Dwight T. Pitcaithley on Slavery and the NPS

No one has done more to advance the cause of historical interpretation of America’s Civil War battlefields than Dwight Pitcaithley.  I’ve heard him speak passionately about the importance of bringing the latest scholarship to bear on the way the National Park Service situates military analysis within the broader context of slavery and race and why it is important to do so.

I am interested in this question since my research on memory and the battle of the Crater uncovers the ways in which the presence of USCT and race were stricken from the historical record.  A few of my published articles have made it into the hands of park service guides at the Petersburg National Battlefield Park, and Chris Calkins (chief historian) has consistently supported my research endeavors.  With the Civil War Sesquicentennial just a few years away there is little doubt that this issue will continue to generate heated debate.  I hope that my work on one battlefield at least adds some relevant background to the discussion.  In his article “‘A Cosmic Threat”: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War” which recently appeared in the edited volume, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, (The New Press, 2006). Pitcaithley outlines the arguments both for and against addressing the role of slavery and race on the battlefield.

One of the most common arguments against addressing slavery is the claim that the NPS was not given the assignment to educate the public or the causes of the war.  One writer to the NPS declared: “Why and how these two armies got to that battlefield is irrelevant at the point of the battle. The only thing that matters at that point is WHAT happened and not why.  Allow the NPS to deal with the facts about the battle and leave the why to the educators.”  This is an all-too common argument, but what is striking is the arbitrary defining of “education” to include events on the battlefield and not any causal question of why there is fighting at all.  Pitcaithley reminds his readers that both the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 and legislation such as the 1935 Historic Sites Act and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 establish a mandate to educate the public in a way that goes beyond the movements of armies.  The obvious point here is that the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, site of the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention (Seneca Falls), Marsh, Billings, Rockefeller National Historical Park, and the Little Big Horn National Battlefield Park all provide its visitors with a broader causal overview of what happened.  Given this fact, it seems reasonable to suggest that the burden of showing why Civil War sites should be the exception to this rule is the job of the NPS’s detractors.

Pitcaithley does an excellent job tracing the origin of the reconciliation argument that so many opponents of this new mandate support.  As many of you know, veterans’ reunions and other forces at work in the late 19th century left an interpretation of the war that steered clear of more controversial issues such as slavery and secession and the way that slavery and race shaped the war itself.  The emphasis on shared values such as honor encouraged and made possible sectional reunion by the turn of the 20th century.  More importantly, and as Pitcaithley makes clear, this interpretive agenda supported “political agendas and became powerful vehicles for constructing personal as well as national identities.”  This is an important point, but I wish Pitcaithley had taken the argument one step further.  While he makes the obvious point that the “Lost Cause” interpretation was not void of a political and racial agenda he does not situate the NPS within the evolution or as a factor in the overall success of this view.  As I show in my own work on the battle of the Crater, by 1936 this deeply embedded Lost Cause view had become the standard interpretation of the battle.  Any acknowledgment of the role of USCT in the battle or the reaction of white Southerners had been almost entirely erased from national memory.  And this is the interpretation that the NPS adopted when they incorporated the Crater site into the Petersburg National Military Park in 1936.  It is not simply “politically correct” or to engage in “revisionist” history to acknowledge slavery and race at the Crater, it is historical necessity if the hope is to get the story right.

While Pitcaithley is at the forefront in this movement to revise the NPS’s interpretation, no one has done more to challenge it than the late Jerry Russell.  Russell’s favored arguments are easy to dispose of.  While his arguments appear to be more focused on the visitor’s time it is not difficult to surmise his motivation: “You only get so much of the visitors’ time if…if you add to the script, you must take something out of the script.  And what they are taking out is honor, honor to the battle, honor to the men.”  This is a weak argument, though one that is commonly employed.  First, there is an assumption that there is a mutually exclusive choice between honor and causation.  I’m not even sure it’s the job of the park service to convince its visitors of some moral conclusion surrounding the participants of the battle.  I wouldn’t dream of doing this in my classroom.  I’ve never visited Pearl Harbor, but my guess is that guides are quite capable of discussing the background to the attack without losing anything about what actually took place on the morning of December 7, 1941.  The most significant weakness with Russell’s argument is the assumption that introducing slavery and race somehow challenges the moral integrity of the individual soldier.  As I’ve stated before on this blog armies did not just fall out of the sky to engage in the kind of horrific violence that so many Civil War buffs find entertaining.  If I were to visit a battlefield in Vietnam (imagine for a moment that it was operated by the NPS) I would want to know a bit about why Americans were sent thousands of miles away to fight.  Does it follow that a discussion of “containment” and the “domino theory” imply that every American soldier fought in support of such a foreign policy?  Of course not.

