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.