I asked Brian if he was surprised at the lack of Confederate monuments. “Actually, I am. It kinda annoys me. There are about a zillion Union monuments here. Granted, the North took more casualties at Antietam, but they had more guys to lose.” He recalled one of the informational markers he read, “The Army of Northern Virginia lost about a quarter of their strength and the Army of the Potomac lost about an eighth. It was much harder for the South to replace those casualties than it was for the North.” Brian clarified that, if elected, he planned to introduce legislation next year to place a Virginia state monument on the battlefield in commemoration of the sesquicentennial. I pointed out that such a move could backfire if not done properly and he interrupted me, “There’s nothing political about recognizing that folks in the army of the state that I’m from fought here and died here. They deserve to be remembered regardless of what side they fought on and it bothers me there is nothing here, because I know there are plenty at Gettysburg.”
Executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, GETTYSBURG strips away the romanticized veneer of the Civil War to present the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in a new light–a visceral, terrifying and deeply personal experience, fought by men who put everything on the line in defense of their vision of the American future. Cinematic in scope, GETTYSBURG is an information-packed look at the turning points, strategic decisions, technology and little-known facts surrounding the battle. Developed in collaboration with highly esteemed Civil War historians, GETTYSBURG reflects hundreds of individual accounts of the battle–the unique voices of struggle, defeat and triumph that tell the larger story of a bitterly conflicted nation. [Click here for a preview.]
Will this movie really highlight what was a “visceral, terrifying, and deeply personal experience?” Wasn’t Ted Turner’s Gettysburg an example of just such a movie or is the difference here that the special effects will set the Scott production apart? I guess in the end I have trouble believing that any Civil War movie can strip away “the romanticized veneer of the Civil War” entirely. Our memory of Gettysburg is wrapped up in all kinds of romantic memes from “Brother v. Brother” to “A Battle that Decided the Fate of a Nation.” We don’t have a Civil War apart from our romantic notions that define its continued significance and meaning.
Yesterday Brooks Simpson offered a brief reflection on why he spends time at Civil War battlefields. He also asks of his readers why they visit these places. Back in 2008 I was invited to give the keynote address at the National Park Services’s [FSNMP] annual commemoration in Fredericksburg. I took the opportunity to share why I bring my students to Civil War battlefields.
Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students, bound for one of the areas Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite day of the year. For me, it is an opportunity to reconnect with a history that has given my life meaning in so many ways. It’s also a chance to introduce this history to my students, many of whom have never set foot on a Civil War battlefield. Visits to battlefields such as Fredericksburg provide a venue in which to discuss what is only an abstraction in the classroom and offer students and the rest of us a chance to acknowledge a story that is much larger and more remote compared to our individual lives and yet relevant in profound ways.
One of my readers was kind enough to pass on the following video, which was originally used as part of a training course for National Park Service interpreters. The video includes interviews with various interpreters on the necessity and challenges associated with introducing the cause of the war on Civil War battlefields. There are a number of perspectives presented, but all convey the importance of doing so.
I’ve learned a umber of things in the course of my research on the Crater and public history/historical memory. For any number of reasons we’ve underestimated the level of interest in the Civil War within the African American community. In Petersburg public interest could be found in the postwar years in local churches, in black militia units, and in local schools. A heightened awareness of the role of African Americans in the Civil War can be found in the 1950s and 60s in such popular magazines such as Ebony and Jet. Over the course of the past year we’ve seen ample evidence of African Americans embracing the Civil War. The level of interest is directly related to the wide range of events that can be found in museums, historical societies, educational institutions, and other private organizations. Despite what the mainstream media would have us believe, we are witnessing a profound transformation in our collective memory of the war compared with just a few short decades ago.
The National Park Service has led the way in broadening the general public’s understanding of the war and the meaning of our most important historic sites. Consider John Hennessy’s recent tour of Fredericksburg, titled, “Forgotten: Slavery and Slave Places in Fredericksburg”, which attracted roughly 70 members from the area’s historic black churches. John’s optimism is tempered somewhat by the comments he heard from a few people:
“Are you going to get in trouble for doing this? You know…your bosses. I didn’t think you guys were allowed to do things like this.” During the day, I received a number of comments along the same line, suggesting surprise that we, the NPS, would do a tour dealing with slavery.
I have little doubt that the public perception of the NPS among African Americans will continue to improve with continued programming that reaches beyond traditional narrative boundaries. The NPS in Petersburg has also taken steps to reach out to the local black community with, among other things, a series of walking tours of downtown Petersburg. Again, all of these things bode well for the future.