Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Civil War

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

In 2000 Jesse Jackson Jr. offered an interior bill that touched off a heated debate about how the National Park Service should interpret its Civil War battlefields.  The debate involves a number of "interest groups" including Park Service employees, reenactors (Civil War buffs), professional historians, and members of various Southern Heritage organizations.  Given the agendas of these groups it is not surprising that the debate remains heated even as the Park Service explores and implements programs that reflect the place of interpretation within its overall mission.  The level of anxiety that continues to fuel this issue can no doubt be traced to Jackson’s legislative agenda and the fact that he is the son of a controversial Civil Rights activist.  The issue – as many of you know – is about the proper place of slavery and other racial issues within its battlefield interpretations.  From Jackson’s interior bill:

The Civil War battlefields throughout the country hold great significance, and provide vital historic
educational opportunities for millions of Americans. There is concern, however,
about the isolated existence of these Civil War battle sites in that they are
often not placed in the proper historical context.  The Service, to all of your credit, does an outstanding job of
documenting and describing the particular battle at any given site, but in the
public displays and multimedia presentations, it does not always do a similar
good job of documenting and describing the historical, social, economic, legal,
cultural, and political forces and events that originally led to the war which
eventually manifested themselves in specific battles. In particular, the Civil
War battlefields are often weak or missing vital information about the role that
the institution of slavery played in causing the American Civil War. "The
Secretary of the Interior is directed to encourage the National Park Service
managers of Civil War battle sites to recognize and include in all of their
public displays and multimedia educational presentations, the unique role that
the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War and its role, if any,
at the individual battle sites
. The Secretary is further directed to prepare a
report to Congress on Dr. King’s birthday, January 15, 2000, on the status of the
educational information currently included at Civil War sites that are
consistent with and reflect this concern. (my emphasis)

Many read the initial bill as falling squarely within Jackson’s own political and social agenda, and his language as emphasized in italics clearly worried many that he was calling for a drastic change and/or supplanting of any discussion of what happened on the battlefield.  His opening remarks at the 2000 Civil War symposium sponsored by the NPS and  held at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. highlights his political agenda and further alienated those that were already feeling defensive.  "Only with the appropriate interpretation of these historical events–of the Civil War–,"argued Jackson, "can those Americans ever arrive at the right to a more perfect union through health care, through education, and through housing."  For Jackson the road toward certain Constitutional amendments runs straight through the way we interpret our collective past.  The problem as I see it, however, is that while Jackson can make this argument as a politician, he can only do so by unnecessarily alienating potential allies to the cause of battlefield interpretation – including this writer. 

While I am sympathetic to the issues of health care, housing, and education that is not the way to proceed, if for no other reason than that reasonable people can disagree as to the proper role of the federal government in providing certain services and agree that revisions need to be considered.  The question of how to interpret public sites, however, remains.   Luckily, Jackson provides a range of reasons for thinking anew about our Civil War battlefields and some of those reasons are spot on.

Before proceeding I want to make clear that the issue here is not what kind of Civil War history you prefer to read or research (i.e., military v. social/cultural history).  The question is how an agency of the federal government should go about interpreting our Civil War battlefields; the distinction drawn is between public history and academic or personal interest. Here are a few of the more persuasive points made by Jackson:

(1) One point that I want to make is that while 11,000,000 people visit National
Park Service Civil War sites, most Americans never get the opportunity. Either
they do not have the time or the financial wherewithal to do what I did. I
traveled to more than twenty sites throughout the country. Most Americans go to
one site. Of the eleven million visitors, most of them are raised around one
site, and, therefore, they never understand the sweep of events from Harpers
Ferry through Appomattox Court House. One of our challenges was to ensure that
if an American visited one site he or she would develop a full appreciation of
the whole war. It is quite possible that one could visit, for example, the site
at Appomattox and never hear the name John Brown or know anything about any of
the other battles. And that, quite frankly, is a very limited and very narrow
interpretation of that single site.

This seems to be a rather harmless suggestion.  Jackson’s working assumption is that it is the Park Service’s job to place any individual site within a broader historical context.  You can’t understand the battle of the Little Big Horn without some understanding of the broader conflict between the United States and individual tribes.  The same would hold true – I assume – for the Susan B. Anthony home.  The problem in the case of Civil War battles is that the broader context calls for a discussion of slavery and race.  I am not going to get into a discussion here about the so-called debates surrounding the relative importance of slavery.  As I’ve stated before I take my lead from the most talented professional historians currently working in the field, including James McPherson, Charles Dew, William Freehling, and James McPherson.  As an educator I agree with Jackson that given the majority of people will only visit one or two sites it is the Park Service’s responsibility to leave them with as sophisticated an interpretation of the site as possible.  This does not mean that the battlefield need be ignored.  The staff at Appomattox Court House has clearly demonstrated that this not be the case.  Their own publication about Appomattox includes essays by three prominent historians.  Ed Ayers concentrates on slavery, secession, and the beginning of the war; Gary Gallagher focuses on the war years; and David Blight’s contribution highlights the political, economic, and racial fallout of the war.  All three are entertaining and leave the reader with a much deeper understanding of Appomattox’s place within a broader historical and cultural context. 

(2) Some people have said to me that we are losing some of our real
estate and many of our Civil War battlefields to urban sprawl. Well, if the
stories at these historical places are broadly interpreted and every American
truly feels that the history represents them, there will be a much greater
chance of saving these sites than talking about obliques. Let’s look at Kennesaw
Mountain as an example. It was a Confederate victory, or at least a Confederate
slowing of the Union forces. It is maintained by the National Park Service and
it draws about a million visitors a year. However, the City of Atlanta and its
suburbs are sprawling. It might grow all the way out to Kennesaw Mountain. Well,
if I were an African American mayor of Atlanta, or an African American
politician, I would not care if it went all the way up Kennesaw Mountain and
became a middle class African American community. However, if the story of
Kennesaw Mountain were told in a broader interpretation, then even the African
American who goes to Kennesaw can appreciate its historical significance. Then
Atlanta would likely expand around but not up Kennesaw Mountain.

There would be no need for me to even get into the politics of
what we know to be obvious, when one starts arguing whether or not this history
is legitimate versus that history. But if the site is maintained by the
government and has a broader interpretation where everyone finds their story and
finds meaning in that site, the visitation will double or triple. But when I
went to Kennesaw, they were only selling Confederate paraphernalia. They weren’t
even selling Union paraphernalia. Well, that can’t possibly encourage a broader
audience at the site. And, when I went inside, the story mentioned nothing else
about the rest of the war, but just about Kennesaw Mountain and what happened
there militarily. So Kennesaw isn’t about the Civil War. If my children visit
Kennesaw, and other American children visit Kennesaw, they should leave with
more information than simply what happened there.

I think Jackson needs to be careful here and he needs to do a better job distinguishing between the practical considerations of urban sprawl and the question of the proper scope of interpretation.  First, I think his reference to urban sprawl and battlefield preservation is well taken.  Preservationists have got to get off the self-righteous bandwagon that places them on a so-called moral high ground against various competing materialist values.  If more Americans had a stake in preserving our Civil War battlefields the movement would perhaps be further along.  The outcry against the proposed casinos at Gettysburg may have been dead-on-arrival had there been more support.  Instead we are presented with these vague outcries about the importance of preserving the past for future generations without any consideration of who they are being preserved for.  Again, the placing of Kennesaw within a broader historical context need not mean that we ignore the battle.  The goal is to understand better and appreciate the ways in which these events connected to broader political, economic, and social issues as well as questions of meaning and significance.

What follows is what I take to be Jackson’s most attractive argument:

(3) When I go to Vicksburg or Manassas, or any other battle site, I
ask what is the historical significance of this particular site. The park
service superintendent responds saying right here was a left oblique and right
there was a right oblique. So, the historical significance of Vicksburg is about
an oblique. After all that I have just shared with you, is the historical
significance about military history or a military view of these sites? At these
sites, nothing tells us that there were no more Federalists or Whigs, and the
Democratic Party was split in two, North and South, because of slavery after
Lincoln won, or that we ended up with a two party system, Democrats and
Republicans, based on the legacy of slavery. Nor is there anything to say that
Lincoln ran on a certain campaign platform, and that South Carolina and other
southern states said that if he won they would leave the Union. Then, when
Lincoln took office he said he would put eleven stars back on that flag. All
that has more to do with the history of Vicksburg and Manassas than a left or a
right oblique.

Better yet, if the history of Vicksburg is about obliques,
maybe Congress should pass another bill eliminating the National Park Service
Civil War battlefields and just turn them over to the Army. They can explain
obliques better than you guys. The history of the site is not about an oblique.
In fact, that is why the federal government is there, to offer an interpretation
of the site that is broader than left and right obliques, or why Pickett decided
to charge across the field into cannon fire.

Jackson’s point here is essentially about causation.  The danger is in understanding the range of movements on the battlefield without any sense of why the armies are engaged in violent conflict to begin with.  The armies did not simply fall from the sky. 

It is easy to see why so many are upset with Jackson as it can be surmised that he is suggesting that we do away with any discussion of the events on the battlefield.  If we step back, however, it is clear that this is not what he is concluding.  What Jackson is arguing for is the view that if the significance of the battlefield is simply understood in terms of obliques then we’ve reduced the event to a point where is it indistinguishable from other battles in the Civil War, and indeed, battles in other wars.  The other question to ask, if we go back to the point that most people only visit one or two Civil War sites in their lives, is what do we want them to walk away with?  Do we want them to take away certain distinctions in military warfare or a richer understanding of what the war was about?

As an educator I encourage the Park Service to continue to think critically about how it interprets our Civil War battlefields.  Simply put, the more relevant information it provides the more Americans will identify with its history and work to preserve it for future generations.

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11 comments… add one
  • Doug didier Jan 17, 2012 @ 8:44

    Attended lecture last year at Vanderbilt given by David blight..

    In response to my question about nps battlefield interpretation .. He mentioned in passing the seminar at fords theater .. Since then was able to find site linked to here and read the presentations..

    Ignoring for a second Jackson’s remarks.. NPS rangers should be knowledgeable of the wars cause , social history, and consequences.. In contrast to what blight mentioned that one person said his interest was black powder.. Not what was presented..

    Can get some flavor by examineing question answer period after each lecture..


    • Kevin Levin Jan 17, 2012 @ 8:46

      The presentations are well worth reading. One misconception: the controversy that ensued missed the fact that many Civil War sites had already begun the process of broadening their interpretations. Of course, much of what can be done depends on acquiring the necessary funds.

    • Ray O'Hara Jan 17, 2012 @ 9:39

      The cause of the war should be established, but every visitor taking a trip to a battlefield shouldn’t be subjected to a constant barrage of the politics causing the war.
      That would just get annoying.

      • Kevin Levin Jan 17, 2012 @ 9:45

        No one has ever suggested that “constant barrage” of political causation is what is needed.

  • Mark Jones Apr 29, 2007 @ 12:23

    If your going to talk about the causes of the American Civil War was solely about slavery, we might as well say the Revoluntary War was fought for the same reason. Slavery existed in the American colonies and did not so with the Britians. Do the losers of the war of 1861-1865 have a say so in the interpretation at the NPS? If so, by whom? They were involved in the conflict as far as I can remember.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2006 @ 18:43

    Hi Mark, — You can tell just from reading Jackson’s presentation that it must have come off as just a bit condescending. As to the park employees distinction between interpretation and the cause of the war all I can say is that I am flabbergasted. He obviously was not a student of Gallagher or Ayers.

  • Mark Snell Aug 10, 2006 @ 17:56

    Kevin and Eric,

    I attended the conference at Ford’s Theater when Jackson spoke. I agreed with his message but I did not like the way he presented it. He was demeaning to the many dedicated NPS employees who were in attendance. One of the “hosts” of the conference was the superintendant of Manassas NBP. He totally concurred with everything that Jackson said. A few weeks ago I visited Manassas and noticed that six years after the “Rally on the High Ground” conference, the exhibits concerning the causes of the Civil War do not come out and point to slavery as the central cause, although slavery is mentioned, along with tariffs, states’ rights, etc. When I asked one of the rangers why this was so, he told me that it is mission of the park to interpret the war, not the causes of it! I was flabbergasted. And this young man was a graduate of the Univ. of Virginia history program. C’est la guerre . . . .


  • John Maass Aug 9, 2006 @ 18:39

    Very nicely summarized and interpreted, in an even-handed fashion.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 9, 2006 @ 17:09

    The Petersburg National Battlefield designation kicked in on August 24, 1962. You may be surprised to hear that your general agreement is no surprise to me. I think the crucial distinction – and one that you seem to acknowledge – is between our research/academic interests and public history. I hope others notice the distinction that Jackson makes.

  • Eric Wittenberg Aug 9, 2006 @ 16:48


    You might be surprised to learn that I agree with you 100% on most of these issues.

    As you are probably aware, the first battlefield parks–the ones with the designation National Military Park–were originally owned and interpreted by the War Department. The War Department eventually handed them over to the NPS.

    I tend to agree that if NPS is going to be the steward of these parks, then they should have a broad spectrum appeal that goes beyond just those of us who are interested in tactics. To use Jackson’s example, Kennesaw Mountain is actually a very popular recreation facility for those from the Atlanta suburbs–you’re much more likely to see picnics and volleyball games there than anything else. This is wholly appropriate, I think.

    If these are to be NATIONAL parks, then they should have a national appeal.

    I think Jackson’s idea was sound. I think his tactics, however, were atrocious.


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