Interpretation of Slavery at Civil War Battlefields – Addendum

Thanks to Bryan Cheeseboro, who left the following comment in response to yesterday’s post on the battlefield preservation panel from 2002.

I found out from an episode of Civil War Talk Radio that the NPS was dealing with incorporating cause and civilians and the home front into the battlefield parks (I think it was in the episode linked below). I certainly think mention of these things at any battlefield site is a good thing… especially at a place like Fredericksburg, a battle directly affecting civilians. But for many people who are only interested in battles as military strategy or those who don’t accept that slavery caused Southern secession and Confederate war, such information will often be seen as “PC BS.”

I certainly agree with Bryan that for a certain audience recent expansion of battlefield interpretation at NPS sites might be viewed as troubling for the reasons he alludes to.  My question for Bryan and one that I will now pose to all of you is how significant is this population?  The reason I ask is because it seems to me that Jerry Russell’s claim that Americans visit battlefields only to learn only about soldiers is nothing more than an assumption and in my experience a poor one at that.  It seems to me that visitors approach historic sites with open minds and with few assumptions about what they assume will be learned.

Of course, I have not spent as much time on battlefields as many of you, but I am going to venture that it’s time we put this characterization of the battlefield visitor to rest.

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15 comments… add one
  • Amy Dec 6, 2012 @ 9:31

    What are your thoughts on Civil War Reenactment visitors?

    I was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. I ended up spending a couple years in South Carolina. While there I attended The Battle of Aiken Civil War Reenactment. My jaw dropped, eyes widened as the crowd hooted and hollered joyfully when the first Yankee fell off his horse.

    Anyway, seeing all the conversation back and forth about battlefield visitors got me to wondering about reenactment ones….

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Dec 6, 2012 @ 5:12

    What people’s opinions on what the war was about and what documented evidence (i.e. primary source material written by the people at the time of the event) says it was about can be to very different things.

    I guess when I think of people who don’t was to hear about causes (read slavery and race), I think of people like this man from the movie “American History X.” I don’t know who here has/has not seen this film, but the point here is to show the man’s reaction to the inclusion of Black History in the larger historical narrative. This is what I was referring to yesterday about “PC BS.”

  • Richard Williams Dec 6, 2012 @ 4:33

    “the NPS and other historic organizations are engaged in educating the public on the centrality of slavery.”

    I thought they’d been doing that for the last 40+ years? Seems like they’re not quite getting the message across. Or, just perhaps, the public is coming up with a different conclusion independent of “”the NPS and other historic organizations.” These entities don’t own the facts, they simply interpret them.

    The poll, to me, is quite amazing – given the emphasis on slavery over the last 4 to five decades. Again, it seems quite apparent these organizations are failing to convert the masses.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 6, 2012 @ 5:16

      These entities don’t own the facts, they simply interpret them.

      No one suggested they did. What the NPS has done is bring their interpretation of the war in line with current scholarship. Whether you agree with that scholarship is irrelevant to me. It’s at least preferable to taking a poll. I would much rather survey visitors after leaving a site in which they were exposed to interpretation that included slavery than make a sweeping generalization based on this one poll.

      • Richard Williams Dec 6, 2012 @ 7:52

        I understand. Actually, I think Gallup came up with similar numbers in the not too distant past. I could be wrong, just seems like I recall a similar poll. I know we differ on this topic, but “current” does not always translate into “correct.” I just found it quite fascinating that, given “current” scholarship and it’s prominence, a majority seem to reject it.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 6, 2012 @ 8:50

          I agree that current does not always mean correct, but in the case of any branch of knowledge it takes more than simply pointing that out to show that a prevailing interpretation is flawed. You have to critique the scholarship and/or contribute to it in a way that demonstrates that it is so.

          I would say that “seem” is the operative word. It’s difficult to make sense of what it is people are supposedly rejecting if they are not sufficiently familiar with what it is they are rejecting.

          • Richard Williams Dec 6, 2012 @ 17:19

            “It’s difficult to make sense of what it is people are supposedly rejecting if they are not sufficiently familiar with what it is they are rejecting.”

            True, but with this being the dominant narrative for over 40 years (in academia anyway), what does that say about those perspectives being rejected?

            • Kevin Levin Dec 6, 2012 @ 17:20

              I have no idea what it means.

              • Richard Williams Dec 6, 2012 @ 18:27

                Me either – other than the message isn’t getting through. Is that stubbornness or stupidity on the receiving end or the inability to make the case on the other?

