Category Archives: Battlefield Interpretation

Ken Burns’s Crater

Ken Burns’s short segment on the Crater reflects both continuity and change in accounts of the Crater.  Here is the transcript from the movie.

Title: The Crater

Union Soldier – In front of Petersburg: The mine which General Burnside is making causes a good deal of talk and is generally much laughed at.  It is an affair of his own entirely, and has nothing to do with the regular siege…

Narrator – For a month a regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners worked to dig a 500 foot tunnel beneath the Confederate lines and pack it with four tons of gun powder. Burnside’s idea was to blow a hole in the Petersburg defenses, then rush through to take the town. Above ground, not far from the tunnel, the unsuspecting Confederate commander was General William Mahone, a veteran of almost every major battle fought by the Army of Northern Virginia.

At dawn on July 30, Union sappers lit the fuse.  A great crater was torn in the earth, thirty feet deep, seventy feet wide, 250 feet long. The stunned Confederates fell back. Then the plan began to fall apart. A precious hour went by before the Union assault force got started, and when it did three divisions stormed down the great hole, rather than around it.

Their commander, General James H. Ledlie, did not even watch the battle, huddling instead in a bomb-proof shelter with a bottle of rum. Once inside the crater, the Union soldiers found there was no way up the sheer 30-foot wall of the pit – and no one had thought to provide ladders. General Mahone ordered his men back to the rim to pour fire down upon them.

Scores of black troops were killed when tried to surrender at the Crater, bayoneted or clubbed by Confederates shouting, “Take the white man! Kill the Nigger!”

Ulysses S. Grant – "It was the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in the war. Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have." General Ledlie was dismissed from the service; Burnside was granted extended leave and never recalled to duty.

Washington Roebling (July 30, 1864): "The work and expectation of almost two months have been blasted… The first temporary success had elated everyone so much that we already imagined ourselves in Petersburg, but fifteen minutes changed it all and plunged everyone into a feeling of despair almost of ever accomplishing anything. Few officers can be found this evening who have not drowned their sorrows in the flowing bowl."

William Mahone was not in direct command of the units around the salient that was attacked.  Shortly following the explosion Lee ordered Mahone to bring his division, which was situated about two miles north of the salient, into the battle.  The emphasis on Mahone perhaps attests to the focus on his Virginia brigade during the postwar years in memoirs and public commemorations.  Another point to make is that there was only a 15-minute gap between the initial explosion and the order to attack.  The reference to 1-hour by Burns is completely off target.  The bulk of the Union force did in fact move into the crater and many of the units did become disorganized as a result; however, a number of units were able to advance beyond the physical contours of the crater.  The picture of the enitre Union attack bogged down in the crater is vividly reflected in the opening scenes of Cold Mountain.  On the positive side, Burns does acknowledge Confederate rage at having to fight United States Colored Troops and the use of Roebling does accurately reflect the drop in morale among the men of the Army of the Potomac as they assessed the battle specifically and the overall progress of the campaign.  Confederates, on the other hand, experienced a renewed sense of confidence in their ability to prevent Grant from taking Petersburg and perhaps win the war.

Neo-Confederates On The Crater

Over at H-CivWar Donald Shaffer reviews John Cimprich’s recent study, Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory (LSU, 2005).  I read the book and have to say that I was just a bit disappointed.  With a title that includes a reference to “public memory” and the presence of U.S.C.T.’s I was hoping for something that would help me think through similar issues about the Crater and memory.  Unfortunately, the section on memory was much too short and provided very little information on how to better understand the evolution of accounts about the battle and massacre of black soldiers.  A short section of Shaffer’s review resonated with me:

The last chapter again highlights what is the main weakness of _Fort Pillow:  A Civil War Massacre and Public Memory_–its brevity.  Although there is much worthwhile in this book, Cimprich leaves many significant topics unexplored or underexplored.  By focusing much of chapter 7 on the development of Confederate memory, particularly as it pertained to Nathan Bedford Forrest, he leaves the northern interpretation and more recent interpretations of this incident too thinly covered.  Indeed, one memory topic begging for attention, which Cimprich virtually ignores, is the recent rise of the neo-Confederate sentiments among Civil War enthusiasts and how this movement deals with Fort Pillow, not to mention its larger  view of African Americans in the conflict.

