In the Winter 2014 issue of Common-Place, John Hennessy, the highly respected Chief Historian and Chief of Interpretation at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, wrote a fascinating essay on the Civil War sesquicentennial’s memory and meaning titled “Touchstone” in which he provided a review of the National Park Service’s efforts to commemorate the American Civil War. He correctly noted the “importance of the Civil War’s battlefields in the process of national reckoning” and that “interpretation of NPS sites has evolved over the decades” including “interpretation of the battles themselves.” Hennessy also recalled the challenges that he has experienced in reaching new audiences – especially African-Americans – and in discussing the war’s cause with Confederate soldiers’ descendants. Toward the end of his essay, he posed five questions:
1. “Can the nation and the NPS continue to ignore or downplay the national purpose for which Confederates fought?”
2. “Or should we simply help visitors distinguish between the stated purpose of the Confederacy and the myriad personal motivations that compel men to wage war for a nation?”
3. “Is the Park Service’s traditional role as the nation’s non-partisan, bi-sectional facilitator of honor and reflection incompatible with its charge to practice robust, just history, which is often rejected as ‘politically correct’ or ‘revisionist’ by traditionalists?”
4. “In thirty years, will the nation permit the National Park Service to manage a place called the ‘Stonewall Jackson Shrine?’”
5. “Can the National Park Service honor and memorialize Confederate soldiers (and by implication the Confederacy) and still hope to engage the nation’s African American community in the history of the Civil War and its legacy of freedom?”
These are outstanding questions which are relevant to all Americans. But before addressing these issues, we must first understand two critical concepts: the National Park Service’s purpose and the cause of the Civil War.
The National Park Service’s purpose is to educate the American people, and people worldwide, concerning American history. And it is tough history. We do not visit national historic sites for fun; we visit them to increase our understanding of the past. Whether it is an American Indian massacre site in Colorado, a Japanese internment camp in California, or a battlefield in Maryland where thousands of Americans killed each other in one day, these are not sites for Frisbees, touch football, or baseball games. These are sites for contemplation and for education.
These places were controversial during the time of their significance, and will remain controversial forever. If these places had no association with controversy, they would have no association with the National Park Service. We who wear the green and grey must acknowledge that interpreting controversy has been, and always will be, a part of our jobs.
One particular controversy which permeates dozens of National Park Service sites is the cause of the Civil War. This issue underlies all public discussion of the conflict. While we, as a nation, readily accept, even embrace, conversations about the causes of the American Revolution or World War II, the justification for the secession of eleven southern states in 1860 and 1861 and the onset of war, is a subject we prefer to ignore, avoid or simply diffuse. Some Americans argue that the war’s causes ranged from the preservation of states’ rights to the protection of a low tariff; from an inevitable clash between an agricultural culture in the South and an industrial economy in the North to a quarrel over the meaning of the United States Constitution.
But we must allow the Americans of the past to speak through the primary documents that they have bequeathed to us. It is only by reading their writings, their speeches, and their debates that we can understand the reasons, fears and passions that led them to severe their ties with the United States. And the wealth of primary source evidence from the “Secession Winter” – from November 1860 through April 1861 points to one issue. The published proceedings of the eleven state secession conventions, the Congressional Globerecord of the Second Session of the Thirty-Sixth Congress, the ready availability of southern pamphlets on secession, and the minutes of several state legislatures provide incontrovertible evidence that the South seceded to protect the institution of African American slavery from the perceived abolitionist objectives of the Republican Party.
So as to the first question: “Can the nation and the NPS continue to ignore or downplay the national purpose for which Confederates fought?” The answer is no. The secession documents clearly and unequivocally demonstrate that the southern states seceded for the purpose of protecting and perpetuating African American slavery.
Question number two: “Should we simply help visitors distinguish between the stated purpose of the Confederacy and the myriad personal motivations that compel men to wage war for a nation?” This goal is certainly attainable through the utilization of soldiers’ diaries and letters, and should be pursued. These writings demonstrate a wide range of divergent opinions by both Union and Confederate soldiers. However, it should not diminish the fact that the Southern States, in their secession documents, declared that they were seceding to protect and perpetuate African American slavery.
