The Confederate Flag and NPS Interpretation

     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? 


11 thoughts on “The Confederate Flag and NPS Interpretation

  1. Bob, Good stuff on your part. As you know I have always felt there is a pro-Rebel, pro-the Great Bobby Lee slant to interpretation at NPS Sites in Virginia and Maryland. Maybe that is changing. However, maybe black Americans feel the same the pro-Rebel interpretation like I do. I think the last paragraph of the second link is quite telling. The guy in the 4th link confused me. He seems to be against the Flag in Gettysburg, he condemned the exhibit at the college, but then regrets his condemnation. Like I said he confused me. It is very sad that businesses in Gettysburg fly the Rebel Flag in hopes of attracting costumers. For me I guess there are different levels of “using the Rebel Flag.” It is one thing for re-enactors to use it during a re-enactment. It is entirely different thing to fly in your yard or at your business or on the back of your pick-up. And for me it is the lowest level for a Federal institution to fly it above its facility to “commerate history.” Not just because of what the Rebel Flag symbolizes in regards to slavery and racism, that’s bad enough; but also because it is a flag of an enemy that was trying to destroy the United States of America.

  2. Bob,
    First off, thanks for the links and shout out to our blog – it’s appreciated.

    In response to your question on whether the NPS should have a policy regarding the Rebel Flag, I’m really torn. As a fellow NPS interpreter, I don’t want to ban the Confederate flag from CW sites – I think the flag is a powerful and provoking tool of interpretation. However, I think its use should be severely limited. I don’t think it is appropriate, because of the use of the Rebel flag as a hate symbol, to see touristy/kitsch Rebel flag memorabilia sold in gift stores in NPS sites. I think the NPS should take the higher ground in that instance. Rebel Flags in the museum? I’m OK with that, as long as it is used to tell a story/interpret.

    Some food for thought though – do Confederate reenactors really need to carry the Confederate battle flag with them at NPS sites? I’m pretty sure we could all figure out who they were without the flag. I don’t see the harm in ‘outlawing’ the flag in that instance.

    • Jacob,

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t think we want to erase history. I think taking Confederate flags away from re-enactors would be over the top. You want to strive for historical accuracy when presenting living history.

      To be honest, I’m not even sure how to deal with the gift shop issue. One thing to consider: As you know, most NPS gift shops are run by cooperating associations, although the park approves or disapproves what is sold. Book sales, which have always been the primary revenue source, are way down, just as at all bookstores. So, the cooperating associations are looking more for other products to sell. Confederate merchandise sells.

      Monetary considerations may be a poor excuse, but this raises another issue. If the NPS disallows Confederate flags, will there actually be any increase in African-American vistation? Will there be a decrease in visitation by those who favor the Confederacy?

      I will say that I agree with Gene in regards to the flying of these flags over Federal sites. Gene was referring specifically to Fort Pulaski, which is currently flying a Confederate flag (except on Sundays). I commented on this in a previous post, although at the time I didn’t know they planned to fly the Confederate flag until 2012.

  3. OK, the “strive for historical accuracy” plea in living history is a hogwash. I’d contend that most reenactors only strive for historical accuracy when it’s convenient. The typical Confederate reenactors I’ve seen are overweight, overage, under dressed(rags? really?), and full of inaccuracies such as dead animal parts on their hats, enough brass for marching bands, and worst of all, full of bad information. Taking their beloved hate symbols they term ‘heritage’ away won’t matter that much in the spectrum of authenticity.

    Overall, though, historical accuracy in living history is an allusion. IF the personality of the character your portraying comes through, and IF the meanings and ideas that your character represents are conveyed effectively, it doesn’t matter what jacket your wearing, whether your carrying a confederate flag, or wearing the right kind of shoes – they are all props. The more believable your character, the less props you need.

    Now, whether curtailing the display of Confederate flags will actually bring more African-American visitors to Civil War sites is still up in the air. I don’t know the answer either – but I’m willing to try it.

    • “Now, whether curtailing the display of Confederate flags will actually bring more African-American visitors to Civil War sites is still up in the air. I don’t know the answer either – but I’m willing to try it.”

      Is this really about money for the NPS? If so, consider the reduction of white Southern visitors and the public backlash to be organized by groups like the SCV. Also consider further backlash by people who don’t get politically energized over such issues but find themselves wondering why they see history disappearing upon return trips to the sites.

      Or is this about racial divisiveness regarding the flag hurting attendance in general? If so, consider that people are capable of making decisions on their own. I find it highly unlikely that an entire ethnic group chooses not to attend a vast array of Federally-run historical sites just because the gift shops include some knickknacks with a rebel flag on them, as if such wasn’t to be expected.

