It’s nice to see Civil War Talk Radio back up and running. This past week John Hennessy, who is the Chief Historian at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Battlefield Park, spoke about the way our Civil War battlefields are now being interpreted.
Hennessy clearly understands the complexity surrounding his responsibility within the NPS system which must balance both a role as public servant with the responsibilities of a historian. His chief balancing act over the past few years has been to reinforce the NPS’s mission of remembering the soldiers who fought with a need to do good history. And doing good Civil War history these days, according to Hennessy, is understanding the ways in which memory of the war was "massaged" or "manipulated" during the postwar years along with a need to provide visitors with "multiple entry points." Hennessy asked at one point in the interview: "Are NPS historians always trying to learn more or are we memorialists committed to a specific meaning?" He answers, "A little of both." Such an approach maintains their original mission of memorializing with a historian’s responsibility to stay on top of new avenues of inquiry. There is no better example of this than John’s work on a new documentary which details the way in which the fighting around Fredericksburg effected both white and black Virginians. [Click here for an earlier post which includes two reviews of the movie by Hennessy and me.] There is nothing contradictory in this approach; in fact, providing visitors with more information and multiple perspectives can only enhance the story people take away.
Part of the problem that Hennessy and others face in trying to enrich the visitor’s experience is that the objections concerning battlefield interpretation are rarely about history. Rather they are about politics along with a misunderstanding of how history works. These are not disagreements that can be discussed because they are more emotional than analytical. Whether it is a conscious thought I tend to think that much of the anger can be reduced to wanting to maintain battlefields as "neutral" sites where broader issues of race and slavery or the civilian perspective are kept out. I discussed this recently in the context of a visitor survey conducted at Arlington House.
With the sesquicentennial right around the corner it is nice to know that we have people like Hennessy in the NPS who understand that battlefields are not static, that they can be used to help us better understand our history. Battlefields should be used to recall glorious deeds, but they can also be used to raise the tough questions of meaning and memory which in turn force us to look closely at causes and consequences.