I’ve spent too many bytes on the question of how neo-Confederates handle issues of race and the presence of black soldiers in the Union army.  We know the drill: thousands of blacks fought willingly for the Confederacy and were loyal throughout the war.  Shaffer rightfully criticizes Cimprich for not discussing more recent attempts to minimize or ignore the slaughter of black soldiers at Fort Pillow  I’ve seen the same thing in reference to the Crater.  The argument typically has two parts.  First, ignore wartime accounts authored by Confederates who took part in the battle and then emphasize until you are blue in the face that Union soldiers also “massacred” black soldiers during and after the battle.  One of the best examples of this can be found at the website, The Petersburg ExpressThis passage is the result of an email that I wrote that was posted on their website.  Lucky me.

To isolate the incidents of White Confederate soldiers killing USCT while ignoring incidents of White Union soldiers killing USCT, [USCT killing White Confederates], or the murders of White soldiers by White soldiers on both sides presents incidents of USCT being killed by White Confederates as a false and inflammatory image. It makes it appear that such incidents were particular and one-sided when they were part of a much wider pattern perpetrated by both sides. You also fail to understand that Confederate soldiers served side-by-side with Blacks who operated in the Confederate military not only in support functions, but also as armed Confederate combat soldiers. The evidence of their combat service as contained in the Federal Official Records, Northern newspapers, and the letters and diaries of Union soldiers are so numerous and compelling that the National Park Service has recognized their service undertaken to research those sources and add them to the African-American History Web Project.
I want to start by saying that in my extensive research of wartime accounts I came across a number of Union accounts that expressed the worst kind of racism towards the black soldiers who took part in the battle.  A number of soldiers went so far as to explain the Union defeat as a result of black soldier’s lack of courage.  I even came across a couple of accounts where the writer admits to seeing black soldiers treated violently by their white counterparts, including one New Hampshire soldier who admits to seeing a black soldier shot as he ran from the Crater.

As I see it the problem for neo-Confederates is that while they are correct in pushing for the recognition that black soldiers were treated poorly on both sides there is simply nothing comparable to  Confederate wartime accounts.  Letters, diaries, and even newspapers are littered with accounts of how black soldiers were treated both during and after the battle.  There should be no surprise about this given the way these men interpreted the site of armed, uniformed, and angry black men.  They make clear in their letters and diaries that their presence on the battlefield clarified just what was at stake if the war were lost.  Of course racism coursed throughout the country before, during and after the Civil War. No one region had a monopoly on it. That does not, however, cancel the need for a careful study of how Confederate soldiers behaved at the Crater and why.  To ignore these accounts is to leave out a salient aspect of the battle.  In trying to nail down just how many black soldiers were shot after the battle I rely on Bryce Suderow’s article in the journal, Civil War History [(Sept. 1997): 219-24].  If he is way off the mark then let me know.

In their failure to include wartime sources the website stresses postwar accounts and usually without any analysis.  Consider this page which brings together a number of accounts purporting to support the idea of black Confederates.  No interpretation of when they were written, by whom, or why, just lay it out and hope that the reader will jump to their preferred conclusion.  Anyone familiar with the literature on postwar politics and the trend towards reunion and reconciliation understands the hazards of interpreting these sources.  It doesn’t necessarily imply that these sources shed no light on the war, but there needs to be some analysis provided.  Isn’t that was serious history involves?  Challenging accounts that help us understand what happened at the Crater and why by arguing that racism and poor treatment prevailed in the Union army does not get us any closer to understanding wartime Confederate accounts.

Flags of our [White] Fathers?

