Category Archives: Battlefield Interpretation

More on John Latschar

There is no one I respect more in the NPS than John Hennessy, who is chief historian at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. John offered the following as an assessment of Latschar’s tenure at Gettysburg. You will notice that his observations stand in sharp contrast with the comments found over at Eric Wittenberg’s blog.

Speaking from the narrow (though important) perspective of one who helps manage a battlefield landscape that is also a national park, John Latschar is the most important superintendent any NPS battlefield site has had in our lifetime. Through the park’s GMP and the rigorous implementation that followed it, he was the key figure in:

- Establishing the primacy of wartime resources and landscapes over all else–a point much in debate for a very long time.

- The reclamation of the patterns of forest and field at Gettysburg have made it possible for all other sites to seriously consider and pursue such a course–something, again, that was, in the mid-1990s, only a faint dream.

- Regardless of what you think about the park’s approach to interpreting the battle and Civil War, Gettysburg has helped re-establish the importance of interpretation, and especially the many reasons why these places matter (or ought to) to the nation. What the NPS does in the way of interpretation may not much interest those already immersed in the story (though I think it really does–there are few things as compelling as a powerful interpretive program delivered on-site, no matter how many times you’ve been there), but it is everything to the bulk of a park’s visitors. Otherwise, these places are just fields and forest without significance.

Think back fifteen years. All of these issues were much in debate. Our battlefield landscapes threatened to become little more than museums of commemorative expression, with the resources related to the battle managed and interpreted with the same earnestness that we devote to CCC culverts, 1964 visitor centers, and postwar forests. While many people have had something to do with the reordering of our priorities, Gettysburg under John Latschar’s watch have given those reordered priorities tangible form–much to the benefit to park visitors, both casual and hard-core.

Congratulations John Latschar

John Latschar has accepted a position as the next president of the Gettysburg Foundation after 14 years with the NPS.  During that time he has overseen major changes to the battlefield, including the demolition of the national tower and landscape rehabilitation.  His most important project was the planning and completion of a new state-of-the-art visitor center, which includes what I believe to be the finest Civil War exhibit to be found anywhere.  It’s no surprise that Latschar would want to move on to new challenges, but it is comforting to know that he will continue to work closely with the NPS to maintain one of this nation’s most cherished sites.

Latschar’s detractors are already unleashing their venom.  One fellow blogger has described this appointment as a case of Latschar “feathering his own nest”. The article linked to in this post suggests that Latschar was surprised by the offer and took a few weeks to consider it.  This doesn’t sound like a conspiracy to me but, than again, what do I know.

Letter to Historians Regarding Wilderness Walmart Controversy

Today I received a mailing from the Civil War Preservation Trust asking me to sign an enclosed statement addressed to Lee Scott, President and CEO of Walmart.  It looks like I have  been included in a group of historians asked to voice their concern about the proposed Walmart supercenter on the Wilderness Battlefield.  I don't know why I am being included, but perhaps it has to do with my previous posts on the subject [and here].  Anyway, I approve of the statement and plan to sign and mail it tomorrow.  Here is a short excerpt:

As a historian, I feel strongly that the Wilderness Battlefield is a unique historic and cultural treasure deserving of careful stewardship.  Currently only approximately 25 percent of the battlefield is protected by the National Park Service.  If built, this Walmart would seriously undermine ongoing efforts to see more of this historic land preserved and deny future generations the opportunity to wander the landscape that has, until now, remained largely unchanged since 1864.

The Wilderness is an indelible part of our history, its very ground hallowed by the American blood spilled there, and it cannot be moved.  Surely Walmart can identify a site that would meet its needs without changing the very character of the battlefield.

There are many places in central Virginia to build a commercial development, there is only one Wilderness Battlefield.  Please respect our great nation's history and move your store farther away from this historic site and National Park. 

Now who could disagree with that?

Why Do You Go To The Gettysburg Visitor Center?

