The Battle on the Civil War Battlefields

Shortly after the publication of Common-place’s special issue on the Civil War sesquicentennial I was contacted by Timothy Good, who is currently the superintendent at the Ulysses S. Grant Historic Site. He wanted to respond to John Hennessy’s essay on the challenges of interpreting the Civil War on National Park Service battlefields. I suggested he write a response as a guest post for this blog, which is featured below for your consideration.

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 Globe record 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.

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.

15 comments… add one

  • Patrick Young Apr 2, 2014

    Wow!

    Thanks for writing this Mr. Good.

    I have been surprised since I began immersing myself in the Civil War four years ago at how much of contemporary discussion within the Civil War “community” seemed to be between two sets of white native-born people. The notion of what white Southerners descended from Confederate soldiers would think of any particular Civil War issue has seemed to be such a central concern that the fact that there are now tens of millions of Latinos and Asian Americans with no Civil War ancestry but with a direct stake in understanding the evolution of a white supremacist ideology that inevitably placed white people in the position of the kings of creation and that helped prompt the war and its Jim Crow aftermath seems to be of no interest at all to many within the “community”. Latinos and Asian Americans often visit Civil War battlefields without hearing any indication that the conflict that took place there had anything to do with them.

    Outside of the Civil War community, the notion that only whites are important enough to be listened to and to participate in decision making went by the wayside a long time ago.

    Even the black/white duality is a thing of the past. Today, only 64% of Americans are non-Hispanic Whites. Hispanics are 16%, Blacks are 13%, and Asians are 5% of the total population. There are nearly twice as many Hispanics and Asians combine as there are African Americans. Hispanics now account for 69% of net population growth.

    The death of national interest in the war will be the insistence that it belongs to one racial group, descended from the original participants.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 2, 2014

    First, thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts on this important subject with my readers. There is much that I am in agreement, but I found this statement to go a bit too far:

    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.

    Certainly, this was true a few decades ago, but in the past ten years or so the NPS has made some incredible strides in integrating the story of African Americans into site interpretation. This is particularly true in Petersburg, which I’ve researched extensively, but you can also see this story in different forms at Gettysburg, Appomattox, Bull Run, Antietam.

    I am not suggesting that more shouldn’t be done, but to point the finger solely at the NPS as a reason why African American do not visit these places in large numbers misses the mark. The African American community needs to take at least some responsibility for the low attendance.

  • Sinclair Barton Apr 2, 2014

    I noticed, of course, that Mr. Good didn’t advocate that we fully explore the extreme white supremacy that existed in the north. Mr. Good implores us to use the term “white Southerners”, but does not implore us to use the term “white Northerners”. I wonder why. Also, no mention at all of Grant’ slave ownership, nor of his use of the word ni**er. No mention of Lincoln’s white supremacy speeches during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, no mention of Lincoln’s colonization schemes, nor of Lincoln’s repeated use of tat degrading and dehumanizing term, “ni**er”. No mention that Lincoln fully supported the Fugitive Slave Law. Mr. Good fulminates indignantly over slavery, but ignores the fact that slavery was legal in Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and West Virginia. And Lincoln did in fact give de facto recognition to the C.S.A. when he declared blockade, and the Supreme Court gave the same recognition. If the circumstances surrounding the war are to be fully opened up, I am all for it.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 2, 2014

      I find it interesting that in response to most posts on this site that you can do little more than redirect the conversation. My patience is growing thin. You are free to start your own blog if you so choose. Continue in this way and you will find your comments deleted.

      Thanks for your understanding.

    • Tom Heaney Apr 3, 2014

      Wow. So many fallacies in one place. Let’s see, there’s non sequitur . . . a generous dollop of straw man . . . [snif] . . . and do I detect a hint of tu quoque?

      Mmm. Delicious.

  • Julian Apr 3, 2014

    this is going to be controversial but I have to say it …
    I was struck by the quote
    “American slavery was the most despicable form of slavery.” this seems a strange thing to say

    all forms of slavery were AND are bad with millions of slaves still living in the world – 1,000’s are believed to be living illegally in London in the homes of their owners in 2013 – according to the London press. Much slavery today is still based upon race and ethnicity – especially in the middle east as well as class and economic/social vulnerability – the latter often linked to race, ethnicity and visual signs of difference. The North American experience of slavery is not a positive thing – but it is typical and defining not anomalous. I would suggest that racial and ethnic difference has been a marker of “fitness” or “appropriateness” – I say both in inverted commas – for enslavement for millennia.

