Looking Beyond the High Ground

Much of my research and commentary on the evolution of battlefield interpretation within the National Park Service has referenced the 2000 Rally on the High Ground Conference as a watershed moment.  Without being too overly simplistic the working assumption has been that the most significant changes to NPS interpretation has been in reaction to Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr’s. legislation and accompanying symposium which brought together NPS staff and academic historians in Washington D.C. The conference examined ways in which the NPS could implement Jackson’s legislation which called for the broadening of battlefield interpretation to include the cause of the war, the role of slavery during the war, as well as other topics.  This push for a broader interpretive context as well as Jackson’s involvement has been met with suspicion by segments of the general public who tend to view his involvement as political which in turn has colored the NPS’s subsequent actions as overtly political.

My conversations with NPS staff has given me a more rounded picture of the evolution of battlefield interpretation within recent decades and the place of the “Rally Initiative” within that story.  It needs to be understood that both Jackson’s legislation and the D.C. conference did not introduce recent interpretive trends to the NPS.  It did, however, introduce the issue to the general public – often in ways that proved to be divisive.  After all, Jackson’s legislation also touched on the controversial question of slave reparations.  It could be argued that such a high-profile personality, along with the sensitive topics of the cause of the war and slavery caused more harm than good.  I think it is possible, however, to separate the question of battlefield interpretation from Jackson’s motivation.  Suspicion of the latter does not necessarily render the former otiose.  I for one am impressed by Jackson’s passion for Civil War history.  He has visited just about every Civil War battlefield and he has read widely on the subject – which is more than most of his detractors can claim.

In the end, it is likely that there is no getting around the perception that recent steps on the part of the NPS to address broader interpretive topics have been imposed on it from the outside and in a top-down fashion.  That said, the truth of the matter is more complex.  In fact these debates have been brewing within the NPS going back at least to the 1930s.  Consider the following account which took place at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center in 1936.  Apparently the designer/planner of the park’s new exhibits was challenged from within the NPS for failing to provide context.  Here is the designer’s response:

To what end?  Is a question that may be answered in many ways, as the consequences of a major war are infinite.  Yet one result is simple, striking and indisputable….Death admits of no argument…and pain…is another positive and certain result.  There are economic and political results, of course, causes and classes that triumph and those that fall: but these things shift with the bias of every writer, and belong properly in print, not in the museum case, which should give its story clearly and sharply, without room for disputable and unnecessary detail.

These debates continued into the 1940s.  At a conference of park historians and interpreters in 1940 it was learned that visitors were interested in stories that went beyond detailed accounts of the battlefields.  In the mid-1950s Allan Nevins gave a talk to the Washington D.C. Civil War Roundtable where he suggested that there was too much focus on the minutiae of the battlefield and not enough context.  Conversations with NPS staff reveal that Edward Linenthal’s scholarship was already beginning to make an impression on certain individuals as early as the mid-1980s.  Linenthal’s thesis is that everything done on the battlefield is an “expression towards its history.”  In 1991 the Mid-Atlantic Region/National Park Service held a 3-day conference on the interpretation of slavery.

The most significant development from within the NPS came in 1998 with a report titled, “Holding the High Ground: Interpreting the Civil War through the Sites of the National Park System.”  The report was spearheaded by NPS historian John Hennessy and was written in light of the upcoming Civil War Sesquicentennial.  In setting the stage for specific recommendations the report notes the following:

Despite the wide visibility of an interest in the Civil War among Americans, the National Park Service has not sufficiently used sites to convey the true significance and breadth of America’s Civil War experience.  Nor has the NPS demonstrated the relevance of the Civil War to all Americans, of this and every generation….We as a nation still use our battlefields to define the nation’s Civil War experience in largely military terms-through the eyes of the participants of battle.  We emphasize military outcomes, with little discussion of the relationship of those military events to social, economic, and political evolution of the nation. (pp. 1-2)

The important point to keep in mind is that this report was issued two years before Jackson Jr.’s legislative initiative.  The report has not been widely distributed, in large part because Hennessy has made it a point to go ahead and do good history rather than talk about it.  His mantra is, “Just Do It” and notes that the park service gets into trouble when it talks rather than acts.  I would suggest that the NPS’s detractors are a relatively small group who would rather debate the politics of history rather than history itself.  This is not to suggest that there is an unshakable consensus within the NPS in reference to these reports and recent exhibits which reflect the interpretive themes contained therein.  In fact, recent exhibits/films have caused some uneasiness at certain parks, which is to be expected.

Over the past few days I’ve been making my way through the Petersburg National Battlefield’s “Final General Management Plan” of 2004.  It is a fascinating document as this is the first master plan since 1965.  The report covers every aspect of park management, including steps to develop its interpretive programs.  In introducing specific recommendations the report provides a short overview of steps already taken by the NPS that go back to the PNB’s founding in 1926.  That brief overview references Congress’s role, but what stands out is the way in which the report connects the need to revise its interpretation with the widely-held belief that battlefields are seriously endangered by commercial development:

Battlefield preservation depends on people who care.  One of the best ways to ensure the preservation of the park’s resources is to engage the public and help them connect, in their own ways, to the ideas, people and events that occurred here.  The more individuals that relate to this story means there will be more who will care about what happened here and, in turn, will seek to preserve these special places.

It is hard not to read this passage as an attempt to diffuse some of the opposition that has emerged in response to the “Rally Initiative.”  The PNB in particular has experienced a great deal of opposition from certain quarters in the Petersburg area in recent years. Recent changes must be understood not simply as a response from some legislator in D.C., but as a part of a discussion that has been ongoing from the beginning of the NPS’s oversight of our Civil War battlefields.

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation if you are so inclined. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

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