Back to the Battlefield: Field Notes from a Cultural Civil War Historian

This guest post is by Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, about the Civil War Era as a battle of three competing visions — that of the North, South, and West. More at

This is the second in a series.

 [The Civil War] was not a fight between rapacious birds and ferocious beasts, a mere display of brute courage and endurance, but it was a war between men of thought, as well as of action, and in dead earnest for something beyond the battlefield. Frederick Douglass, “Speech in Madison Square,” Decoration Day, 1878

Unfortunately, even with all of the changes that are currently being implemented we have a long way to go…[E]ven most white Americans who claim to be interested in the Civil War for whatever reason fail to come to terms with its importance to our broader history.  I sometimes think that our colorful stories of Lee and Lincoln are more of a threat to our sense of national identity as [than] no memory or connection with the war.  We would all do well to take a step back. Kevin Levin, “History Through the Veil Again”: A Response to Ta-Nehisi Coates, August 2009

Last week, through Kevin’s generosity, I jumped into a post about the missing Robinson House at Manassas to catch the sesquicentennial, before I had a chance to provide a little context.

While in and around the National Archives this summer, researching my next Civil War book project, I took the opportunity to visit ten battlefields in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, more than doubling my lifetime count. As a scholar who has focused on the importance of the American West and its agenda for the cause, course, and consequences of the war, perhaps this is excusable—but as a professor regularly teaching a research course on “Civil War Battlefields,” my lack of battlefield experience had felt unacceptable.

Despite being a proud member of the Society of Civil War Historians now, I must admit I came late to the cause; as an undergraduate, I never enrolled in the late William Gienapp’s legendary Civil War course, something he and I mused upon in the years that followed. When I first began working with David Blight, I figured my work would center on the years between the Revolution and the Civil War. So, in 2003, I wrote a graduate paper that I assumed would review the literature on teaching the Civil War, prepare me to cover it generally, and then I could get back to the early republic.

But I soon realized that all the stories that mattered to me about the nineteenth century United States—arguments about democracy and national identity, westward expansion and slavery politics—were tied up with the conflict of the Civil War and with the incomplete resolution of Reconstruction. So my study on the rise and consolidation of St. Louis as a national city had to become a more complex story of the city through the Civil War and beyond.

David Blight’s work attracted me because of the way he has utilized Frederick Douglass’s call to remember “something beyond the battlefield” that motivated the soldiers—not to let the details of battle nor the gallantry of soldiers overtake the large question of why men and women dedicated themselves to the Union or Confederate cause, and how history should judge those motivations and outcomes. As James Lundberg, a grad-school colleague, has recently pointed out, the ever-present enthusiasm for Civil War courses is fanned by the vision of the war in Ken Burns’s now-legendary PBS series—but that, despite some feints toward a wider narrative, Burns stays quite close to the battlefield. In my “Battlefields” course, I urge students to clear the smoke and look out onto that horizon, seeing the social, political, cultural, economic, gender, and/or racial history of the war, as well as its military accounts.

Battlefields have an ongoing attraction for the general public; they hold a totemic power in the American imagination. In 2003, I saw the importance of taking these wider concerns back to the battlefield—seeing how the National Park Service, public historians, and research professors might work together to address these wider concerns in the place where many Americans grapple with the meaning of the war. Kevin’s comments on the subject—those cited above are just a sampling of his concern with the subject on this blog—made this a natural place to re-engage the subject.

Up the road from UTEP, at a lunch on the old plaza of Mesilla, New Mexico (once the capital of Confederate Arizona), I had the chance to sit down with Dwight Pitcaithley, former chief historian of the National Park Service, to discuss the subject. I had read the proceedings of Rally on the High Ground: The National Park Service Symposium on the Civil War, held in 2000, as well as Pitcaithley’s call in the AHA Perspectives and in James and Lois Horton’s Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory for more research professors to engage with the NPS efforts. In 1996, Picaithley wrote that “It is no longer acceptable to be satisfied with merely ‘getting the facts right,” as “history does not possess only one truth, but many truths….The National Park Service has an obligation to present to the American public a history that promotes an understanding of the complexity of historical causation, the perils of historical stereotypes, and the relationship between past events and contemporary conditions.” Pitcaithley encouraged me on this path—while pointing out all the efforts that have been made, and their successes to date. (In 2009, Kevin listed changes at Gettysburg, Petersburg, and throughout Virginia as a start.)

In some ways, this is an old question—in 1990, as Blight and Burns were laying out their vision, Maris Vinovskis raised the question, “Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War?” and soon published an edited volume that opened up the war’s everyday life. Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber’s 1992 edited volume Divided Houses focused the Civil War story on women, and the 1993 skirmish over the Walt Disney Company’s plans for an American-history-themed park for northern Virginia awakened more historians to the importance of not only preserving Civil War battlefields but using these spaces as a place to tell a fully modern, comprehensive history of the nation. Jim Cullen explicitly addressed the war as “reusable past” in The Civil War in Popular Culture (1995).

Yet to truly engage these questions, as Pitcaithley has urged, we have to get beyond the stereotypes—regardless how amusing Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic (1998) may be. In 1999, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. introduced language to charge the NPS with “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,” including “the unique role that the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War and its role, if any, at the individual battle sites”—an effort begun in Rally on the High Ground and continued in the official NPS Sesquicentennial companion guide (elements here), with essays by many prominent Civil War historians. And the 2002 Cultural Resource Management issue dedicated to “America’s Civil War–Challenges, Perspectives, Opportunities” demonstrated the possibilities for reinterpretation at White Haven and Arlington House, Fort Sumter, and Fort Donelson.

In 2002, John Hennessy, chief historian for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, wrote that “the approaching 150th anniversary of the American Civil War offers the current generation perhaps its most important opportunity to know, discuss, and commemorate America’s greatest crisis while at the same time exploring its enduring relevance,” but that “the National Park Service is largely ill-equipped to lead such a national discussion.” This summer, I saw tremendous progress, but I hope for still more placards and tours, signs and questions along the trails that can point to the places where the culture and politics of the Civil War intersect directly with the battlefield narratives.

In this series, I point to some of those sites that I found as I traveled this summer—at times willfully missing the point in order to point out a chance to engage something deeper and more profound than the struggles and deaths of tens of thousands, and the decades spent venerating their memory. I look forward to our conversation on bringing these concerns “back to the battlefield.”

 My essay on Manassas is here; in the weeks ahead, I will write about Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Petersburg, and Appomattox. (And I promise to be more concise!)

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