During his time as a frontline interpreter for the National Park Service, CWI Director Pete Carmichael’s favorite part of the job was helping visitors with a Civil War ancestor find the spots on the battlefield where that person would have fought. This past winter, this familiar scenario played out across the fields of Gettysburg, but this time, in front of television cameras from the hit TLC history & genealogy show, Who Do You Think You Are?, which according to a TLC description, features well-known “celebrities discovering unknown details about themselves and their families while researching their ancestry with the help of historians and genealogical experts.” The episode, which explores the family history of actress Liv Tyler, is scheduled to premiere on April 24, and provided Carmichael an opportunity to once again experience that moment of discovery. “It was incredibly gratifying to see how connected she felt,” he said.
Carmichael was recommended to the show’s producers by a curator at the Smithsonian, and before being asked to appear in the episode, was approached by the show’s researchers for help in contextualizing documents related to an “unnamed celebrity’s” Civil War ancestor. His role in the episode was to introduce Tyler to the ground on which her ancestor, George Washington Elliott, fought, provide some of the pertinent details of the battle, and help her interpret the meaning and significance of her 2x great-grandfather’s experience. Piecing together this story was a powerful occurrence for Tyler, says Carmichael, who was moved by her deep interest in understanding the appearance of the landscape and the emotions those engaged in battle might have felt, as well as her concern for the challenges confronting current-day veterans.
Carmichael was deeply impressed by the show’s commitment to good historical practice and high-quality archival research, particularly by the producers’ practice of sticking close to the available evidence, respecting the limitations of sources, and acknowledging what parts of a guest’s past are simply impossible to illuminate with any certainty. He mused, “Who Do You Think You Are? provides affirmation of individuals being caught up in grand historical events. We see history acting on people, and those very same people themselves as actors in historical events. It shows us how vulnerable we all really are as historical actors – often confused, bewildered, and overwhelmed by the forces swirling around us.”
The episode is scheduled to premiere on Monday, April 24 as the season 7 finale. Please check your local listing for times.