I’ve been keeping track of recent reviews of the new Gettysburg Visitor Center in both newspapers and on websites.  At some point soon I am going to write up an essay that situates the current debate over battlefield interpretation within a broader analysis of how Gettysburg has been interpreted over the past fifty years.  It seems to me that to fully understand these interpretive fault lines one needs to do a bit of history.  Katherine Calos offers her own take on the VC for Richmond.com.  Overall, it’s a positive review, but I want to focus briefly on a few of the remarks from visitors that are included in her piece:

“I found it very moving,” said Tim Ruohoniemi, who was there with his wife, Lisa, and children Emma, 10, and Ian, 8. Their visit was one stop
on a 6-month sabbatical from their work with the World Mission Prayer League in Nepal.  “As a child I was here,” he said. “I thought I knew something about the Civil War. You come to a place like this and, wow, there’s a lot. The conflict before the war was something I never fully grasped. It never really sunk in that both sides were fighting for freedom — what they thought of as freedom.”

People who have complaints about the new museum tend to echo Bob and Denise Lawther of Johnstown, Pa.  “I was a little disappointed with it,” he said. “I thought they needed more artifacts. I remember as a kid, coming down here from school, they had the surgeon’s table, the tools. I expected more displays.  “It was a little drab, too dark,” he added. “They need to brighten it up a little.”

All of the assessments that I’ve read from individuals who have actually visited the VC can be divided into one of these two camps.  In many ways they reflect two very different approaches to museums as well as the study and remembrance of the Civil War.

In the former camp we can see an emphasis on meaning and significance.  This visitor wants to know why the battlefield ought to matter.  Artifacts and information matter only to the extent that they assist the visitor in acquiring an understanding of a bigger picture.  That bigger picture not only works to connect what appear to be disparate events into a coherent narrative, but forces the visitor to reflect on his/her relation to other Americans in both the past and present.

Much of the criticism of the new VC can easily be included in the latter camp.  This visitor is interested primarily in artifacts as a means to reflection.  The artifacts are a tangible link to a past that this visitor hopes to experience through one of the senses.  In most cases its about the experiences of the common soldier.  Broader narratives are seen as tangential and as a distraction since they are abstract and not directly related to any individual artifact. Here is your antipathy toward museum interpretation; the further the interpretation is removed from the object of the individual’s experience the louder the objection.  The anger over the removal of the Electric Map is an extension of this emphasis on the individual: “What about my experience of the battlefield?”  Notice that most of the complaints about the new VC are about an individual’s experience of Gettysburg and not about how that object/artifact fits into the overall goal of understanding the battle broadly construed.  In the world of heritage tourism the consumption of the past begins and ends with the individual.

It comes down to a question of what kind of visitor the National Park Service ought to cater to.

John Hennessy on Battlefield Interpretation

Thanks to John Hennessy, who is the chief historian at the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, for taking the time to comment on my last post.  I decided to feature it to see if anyone is interested in responding to his question.  It's always nice to hear from someone on the front lines whose job it is to think about battlefield interpretation as well as how to reach out to the general public. 

It seems to me that it's our charge to make sure visitors understand both what happened at battlefield sites and why those battles matter to the nation and its history. One reason they matter, of course, is that so many died at these places–they are profound places of loss, reflection, and commemoration. That, certainly, is core to what we do (and part of our traditional role). But illuminating how what happened at Fredericksburg, for example, reverberated through Northern sitting rooms and halls of Congress–just two weeks before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation–does nothing but ADD to the interpretive experience. Every word, every twitch of our muscles ought to help visitors understand what happened, why it happened, and why it mattered (and matters). That requires some effort to put the battles in context, though that context should in my view always (at a specific site) be seen largely through the lens of that particular battle or event. I confess that I find the argument that we should not accord political, social and economic significance to battles and campaigns both interesting and befuddling. Why would we not? Can someone tell me why we should not educate visitors about why the Battle of Fredericksburg–or Antietam or Gettysburg–mattered to the nation beyond its purely military implications?