Visiting Civil War Battlefields in the Wake of Charlottesville

A good friend of mine who is a historian with the National Park Service offered this observation the other day:

The present debate over Confederate iconography will, over time, fundamentally alter the place battlefields hold in America’s historic and cultural landscapes.

He’s absolutely right.

It’s hard to believe that the question of whether the National Park Service should expand its battlefield interpretation to include the causes and consequences of the war as well as the home front, race, and politics was once controversial. Historians such as Robert K. Krick and Jerry Russell warned us of the dangers of “political correctness,” “presentism,” and a betrayal of the original mission of honoring the men who fought on both sides for their respective causes.

Most visitors don’t question new exhibits or this broader interpretive focus. With very few exceptions, we now acknowledge these changes as a reflection of responsible stewardship of these important landscapes and/or doing good history.

Our Civil War battlefields have never been static landscapes. Americans have been drawn to these historic sites for any number of reasons over the past century and these visits have always been influenced by the broader culture and politics. There is absolutely no denying that the ongoing debate about Confederate monuments and the coverage of the recent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia will influence why and how we understand places like Gettysburg.

This is as it should be though if you read some of the responses to my friend’s post you would think we were fast approaching rough seas. Again, we’ve heard these same concerns before. There will always be a divide between those who view battlefields as stuck in time, where the only appropriate stories and lessons learned were imparted at a very early age and those who believe that the meaning of these places must evolve and remain relevant to contemporary society.

It is certainly too early to predict what impact this debate will have, but it should come as no surprise that I am optimistic. I look forward to seeing how the NPS responds. Is the current Civil War 150th framework of “From Civil War to Civil Rights” still useful to help Americans understand the significance of these sites or do we need a new approach? Is battlefield preservation still necessary? What role do Civil War (Confederate) monuments play in a post-Charlottesville visit to battlefields?

Finally, and most importantly from my perspective, what kinds of questions should drive teachers who plan to bring their students to Civil War battlefields in the coming year? We should embrace this opportunity as educators and public historians. Let’s get to work.

9 comments… add one
  • OT but I thought this blog’s readers would be interested. Your book “Interpreting the Civil War” is available as a preview on Google Books.

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    • Thanks for the update. Thankfully, not much is available. Should be out in the next two to three weeks.

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  • I am looking far beyond students. Many, if not most, of them already “get it” in a way that even my generation did not. I will focus as much if not more emphasis on adults, especially those in the 25-45 age range. They are the rich fertile ground, and will allow those of us who are serious about what is happening to get ahead of the curve. Adults are the vast majority of any historic site’s visitation, and I remain utterly puzzled why so many people just ignore what is right in front of them, and the related opportunities.

    As to your question about battlefield preservation – of course it is still necessary. What better educational platform than a battlefield of our Civil War. I see it in Franklin daily. There is far than what the NPS is offering.

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    • I am grateful that there are people like you on the front lines of this debate. Keep up the good work.

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  • * far more

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  • Interesting question. It’s particularly interesting to me since in just over a week, I will be attending a living history at Chickamauga, portraying a regiment that fought there from the Army of Tennessee. Having participated in tours and events at Chickamauga and knowing Jim Ogden and Lee White and others who work there, I’m confident the demonstrations themselves will be handled well and in the proper historical context without any allusions to Lost Cause mythology, and rather focusing on the battle action itself. Of course, I’m also worried that it could be taken the wrong way by some visitors – it will be the battle anniversary weekend and there is usually an uptick in visitors to the battlefield at that time so who knows?

    I can’t tell someone, anyone, how to feel about a certain event, location, monument, person, etc. based on my own perception. My perception is my own and I wouldn’t dare to assert that everyone should think like me in relation to something like Confederate monuments. Seeing the Alabama memorial at Gettysburg doesn’t offend me, but that doesn’t mean that I can speak as some kind of authority on how to interpret something. I can cite what actually happened as documented or factual history, but that itself says nothing on how that history affects anyone else and their perception. Therefore, I won’t disparage anyone who feels that a certain plaque or monument should stay or go from a certain place because as much as I might try, I can’t put myself in their shoes to imagine what that really means to them.

    That said, I do believe, as others have said at times on this blog, that monuments on battlefields are different from the other public spaces that have become so controversial. Not only are they placed in the approximate location of where those troops or units would have been during the battle so there is a specific historic context to their being present, they are also part of a landscape that is itself, also being preserved for posterity. In a previous post, a person commented that a battlefield is like a museum, to which Kevin or someone else said that they’ve never viewed it as such. Not so.

    Think of Gettysburg. Not only is the NPS involved in protecting and maintaining the monuments and cannons, but also the landscape itself including vegetation, rock walls, “witness trees” which were present at the time of the battle, and in some locations even the remnants of battle trenches dug by the soldiers themselves. If the battlefield was simply a place for people to gather and talk about the war and it’s relation to our memory regardless of historical context, the NPS wouldn’t spend time and resources to acquire and destroy non-period houses, roads, or other details in order to restore the ground to it’s 1863 appearance. In other locations, the NPS is rebuilding stone walls that were present not during the battle but during the “commemorative period” which would have been from 1900 to around 1940 – preserving other aspects of history of the park itself in addition to the battle. In this sense, the monuments, both Northern and Southern, are more than appropriate on the battlefield – place which by it’s very existence forces us to confront and grapple with these issues which still plague us today.

    Then of course, there’s the fact that the park is staffed by devoted and committed historians who dedicate their lives to the study of both the battles and the history of the park and are employed by the government for the express purpose of interpreting the past. We’ve seen how the NPS has focused their energy on more than just the minutiae of battle and tactics during the 150th cycle and this is, as I think we can all agree, very encouraging to the continued study of the war and memory. Who better to interpret these monuments to Confederate soldiers and in some cases, the Lost Cause mythology associated with them without any undue bias, then the NPS?

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  • Well said. This part particularly resonated with me.

    Finally, and most importantly from my perspective, what kinds of questions should drive teachers who plan to bring their students to Civil War battlefields in the coming year? We should embrace this opportunity as educators and public historians. Let’s get to work.

    In a response to many of your posts on the topic of education, I’m working on a post that attempts to bridge the gap between standard based learning (Georgia Standards of Excellence and the AP U.S. Hist. Curriculum) and Civil War battlefields and monuments. Needless to say, it’s a daunting task.

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    • Best of luck with the project.

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  • “The present debate over Confederate iconography will, over time, fundamentally alter the place battlefields hold in America’s historic and cultural landscapes”

    Historian John Hennessy is one of the most pragmatic voices that rises above all on this issue of monuments and memory. Long before everyone else joined the chorus, Hennessy was admonishing us to view the Civil War through a much broader lens, to leave the heritage baggage behind, understand truth, and challenging us to be better through history. I never feel that John is pushing an agenda or attempting to indoctrinate. He is the historian I would want to be, if I choose to be one.

    I will continue to take direction from Hennessy, as one of the leaders on how to go forward as we all negotiate the changing landscape of Civil War study.

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