We’ve come a long way since the stupefied looks on people’s faces as they walked out of the movie theater back in 1989 asking: "Did black people really fight in the Civil War?"  Now we look to see if movies are racially inclusive.  Looks like Clint Eastwood’s new movie about the battle of Iwo Jima is receiving some flack for failing to include black actors that reflect their presence during the battle.   

Nearly a thousand African-Americans took part in the battle and hundreds more played vital support roles. Yet in the sprawling two-hour plus film, no black combatant is seen. This continues the insulting and infuriating pattern in books, films, and TV movies in which the monumental contributions that black men and women made to the fighting in the Pacific and Europe have downplayed, ignored, or deliberately whitewashed.

The invisibility of black soldiers in Flags of Our Fathers, and indeed, the legions of other bio-pic movies on World War II is no surprise to the many black vets that know the true story of the war. They have taken every opportunity they’ve gotten to protest the sanitizing.

Are critics being too sensitive?  I think not.  My students are still shocked to learn that black men fought with George Washington during the Revolution and that significant numbers fought in the Civil War and World War I.  Why exactly are they surprised?

Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free: An Analysis

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

The National Park Service recently released a new interpretive video titled Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free, which focuses on the experiences of both black and white Virginians in the Fredericksburg area during the Civil War.  The production is another example of the NPS’s efforts to broaden their interpretation of Civil War battlefields to acknowledge the importance of the civilian perspective as well as the role of emancipation and race.  I invited historian John Hennessy who is currently employed as the Chief of Interpretation for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and the script’s author to share his thoughts about the movie.  Mr. Hennessy was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the movie for review.  Feedback is of course welcome, especially from those who have seen the movie. 

John Hennessy

Dominantly, we did the civilian film because the story is important.  The transformation of this war (from the Union perspective) from a relatively straightforward effort to re-assemble the Union in 1861 into a consumptive conflagration intended to restore the Union by transforming the nature of it is, I believe, the single most important thematic link between all Civil War sites.  Every site has something to say and stories to tell about that transformation.  Fredericksburg has more to tell than most.  With four battles spanning 18 months; with a town bombarded and looted; with civilians fleeing as refugees into he countryside; with thousands of slaves refusing to await emancipation, and instead seizing freedom themselves; with a landscape desolated not just by battle, but by the mere presence of armies; with changing Union attitudes toward the concept of a Hard War; with a local economy that suffered wartime damage enough to require nearly a century to recover; with the loss of life that vividly reflects the immense human cost of this war; with leaders struggling to adapt to a changing war, and to reckon with the political implications of every victory or misstep–the story we can tell goes miles beyond pure military science or military history.  There is hardly place in America where a visitor can get a better understanding of this war in all its manifestations, and in all its consequences, as it evolved from relatively simple to profoundly complex and significant.

Our primary purpose in making the film is to do good history–to begin th process of showing that what the armies did reverberated beyond the bound of their camps and colleagues in uniform.   We wanted to show that different people often perceived the same event in entirely different ways (for example, the traditional monolithic interpretation that "Fredericksburg" was horrified by the arrival of the Union army in 1862 is simply not  true; slaves–literally half the population in this region–saw the Union army in VERY different terms than did white residents; for them, the Union army meant not horror, but opportunity).  We wanted to illustrate, by using Fredericksburg as an example, that the Civil War transformed not in abstract, legalistic ways, but in physical, financial, and cultural ways, and that the impact of the war still reverberates (though I think we were not as successful on this last point as we should have been).

How has it been received?  Very positively, largely.  The most common negative comment is that it focuses too much on slavery.  A few have suggested that we were just being politically correct by addressing slavery.  About one-third of the film addresses the experiences of slaves and the significance of that experience.  Objectively–given that the civilian population in the region was almost exactly 50% slave–spending just one-third of the film addressing slavery is too little, not too much. But, in the context of a society often instructed that slaves and slaver were not and are not an integral part of the Civil War story, it’s not surprising that even the quantitatively inadequate treatment in the film strikes some as too much.