                • Kevin Levin Dec 7, 2012 @ 2:20

                  We would need data from folks who visit these sites rather than the poll that you provided, which doesn’t tell me much at all.

  • Richard Williams Dec 6, 2012 @ 4:01

    “My question for Bryan and one that I will now pose to all of you is how significant is this population?”

    Regarding the question of causation and “those who don’t accept that slavery caused Southern secession and Confederate war”, rather significant:

    “There is no consensus among the public about the primary cause of the Civil War, but more (48%) say that the war was mainly about states’ rights than say it was mainly about slavery (38%). Another 9% volunteer that it was about both equally.”

    Bottom line: A majority of the country rejects the premise that the WBTS was “mainly about slavery.”

    Source: Pew Research, April 2011.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 6, 2012 @ 4:07

      Thanks for copying this over, Richard.

      If this is true than we can be thankful that the NPS and other historic organizations are engaged in educating the public on the centrality of slavery. Thankfully, these institutions are not doing polls as a means to decide what to teach.

      Second, this doesn’t quite get at my question. I am not asking what people believe, but what people supposedly do not want to hear about when they visit a Civil War battlefield or other site. Again, who are these people who arrive knowing what they don’t want to hear?

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Dec 5, 2012 @ 18:24

    Thanks for recognizing me in one of your blog posts. i guess this is my “15 minutes of Civil War Memory fame.” Better enjoy it while I can. 🙂

    Never having worked at a Civil War battlefield park, I can’t really say how many visitors arrive at these sites unwilling to hear about issues other than the battles fought there- civilians, slavery, race and politics. But I believe there has been much backlash against hearing these things among more people than we would like to believe. I’m mostly going by the historic record and what I’ve seen firsthand.
    In the case of slavery and race, obviously there was enough consensus to write Black people out of Civil War memory to begin with. Saying slavery wasn’t the cause of Southern secession and Confederate war began pretty much right after Appomattox. And as you know, David Blight has written about this historical amnesia in Race and Reunion. By 1913, all Civil War vets attending the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg were White men. And I believe you wrote in your book that at anniversary commemorations of the Crater, the presence of African-Americans at that battle had been completely erased by the 2oth Century. Certainly, it was much easier to remove Blacks from the story in times when they were segregated and disfranchised. Thanks to those institutions, Black people were out of the way and for many, they became virtually invisible. But this all changed thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, sports, television and movies. In the case of the Civil War, the movie, of course was Glory. Gary Gallagher said when he saw the film in New York, he heard people leaving the theater, many with the same reaction: “I didn’t know there were Black soldiers in the Civil War.” Today, in many classrooms, slavery is taught as the cause of the war; the Emancipation Cause is typically the default understanding of the war in many Hollywood films; and the US Colored Troops have become very visible in the profile of Civil War soldiers. But as we well know, for some people, the only way they can see Blacks in the war is as soldiers accepted into Confederate ranks. They are willing to write Blacks back into the story but on their terms.
    I think many people chafe at adding stories of slavery, race, class gender and politics into battlefield site interpretations is because they feel assaulted by multiculturalism- i.e., “PC BS.” Every story of Women and Blacks is an encroachment on White male heroes who have made this country.
    Or maybe it’s the ugliness of slavery that many would rather not hear about when going to these places. Race and politics are things we’ve always been told not to talk about, right? Race is so ugly and messy… as if getting blown apart on a battlefield somehow isn’t. But guilt feelings from hearing about what happened to Africans for over 250 years is something a lot of people just don’t want to deal with, so just don’t talk about it.
    And of course, there are those who genuinely believe, for whatever reason, that slavery had nothing to do with the fight. Or those who are only interested in battlefield tactics… and even visit the battlefields, so peaceful now, to escape from issues like race, politics and daily realities.
    Again, I don’t know who the average Civil War Battlefield visitor is these days. But I’ve heard for a long time about many people who don’t want to hear about slavery and Black history.

  • Ben Railton Dec 5, 2012 @ 14:40

    I agree 100% with your closing paragraphs, Kevin. And I would add that even if a sizeable percentage of visitors came only looking for X (whatever it might be), that would be to my mind just an additional argument for the parks to provide not only X (which they then should) but also Y and Z. Meeting your audience isn’t a bad thing, but challenging and enriching them ain’t so shabby either.


    • Kevin Levin Dec 5, 2012 @ 15:03

      I completely agree. It sounds strange to me that we would characterize visitors at all by what they don’t want to learn.

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