Last week I was interviewed about the possibility of future legislation that would authorize the removal of Confederate monuments from Civil War battlefields within the National Park Service system. I am against their removal from the landscape.
I say this with the understanding that these monuments pose some of the same challenges that those located in public parks, intersections, and court house squares represent to the community. The difference is that battlefields offer an opportunity to educate the public—an opportunity that simply does not exist anywhere else.
It is no surprise that this debate has been centered around Gettysburg. If I am not mistaken it contains the most Confederate monuments of any Civil War battlefield. Their location along Seminary Ridge or Confederate Avenue has helped to reinforce the Lost Cause narrative and especially the battle’s “High Water-Mark” narrative. Most people can point to the Lee monument while standing at the “Bloody Angle” but may have no idea where the equestrian monument of General George Gordon Meade is located.
Civil War monuments located at National Park Service sites offer a unique opportunity to educate the public about competing interpretations of Civil War memory. Right now the NPS at Gettysburg does a good job of interpreting the history of battlefield commemorations in its museum exhibit, but there is next to nothing on the battlefield itself. This is especially problematic given the number of visitors who skip the visitor center entirely or choose not to spend time in the museum.
Efforts to interpret these monuments through wayside markers, tours, and other programs need to include both Union and Confederate monuments with the goal being to place them in conversation with one another. The monuments are a reminder that the history of the Gettysburg landscape and other Civil War sites extends well beyond 1865. They are as much a part of the story as the wartime events themselves.
I don’t know if a new “Holding the High Ground” initiative is necessary, but this work is not going to be easy nor should it be. The monuments raise some of the toughest questions about how Americans have chosen to remember and commemorate the Civil War era—decisions that continue to divide us today.
Any serious attempt at interpreting Confederate monuments will have to face head on the events of the past few years, beginning with the shooting of nine African American churchgoers in Charleston in 2015. It is no accident that these monuments have become targets in the wake of Charleston, Charlottesville, and Minneapolis. Confederate monuments can no longer exist in a vacuum cut off from the broader culture.
Battlefields are not time capsules.
My hope is that renewed attention on these monuments will help to defuse them over time. And it will take time. Maintaining the status quo is not a solution. We have an obligation to face our history. With sufficient support and funding the National Park Service is perfectly positioned to take the lead on this important work.