As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, here is another portion of my Master’s paper.
The Civil War stands as the defining epic in American history. Perhaps no one has expressed this more eloquently than Robert Penn Warren when in 1961, he wrote: “The Civil War is, for the American imagination, the greatest single event of our history…We became a nation, only with the Civil War…The Civil War is our only ‘felt’ history – history lived in the national imagination.” Despite the passage of nearly a half century, Warren’s observation remains true, though “imagination” may be the operative word. Memory of the war is shaped by the hundreds of books on every conceivable topic related to the war (some far more scholarly than others), that are published every year. Television programs, particularly on the History Channel, feature films such as Glory, Cold Mountain, and Gettysburg, the participation of thousands of re-enactors in recreating encampments and battles, and visitation to museums and battle sites, all contribute to popular memory of the war. The National Park Service, as the official federal government caretaker and interpreter of America’s national historic sites and battlefields, also has a tremendous impact on the public’s understanding of Civil War history.
In a doctoral dissertation authored in 2003, John Spielvogel argued that the National Park Service’s overall philosophy is dominated by a preservationist orientation. This preservationist orientation “emerged from their years of experience with preserving scenic landscapes.” Spielvogel wrote: “The role of the NPS as curator of the natural past was transformed into curator of the historical past in the early 1930’s.” Yet, the Park Service is frequently still judged by how well it preserves landscapes rather than how it interprets history. In the cases of both natural and historic sites, struggles erupt between preservation and pro-growth advocates, such as housing and commercial construction contractors, politicians wanting increased tax revenues, and businessmen wanting to exploit natural resources. In these contests, the public frequently favors the National Park Service because of its preservation capabilities. However, unlike natural parks where the issues often involve the environment, proponents of Civil War battlefield preservation argue battlefields should be preserved “because they provide a link to understanding the foundations of a new national consciousness.” In addition, “‘[c]ultural values are passed, and lessons learned’ when walking through the battlefields.” If this is true, it is reasonable to ask, what values and what lessons? Battlefield preservation advocates also contend “‘many Americans have come to view the battlegrounds as ‘sacred ground,’ hallowed by the sacrifices of the soldiers who gave their lives in support of their ideals.’” The National Park Service is usually in complete agreement and is a willing partner in battlefield preservation campaigns.
Spielvogel contended the preservationist orientation of the Park Service has influenced its interpretive efforts, particularly at Civil War sites. Battlefield preservation advocates and the National Park Service believe battlefield landscapes should be preserved as much as possible as they appeared at the time of the battle. Spielvogel observed that just as the Park Service has attempted to ‘freeze’ the natural landscape of battlefields, it has also ‘frozen’ its historic interpretation of the Civil War battlefields under its care. The ‘frozen’ historic interpretation, however, is not that of the heated conflict of the 1860’s, but of the reconciliation of the 1880’s and 1890’s.
In 2000 Congressman Jesse Jackson inserted into a Department of the Interior appropriations bill, language that directed superintendents of the National Park Service’s Civil War battlefields to expand the scope of their interpretation. Jackson, the 91st African-American elected to Congress, had toured some of the eastern battlefields. He came away believing that the National Park Service
does an outstanding job of documenting and describing the particular battle at any given site, but in the public displays and multimedia presentations, it does not always do a good job of documenting and describing the historical, social, economic, legal, cultural, and political forces that originally led to the war which eventually manifested themselves in particular battles.
In particular, Jackson felt the issue of slavery as the root cause of the war needed to be addressed. The legislation expressly directed the Secretary of the Interior “to encourage Civil War battle sites to recognize and include in all of their public displays and multimedia educational presentations the unique role that the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War.” What Jackson sought to achieve was a federal government effort at battlefield sites, to revive and instill in Americans what Civil War memory scholar David Blight termed the “emancipationist vision” of the war.
The emancipationist vision holds that the victory of the North resulted in a “reinvention of the republic and the liberation of blacks to citizenship and Constitutional equality.” In the emancipationist vision, African-Americans played central roles in securing their own freedom, primarily by enlisting and fighting in the Union Army. Two competing visions, labeled by Blight as the “reconciliationist” and the “white supremacist” vision, combined in the half-century after the war to allow the warring sections to achieve a social, political, and economic reunion, largely on Southern terms.
While white Americans celebrated a new era of nationalism amid technological and economic advance, the Old and New South were romanticized, and “devotion alone made everyone right, and no one truly wrong, in the remembered Civil War.” The role of African-Americans was forgotten, and as Blight wrote: “The memory of slavery, emancipation, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments never fit well into [the] developing narrative,” particularly in the South where the defeated grappled to explain their loss through the creation of Lost Cause mythology.