In our visitor center, where we show the film once a day (we show it regularly at Chatham), the staff has noted that visitors just don’t seem to expect or be prepared for something that doesn’t focus on the battles themselves.  Again, that’s not surprising given our long tradition of focusing only on military history.  I think over time and even decades, part of our goal should be to increase visitors’ expectations so that something of this sort doesn’t surprise them…..

There have been a few rumbles that we shouldn’t be doing this sort of interpretation at all–that we should confine ourselves solely to the military story, as we have for decades.  The reasons for that are well-discussed on this board, and I don’t think I need to elaborate on them.  I can only say, again, that our commitment is to doing good history, and to me that means untangling all the impacts and meanings of the events and sites we’re charged with interpreting.  In that context, it seems to me, the civilian story is unarguably an important part of our story, one that’s both important to tell and well worth hearing.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, the civilian film has brought to the surface some fear that the NPS is going to overawe our traditional, battle-oriented interpretation with abstract forays into social history, cultural meanings, and modern relevance.  That’s silly. The civilian film hasn’t replaced a thing.  It’s an addition to our program, delivered with an eye toward according MORE significance to the battles fought here rather than less. We have not and will not diminish our commitment to telling the story of the battles this park was founded to interpret–that’s our job. But we will, I hope, constantly plow new historical ground that reveals the full impact and importance of those events.  Both good history and historical justice demand it.

Kevin M. Levin

One of the central themes of this blog has been to challenge the way we think about our Civil War.  As we approach the sesquicentennial it is safe to conclude that we are still wedded to an interpretation that treats the war as part of a broader narrative of American Exceptionalism or as an arena where the virtues of courage and steadfastness were practiced by men on both sides.  From this perspective little has changed in how we view the war over the last one hundred years.  According to this view our Civil War is something to celebrate rather than explore by continually asking new questions.  Slavery and emancipation play almost no role since it forces us to address the tough questions of what caused the war, how the war evolved, and its short- and long-term consequences.  No, better to keep our attention on the battlefields where such messiness can be avoided. 

The battle of Fredericksburg is the paradigm example of this tendency.  We tend to see the December 1862 battle as a slug-fest where men on both sides were slaughtered and where Robert E. Lee could utter his famous line about the horrors of war.  Visitors to the battlefield walk the path along the Stone Wall and Maryes Heights, but probably think little about the civilians caught in the middle or the timing of the battle which was situated between the release of Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and its execution on January 1, 1863.  The war was changing in profound ways that few could have predicted at the beginning, but given our prejudices for a narrow conception of the battlefield one would never know it.  If we look at the battle at all from the civilian perspective it is as a white Southerner who viewed the occupation of the town as a terrible tragedy.  What is missed, of course, is the slave perspective which interpreted the movements of Union soldiers not as "Yankee hordes", but as liberators. 

This broader perspective on the significance of Fredericksburg is nothing new for professional historians.  Recent social and cultural histories have opened up new areas of research and have enriched the way we think about individual campaigns and battles.  Unfortunately, there is a gulf between the kinds of questions that professional historians analyze and most Civil War enthusiasts who have an insatiable thirst for the minutiae of the battlefield and who – for any number of reasons – have an interest in maintaining a traditional interpretation of the war.  Over the past few years this debate has taken place on the very battlefields of the war and in the offices of the National Park Service.  As many of you know the NPS is now re-interpreting many of its Civil War sites to include references of civilian life as well as the touchy issues of race, slavery, and emancipation.  [My recent trip to Appomattox Court House is but one example.] 

The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park’s contribution to this trend is a new interpretive video titled Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free which looks at the war in the Fredericksburg area from the civilian perspectives of white Southerners and slaves.  What emerges is an incredibly rich account of how the war, and the battle specifically, altered life in the area in ways that few could have predicted.  The movie is rooted in the words of the participants themselves, which challenges the criticism that this "new" approach to doing history is simply a product of liberal or post-modern theory emanating from the academy. 