    It does sound a) a little bit like the myths that say that the rape of a prostitute is not as bad as the rape of a white middle class church going virgin – i.e. neither rape nor slavery can be conjugated as bad or less bad – they just are bad full stop
    b) it almost makes slavery a sort of perverted form of exceptionalism -as if in doing a bad thing you want it to be the gold standard kick-ass badness of bad for all time

    This point is an interesting one for historical interpretation
    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?”

    one could note that there are different interpretive practices – think for example of historians’ discussions of “ordinary” middle and working class Germans over the period 1933-1945 and also the ongoing tensions between academic and popularist narratives of the past in Germany – think too of what we know and remember of the multiple and different relationships of US citizens to the state during the Viet Nam era – what forms of templates and constructs could we make to flatten these variations and contradictions, the support and the dissent. What of things such as napalm – can a form of responsibility be slated back down to ordinary citizens who did not protest – will those ordinary citizens resent such devolution of blame ? How far does the language of government utterances and even policy represent each individual under the rule of that government – if you look at modern democracies around the world the sense of disconnect between policy and lived experience is rising rapidly. This is not to deny the content of the secession documents – but there is also the question of how or even if the individual placed themselves within the values of these documents

    I would also say that if US minorities are not visiting US Civil War battlefield sites – then what of the many international visitors of many ethnicities who visit at least the high profiled sites, some of which such as Gettysburg need a fairly high level of preplanning and commitment from any overseas tourist .i.e. several flight/bus changes and/or hiring a car. Its not like going to Disneyland in California or taking a boat ride past the Statue of Liberty which is something that can be easily booked by any tourist company/agency. Foreign interest in Civil War sites to me suggests that they are not just places for white middle class US citizens and that the battlefields do appeal in their current format to a diverse audience of many linguistic and ethnic backgrounds- but why not a home grown diverse audience? – in seeking to address this don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater or be too hard on yourselves for other’s decisions

    • Patrick Young Apr 3, 2014

      Julian, you wrote: “I would also say that if US minorities are not visiting US Civil War battlefield sites – then what of the many international visitors of many ethnicities who visit at least the high profiled sites, some of which such as Gettysburg need a fairly high level of preplanning and commitment from any overseas tourist .i.e. several flight/bus changes and/or hiring a car.”

      This seems confusing to me. What does the fact that some foreign tourists visit Civil War battlefields have to do with why non-White Americans are underrepresented? Are the tourists a substitute for traditionally excluded groups of Americans?

  • Tim Good Apr 3, 2014

    Thanks for all the comments. For those of you interested in learning more about this controversy within the National Park Service, you may visit this web page for a discussion of the vision statement controversy – http://www.georgewright.org/292good.pdf

    • Jimmy Dick Apr 3, 2014

      Tim,
      That is an excellent essay on the issues that came up in 2009. I am very pleased to know that the NPS employees stood up courageously to battle against a vision that was incorrect. With the current stance against the humanities and academic freedom expressed by many politicians today it is vitally important for the historical community to stand up and speak out with a clear and unified voice. I will be renewing my membership in the OAH next week cheerfully (funding issues!) so that I can be part of that unified voice.

  • Julian Apr 3, 2014

    Patrick – sorry I don’t see that issue as confusing nor do I see my example as irrelevant or hors concours – I was talking of visitation and the identity of visitors (which was a concern expressed within the blog entry as well as the need to increase the diversity of stories told at and about the NPS sites). The fact that there are people of many ethnicities and people who are NESB and ESL – that is non-English speaking background and English as second language background – who are engaged by the NPS civil war sites suggests that the sites, the events and stories that are represented and interpreted there are not a priori elements that only appeal/speak only to the whitest of the white. It suggests that there are a range of people who are not necessarily white and middle class US drawn to these sites. They are people who do not necessarily have a heritage or ancestral link – nor do they have to be reassured by locating a one on one mirror of what they may perceive as their identity within displays, outside signage or spoken word interpretations – lectures and tours.

    If the purpose of a heritage or a tourist site is to locate some mirror of the self or the culture that one claims to belong to – then that is flat, naïve and reductive. Do we mean to say that non-Jews need not mourn at Auschwitz or that you have to be Chinese to appreciate the engineering achievements of the Great Wall or French to visit Monet’s Garden at Giverny … that is silly, but that is the logical reduction ad absurdum of saying that diverse, NESB, ESL audiences are not turning up at NPS Civil War sites because there is nothing directly for or about them.

