Why the National Park Service Is Right: Part 2

“Petersburg National Battlefield is an excellent site to illustrate the contributions of black personnel during the Civil War. Since blacks were utilized by federal and southern military officers, park officials can include data in each phase of the exhibits to explain the various occupations in which slaves and freedmen were employed.”

These are the opening sentences of a report (Afro-American History Interpretation at Selected National Parks) that was written in 1978 by a research team out of Howard University. The team was led by History Professor Joseph E. Harris and its goal was to analyze how well the National Park Service had integrated black history into their interpretations. Section 137 of the report focused on the Petersburg National Battlefield. The report clearly reflects the damage done as a result of the sanitization of the Civil War over the course of the twentieth -century. The tone of the report shifts back and forth between the frustrations with how little had been done even as late as 1978 on the one hand and with a specific set of recommendations that are based on careful observations. I present this in the context of the National Park Service’s recent decision to reevaluate their battlefield interpretations in a way that acknowledges the importance of slavery as a cause of the war and the role of emancipation and the recruitment of black soldiers during the war.

1. Interviews with employees revealed how little information about the black experience during the Petersburg campaign was shared with visitors: “Ranger ______, a historian . . . showed interest and was knowledgeable that black soldiers fought at the beginning of the campaign and at the Crater. She also stated that little information was presented concerning black personnel since few visitors are aware of their services during the battles. She stated that if questions were asked about black soldiers, more information was presented. However, Ranger _____ never stated what information was given to the visitors.”

2. The lack of black personnel was also a concern of the research team as the PNB “has never had more than a few black employees.” The majority of black employees were hired for positions other than guides and interpreters. “Therefore, there is a definite need to obtain black personnel on a permanent (three year cycle) basis with interest in interpreting the services of black personnel in the vicinity of Petersburg during the Civil War. Research information can be incorporated into living history projects to negate the voids that exist from 1864 to the end of the Petersburg siege. More significantly, these projects should portray the events from the black perspective. Black views concerning the war, slavery and emancipation can be obtained from slave narratives and the materials located in the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau.”

3. There is a revealing section in the report on how local black students at Petersburg State University felt about the way in which the Park Service presented the battle to the public. According to university archivist, Lucious Edwards, “The students are offended by the sympathetic presentation which glorifies the southern counterattack against the black soldiers at the Crater, while previous exploits of black soldiers are dismissed in a few words. Therefore, they consider the primary function of Petersburg National Battlefield as maintaining or glorifying the image of the Confederacy. Students have also concluded that local white residents view the park as their own personal recreation area and that blacks have only a token Negro’s heritage in a negative setting.”

4. Not surprising, the research team suggested that the PNB supplement their library and books for purchase by the public to included studies of the African-American experience. “PNB publications present very little information about black soldiers,” the report concluded, “and nothing about their interest in the Petersburg campaign. Similarly, these publications have completely omitted the existence of the free and slave community in Petersburg and their contributions to the war effort.”

5. Exhibits and Audio Visual Displays were also deemed to be insufficient as “black soldiers and laborers are virtually portrayed as invisible participants.”

6. Conclusion of the report: “The Petersburg campaign, including the Battle of the Crater, is an excellent theme to incorporate the significance of black personnel during the Civil War. In this campaign, black troops were used in enormous numbers and were eager as well as trained for battle. The bravery displayed by black soldiers was indicative of their performance throughout the war. Therefore, it is recommended that park officials not only incorporate the achievements of black personnel in their capacities as soldiers and laborers but that personnel are trained to present details concerning the black presence in greater Petersburg.”

What does all of this mean? First, I did not quote at length to embarrass the PNB. In fact a visit to the battlefield today reveals the positive steps that have been taken under the leadership of Chief Historian Chris Calkins. Both Calkins and the rest of the staff have been nothing less than gracious and accommodating throughout the course of the research for my study on memory and the Crater. I share this report to stress the extent of the damage done when a nation engages in selective memory. The Crater is an ideal place to honor and interpret the sacrifice of African Americans during the Civil War. More importantly, it is a place that can be used to both acknowledge the heroism of the common soldier as well as the divisive issues that brought these men together on the battlefield. As we approach the Civil War sesquicentennial I hope that steps are taken to reinterpret the war in a way that brings African Americans to our Civil War battlefields and a closer identification with this important moment in this nation’s history. I am skeptical that this will happen; that said, it is the promise that change is possible which animates and guides my research and continued fascination with the way Americans have chosen to remember their Civil War.

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