The Anatomy of a Commemorative Talk

I don’t mind admitting that I am just a little nervous about the upcoming commemorative speech that I will give in Fredericksburg on December 14.  I’ve never delivered such a speech before.  It’s much easier to present a traditional conference paper where the speaker at least appears to be detached from the subject at hand.  A commemorative talk on the anniversary of a famous Civil War battle, however, demands that the speaker share something more personal and in a way that facilitates an other-regarding emotion in the audience such as empathy or sympathy.  I assume most of the people who attend will want to hear something uplifting, perhaps something that reinforces a personal connection through an ancestor who fought in the war or maybe even something that dovetails with our popular perceptions of the Civil War, which at times border on the celebratory.  In the end we want to know that they (the soldiers) matter and that the bloodshed, death, and sacrifice continues to occupy a central place in our broader national narrative, one that is characterized by its exceptionalism and intrinsic goodness.

It seems to me, however, that to get to this point one must engage in a great deal of reductionism from the complex to the overly simplistic.  Doesn’t this constitute a significant portion of the history of Civil War commemoration from end of the twentieth century onward?  By their very nature commemorative talks must look beyond moral complexity, contingency, and doubt to embrace the whiggish principles that Americans so easily embrace.  I’ve never felt comfortable approaching the past in this manner.  An example of what I am getting at can be found in Mark Grimsley’s most recent post at Civil Warriors which includes a refernce to an essay by Kent Gramm:

In the introduction to a recent book on Civil War combat, historian Kent Gramm opens with a surprising comment: “One of the most harmful consequences of the Civil War results from our very interest in the war, and our attraction to it.” As a Civil War buff, he explains, you can vicariously march with the indomitable veterans of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, you can learn from the men of the Army of the Potomac’s Iron Brigade what it means to be a hero, you can return in imagination to a moment when “the hopes of a nation are still young and still full, and a kind of clarity and innocence are still poised to win the future — and the smoke and noise and dirt of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have not yet swept in behind the buzzing machines of our age.”

“Who would not love such a war?” Gramm asks. But that war, he continues, “is a war of fantasy, myth, and entertainment,” not a war of carnage, horror, and desolation. “By replacing this actual Civil War with an imaginary and beautiful war,” he argues, “we misunderstand our own natures, and we allow ourselves to fall for what Wilfred Owen called ‘the old lie’: that it is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country. Falling for that old lie, we enter more easily into what should be entered into only as one would enter a corridor to hell: you go that way only because all the other ways are shut.”

I venture to suggest that while much of my audience operates within the confines of the first paragraph I have my feet firmly planted in the latter.  No doubt, this has much to do with the fact that I have no familial connection to the war and no childhood experiences of traveling to Civil War battlefields or dreaming of what might have been at Gettysburg.

Still, I can’t help but think that there is a commemorative element in how I use Civil War battlefields such as Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville as teaching tools.  Just the act of visiting and walking the ground serves to collapse the distance between present and past.  Yes, I tell plenty of stories of heroic acts, but the goal of the visit has very little to do with celebrating heroism or war in any of its guises.  How can I celebrate something that I have no direct experience with?  I am much more interested in planting questions in my students than giving them answers.  What do these battles tell us about American democracy?  Did the Civil War lead to a rebirth of freedom?  Was the outcome of the Civil War worth the price in blood and suffering?  It’s not my job as a teacher to answer these questions because they are not questions that can be answered by any one individual.

I am even more reluctant to wax poetic about Civil War soldiers.  I’ve never been able to walk a battlefield and reduce the fighting to time-honored heroic categories that are staples of Civil War commemorations and remembrance.  In fact, it seems to me that this is a straight-path toward simplifying their stories to the point of triviality and meaninglessness.  I want my students to embrace and understand both the individual and collective stories of these men without coming away with an overly sanitized view that has no connection beyond the battlefield and the divisive questions that were of paramount concern and which help to explain why they fought to begin with.  To ignore these tough questions is to use these men and the past as a means to our own ends.

To be continued…

Mike Gorman on Battlefield Interpretation

I received this thoughtful comment on the old Typepad site from NPS historian, Mike Gorman and decided to feature it as its own post. Mike works at the Richmond National Battlefield Park; his comment is a response to a recent guest post by John Hennessy on battlefield interpretation.

Continue reading “Mike Gorman on Battlefield Interpretation”

My Fredericksburg Battlefield

Just sitting here thinking about what I might say in my keynote address marking the 145th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. I am going to center my remarks on how I use the battlefield to teach. I’ve brought my students to the Chancellorsville/Fredericksburg battlefields for the past 5 years. It’s always a new experience depending on where we go as well as the interests of my students. One of my favorite walks begins in the downtown area of Fredericksburg where we discuss the crossing of the Army of the Potomac and the civilian experience, including the town’s slave population. One of the more interesting stops on our route towards Marye’s Heights is the slave auction block, which is located at the corner of William & Charles Streets.

Thinking about the scope of my comments is difficult as I have an inclusive view of what a battlefield ought to include, especially when my students are involved. It’s never simply about the movement of troops, but the experiences of the men involved along with the bigger issues that defined the war, including its cause and aftermath.  I guess all I want to say is that without this auction block there is no Fredericksburg battlefield.  They are inextricably linked.

A few questions to consider: (1) How many Southern towns have preserved sites such as this?  (2) Why did the city of Fredericksburg preserve this particular site after the war?

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.