In recent days there have been some blogposts and conversations going on regarding visitation of African-Americans to NPS Civil War sites, particularly battlefields. See here, here, here, and here. I have worked at four parks since 2006, three of which are directly related to the Civil War (Lincoln Home NHS, Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, and Ulysses S. Grant NHS), and the fourth (Ft. Vancouver NHS) often offers Civil War interpretive programs. I don’t know what the racial percentage of visitation is at these sites; to my knowledge there is no official record-keeping on this. In my experience, Lincoln Home had the most African-American visitors, many of whom were busloads of schoolchildren coming from the big city. (This is anecdotal on my part. If anyone at LIHO has better info, please comment.) At U.S. Grant NHS, here in St. Louis, we do get some African-American visitation. At these sites, slavery as a cause of the war is regularly interpreted. At Grant NHS, there is concerted effort to interpret the lives of the enslaved people who lived there prior to the war. I think it is entirely reasonable to present slavery as the primary cause of the war at these sites since that is what both Lincoln and Grant professed.
In regards to Wilson’s Creek NB, though, I would like to present a small portion of my Master’s seminar paper The Battle of Wilson’s Creek in History and Memory. In particular, I thought about this when I read John Rudy’s post about the teacher who hesitated to bring her black students to Gettysburg because of all the Confederate flags flying around town. In my experience, Wilson’s Creek, like other Civil War battlefields, gets few African-American visitors. It should be noted that, unlike Petersburg, Virginia, there is only a very small minority of African-Americans living in the Springfield, Missouri area. (2000 census of Springfield, 91.69% white, 3.27% African-American) Note also, that during the Civil War, Springfield was a strongly pro-Union town. Please keep in mind that this was written in 2007-08:
Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, veterans and their contemporaries offered differing interpretations of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and the meaning of the Civil War. Initially the Radicals in Missouri, who advocated equality for African-Americans, were supported by the Grand Army of the Republic and other Union military associations, however the popularity of these organizations declined as the Democrats returned to power in the 1870s. In Race and Reunion, David Blight contended: “The national reunion required a cessation of talk about causation and consequence, and therefore about race. The lifeblood of reunion was the mutuality of soldier’s sacrifice in a land where the rhetoric and reality of emancipation and racial equality occupied only the margins of history.” The veterans may not have agreed on the causes of the war, or on the significance of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, but they did leave a legacy of reconciliation reflected in their mutual admiration and celebration of white martial valor. This legacy was manifested in the preservation of the fields on which, in their youth, they had fought and bled.
After the war, veterans of both North and South participated in “Blue-Gray” reunions that proliferated across the country. Historians such as Blight have interpreted these reunions as evidence that the sectional reunion was based on the reconciliationist vision. The gathering of veterans on the anniversary of specific battles grew into major commercial events. The first Blue-Gray reunion held at Springfield and at the site of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek occurred in 1878, and by 1883 was an event attended by thousands. Reunions, as one orator told the 1911 assemblage, were opportunities to “review the past, enjoy the present, and contemplate the future.” One Springfield newspaper declared the 1883 reunion “The Greatest Event in the History of the Great Southwest,” describing it in glowing reconciliationist terms:
“A magnificent success is the verdict from all quarters regarding the Great Reunion, which closes this evening. By Tuesday evening the Queen City had donned her gayest and most festive costume, and all was pronounced ready for the grand occasion, which began on the following morning. Business houses and numerous private residences were appropriately decorated with flags of all sizes, portraits, mottoes of welcome, bunting, etc., among which was profusely blended the blue and the gray colors, emblematic of the fraternity and good feeling existing among all the surviving participants of the memorable battle of Wilson’s Creek of 22 years ago, as well as all others of their countrymen.”
A souvenir booklet published for the 1887 reunion contained the words to “A Wilson’s Creek Reunion Recitation.” The celebration of mutual valor is clearly seen in the following verse:
“Oh let bitterness reign with the cowards that ran away,
For brave men can always be fair;
And the heart that was true to the Gray or the Blue
Was found ready to do and dare.
Each fought for what he deemed was right,
Each heart was brave and true.”
When Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield was established in 1961, this reconciliationist emphasis was continued by the National Park Service. For example, the 1987 Statement for Interpretation showed how strongly entrenched the reconciliationist vision became at Wilson’s Creek. One of three stated objectives of the interpretive program was the following:
“To commemorate the sacrifices of the soldiers on both sides of the conflict who struggled here, and to honor the 535 men who lost their lives and the 1,818 who were wounded in a way that does justice to both sides.”
Today’s visitors to Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield come from all over the country, both North and South. It is not unusual for them to acknowledge ancestors who fought at Wilson’s Creek. At the Visitor Center they are greeted by a gift shop which prominently displays and sells Confederate flags; reproduction Confederate money; and clothing, cups, and other merchandise imprinted with Confederate symbols, as well as items memorializing the Union side of the war. Much like Springfield donning her “gayest and most festive costume…profusely blend[ing] the blue and gray colors” during the 1883 Wilson’s Creek reunion, the gift shop presents the reconciliationist interpretation and fails to acknowledge the continuing racial symbolism of Confederate iconography.
I’ll have more in a later post, but, the posts I linked to and this portion of my seminar paper should raise questions about NPS interpretation and the Confederate battleflag. What should NPS policy be regarding the display and sale of Confederate flags, particularly the battleflag?