      In response to the issue in general, I would say that someone who goes to an NPS Civil War site should be expecting relics, interpretations, and gift shop items featuring flags and other symbols of both sides. If the NPS takes a “sided” approach or any other approach besides factual history, it becomes hard for visitors to “interpret” things. The flag was a factual part of the Civil War, and although it was also a factual part of KKK rallies and other anti-civil-rights movements, NPS Civil War sites are not about the 1960’s; they’re about the 1860’s. Too bad if someone is shocked or appalled at seeing the Confederate battle flag in a place where the sole purpose is to learn about some aspect of the Civil War; I’m not saying nobody should be offended or whatever by it, but I am saying that its presence should be expected at an NPS Civil War site. So long as the gift shop items are consistent with the public’s expectations, the NPS should be fine, but when changes start happening, people will ask questions and they may not like the answers.

      • CP,

        I have to agree with Jacob that NPS Civil War sites are not just about the 1860s. As I wrote in the next post, Civil War battles were in no sense isolated incidents. What happened before, what was happening at the time, and what happened afterward is all relevent to the story being told.

        Having said that, I agree with you that Confederate flags should be expected at Civil War sites – but how and where should they be presented? As I said, I don’t think we want to erase history. I think we all agree that they belong in museum displays. Jacob and I disagree on their use by re-enactors in living history programs. The real question for me is the gift shop. Is the NPS endorsing what the Confederate flags stand for by offering them for sale in gift shops? What about neckties and t-shirts and mugs emblazoned with Confederate flags? As Kevin noted on his blog, this does not create a welcoming atmosphere for African-Americans.

        So, when you say “consistent with the public’s expectations” which “public” are we talking about?

        • I think differentiating between one public and another is the problem, and that would be in general, not specific to the NPS. When you do that, you tend to cater to groups, which naturally comes at the expense of other groups. When you try to make everyone happy, the result is that nobody winds up happy, and when doing so in connection with historical interpretation, it makes even more sense to ignore divisions and present history as it actually was/is.

          I agree that history is a continuum, and I don’t mean to imply otherwise. However, the NPS Civil War sites, while possibly and appropriately presenting resulting effects of the war and its events, focus on specific aspects of the war with attempts to help people interpret circumstances and mindsets of the times and places (remembering that hindsight can cloud our understanding of people in the past who did not know what would come). Therefore, while Confederate flag-waving in the 1960’s was an event mostly set in motion by many aspects of the Civil War, such should not be the determinant of whether the flag is an acceptable item (even in the gift shop) at an institution which exists for the purpose of preserving the war itself.

  4. NPS Civil War sites are not about the 1960′s; they’re about the 1860′s.

    I don’t think you can separate the 1860s from the 1960s on Civil War Battlefields, or any of the 150 years of history since the Civil War. You lose the relevancy and meaning of the site if you disengage it from its place in the time line of history. Without the Civil War, there is no Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement is so integrally connected to CW sites. For example, at Gettysburg, George C Wallace attends the 100th Anniversary celebrations and basically gives a speech promoting states rights and secession. 100 years after the fact! in the thick of the Civil Rights movement…if that isn’t part of Gettysburg story, then that is erasing history.

    Too bad if someone is shocked or appalled at seeing the Confederate battle flag in a place where the sole purpose is to learn about some aspect of the Civil War

    NPS sites are for all Americans. If a significant portion of them, an entire ethnicity, is offended by the battle flag, we need to take notice and work with that group to mitigate the problem. Battlefields aren’t only for the SCV to preach their twisted form of “heritage.”

    • I agree that Civil War sites are not just about the 1860s, but aren’t members of the SCV and those who hold to a different interpretation of the war than we do also Americans?

      I have in my wallet a small card given to me a few years ago that says “Visitor Bill of Rights”

      1. To have their privacy and independence respected
      2. To retain and express their own values
      3. To be treated with courtesy and consideration
      4. To receive accurate and balanced information

    • “If a significant portion of them, an entire ethnicity, is offended by the battle flag, we need to take notice and work with that group to mitigate the problem.”

      Why? Is it about the money?

      If the history is accurate, then that’s all that should matter to something run by taxpayer dollars. If this results in preserving something that in and of itself remains largely offensive, perhaps the correct action to take would be to just stop preserving it. In this case, that would mean not preserving Civil War sites, because one cannot avoid the Confederate flag or references to slavery, or at least not doing so by the federal government. Obviously, such an idea seems radical, but it’s where your logic would end up. If concerns over offending people at an accurate historical site are what will dominate its operation, then it should turn private or close altogether, because anything else would result in a disservice to people who seek the opportunity to publicly experience history from a trusted source.

  5. Bob,
    I agree with you that the visitor is sovereign. I was just voicing my frustration that, in my perception, it seems like some visitors through their own values and expression squash others’.

    Yes and No. It’s about becoming relevant or becoming a relic. America’s population is changing. Civil War sites are losing visitors. Again, from my perception, it seems like African-Americans are ‘low hanging fruit’ when it comes to encouraging interest in Civil War sites. So I guess it is somewhat about the money – Why is a significant group of American tax-payers not taking advantage of these sites that are funded by their money? If the NPS wants to survive, or any history organization for that matter, they need money. The NPS needs to show its relevant to more than just old white folk.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

IMPORTANT! To be able to proceed, you need to solve the following simple math (so we know that you are a human) :-)

What is 13 + 11 ?
Please leave these two fields as-is: