The High Ground Held

This morning I read through an essay by Robert K. Sutton about the National Park Service’s Holding the High Ground initiative, which grew out of a meeting in 1998 addressing concerns about the scope of Civil War battlefield interpretation. NPS historians were already thinking carefully about what it means to interpret Civil War sites even before the controversial call to do so by Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. in 2000. In 2008 the Holding the High Ground plan for the sesquicentennial outlined a broader definition of Civil War sites and included ways to integrate voices from civilians on the home front, slaves as well as broader discussions of politics, social change, economics and the legacy of the war.

What struck me in the Sutton essay is the concern about how these interpretive revisions would be received by the general public as the nation moved into the sesquicentennial. This appeared to be especially acute regarding the issue of slavery. Sutton offers a few anecdotes from the period in which presentations and displays concerning slavery were criticized by visitors before concluding his essay with the following:

From letters and emails we receive, we know that many visitors like what we are doing, and that some do not. We have, however, started on a course from which we do not intend to deviate. Into the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War and beyond, we will continue to wrestle with issues, such as the causes of the Civil War, so that our visitors will contemplate and better understand who we are as a people. (p. 55)

The debate surrounding Holding the High Ground has always been framed around what primarily motivates people to visit Civil War battlefields. Those resisting the NPS’s revisions declared confidently that it’s about strictly military affairs while their opponents insisted that the story of battles and leaders can be successfully integrated into a broader narrative without being compromised. [Consider this public forum held at the University of Richmond back in 2002.]

With the sesquicentennial behind us and given the overall positive reception to the wonderful slate of programs carried out by the NPS, I think it is time to move beyond this .

The ‘high ground’ of interpretation no longer needs to be defended. Looking back we can now more clearly discern that the most vocal opponents of the NPS’s new vision of Civil War battlefields represent a generation shaped by very different expectations framed by available scholarship and the broader political and racial culture of decades past. Their numbers are in decline.

Apart from the continual financial constraints that the NPS works under, it is hard to deny that historians and rangers at Civil War sites across the country now enjoy a level of intellectual freedom unanticipated just a few short years ago by folks even within the NPS.

What we’ve seen over the past few years is the fruit of that creativity of thought: Meaningful stories that connect people to their past.

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10 comments… add one
  • James F. Epperson May 29, 2015

    I recall very well, back in the USENET days of the 90s, many discussions about this. A lot of the opposition came from folks who were afraid that the NPS would “go too far” in broadening the interpretations, where “go too far” was often defined by “including the word ‘slavery.’ ” Since leaving the South I have not had as many opportunities to visit battlefields as I would like, but I can say with confidence that the sites I have seen (Shiloh, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Petersburg) were very well done.

    • Kevin Levin May 29, 2015

      One of the points that I didn’t really develop is that this debate came at a transitional moment. As we move further from the Centennial generation we are going to hear and less and less of these concerns about the priority of narrow military topics on battlefields. Of course what happened on the battlefield is important and that was never in jeopardy in any of these discussions about site interpretation. Anyone who visited a battlefield during the sesquicentennial can attest to this.

  • Boyd Harris May 29, 2015

    Listening to that 2002 public forum while writing a proposal for the 2016 NCPH conference. I’m am fascinated and utterly baffled by Jerry Russell’s comments, particularly his response to the (at that time) hypothetical question on interpretation at the World Trade Center NPS site. His arguments, however, are ones that I have heard countless times while researching state historic sites. As a former park ranger at Appomattox during the Sesquicentennial, I completely agree with your statement about the intellectual freedom available to those working at our national parks. I was actively encouraged, and even did some of my own prodding, to push the interpretation “envelope” during my three summers at Appomattox. That being said, I believe the conversation over interpretation is still not finished. This is particularly true at state historic sites, who are not under the jurisdiction of the federal government’s legislation, but still are grappling with the ramifications of that legislation on the public debate over the Civil War. (See Olustee controversy back in 2014). Instead we are now entering a different phase of the conversation, one that is occurring on a very local level at many southern state owned historic sites.

    • Kevin Levin May 29, 2015

      I’m am fascinated and utterly baffled by Jerry Russell’s comments, particularly his response to the (at that time) hypothetical question on interpretation at the World Trade Center NPS site.

      I attended that event and was sitting next to Pete Carmichael, who posed the question. You can just imagine the looks on our faces when Russell offered that response.

      That being said, I believe the conversation over interpretation is still not finished.

      You are absolutely right.

      • M.D. Blough May 30, 2015

        Kevin-Small world and all that. I also attended that as well as attending the truly marvelous NPS Symposium on the Civil War, “Rally on the High Ground” at Ford’s Theater on May 8-9, 2000. I think the use of anonymous written questions submitted by the audience at the Ford’s Theater event encouraged a much more probing level of questioning and helped identify problem areas in terms of resistance to expanded interpretation. The Ford’s Theater proceedings are available at http://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/rthg/chap7.htm. By that point, Jerry Russell had truly boxed himself into a corner in his fervent opposition to expanded interpretation which had become a central issue in the truly vicious fights over the development of the current General Management Plan for Gettysburg National Military Park. I don’t recall being even mildly surprised at anything Russell said that night. I’d pretty much all of it by then. Dwight Pitcaithley told me that he and Jerry Russell had become something of a road show at the these conferences.

        The crux of it was that expanded interpretation threatened then HIGHLY- comfortable (especially for white men) post-Civil War reconciliation narrative that totally whitewashed (literally and figuratively) the battlefield narrative and purged it of any mention of the cause of the war.

  • Jimmy Dick May 29, 2015

    What still amazes me is how after five years of participating in this argument how the heritage crew still cannot produce facts to support their claims. Five years have passed and they still cannot prove that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War. They cannot prove that there were hundreds, let alone thousands of black confederates fighting for the confederate army. They cannot prove that secession was unconstitutional. All they can do is wave flags, lie to people about the Civil War, and and prove nothing except that they fail to learn.

    I agree, Kevin, that the interpretation battle is over for the NPS. It is moving to the state levels. The sesqui has come and gone. For some it was a failure, but it seems to many that it was a success. I think that argument is going to be subjective and for some, their opinion will never change regardless of what facts are presented.

    I think a much bigger battle awaits us with Reconstruction. It is one thing to acknowledge whether an ancestor fought for slavery or not. It is another to admit that one’s ancestors were terrorists or participated in denying blacks their rights. While many people were not terrorists, almost all white Americans have ancestors who at one time or another denied blacks their civil rights. That is just the reality of the past. Until we acknowledge our past we can never break free of its chains to move into the future and leave that past where it belongs, in the past.

    • Kevin Levin May 29, 2015

      What still amazes me is how after five years of participating in this argument how the heritage crew still cannot produce facts to support their claims.

      If I understand who you have in mind than I don’t see the big deal. This crowd is relatively small and uninterested in understanding history beyond what reinforces certain assumptions. They are growing more and more irrelevant.

      Yes, Reconstruction is important, but let’s stick with the issue at hand. There has been a significant shift in how the National Park Service interprets our Civil War sites and which it will continue to build upon. The NPS is currently looking for a site with which to focus on the Reconstruction Era. Change happens slowly. Let’s at least take the time to acknowledge success.

  • If the sesquicentennial represents a success in the NPS broadening interpretive themes, I hope that we similar success in broadening the sites where Civil War history is interpreted well as we move towards the bicentennial. Perhaps technological innovations (e.g., digitization) will help spur a local history renaissance in which the Civil War’s social, political, and economic history are interpreted in compelling ways well beyond NPS boundaries.

    For example, what Sutton talks about at Chickamauga is great, but ultimately just about every aspect of history except the tactical movements as it relates to the 79th Pennsylvania (one of Gen. Thomas’s regiments) at the battle can be more richly interpreted using cemeteries, objects, churches, houses, monuments, and other resources in Lancaster, PA.

    Some other thoughts: http://www.lancasteratwar.com/2015/05/interpretation-beyond-battlefield-and.html

  • M.D. Blough May 30, 2015

    The dialogue in the NPS, not only within its ranks but with the general public, began even earlier than Robert Sutton’s 1998 essay. One of the earliest points I’ve seen was Dr. John A. Latschar (then near the beginning of his time as Superintendent at Gettysburg NMP)’s March 4, 1995 presentation, “Gettysburg: The Next 100 Years” given at the 4th Annual Gettysburg Seminar, “The Shaping Of An American Shrine,” held at GNMP. Among other issues, he addressed very directly the issues involved in expanded interpretation, especially the failure to appeal to the black population of America. He laid the larger portion of the blame for this failure squarely on the NPS, stating, in part of his address,

    “. . . In our current interpretative efforts to honor both the Union and the Confederate forces which fought on our battlefields, we have bent over backwards to avoid any notion of fixing blame for the war–to talk about who was right and who was wrong in this great struggle. If we are catering exclusively to the white portion of our population, this makes sense. For the black, it does not. It is abundantly clear to them who was wrong, and no academic argument ever printed will convince them otherwise. In their view the only and sole purpose of the Confederate States of America was to permanently and perpetually keep the black race in bondage. To them, there can be no question that the South was “wrong”. That is also very understandable.
    —-Yet we are extremely reluctant to tackle that issue, partially due to our sense of “fairness”-which only extends to our white constituency–and partly, I would suggest, to to the still-lingering effects of the “myth of the lost cause.” . . . As long as we perceive the Confederacy to be tinged with an element of romance, we will fail to make the Civil War and our battlefields relevant to our black population, and we will fail to win their support for battlefield preservation.”

    Confederate heritage groups went ballistic over these remarks and launched a letter/postcard campaign to unsuccessfully demand that he be fired.

    • Kevin Levin May 30, 2015

      Thanks for the comment, Margaret. I think it is important to acknowledge that there have been NPS historians thinking creatively about Civil War site interpretation throughout the twentieth century. I can’t tell you how many little discoveries I made along these lines when conducting research for my book. You referenced Latschar’s 1995 presentation, but in Petersburg these topics were being discussed openly in the early 1980s. It’s impossible to deny the importance of the Holding the High Ground initiative as well as Jesse Jackson Jr’s involvement, but it also overshadows a more complex story.

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