Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Civil War: Part 2

Last year I blogged about Jesse Jackson Jr.’s opening remarks at the NPS’s "Rally on the High Ground" conference which took place back in 2000.  The conference resulted in a book that included the various presentations.  I spent last night rereading Congressman Jackson’s remarks and this morning I emailed his office to see about conducting an interview as part of a final chapter for the Crater manuscript which I discussed yesterday.  I’ve already been in touch with a number of people; all have been supportive and are willing to sit down for interviews.  One individual that I talked to yesterday described interest in the Civil War and the NPS within the black community of Petersburg as one of "apathy" as opposed to the city of Richmond.  If this is true I want to better understand why this is the case.  I suspect that much of what needs to be explained will be done by looking closely at the recent history of the city of Petersburg. 

Following Congressman Jackson’s remarks is a question and answer section.  I found one particular question and response to be quite intriguing.  The questioner was apparently with the NPS and asked Jackson what made him qualified to "impose" his views of the Civil War on the NPS given that he admitted to having no experience in historical interpretation and had only come to an interest in the Civil War four years previous. 

Answer: I don’t quite see my views as an imposition on the National Park Service, but consistent with what one of the directors of one of the sites shared with me–the will of the people, an act of Congress.  So now that we have an act of Congress, that is the will of the people.  At one level or another, the will of the people is at the site to interpret its broader implications and put it in historical context.  That is much broader than left and right obliques.  An act of Congress created the Department of the Interior and an act of Congress created the National Park Service.  Furthermore, an act of Congress created your job and an act of Congress decided that local as well as state municipalities would not encroach upon this space because an act of Congress determined this space to be sacred.  So, acts of Congress, long before I got to Congress, created these sites and made determinations about how these sites would be shaped to keep local governments and state governments from encroaching upon these sites.  Acts of Congress also are responsible in one way or another for the interpretation.

I’ve blogged quite a bit about the supposed tension between the NPS and Southern heritage groups as a result of Jackson’s legislation.  I may, however, have exaggerated the extent of the disagreements.  In a phone conversation the other day with a NPS historian he suggested that problems arise only when the question is debated abstractly.  This individual said that there are very few complaints about some of the changes that can currently be seen at NPS battlefields.  And why is that?  I suspect that there are few complaints because most people who visit battlefields don’t know to complain.  They are looking for a solid interpretation that helps them understand what happened on a particular battlefield and how that site fits into a larger context. 

By the way in browsing Congressman Jackson’s website I came across a list of books that cover the Civil War, slavery, Lincoln, and race.  He describes the list as follows: "Books that have greatly influenced the decisions and arguments I make on behalf of the people of the Second District of Illinois." I have to admit to being quite impressed with the range of books cited.

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5 thoughts on “Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Civil War: Part 2

  1. John Hoptak

    Kevin~
    I read this post with much interest. As an interpretative ranger at Antietam, I always make it a point to address the larger themes of the Civil War during all of my presentations. I stress the Emancipation Proclamation coming on the heels of the Union victory at Antietam, and emphasize how this document transforms the essential meaning of the war. Of course, I do interpret the movements of the armies and the tactical maneuverings on the battlefield. But while this is important, even more important are the issues of why this battle was so important not only in the course of the Civil War, but in the course of American history as well. A balance must be struck. My half-hour Orientation Program stresses the campaign and its national and international consequences, and I’ve been criticized for spending only about 1/3 of this time on the battle itself. In my experience, however, I believe that most visitors want to know why it is important that we remember Antietam, and not so much why it was the 12th Corps attack was not coordinated with the 1st Corps attack or a host of other tactical issues relating to the battle.I do hear some of the complaints. After one of my programs a few months back, a visitor approached me and said that he “knows” the true history of the war, and that slavery and emancipation were of little importance. But, he told me, he can’t argue with me because as a ranger for the National Park Service, I must follow a certain script passed down from on high. Comments like this, however, have been few, fortunately. I am very glad to report that we at Antietam certainly understand why it so important that we interpret not only the battle, but where the battle fit into the larger issues of the day.

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Nice to hear from someone on the front lines. My guess is that those types of comments are few and far between and based more on ignorance and insecurity than anything else. Antietam is obviously a perfect place to discuss such issues in detail; in fact, I can’t think of a better place to do so. The details have their place and I acknowledge a need for it; however, on a general tour with first-time visitors your balance seems right on target.

    Keep up the good work.

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  3. Andrew Duppstadt

    I think its terribly amusing, but sad when someone tells me that they know the “true history” of the war or any part of it. To me, that statement is code for “I’m narrow-minded and only believe what I want about the war.” As an employee at the CSS Neuse State Historic Site in NC I was confronted with the same situation on a micro level. A private group in town has built a full-scale land based replica of the original gunboat and they give tours of it on a sporadic basis. We at the site tried very hard to make sure they were presenting the correct information, based on years of research by numerous historians. However, there are a number of local legends and other fallacies they insist on telling. We often got visitors at the site that would ask to see the hull of the original ship and when we started our tour would say, “I don’t need a tour; I got the ‘true history’ of the ship at the replica.” Obviously, this means that the folks that work at the replica are telling visitors that we are NOT telling the “true history.” My question is, why wouldn’t we be telling the true history? It can all be very frustrating and once someone gets something in their minds its hard to change it. We’ll be fighting the battle in Kinston for a long time to come. Thankfully, it sounds like the folks at Antietam don’t have to deal with it as much.

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  4. Kevin Levin

    I think all John means by the “national implications” of Sharpsburg is Lincoln’s decision five days following the battle to issue the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Surely that document had drastic national implications on a national level. Need we say more?

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