“My Great-Great Grandfather Didn’t Own Slaves” (So What)
I’ve said it before, but I don’t mind repeating that no one has taught me more about the challenges of interpreting the Civil War at America’s battlefields than John Hennessy. John’s contribution to Common-placeexplores some of the more recent sticking points that have arisen as a result of shifts in battlefield interpretation away from the original intention behind the creation of or national battlefield parks. National Park Service historians have fully embraced an expansive interpretation of the events that transpired on their landscapes that go beyond the experience of the soldiers without any reference to causes and consequences.
But what happens when visitors, who have a connection to an ancestor who fought in the war, are exposed to a broader narrative that for some reason makes them uncomfortable?
Something else renders the National Park Service’s relationship with the Civil War and its battlefields more complicated than most. Tens of millions of Americans have a blood relationship with a Civil War soldier, the men whose deeds the battlefields were set aside to remember. These Americans often see the war not with the dispassion of a historian (even an amateur historian), but through the intensified lens of a family connection. Many visitors to NPS sites often understand the war in a way that reflects generations of conventional wisdom rather than historical knowledge acquired through formal study. Unlike any other event beyond our direct memory, the Civil War has constituent groups that patrol the intellectual universe, intent on protecting and advocating a specific memory of the war—usually one that reflects positively on their ancestors, communities, or regions. Historians have demonstrated that many aspects of this “true history” (as it is often called by heritage groups) are at best incomplete and at worst not true at all. Still, the beliefs endure in parts of the general public—and most commonly in those members of the public who visit National Park Service battlefield sites.
This personal connection to the past has helped shape our nation’s relationship with and understanding of the war. At least as it relates to the Civil War, we as a nation have permitted the personal motivations of soldiers (often imperfectly remembered or revised over time) to define the cause and purpose of war for the public. If you work at a Civil War site any amount of time—say, more than a week—you will hear something like this from a visitor: “My great-great-grandfather didn’t own slaves. He sure as hell didn’t fight to preserve slavery. He fought to defend his home, the way of life of his community and state. The Civil War wasn’t about slavery, and you are wrong to tell people it was.”
We have heard such assertions so often they qualify as a mantra. Of course, virtually every credentialed historian in America accepts a connection between slavery and the Civil War, and most of them see the connection as central to its cause, its progress, and its outcome. But to acknowledge, for example, that the South formed the Confederacy largely to protect the institution of slavery is to suggest to the millions of Confederate descendants that their ancestors fought to sustain what by any measure was a vile institution—perhaps the darkest stain on America’s national fabric. Many remain vehemently opposed to scholarly arguments about the war and slavery, and don’t hesitate to tell you. It was this vehemence—first articulated by the founders of the United Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy more than a century ago—that inspired the nation to simply avoid the topic and focus on the shared virtues of men fighting for life and principle (whatever they might have been) on our nation’s battlefields.
Since the 1980s—as scholarship from earlier decades started to take root in the American mind, and as scholars started exploring the role of historical memory in American culture—Americans have increasingly seen the Civil War not through the lens of personal connection, but through the prism of national purpose. This is by far the most important change in the cultural landscape of Civil War history in the last three decades, and it is one that portends dramatic change to come. Among those changes will be that America’s battlefields will likely no longer provide the quiet and happy historical refuge where history is neatly compartmentalized to provide comfort for Americans struggling to understand and reckon with their past.
Civil War Battlefields will and should always be places where visitors can honor the sacrifice of Americans and reflect on the past in ways that are personally meaningful. At the same time they are places where we as Americans can learn and think hard about tough questions. These two goals are not mutually exclusive. It’s unfortunate that 150 years later that some people can’t distinguish between the past and the present, but that should not be a concern of the National Park Service or anyone for that matter.
I also wonder whether the kind of emotional investment described by John is another example of an identification with the Civil War era that is generational and gradually fading away. Do we see the same kind of resistance among younger Americans, who visit Civil War sites and are introduced to issues related to slavery? I have my doubts.