011 through April, 2015, I walked in the footsteps of history.
I had the rare and incredibly fulfilling opportunity to head up various National Park Service (NPS) social media teams that were charged with covering sesquicentennial events on behalf of the many NPS Civil War parks across the country. One hundred and fifty years to the day, to the hour, to the minute, we were there.
We walked the Cornfield, the Wheatfield, Viniard Field, and the Hornet’s Nest; we helped describe the attacks on the Mule Shoe, Stockade Redan, and the explosion at the Crater. We were there when Jackson stood like a stone wall and when he crossed over the river to rest under the shade of the trees. We stood atop Lookout Mountain for sunrise and Kennesaw Mountain for sunset. We were there for the Gentlemen’s Agreement and when the bells tolled that he belonged to the ages.
We helped chronical the sesquicentennial of the Civil War in ways that were unimaginable just a few years earlier utilizing a medium that is now second nature. We snapped pictures and recorded video of everything that we could in order to bring these once in-a-lifetime (and career) events to the public. We anticipated that our coverage would draw interest from many Civil War enthusiasts across America. We could not have anticipated that the passion for these events would circle the globe. My story, like that of Wilmer McLean, began on the plains of Manassas and would conclude in the village of Appomattox Court House.
“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda
For the most part, parks prepared for their individual anniversaries on their own and in ways that made the most sense for them and their local communities and partners. It was up to me and my teams to cover the events and programs as they came along. By the time we got to 2013, many of the team members had at least a few events under their belts, they knew their roles, and we had our workflow down to a science.
We could upload and share photographs and video content via the park’s social media outlets live and in real time. We could cover an event or program from multiple angles and within just a few hours, have a fully edited and captioned photo album ready to publish; and, depending on staffing, we could create a brand new, incredibly meaningful, fully edited video with music, in less than one day. Through our efforts, we were able to bring these events to a worldwide audience in real time, or at least nearly real time.
But in 2011, as we geared up to cover the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) in July of 2011, that wasn’t necessarily the case. The NPS had just granted Manassas National Battlefield Park special authority to launch the four soon-to-be-approved social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube). Although we were excited for these new possibilities we were now forced to deal with learning all four platforms at once. This was a daunting task as the path to social media success, especially during a large scale event such as the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas, was all but unknown at the time.
There was but one example that I could look to. Through internal NPS channels I saw that the staff at Fort Sumter National Monument had also tackled covering their 150th anniversary through the use of social media in April, 2011. As it turned out, their team consisted of only one person. I placed a call to Fort Sumter and my team learned very quickly what we needed to do and, more importantly, what not to do.
Since social media waits for no one, and since we were only going to get one shot at any of these 150th anniversaries, we knew that Yoda’s sage advice would have to become our credo. We would somehow have to find a way to be everywhere at once; there would be no do-overs.
Adrenaline and Protein Bars
The lessons learned from the events at Fort Sumter caused me to make a few last minute changes and additions to the team. The team ultimately consisted of a cast of NPS web, social media, photography, and video All-Stars that, for decades, had run the gauntlet of some of the largest events to be held on, and around, the National Mall in downtown Washington, D.C. We had all worked more National Cherry Blossom Festivals, July Fourth Celebrations, Rolling Thunders, and Presidential Inaugurations than we could count. Huge crowds, oppressive heat, and intense political scrutiny were the norm; the First Manassas 150 event would be no different.
Huge crowds and a swarm of press coverage was expected as Manassas is within a literal stones-throw from Washington, D.C. – check. Oppressive heat in the greater Washington, D.C. area in July is the norm – check. The NPS regional office and national office, as well as the Department of the Interior headquarters are all located in the aforementioned District of Columbia; not to mention every other arm of our democracy; which means intense political scrutiny – check.
No pressure. We had it covered.
When the events finally arrived, we were ready to put our plans to the test. The hours were long and the weather was hot; really hot, and very humid. Some days the heat index exceeded 120 degrees. But we were all in agreement, if the soldiers could do it, so could we. At least we had plenty of water, air-conditioning, and there weren’t minie balls whizzing around our heads, so, overall, it wasn’t too bad.
The days started to melt together after a while but once we had a chance to look back at what we had accomplished we realized that we had exceeded our own expectations. We had set a standard. We had successfully built the plane while we were flying it.
We were able to chronical all the programs, create photo albums, tweet updated schedule changes, and craft videos that went above and beyond anything I could have imagined. And the public noticed.
The magic of social media allowed us to interact with the public in brand new ways. We were able to connect with them, read their comments, and provide answers to their questions in real time. They were better informed and we were able to bring multiple programs to the public when they could only attend one program at one time and only be in one place at one time.
Every event that we covered over the next four years, until the Final Campaign that ended in the village of Appomattox Court House, would use the foundation that we built on the plains of Manassas. We continued to ask ourselves what else we could do, how we could do it better, and how could we do it faster. Somehow, over the years, we managed to top ourselves.
I got to see, first hand, how hard the staffs at all of the Civil War parks worked in order to present their events, their history, their stories, and their parks to the visiting public in ways that no one would forget. On more than one occasion, these 150 events served as the swan songs to long and fruitful NPS careers. Like winning the Super Bowl or the World Series, these NPS personnel rode off into the sunset and went to Disney World after seeing their 150 events come to a successful and satisfying conclusion. These events were, for many, a once in a career experience. To that end, I may be the luckiest of all. I got to live that dream twenty-seven times over.
By the end of my four year stint covering these Civil War 150 events, I had worked twenty-seven separate events, in seven states and the District of Columbia; from Manassas to Appomattox, from Antietam to Vicksburg, and everywhere in between. When I think about it now, all I can do is shake my head. Sometimes it feels like a dream; maybe because it was.
In short, it was a blur.
It was an honor and a privilege to have had the chance to work with so many talented, dedicated, and inspiring NPS employees along the way. They are simply the best of the best. The same can also be said about the visitors. I am proudest of all to have had the chance to help bring these events to the visitors; the ones who were able to attend in person and especially the ones who could not.
I wish I could share more pictures and more videos but I’m afraid they won’t all fit within the confines of this blog. Until Ken Burns comes calling, this will have to do. I hope you enjoy them as much we did creating them.
The man behind the camera
Staff Note: Jason Martz is now the Visual Information Specialist for Gettysburg National Military Park.