The wide-range of primary sources brings to life such unknown figures as the slave John Washington who eventually escaped as the Union army approached the town, as well as Dabney H. Maury, Fanny White, and Mary C. Knox who struggled through the hardships of occupation and the destruction of their homes; most importantly they struggled to understand and accept the end of slavery.  One of the strongest scenes takes place following the battle and involves a Union soldier escorting a slave family off their owner’s property and to freedom.  The woman of the house rushes to the family and pleads for them not to abandon her and the family.  The scene goes far in suggesting how little white Southerners understood their slave’s desire for freedom.  As Washington noted, "…life had a new joy awaiting me."    The message underlying the movie is clear: Only by focusing on the slave perspective can the real significance of military operations in 1862 be more clearly understood. 

Southern white woman are also featured prominently in this movie.  The war mobilized the entire Fredericksburg community and its woman are shown meeting to discuss how best to support the soldiers in the ranks.  Woman are also depicted as ardent supporters of the Confederate cause through their bitter hatred of "Yankee" soldiers.  One young woman noted in her diary, "They little no the hatred in our hearts."  Even towards the end of the war the civilians of Fredericksburg remained defiant and convinced that "with God we will be victorious."  Such a stance reinforces recent interpretations that white Southerners remained committed to the Confederacy until the very end and that defeat did not bring about a smooth reconciliation with the North.

The production staff for this movie should be congratulated for creating an entertaining and educational look at those groups and themes that have long been ignored at our Civil War battlefields.  As John Hennessy noted in his commentary, there will always be critics.  What we need to remember is that the Civil War does not belong to any one group.  Our job as historians is to continue to explore the difficult questions and find ways to share those insights with the general public.  I applaud the National Park Service and particularly the staff at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for their efforts.

Click here for a schedule and location

Click here for a review from the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.

Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Civil War

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

In 2000 Jesse Jackson Jr. offered an interior bill that touched off a heated debate about how the National Park Service should interpret its Civil War battlefields.  The debate involves a number of "interest groups" including Park Service employees, reenactors (Civil War buffs), professional historians, and members of various Southern Heritage organizations.  Given the agendas of these groups it is not surprising that the debate remains heated even as the Park Service explores and implements programs that reflect the place of interpretation within its overall mission.  The level of anxiety that continues to fuel this issue can no doubt be traced to Jackson’s legislative agenda and the fact that he is the son of a controversial Civil Rights activist.  The issue – as many of you know – is about the proper place of slavery and other racial issues within its battlefield interpretations.  From Jackson’s interior bill:

The Civil War battlefields throughout the country hold great significance, and provide vital historic
educational opportunities for millions of Americans. There is concern, however,
about the isolated existence of these Civil War battle sites in that they are
often not placed in the proper historical context.  The Service, to all of your credit, does an outstanding job of
documenting and describing the particular battle at any given site, but in the
public displays and multimedia presentations, it does not always do a similar
good job of documenting and describing the historical, social, economic, legal,
cultural, and political forces and events that originally led to the war which
eventually manifested themselves in specific battles. In particular, the Civil
War battlefields are often weak or missing vital information about the role that
the institution of slavery played in causing the American Civil War. "The
Secretary of the Interior is directed to encourage the National Park Service
managers of Civil War battle sites to recognize and include in all of their
public displays and multimedia educational presentations, the unique role that
the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War and its role, if any,
at the individual battle sites
. The Secretary is further directed to prepare a
report to Congress on Dr. King’s birthday, January 15, 2000, on the status of the
educational information currently included at Civil War sites that are
consistent with and reflect this concern. (my emphasis)

Many read the initial bill as falling squarely within Jackson’s own political and social agenda, and his language as emphasized in italics clearly worried many that he was calling for a drastic change and/or supplanting of any discussion of what happened on the battlefield.  His opening remarks at the 2000 Civil War symposium sponsored by the NPS and  held at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. highlights his political agenda and further alienated those that were already feeling defensive.  "Only with the appropriate interpretation of these historical events–of the Civil War–,"argued Jackson, "can those Americans ever arrive at the right to a more perfect union through health care, through education, and through housing."  For Jackson the road toward certain Constitutional amendments runs straight through the way we interpret our collective past.  The problem as I see it, however, is that while Jackson can make this argument as a politician, he can only do so by unnecessarily alienating potential allies to the cause of battlefield interpretation – including this writer. 