    The world would be a boring place indeed if one only travelled to sites that confirmed one’s Weltanschauung or demanded that everywhere one visited confirmed it or was upbeat about one’s originating culture – I one day may want to see the Creation Museum with Jesus riding dinosaurs without giving up my knowledge of Darwin and Huxley’s writings or the polystyrene, plastic and chipboard pyramids built down South by a renegade offshoot of the Nation of Islam without subscribing to the belief that Socrates stole African heritage and culture

    If visitors of non-US diverse origins are coming to the battlefields and finding reasons to make a very specific journey there – nor regarding them alien or hostile sites (we presume) – what are the factors inhibiting US-based people of diverse and minority origins from visiting the battlefields – are they cultural, social or simply just habitual – not necessarily related to the content of what is to be seen and heard there.

    a couple of other things

    Across the two 150th reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg there were on my [very] rough count people from 18 or 19 different nations including countries in Asia presenting themselves as mid 19th century Americans dressed for battle – not all of the different groups were at both events, again this is not talking about US based minorities but it again indicates that the story is not an a priori whitebread one in its resonance.

    I wonder whether it is just the Civil War that attracts an international following – e.g I don’t think there is a substantial global interest in the Spanish American War for example (I stand to be corrected) nor do I know of overseas people travelling to the US to do a Revolutionary war roadtrip in a hire car. I personally don’t know whether people come from Britain to see where an ancestor fought and/or died in the 18th century. I read on another Civil War forum that a Revolutionary War sutler reports selling vast quantities of both British and US uniforms to Japanese buyers suggesting there is a Revolutionary War re-enactment scene there but I have never found cross referencing verification of that potentially curious trend. Perhaps the NPS people know if other US military sites attract the same international attention as does the Civil War.

  • Pat Young Apr 3, 2014

    Julian, you wrote: “Do we mean to say that non-Jews need not mourn at Auschwitz or that you have to be Chinese to appreciate the engineering achievements of the Great Wall or French to visit Monet’s Garden at Giverny … that is silly, but that is the logical reduction ad absurdum of saying that diverse, NESB, ESL audiences are not turning up at NPS Civil War sites because there is nothing directly for or about them.”

    That would be silly were anyone to actually make those points.

  • Tim Good Apr 4, 2014
  • Julian Apr 5, 2014

    of course Patrick
    ” That would be silly were anyone to actually make those points.”

    of course it was a satiric exaggeration to make a point – and I am no more advocating such things than Jonathan Swift thought in his “Modest Proposal” of 1729 that the poor Irish beggars in Dublin should raise money by selling their children to be served on the tables of the wealthy English.

    I personally feel that we can not have it both ways – either great art, great achievements, or conversely the extremes of the human condition, good or bad, suffering or resistance, can communicate cross culturally or we remain silo-ed in our individual specificity to the point of isolation and alienation – empathy and resonance do not necessarily foreclose down to a cultural specificity.

    what I am trying to say is that the concept of the whiter than white Civil War may itself be a “dog whistle” or a “straw man” construct – a back story justification for its deconstruction on “moral” grounds – given that the history and imagery of the war – perhaps to a greater degree than some other periods of US history -with the possible exception of the “wild west” – captures a global and undeniably diverse imagination.

    The primary sources – more than later cinematic and novelistic recapitulations do indicate a Hispanic presence – including the female Confederate Loreta Velasquez subject of a recent documentary film, a Native American presence as both individuals and as groups right up to level of General as with Stand Watie – the last CSA commander to surrender on land – and the Union had General Ely Parker, a British/European element on both sides – and the statistics – alone – of USCT enlistment indicate a substantial contribution – there is no need to distort the historical record or fantasise or make heavy handed special pleading to have a construct of the war that speaks across many audiences.

    I note the statistics that you quote in your first post – as you rightly indicate – your country is changing but currently there are legitimate points of connectivity between the war and those population subsets.

    Perhaps the biggest challenge to the status quo of how the American Civil War is to be publically taught and interpreted comes from increasing population movements that are impacting on many nations simultaneously such as the diasporic movement of the Indian middle classes, who unlike many immigrant groups, retain strong familial and economic links with their home country even as they work and study in other countries, thus too the emerging Chinese middle classes are to mass international tourism in the 2010’s what North Americans (aka “the Ugly Americans”) were in the 1960s and 1970s or the Japanese were in the 1970s and 1980s. The movement of refugees from warzones and regimes that discriminate against their own minorities continues to increase in a manner unprecedented even after 1945 and that is changing the cultural and ethnic face of many nations.

