Like an energetic Golden Retriever, I need to be walked daily, almost without regard to weather, and I have a fondness for water that I fear makes me a questionable house guest-cum-nurse. Fortunately for me, Drunk Tailor has a granular knowledge of his surroundings that allows him to recalibrate his understanding of the places he likes to suit my needs: hence a Sunday trip to Fort Washington, Maryland. Plenty of room to wander, a wide* meandering river, defensive weapons installations.
It’s a large site and we only explored the main fort structure, the shore by the lighthouse, and the visitors’ center (I’ve seen plenty of Endicott batteries before, both on the Potomac and on Narragansett Bay). It started out well enough: the curious tripping stick figure sign warned us of the wooden bridge into the fort, and reminded me of a friend with a fondness for fonts and curious graphic design.
Guardhouse, batteries, masonry walls, stables, earthworks, former ditches, the remains of powder houses: all good stuff. The signs were what one comes to expect from the NPS: UV-damaged labels, slightly behind the times graphically, indicative of the slow pace and underfunding of the preservation of our national heritage.
Drunk Tailor’s memories of Fort Washington include a first-person living history event set on the (literal) eve of the Civil War, with men portraying member of a Texas-based unit wondering how they would ever get home, and responding to a woman’s inquiries about General Lee and Grant with the suggestion that reading Harper’s would bring her up to date with current events. Now, we are in January and my expectations are low in the cultural heritage off-season: this is the time for maintenance, upgrades, rest and refurbishment.
What I did not expect– though I should have– was the leftover daily event roster from some time in 2016.
Boom! Goes the cannon, et cetera. Because Boom! is easy. Add in a side of spinning and we are good to go, right? We got something for the ladies. (You know where this is going, right?)
The best thing I can say for Fort Washington is that I was spared endless racks of brown sticks displayed with only the barest of identifying labels and no interpretation**. But here we are at a site with over 200 years of history and just the vaguest hints in the visitor center of decades of use and change over time. And I like military history. I like weapons. But the more I visit the more I marvel at the way we underestimate our visitors’ capacity for understanding and interest in the past.
As we drove away from Fort Washington, I began to think that once again, we are asking the wrong questions. Instead of questions that can be answered, “Guns Got Bigger,” why not ask some of the following:
- What was daily life like for the men stationed here?
- What material differences did officers and enlisted men experience?
- Could enlisted men get married? Where were their wives?
- How much did soldiers get paid?
- What was the typical term of enlistment? Did that change over time?
- Where were the stables? What were the horses used for?
- How was the fort supplied? Where were the kitchens?
- Where were the mess halls? What was a typical diet?
- How did rations differ for men and officers?
- Did any of the British officers or enlisted men remember the area around Washington, D.C. from their service in the Revolutionary War? To what degree might that have influenced the way the War of 1812 was fought?
- What about that court martial, Captain Dyson? How was it run? What testimony did Dyson give?
Perhaps the most salient question to ask, on the Monday of inauguration week, is why do we care so little for our shared past that we accept the level of funding and staffing that gives us this level of interpretation? Don’t we, as a people, and our history, matter more than this?
*For the East Coast. The Potomac ain’t no Mississippi.
** I’m looking at you, West Point Museum.