While I am sympathetic to the issues of health care, housing, and education that is not the way to proceed, if for no other reason than that reasonable people can disagree as to the proper role of the federal government in providing certain services and agree that revisions need to be considered.  The question of how to interpret public sites, however, remains.   Luckily, Jackson provides a range of reasons for thinking anew about our Civil War battlefields and some of those reasons are spot on.

Before proceeding I want to make clear that the issue here is not what kind of Civil War history you prefer to read or research (i.e., military v. social/cultural history).  The question is how an agency of the federal government should go about interpreting our Civil War battlefields; the distinction drawn is between public history and academic or personal interest. Here are a few of the more persuasive points made by Jackson:

(1) One point that I want to make is that while 11,000,000 people visit National
Park Service Civil War sites, most Americans never get the opportunity. Either
they do not have the time or the financial wherewithal to do what I did. I
traveled to more than twenty sites throughout the country. Most Americans go to
one site. Of the eleven million visitors, most of them are raised around one
site, and, therefore, they never understand the sweep of events from Harpers
Ferry through Appomattox Court House. One of our challenges was to ensure that
if an American visited one site he or she would develop a full appreciation of
the whole war. It is quite possible that one could visit, for example, the site
at Appomattox and never hear the name John Brown or know anything about any of
the other battles. And that, quite frankly, is a very limited and very narrow
interpretation of that single site.

This seems to be a rather harmless suggestion.  Jackson’s working assumption is that it is the Park Service’s job to place any individual site within a broader historical context.  You can’t understand the battle of the Little Big Horn without some understanding of the broader conflict between the United States and individual tribes.  The same would hold true – I assume – for the Susan B. Anthony home.  The problem in the case of Civil War battles is that the broader context calls for a discussion of slavery and race.  I am not going to get into a discussion here about the so-called debates surrounding the relative importance of slavery.  As I’ve stated before I take my lead from the most talented professional historians currently working in the field, including James McPherson, Charles Dew, William Freehling, and James McPherson.  As an educator I agree with Jackson that given the majority of people will only visit one or two sites it is the Park Service’s responsibility to leave them with as sophisticated an interpretation of the site as possible.  This does not mean that the battlefield need be ignored.  The staff at Appomattox Court House has clearly demonstrated that this not be the case.  Their own publication about Appomattox includes essays by three prominent historians.  Ed Ayers concentrates on slavery, secession, and the beginning of the war; Gary Gallagher focuses on the war years; and David Blight’s contribution highlights the political, economic, and racial fallout of the war.  All three are entertaining and leave the reader with a much deeper understanding of Appomattox’s place within a broader historical and cultural context. 

(2) Some people have said to me that we are losing some of our real
estate and many of our Civil War battlefields to urban sprawl. Well, if the
stories at these historical places are broadly interpreted and every American
truly feels that the history represents them, there will be a much greater
chance of saving these sites than talking about obliques. Let’s look at Kennesaw
Mountain as an example. It was a Confederate victory, or at least a Confederate
slowing of the Union forces. It is maintained by the National Park Service and
it draws about a million visitors a year. However, the City of Atlanta and its
suburbs are sprawling. It might grow all the way out to Kennesaw Mountain. Well,
if I were an African American mayor of Atlanta, or an African American
politician, I would not care if it went all the way up Kennesaw Mountain and
became a middle class African American community. However, if the story of
Kennesaw Mountain were told in a broader interpretation, then even the African
American who goes to Kennesaw can appreciate its historical significance. Then
Atlanta would likely expand around but not up Kennesaw Mountain.