    These newer demographic changes may lead to the creation of audiences that have on paper a more tenuous relationship to current images of the war, which then sets out new challenges. Although people travelling between countries for such reasons as higher education, doctoral and post doctoral studies and residencies sometimes – from anecdotal evidence that I have heard from reenactors become fascinated with reenactments when in the US – or perhaps ironically become engaged with the many US Civil War reenactments in Europe and Great Britain – and then come to the US and to the NPS sites to follow up on that interest in the war with directly immersing themselves in actual spaces.

    Regarding heritage and ethnicity one could also add the cautionary tale, as art museums in Europe and the English speaking world are trying to make themselves more relevant to the growing communities of citizens from Subcontinental India in many countries and often make spectacular purchases of classical Indian artworks. Ironically many of these have been stolen and illegally exported from India, meaning that the “heritage” in situ is being destroyed to create a new constructed heritage to attract diasporic expatriates into the whitebread museum and gallery.

    Finally Tim – I find this statement about the Confederacy in the article that you quoted from the Grist website more than somewhat “out there”

    “I was incredulous. If the descendants of Hitler’s army wanted to celebrate Third Reich “heritage,” would the Park Service grant them the right to “decide on their own” which story to tell”
    Glibly and totally ahistorically likening the CSA army to the Wehrmacht (or he probably means the Waffen SS) is as self serving as suggesting that both Chandler “boys” could exert equal freedom of choice to go to war … fantasies should be called out or at least justified by evidence rather emotional ambit claims.

    Substantial changes in interpretive policy and practice need far more considered rationales than such a rant – this makes no sense – the topic under discussion is the US not Europe, the era 1860s not 1940s – the CSA was not about to commit genocide of enslaved persons, they were needed even more for industry, for agriculture, for the war effort after 1861

    • Pat Young Apr 5, 2014

      Julian, I have to say that you appear to have missed the point of the original post as well as my comment.

  • Julian Apr 15, 2014

    Patrick – getting back to this debate – I was going to say something broadly along the lines of Foucault’s theories -that to name and police the issue in effect consolidates and gives it an identity that it did not have previously – therefore those concerned about racist exclusion in popular civil war sense making at civil war sites will see a civil war defined and fettered by a priori racism, which then invites it own correction. I still will say that the strong global interest in coming to civil war battlefields does indicate that the appeal of the subject and the battlefields managed by the US NPS is not only about middle class middle aged white males. Diversity is diversity whether it is international or intranational. Nor do we have to make any special pleading or historical distortions or simplistic and patronising interventions to be able identify a greater diversity of cultures, races and languages on the battlefield itself – 1861-1865 did not really look and sound like Disney’s Johnny Shiloh .

    I was going to say at least agree to disagree when I came across an interesting post on another civil war forum which is germane to the nature of the classic NPS experience of mid century memory as well as engaging with debates on whether the sesqui centenary is a damp squibb.

    The guy who made the post was a veteran of more recent US military activity overseas and he suggested that the intense obsession at the centenary with events and sites of the eastern theatre related to the fact that most adult males in the US at that date had fought in either Korea or World War 2 – with some WWI veterans as well. he said that although the weaponry and communications had vastly developed, there was still a tangible lived relationship in the idea of well organised armies engaging each other with a degree of formality in large events- so for those tourists, campers, family men with a car full of kids and even reenactors thronging the NP sites in the 1960s, they were exploring a vision of warfare that was personally vivid and valid – and the connection to their own more recent military experience was also an impetus to their visits to NPS sites as well as the introduction of their own kids to this connection. the kids in turn grew up to be the strong 80s 90s reenactor generation – who were also focussed solely upon commanders, tactics and engagements. He finds the western theatre makes more sense in the light of newer experiences of war and he thinks that interest in the war will shift from the grand narratives of heroes and tactics to the ambiguous details of the cellular small scale shifting alliances of the west.

    So yes the public culture around the war – which was derived from activities happening in the centenary and which centres itself upon the NPS holdings – is as you say a culture of older white males – but one of the drivers was not simply racism but sense of these older men engaging with their own experiences of military action in their youth -a psychological working through. As that generation disappears and their children who are the current holders of flame in turn becomes less active in public life, so too will the cultural habits and preferences fade and new formats will evolve – whether this will happen in an organic way rather than conscious editing and change from public officers is a moot point. I favour letting things find their own level and evolve organically rather than being scripted with heavy moral hand – I do wonder at the interpretative film showing at Gettysburg – do they fear that the immersive diorama will turn us in a reverse Paulian conversion into ranting racists (even though it is an image of Rebel defeat) – there seems to be prophylactic impetus

Leave a Comment