Interpreting Appomattox

I am finally getting a handle on the last chapter of my Crater manuscript.  The tentative title is "The Civil War Centennial and New Interpretive Challenges"; it essentially carries the Crater story from the inclusion of the Crater into the Petersburg National Military Park through the centennial celebrations and finally ending with the more recent debates surrounding the expansion of the National Park Service’s battlefield interpretation.  I want to connect the history of the Crater battlefield and try to make the argument that only through the broadening of the NPS’s focus can you make sense of the battle itself.  With that in mind I’ve been wanting to get my hands on a copy of Rally on the High Ground: The National Park Service Symposium on the Civil War edited by Robert K. Sutton.  This is a collection of essays that was originally presented back in May 2000 at Ford’s Theatre.  Authors include James McPherson, Ira Berlin, David Blight, Edward Linenthal and Eric Foner.  Rather than order the book I decided to drive down to Appomattox Court House to pick the book up in the NPS’s store.  I intended to pick the book up and head straight back to Charlottesville. 

As I walked past the Court House I noticed one of the interpreters getting ready to perform for a small group so I decided to join.  He played a young Union soldier from Pennsylvania.  I thought he did an excellent job sharing his personal background and the evolution of the war in Virginia–all the while staying in role.  Once finished he asked if we had any questions and of course I raised my hand.  Since he hadn’t mentioned anything related to race or slavery I thought I would ask for his thoughts about the subject.  Without missing a beat he pointed out that while he did not enlist in 1861 to end slavery he always believed it to be a moral wrong.  More interestingly, he mentioned that he was now helping the Freedmen’s Bureau set up in the area to help with the transition of the newly-freed slaves.  The final point he made was most interesting:  although he was pleased that slavery had been abolished he was wary of the mess that politicians had created in the South in reference to securing their immediate financial and physical well-being.  A number of times he mentioned that he did not trust politicians.  All in all his presentation was well thought out and he clearly enjoyed working with the visitors and sharing a story that was apparently well researched.  I’ve heard a number of impersonators comment on slavery and race.  What I find curious is that I’ve never heard anyone – when situated in a role that would warrant a comment on the end of slavery – suggest that this marked a significant opportunity for African Americans.  Why is that?  Clearly this is a belief that would have found expression in the Union army.  Perhaps many who impersonate are stuck in the perspective that interprets the end of slavery as simply the result of Lincoln’s political acts or the movements of the Union army.  I may be off base here, but it seems to me that impersonators have not yet made the transition that was so clearly made by professional historians not too long ago to view slavery, emancipation, and the end of the war through the eyes of the slaves themselves.  In short, to see slaves as actors who did not sit passively by during the war and in its aftermath.

From there it was to the bookstore where I picked up Rally and the park service’s own Appomattox publication which includes essays by Ed Ayers, Gary Gallagher, and David Blight.  It has received excellent reviews and I was pleased to hear from the cashier that it is their best selling book.  Finally it was over to the McLean House for a short visit.  An interpreter waited in the hallway.  I walked through rather quickly (I’ve been through plenty of times) but before I left I asked about the dismantling of the house following the war.  Eventually the conversation moved to the question of how Appomattox has been interpreted over the years.  He tried to impress upon me that the traditional account of Appomattox as the central symbol of reunion is inaccurate and more a function of our own values and hopes.  I have to say that I was very surprised and pleased by this comment as the last time I went through some old lady (apparently a volunteer) harped on the fact that the surrender took place on Palm Sunday.  As you can imagine I was unimpressed and responded by asking her where God was on the previous Palm Sundays as the two armies were butchering one another.  Needless to say she was not impressed by the question.   

I see the new publication offerings, my encounter in the McLean House, and even the Union soldier impersonator as comprising a positive step for the Park Service at Appomattox. 

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One thought on “Interpreting Appomattox

  1. Cardinal Wolsey

    Re “Appomattox as the central symbol of reunion”, I remember visiting the site some years ago and reading the comments in the visitors book, including this one:
    “It’s not over”.
    It still seems to run deep in the US.
    Great blog by the way….

    Reply

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