Advocates of the Lost Cause argued the military defeat of the Confederacy did not mean the cause for which the South fought was wrong. Furthermore, they avowed, the cause was not protection of the institution of slavery, it was the principle of states’ rights versus federal tyranny. Slavery, they argued, had been a benevolent institution in which white masters cared for their inferior wards while civilizing them and teaching them Christianity. Following the collapse of Reconstruction in the South, Lost Cause advocacy groups, such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, promoted these interpretations of the war. The Daughters were particularly active in ensuring new generations of white schoolchildren were taught Lost Cause tenets and values.
In the North, Gilded Age white Americans became increasingly tired of fighting over the South’s “negro problem.” The pressures of a fast industrializing society, and large numbers of immigrants pouring into Northern cities, led Northerners to long for a simpler life; the type of life described in the pages of Lost Cause fictional literature written by authors like Thomas Nelson Page. White Americans of both sides found common cause in business ventures and their own sense of racial superiority. White Yankee and Confederate soldiers came together through “bonds of fraternalism and mutual glory,” symbolized by Blue-Gray reunions. By the end of the nineteenth century, the reconciliationist vision had overwhelmed the emancipationist vision, producing a segregated south, where African-Americans were denied basic civil rights. Yet the emancipationist vision lived on in African-American memory, and in what Blight calls “neo-abolitionist tradition,” to be discovered anew by late twentieth century scholars.
In his 2002 publication, Who Owns History: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World, historian Eric Foner described the ways in which the study of history has been expanded and re-written in recent decades. The emergence of previously politically impotent groups such as women and African-Americans, led to an increase in studies of the contribution to American history of these groups and others. Foner noted the effect of these expanded studies has resulted in a diversification of public history. He cited sites dedicated to women’s history, black heritage, gay and lesbian history, civil rights in the south, and the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. This “revisionist” history has not been without its opponents. In response to this new emphasis on social and cultural history, Foner wrote: “Practitioners of more traditional fields such as diplomatic, political, and business history have complained repeatedly of feeling marginalized.” While professional historians feel marginalized, Foner observed, the public at large often views the reinterpretation of history with “suspicion, and ‘revisionist’ is invoked as a term of abuse.”
Regarding slavery and the Civil War, popular memory and generations of Lost Cause teachings in the South do not disappear easily. Therefore, any attempt to interpret Civil War battlefields in the context of the emancipationist vision, as Congressman Jackson’s legislation requires, risks offending many of the very people whose tax dollars support America’s national parks and historic sites. Gettysburg National Military Park Superintendent John Latschar experienced this as a result of a speech he gave explaining new interpretation efforts that aimed at including the issue of slavery at that long revered battlefield. The Secretary of the Interior was flooded with demands for Latschar’s firing. One letter he received is representative:
I see the political climate as becoming very dangerous for anything Southern and white. I have never condoned discrimination, I have never denied slavery was A cause of the war. But, slavery was NOT the ONLY cause. And I’ll be damned if I will sit idly by and let revisionist historians tell me MY ancestors, who owned not one slave…fought to keep them in bondage.
In addition, there are those who contend that “battlefields were established only to commemorate and interpret individual battles, not to interpret the Civil War.” This argument has a basis in fact. Yet, this concept, “commemorating the battle and honoring the men who fought there,” clearly falls within the reconciliationist vision, and as Latschar discovered, interpretation through the reconciliationist vision of the war tends to convey a decided southern sympathy. For example, Gettysburg is more commonly remembered as the site of “Pickett’s Charge,” rather than “Hancock’s Defense.”
The mission statement of the National Park Service reads: “Interpretive services are core to the mission of the National Park Service and the quality of services offered has a direct impact on…the public’s understanding of the history fabric of America.” It is important for National Park Service personnel to know the interpretive history of their own park, so they know why it was included in the National Park system in the first place. Knowing the park’s interpretive history, and understanding how Civil War memory has been shaped over time, should aid in understanding current visitor perceptions. Also, battles need to be placed in their proper historical context. Civil War battles were in no sense isolated incidents.
 John Christian Spielvogel, “Interpreting Sacred Ground: The Rhetoric of National Park Service Civil War Historical Battlefields and Parks,” (PhD diss., Pennsylvania State University, 2003), 22.
 Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., “A More Perfect Union,” in Rally on the High Ground: The National Park Service Symposium on the Civil War, ed. Robert K. Sutton (USA: Eastern National, 2001), 3-4.
 Blight, Race and Reunion, 3.
 John Latschar, “Coming to Terms with the Civil War at Gettysburg National Military Park,” CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Summer 2007), 15.
 National Park Service Interpretive Services Statement. On file at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.