Where Should the National Park Service Interpret Reconstruction?
It’s been noted on this blog more than once that we currently do not have a historic site devoted to Reconstruction. Today in the Atlantic Greg Downs and Kate Masur announced that the National Park Service has undertaken a study to rectify this oversight. As the authors note, this project is fraught with challenges associated with the complexity of the history itself and the many myths that still influence how we remember this period in our history. The larger problem is that Reconstruction has largely disappeared from our collective memory.
So, where should such a site be located? Given the time period that needs to be covered (roughly 1863 to 1877) the site needs to be flexible in its potential to cover more than just an event. It needs to be able to convey change over time and multiple narratives. The site will also need to convey both the successes and setbacks of Reconstruction.
My choice: Beaufort, South Carolina
Beaufort and the Sea Islands offer any number of interpretive opportunities. Its location is ideal for understanding individuals such as Robert Smalls, the broad expanse of Reconstruction, including Union occupation, the Port Royal Experiment, emancipation, recruitment of USCTs, the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau and its influence on the lives of former slaves during Reconstruction and beyond. The question of property distribution can be interpreted through a close examination of the land and the lives of slaves and masters before and during the war. The presence of Northern philanthropists (or carpetbaggers, if you prefer) can be examined as well. A location in South Carolina is also ideal for the interpretation of larger issues associated with black political action on the state level and white resistance.
Overall, Beaufort is an ideal place to interpret the fluidity of the Civil War and Reconstruction as outlined in Greg Downs’s new book, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War, which makes a compelling case that the United States remained on a war footing well into the latter part of the 1860s.
There are also practical concerns as well, most importantly the site’s accessibility by the general public. Located in close proximity to Hilton Head, Savannah, and Charleston will likely add to the region’s heritage tourism.
This just scratches the surface of the benefits of such a location. What do you think?