I thought I knew history. After all, I had certainly taken my share of history classes over the years. As a child, I listened in school, attended the assemblies and dutifully completed my history assignments. High School required yet more history and in college I took 5 history courses as part of my graduation requirements. I hate to admit that through it all, I never really learned to like or appreciate history.
It really wasn’t until I began to research my own ancestors and discovered their lives intertwined with historical events that I suddenly found history interesting and relevant to me. When I learned that I had ancestors in America very early on and that my fourth great grandfather, David Gurganus, participated in the Revolutionary War and that my third great grandfather, Joshua Rainwater, fought in the War of 1812, the details of those events suddenly became fascinating and the events and dates began to fall neatly into order. I have even found myself actually reading history books on my own, without the urgings of a teacher or the fear of failing a test, and I have liked it!
Visiting Virginia this past May took history to an entirely new
level. As I’ve said before, it’s one thing to read about history, it is another thing to visit the sites where those events actually took place, to feel the emotion of those places and to ponder how those events impacted not only my ancestors’ lives, but my own. As we visited the various historical sites in Virginia, I found myself looking at many of the events in an entirely different light. Much of what we saw there pertained to the Civil War, but we visited many other significant historical sites there as well.
When we visited St John’s church in Richmond, we were able to see the exact spot where Patrick Henry delivered his famous speech declaring “Give me liberty or give me death.” As our guide shared with us the riveting details leading up to that event, she helped us to feel his passion and to better understand the significance of his speech. I wondered what kind of commitment to liberty my ancestors had felt.
Of the many places we visited, Colonial Williamsburg was without a doubt one of my favorites. There I learned about elements of our nation’s beginning that I had never before internalized.
As we walked around the park, we listened to the murmuring of actors dressed in period clothing, portraying discontented and concerned citizens and imagined what it felt like to live in a time of such uncertainty. While typically so much of our study focuses on the main characters of history, this helped me to consider the sacrifice, commitment and courage required by even the common citizen as steps were taken to establish our country as an independent nation. I realized that not everything significant occurred in a meeting behind closed doors or on the battlefield. What type of discussions had gone on among my ancestors, their families and friends? What was the talk around the family dinner table or over the fence with the neighbors? With each step taken towards independence, what had been my ancestor’s understanding of the situation and had they wrestled within their own minds with their allegiance?
In the park, women in long cotton dresses, bonnets and crisp white aprons, represented mothers and wives of the time. They gathered in clusters as neighbors and friends and anxiously shared their concerns and fears for their sons and their husbands, discussing the rumors of pending rebellion. It helped me to see and think about issues that I had not considered before. Living in a new land, citizens had serious concerns about not only the unknown consequences of separating themselves from their mother country, but also about their ability to exist alone in a new world. For the women, losing their husband would mean facing life in a new colony alone. How had my female ancestors felt as the rumors of rebellion and war began, knowing that it would take their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers and leave them alone?
We listened as a man portraying George Washington shared his views and experiences, allowing members of the crowd to ask him questions. I wondered how my ancestors felt about many of the issues he presented.
Towards the end of the afternoon, we heard the fife and drum procession long before we saw it and I felt excitement as they rounded the square and moved onto the field. Following their spirited performance, the minutemen stepped forward, then loaded and fired their muskets and I felt chills down my spine. They had done an excellent job in transporting us back in time and I felt a renewed gratitude for the courage shown by those willing to forge a new life in America and for the steps they took in establishing a free country.
I thought I knew history, but there is so much I didn’t know.
As I look forward to the Fourth of July, my thoughts will be of the many men and women throughout history that courageously took a stand for what they believed, despite the cost to them personally. Thanks to them, we live in a land of many privileges and freedoms. In addition, my prayers will be for the many men and women that continue in the fight to maintain that freedom.
God Bless the USA!
Copyright © Michelle G. Taggart 2014
4 thoughts on “I Thought I Knew”
Nobody does history like Williamsburg. The last time I visited, I took a breather and sat to watch. A woman came and sat next to me; she was repairing some scarves for the soldiers and chatting about her husband and son who were off fighting but she wasn't sure where they were. Anyway, she dragged me into 1776 with her. It's amazing how they can sustain their role, whatever it is, never breaking character. And their knowledge of the times is impressive.
What an excellent opportunity you took, Michelle, in traveling in Virginia recently! I totally relate to what you are saying about studying history–although your efforts in your many classes were certainly more commendable than my meager efforts during formal schooling. It was researching my own family history that made it all come alive for me, too. Being in the very places where that history was enacted is inspiring. I'm hoping I can soon follow your lead and visit some of these historic sites!
Our Virginia trip really fueled my desire to travel and visit more historical sites Jacqi! I've got quite the list of places I want to go, now if I can just find the time and money to do it all!
Wendy what a fun experience. I really didn't know what to expect there, but they really exceeded my expectations.