There would be no need for me to even get into the politics of
what we know to be obvious, when one starts arguing whether or not this history
is legitimate versus that history. But if the site is maintained by the
government and has a broader interpretation where everyone finds their story and
finds meaning in that site, the visitation will double or triple. But when I
went to Kennesaw, they were only selling Confederate paraphernalia. They weren’t
even selling Union paraphernalia. Well, that can’t possibly encourage a broader
audience at the site. And, when I went inside, the story mentioned nothing else
about the rest of the war, but just about Kennesaw Mountain and what happened
there militarily. So Kennesaw isn’t about the Civil War. If my children visit
Kennesaw, and other American children visit Kennesaw, they should leave with
more information than simply what happened there.

I think Jackson needs to be careful here and he needs to do a better job distinguishing between the practical considerations of urban sprawl and the question of the proper scope of interpretation.  First, I think his reference to urban sprawl and battlefield preservation is well taken.  Preservationists have got to get off the self-righteous bandwagon that places them on a so-called moral high ground against various competing materialist values.  If more Americans had a stake in preserving our Civil War battlefields the movement would perhaps be further along.  The outcry against the proposed casinos at Gettysburg may have been dead-on-arrival had there been more support.  Instead we are presented with these vague outcries about the importance of preserving the past for future generations without any consideration of who they are being preserved for.  Again, the placing of Kennesaw within a broader historical context need not mean that we ignore the battle.  The goal is to understand better and appreciate the ways in which these events connected to broader political, economic, and social issues as well as questions of meaning and significance.

What follows is what I take to be Jackson’s most attractive argument:

(3) When I go to Vicksburg or Manassas, or any other battle site, I
ask what is the historical significance of this particular site. The park
service superintendent responds saying right here was a left oblique and right
there was a right oblique. So, the historical significance of Vicksburg is about
an oblique. After all that I have just shared with you, is the historical
significance about military history or a military view of these sites? At these
sites, nothing tells us that there were no more Federalists or Whigs, and the
Democratic Party was split in two, North and South, because of slavery after
Lincoln won, or that we ended up with a two party system, Democrats and
Republicans, based on the legacy of slavery. Nor is there anything to say that
Lincoln ran on a certain campaign platform, and that South Carolina and other
southern states said that if he won they would leave the Union. Then, when
Lincoln took office he said he would put eleven stars back on that flag. All
that has more to do with the history of Vicksburg and Manassas than a left or a
right oblique.

Better yet, if the history of Vicksburg is about obliques,
maybe Congress should pass another bill eliminating the National Park Service
Civil War battlefields and just turn them over to the Army. They can explain
obliques better than you guys. The history of the site is not about an oblique.
In fact, that is why the federal government is there, to offer an interpretation
of the site that is broader than left and right obliques, or why Pickett decided
to charge across the field into cannon fire.

Jackson’s point here is essentially about causation.  The danger is in understanding the range of movements on the battlefield without any sense of why the armies are engaged in violent conflict to begin with.  The armies did not simply fall from the sky. 

It is easy to see why so many are upset with Jackson as it can be surmised that he is suggesting that we do away with any discussion of the events on the battlefield.  If we step back, however, it is clear that this is not what he is concluding.  What Jackson is arguing for is the view that if the significance of the battlefield is simply understood in terms of obliques then we’ve reduced the event to a point where is it indistinguishable from other battles in the Civil War, and indeed, battles in other wars.  The other question to ask, if we go back to the point that most people only visit one or two Civil War sites in their lives, is what do we want them to walk away with?  Do we want them to take away certain distinctions in military warfare or a richer understanding of what the war was about?

As an educator I encourage the Park Service to continue to think critically about how it interprets our Civil War battlefields.  Simply put, the more relevant information it provides the more Americans will identify with its history and work to preserve it for future generations.