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?

Does Gettysburg Have a Place in Our National Narrative?

Fellow bloggers Paul Taylor and Eric Wittenberg have recently weighed in on the debate surrounding the new exhibit at the Gettysburg Visitor Center.  As all of you know I have been a big supporter of the exhibit since visiting back in August.  Both bloggers make similar points.  According to Paul:

It's just my non-scientific opinion, but I believe that most people who
visit a Civil War battlefield like Gettysburg do so to learn about that
particular 19th-century battle or campaign. They have their maps in
hand and try to envision the gray or blue lines sweeping over the
fields they’re standing on. Perhaps they’ll briefly close their eyes
and try to smell the smoke and hear the roar of battle within their
mind’s eye. Having seen the lay of the land, they now understand how a
unique piece of geography may have affected a particular outcome.
Everyone agrees that some background context is important but from what
I’ve personally seen and read, it feels like there’s been a tidal-shift
in the other direction – whether we, the Civil War consumer, need it,
like it, or not.

…and according to Eric:

While I understand the role of slavery in causing the war, I agree with
Paul that most folks visit specific battlefields to learn about the
events that occurred there. Consequently, I agree that the issue of the
causes of the war and of slavery is best left to general Civil War
museums and that these issues really have no place on specific

I don't need to repeat the various objections that I have with such a view.  Neither Eric or Paul mentions Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which seems to me to be a salient feature of this landscape.  Is there any room at all for Lincoln and his short little address?  What strikes me, however, is the extent to which the two comments reflect changes in the way the battlefield has come to be interpreted since the 1950s and the height of the Cold War.  The question of how much "background context" is sufficient is itself a function of the distance traveled and one that many Americans would not have understood not too long ago.  If we were to step back fifty years ago we would see a very different approach to the interpretation of the battlefield, one that emphasized the central place of Gettysburg within the broader national story.  No doubt, Cold War ideology helped to fuel a view of the battle as a turning point in a war that guaranteed both the preservation of the United States and the end of slavery.  In a speech at Gettysburg College in 1961, Bruce Catton noted that, "As a result of the Civil War, it is our inescapable position to be committed to freedom broad enough to encompass all men, of all races and creeds and backgrounds."  You can find countless speeches and events that focused specifically on the larger narrative picture and very little time on tactics or our deep need to experience the battlefield as individuals.  Visitors to Gettysburg traveled as families throughout this period and used the battle primarily as a civics lesson that reinforced fundamental values at a time when many Americans believed those values were being challenged overseas by the Soviet Union and the inevitable spread of communism. 

The introduction of Heritage Tourism along with our skepticism regarding American Exceptionalism in the post-Vietnam age has, in part, contributed to what is best described as a solipsistic approach to Gettysburg.  Yes, there are various "Image Tribes" that meet, but the primary goal for visitors today is the achievement of a personal experience with the battlefield through participation in living history events, reenactments or even an obsession with the most minute facts about the location and movement of troops.  Much has been done to encourage such an experience, including the creation of new view sheds and the demolition of the Battlefield Tower.  This development should not necessarily be seen along teleological lines, but as simply another approach to battlefield consumption based on the latest set of values.  Such a set of values seems to have little patience with the bigger picture even though historians have clearly demonstrated in recent years that the soldiers who fought on these fields did so for reasons that were bigger than themselves. 

My point for now is not to suggest that the views expressed above are wrong.  To be honest, I am not even sure what it would mean to be mistaken concerning such a question.  What I do mean to suggest is that the scope of the new Gettysburg exhibit fits comfortably within the broader narrative of how the battlefield has, in fact, been interpreted in the past.  I've said before that I agree that broader questions of slavery and race need not be addressed in such detail at every NPS battlefield, but it seems to me that Gettysburg is an ideal place in which to do so.  After all, this is the place where Abraham Lincoln delivered the most important speech in American history.  His speech touches on a host of issues that at the time linked the present conflict to the American past going back to 1776. 

Finally, I think the way the issue has been framed has everything to do with race.  At the turn of the twentieth century black GAR units in the North regularly organized excursions to Little Round Top as a way to commemorate the emancipationist legacy of the war and their own role in bringing it about.  They did so at a time when Americans had lost sight of emancipation and embraced reconciliation as a necessary condition for reunion.  One is hard pressed to find black Americans at Gettysburg today, although it seems to me that they have as much of a reason to do so as any citizen.  The idea that the NPS has moved too far in the opposite direction (from where, I don't know) in addressing such issues is based on a flawed view of how the Civil War has been remembered up until recently.  Gettysburg belongs to all Americans.  But if that fact means anything at all than we must be willing to move away from what can only be described as an overly narrow and selfish view of what it means to visit a Civil War battlefield such as Gettysburg.

Gettysburg National Military Park Holds Public Forum

When the GNMP and Gettysburg Foundation announced plans to hold a public forum
to discuss the proposed entrance fee I was skeptical.  I anticipated a meeting that would do little more than give certain interest groups a chance to voice frustrations that have been building over time and which would fail to address the financial situation at hand.  The new Visitor Center has not met its financial mark thus far and as a result VC officials have proposed a flat fee of $7.50 for the museum, Cyclorama, and feature film.  Well, the meeting seems to have played out just as I had anticipated.  All of the major players were in attendance, but they failed to offer nothing but non-constructive criticism:

Gene Golden, businessman: At a salary of $392,735, it would take 52,364 people paying $7.50 just to pay (Gettysburg Foundation President) Bob Wilburn’s salary.  Franklin Silbey: If anyone here believes that the decision hasn’t been made, you’re naive.  Nothing that anyone says here tonight will change their decision. How many promises have
they made and now broken?

Bob Monahan, Jr., developer whose own proposal for a VC was rejected: The whole concept was that there wasn’t to be one cent of taxpayer money used to fund anything. Two reasons were given to me why my proposal wasn’t selected — I was proposing a $3 fee to see portions of the museum, and my project was $40 million, which I thought was reasonable at the time. Now look at the costs.

Eric Uberman, Gettysburg Businessman: There is a lot of reason for skepticism when it has to do with money within these walls. We were sold on no commercialism or tax dollars, but as Dr. Latschar has said, that is no longer true. We also had Mr. Kinsley stand up before Congress and say that this was his gift to America — it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Jones: The film is very good, but it is no substitute for the Electric Map.

I appreciate the fact that various parties are disappointed in this development, but at the same time it is a problem that needs a solution.  In the end the proposal is very reasonable.  The overwhelming majority of families will not mind paying the fee given that many other historical sites charge a fee – some coming with a much higher price attached.  It’s hard not to interpret much of the outcry as simply a question of whether an entrance fee ought to be charged.  Some are still fuming over the dismantling of the outdated Electric Map while others are disappointed in the content of the new film, gift shop, and museum exhibit.

My recent visit to Gettysburg reignited my interest in the battle and I hope to return on a more regular basis in the future.  I have no problem with the entrance fee and will gladly pay it.  In fact, I think it is a real bargain.

Click here for my review of the new Visitor Center.