As we approach the sesquicentennial the toughest challenge will be to more fully integrate the Civil War scholarship of the past 20 years into more casual settings.  This will be difficult because the goals of the academy, heritage association, and more common Civil War enthusiasts often diverge.  Many Civil War enthusiasts who are interested primarily in the battlefield are put off by discussions of race.  They find the discussion to be uncomfortable or simply don’t care.  And others, as discussed above, see the discussion as a threat to their preferred interpretation of the war.  I would point out that the discussion must center on the historical merits of the broader discussion and not simply on preference.

Finally, we need to revise our popular notions of historical revision.  This is particularly troubling within Civil War communities as much of these discussions take place in a broader political context.  Revisions are often seen as politically motivated.  It is incredibly discouraging to engage people who claim to be interested in the past who fail to see the importance of critical discourse and alternative interpretations as a way to advance our knowledge of the past.

4 comments… add one

  • Brooks Simpson Jun 6, 2006

    The interesting thing about the people who oppose any NPS interpretation of causes, etc., overlook (or deliberately conceal) the fact that the present interpretations are in themselves political, featuring the themes of reconciliation, brother versus brother, both sides were right as they saw it, etc. Indeed, the opponents embrace their own political position, and don’t want it challenged. This isn’t interpretation versus no interpretation; this is interpretation versus interpretation. Go to the Smithsonian and you see interpretation: why is the NPS forbidden from doing what the Smithsonian does?

    Besides, the so-called “no interpretation” people oppose the interpretation offered; they would have no problem with an interpretation that followed their own desires and preferences.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 6, 2006

    Hi Brooks, — You are absolutely correct, but there is an important background observation to make. Most people who claim to be interested in the Civil War are not motivated by a need to revise their interpretations as part of a process to advance historical knowledge. Most people fail to see your point because they are not in a position to think analytically as a professional historian is trained to do. I just got back from lunch with a “centennialist” historian who made the point that most people are content with having the same stories told over and over and told well.

  • Jimmy Shirley Jul 16, 2006

    Then where will it end? Obviously, the naacp has an agenda, which is to demonise the Southern cause. And it is a given that they will be consulted and they will probably push for final approval of any such revisionism.
    So then, how can there be fairness? Is it fair for one side to be given complete say about how a battle is presented to a mostly ignorant public? Most of the public then goes away thinking “It must be right. They, the NPS, are the experts.” Would it then not be fair to include the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the decision making process, of how these battles are to be interpreted?
    You make the claim that the NPS should educate the public as to why these battles were fought in the first place, citing precedence. Maybe they should withdraw those previous interpretations instead. Just because there is precedence does not make something right. “Separate but equal” was a precedence, but was it right? You make the analogy that if you visited the Vietnam battlefields that you would want to know why it was fought. Naturally you will get a biased point of view, “the brave and patriotic Vietnamese freedom fighters were battling the invasion of the evil empire, the United States.” Naturally, all sides of a conflict are interesting to know. So, we get back to the fairness issue of the NPS interpreting the battlefields of the War Between The States. How do you propose to deal with that?

  • Kevin Levin Jul 16, 2006

    Forget about the NAACP here. I have no problem leaving the interpretation to the NPS because they in fact are the experts. Many of the park historians are very respected and well-trained historians. The NPS also employs the talents of some of the most talented professional historians who also count as authorities in my book. The SCV and UDC are not professional historical organizations. In other words, they do not try to put forth what I would call a “scholarly” interpretation of the war. There is a consensus among professional historians that slavery was central to understanding the cause of the war and so any discussion on the battlefield would reference slavery. That professional historians tend to agree does not imply an agenda but an agreement over important sources and points of interpretation.

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