Last night the Civil War Institute posted a video of National Park Service historian David Larsen discussing issues related to interpretation at historic sites. Larsen worked as a training manager for interpretation at Mather Training Center. Unfortunately, he recently passed away. I am embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of him before last night. This interview was conducted in 2000. I haven’t watched all the videos, but I plan on doing so over the next few days. Below is Part 1. Listen to Larsen’s definition of interpretation, which you can find between minute 3:00 and 4:30.
I just came across the schedule for the upcoming meeting of the Stephen D. Lee Institute in St. Augustin, Florida next month. It should come as no surprise that they decided to focus on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. A quick glance at the titles of the presentations suggests that participants will be getting a very different perspective on the events that culminated with the proclamation as well as its short- and long-term consequences.
Donald Livingston — “How the North Failed to Respond to the Moral Challenge of Slavery”
Thomas Moore — “The War of Emancipation 150 Years Later: How’s that Working Out for You?”
Kirkpatrick Sale — “Emancipation Hell: The Disaster the Emancipation Proclamation Wrought”
Marshall De Rosa — “Emancipation in the Confederacy: What the Ruling Class doesn’t want you to know and why”
Ryan S. Walters — “The Powers of a Usurper: Northern Opposition to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation”
Brion McClanahan — “Democracy, Liberty, Equality: Lincoln’s American Revolution”
You just gotta love these titles. I do hope that they make these talks available on video, especially De Rosa’s. There will be a cash bar following the last talk between 4:30 and 6pm. I suggest they move it up to 8am.
Civil War tourism in Virginia is strong and growing, the commission reported. On Virginia.org, Civil War-related views have increased 96 percent since 2011. Views of information about the national battlefield parks that interpret Virginia’s Civil War sites are up 181 percent, the panel said. More than 100,000 people have downloaded the seven “battle apps” the Civil War Trust, with money from the state Department of Transportation, has created for smartphones and tablets. Three new apps are expected this year. Last month, dozens of programs marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg drew nearly 10,000 participants, the report said. In Spotsylvania County, battle re-enactments in 2012 and 2011 lured more than 13,000 visitors. Last but not least, the state has awarded more than $8 million in matching grants to save battlefield land through the Virginia Civil War Sites Preservation Fund. The effort has saved 4,700 acres valued at more than $30 million, a return on investment of nearly 4-to-1, the commission reported.
The report is worth perusing in its entirety. The range of programming, from Signature Conferences to the History Mobile is impressive, but what stands out for me is the work being done on the local level that is being supported by the commission. This is grass-roots commemoration at its best. The Virginia commission is the closest we will come to a national commission. In fact, it is hard to imagine a national commission doing much more that what Virginia has already accomplished.
While the entire commission ought to be congratulated I want to single out Cheryl Jackson. Cheryl is the executive director of the commission and has been in charge from the beginning. She is not a trained historian, but Cheryl has worked tirelessly to bring together top scholars, local leaders and other public officials to ensure that Virginia’s commemoration is relevant to all Virginians. I can personally attest to her passion and commitment having seen her in action and talked with her in person.
If I had to pick 5 people who have done more to help shape our Civil War Sesquicentennial, Cheryl would be at the top of my list.
I am currently reading and thoroughly enjoying James Oakes’s new book, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865. At some point soon I will share some thoughts, but for now I wanted to highlight the cover art by Theodor Kaufmann. “On to Liberty” is in my mind the most compelling visual interpretation of the emancipation experience of tens of thousands of slaves during the Civil War. Here we have a group of fugitive slaves walking confidently toward the sound of Union guns off in the distance. The flash of the cannon and United States flag function as a beacon for this particular group. It’s interesting that there are no adult black men present. But what I want to point out is that apart from one child, who is wearing boots, everyone else is barefoot. Whose boots might they be? Are they military? If so, Confederate? Perhaps they belong to the boy’s former owner? What might that mean?
As many of you know I spent my Christmas break with my wife in Germany. This is my third trip and with each visit I’ve grown more attached to the people, the landscape, and the culture. I find myself completely absorbed by my surroundings when abroad, especially in Germany. My passion for the history of the Civil War is replaced by an intense interest in the German experience in World War II. My visits always include a good book about the period. This time around I put a major dent in Richard Evans’s The Third Reich at War. I have little problem imagining the battles, lines of advance and ruins of places like Bonn and especially Koln owing to that iconic image of the bombed-out city center, including the cathedral and nearby railroad bridge.
My interest in the period, however, is not purely military. Even though I do not live a religious life I was raised in a Jewish family and my education early on was filled with survivors of and stories about the Holocaust. I don’t just bring that personal past with me to Germany, I am forced to confront it on a daily basis. It manifests itself in the form of a puzzle or set of seemingly contradictory perceptions. On the one hand I am married to a wonderful German woman. Her family has accepted me with open arms. I have never felt from anyone in my wife’s family – or for that matter anyone else in Germany – any feelings of Anti-Semitism.
At the same time I can’t help but acknowledge the brief span of time between today and the 1940s. For historians 70 years is a drop in the bucket. It’s impossible for me to ignore the fact that just a few decades my presence in this very same country would have been met with disgust, anger, and worse. I know this and at times it colors how I view the people around me. At times I find myself playing with the faces in the streets. I can imagine the elderly in their youth – young enough to have lived through the Nazi era and perhaps somehow contributing to the extermination of the Jewish people. I can imagine them forcing me onto a train. But what troubles me is how easily I can imagine younger male faces in German/SS uniforms. I can’t help but feel a certain amount of guilt and shame for doing so. After all, why saddle a younger generation with the past? The mental act is my way of trying to come to terms with what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.” Why would my presence have been so revolting just a few decades ago when now I am welcomed with open arms? I’ve read plenty of philosophy and social scientists on just this question, but they provide me with little in terms of answers.
For me, the past and present collapse when in Germany.