Question number three: “Is the Park Service’s traditional role as the nation’s non-partisan, bi-sectional facilitator of honor and reflection incompatible with its charge to practice robust, just history, which is often rejected as ‘politically correct’ or ‘revisionist’ by traditionalists?” The National Park Service should allow the primary documents to speak for themselves. If visitors argue that the southern states did not secede due to slavery, provide the secession documents to visitors and permit them to argue with those who wrote them, voted in favor of them, and publicized them for the purpose of developing popular support for secession. If visitors choose to ignore these primary sources, that is their choice, but by providing these materials we have served our role as educators and as ambassadors of the past.
Question number four: “In thirty years, will the nation permit the National Park Service to manage a place called the ‘Stonewall Jackson Shrine?’” This is a place of history. As Stonewall Jackson was one of the most notable figures during the Civil War, there is little reason to suspect that the National Park Service will be ordered to abandon the site. It is controversial to some today, and perhaps always will be controversial, but that does not necessitate National Park Service abandonment. Instead, it offers an outstanding educational opportunity to discuss public perceptions of historic sites through the decades.
Question number five: “Can the National Park Service honor and memorialize Confederate soldiers (and by implication the Confederacy) and still hope to engage the nation’s African American community in the history of the Civil War and its legacy of freedom?” In respect to honoring and memorializing Confederate soldiers, two examples by United States government employees best address this issue. At Appomattox, when the Union artillery began firing in celebration, Ulysses S. Grant immediately ordered cessation out of respect to those whom he considered his countrymen again. Also at Appomattox, when the Army of Northern Virginia marched in formation for the last time, General Joshua Chamberlain ordered the Union soldiers to salute, and salute they did. In both of these instances, they were respecting and honoring the Confederate soldiers.
However, they did not honor the Confederacy. Lincoln never acknowledged the Confederacy as a separate entity, nor did he accept the surrender of the Confederate government. Grant wrote in his memoirs that he rejected the notion that the Confederacy was an independent government. In this regard, the National Park Service should not honor the Confederate government. Lincoln and his generals did not.
In respect to African American visitation at civil war parks, the fault is entirely on the National Park Service. We choose to avoid causality at the Civil War battlefields, and in doing so, we dismiss the history and reality of African Americans. In too many of our films, waysides, talks and publications we provide ample battle interpretation, but little, if any, interpretation on the events that brought these soldiers to these places to kill each other. We should begin all our Civil War battlefield interpretation with the secession documents, and thereby educate the American people that, as the secession documents state, the Confederate states seceded to protect and to perpetuate African American slavery.
American slavery was the most despicable form of slavery. It defined slaves by race. Only African Americans could be slaves, and what is particularly appalling, was the accepted antebellum notion, as Supreme Court Justice Taney stated in the Dred Scott decision, that the entire African American race was intended only for slavery. Therefore, when the National Park Service avoids discussing causality at civil war battlefields, when it avoids discussing African American slavery, it ostracizes African American history and African Americans.
At the initial National Park Service meeting to plan the Civil War Sesquicentennial events in December 2009, during the meeting’s first day, attendees quickly became embroiled in a debate as to whether the terms “African American,” “Civil Rights” and “slavery” should be included in the vision statement. During the debate, I was struck by two points. First, all the attendees were white. No African Americans. No Latinos. Secondly, I was surprised at the frequency that National Park Service employees expressed fear of the South’s reaction to these words. They never stated the “white” South, just the South, as if all white, African American, and Latinos in the South considered these terms abhorrent. In the end, the vision statement’s original version did not include the terms “slavery” and “Civil Rights” because the vast majority of the attendees considered those terms too controversial.
America is a diverse nation, and will continue to increase in diversity. Unless we provide diverse interpretation, we will not have diverse visitation. Unless we have diverse visitation, we will not have a diverse workforce. Upon the Civil War battlefields, this battle will be won or lost for the National Park Service. Until we incorporate causality into our Civil War battlefield interpretation, until we educate the American people on the secession documents, we ignore African American slavery, ignore African American history, and ignore African Americans.
The fear of interpreting controversy is no excuse. That is why we exist. That is what we do.