Today is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. Back in 2008 I delivered the keynote address for the National Park Service’s annual commemoration of the battle. In it I reflected on the meaning of the battle and why I bring students to these sites. I thought it might be worth running again given the date of its original publication and I hope it leaves you with something to think about on the anniversary of one Civil War battle.
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.
I suspect that my class visits to battlefields have much in common with what bring you to a place like Fredericksburg. We want to understand what happened here, why it happened, and what it means that it happened. We are compelled to do so. My students and I walk this hallowed ground and try our best to piece together what are often conflicting accounts of the ebb and flow of battle. At the same time we struggle to understand and honor the courage of the men who fought and “gave the last full measure of devotion.” Some of those stories are well known, such as the one depicted in this beautiful monument dedicated to Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, who in the heat of battle chose compassion over violence and hatred or the combination of fear and steadfastness that animated Sergeant Thomas Plunkett of the 21st Massachusetts, who carried his regimental colors into battle only to receive a direct hit by a Confederate shell which cost him one arm and part of another – his blood forever staining the regiment’s flag.
I found out from an episode of Civil War Talk Radio that the NPS was dealing with incorporating cause and civilians and the home front into the battlefield parks (I think it was in the episode linked below). I certainly think mention of these things at any battlefield site is a good thing… especially at a place like Fredericksburg, a battle directly affecting civilians. But for many people who are only interested in battles as military strategy or those who don’t accept that slavery caused Southern secession and Confederate war, such information will often be seen as “PC BS.”
I certainly agree with Bryan that for a certain audience recent expansion of battlefield interpretation at NPS sites might be viewed as troubling for the reasons he alludes to. My question for Bryan and one that I will now pose to all of you is how significant is this population? The reason I ask is because it seems to me that Jerry Russell’s claim that Americans visit battlefields only to learn only about soldiers is nothing more than an assumption and in my experience a poor one at that. It seems to me that visitors approach historic sites with open minds and with few assumptions about what they assume will be learned.
Of course, I have not spent as much time on battlefields as many of you, but I am going to venture that it’s time we put this characterization of the battlefield visitor to rest.
I decided to watch it once again though I was struck by just how much this question of whether we should approach battlefields creatively and broadly has become such a non issue. Ten years later and none of the concerns expressed by the late Jerry Russell and Robert K. Krick have come to pass. Go to any Civil War battlefield and the focus is still on the soldiers and the fighting. The only difference is that in many of these same places visitors have the opportunity to understand more and better. Russell’s and Krick’s emphasis on Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s involvement provided an opportunity to distract the audience from the fact that NPS historians/staff have debated these issues going back to the early twentieth century. The question of whether the causes of the war, the home front, etc. should be interpreted on battlefields is an old one. At one point Russell actually says that any discussion of the cause of the war, regardless of whether the focus is slavery, states rights, etc., is inappropriate on the battlefield. It really is as if the men who fought these bloody battles just fell from the sky. Looking back it is also clear that Krick completely missed the mark. Show me a battlefield that has become a “political platform.”
During the Q&A [1:36:20] John Coski read a question directed to Jerry Russell concerning the proper interpretation of the 9-11 attacks in New York City. I happened to be sitting next to Peter Carmichael, who wrote the question down on an index card provided by event organizers. Jerry held to his guns and suggested that the causes of the attacks should not be discussed in any future museum or interpretive panels at Ground Zero. Thankfully museum interpreters did not listen.
This panel is well worth watching, but it does reflect how far we’ve come. In the end, Dwight Pitcaithley and Ed Ayers were on the right side of history.
Much of my research and commentary on the evolution of battlefield interpretation within the National Park Service has referenced the 2000 Rally on the High Ground Conference as a watershed moment. Without being too overly simplistic the working assumption has been that the most significant changes to NPS interpretation has been in reaction to Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr’s. legislation and accompanying symposium which brought together NPS staff and academic historians in Washington D.C. The conference examined ways in which the NPS could implement Jackson’s legislation which called for the broadening of battlefield interpretation to include the cause of the war, the role of slavery during the war, as well as other topics. This push for a broader interpretive context as well as Jackson’s involvement has been met with suspicion by segments of the general public who tend to view his involvement as political which in turn has colored the NPS’s subsequent actions as overtly political.
Over the years I’ve come to consider a small number of you as part of my online family. I read your comments with great interest and I’ve learned a great deal as a result. Our online communities are all too often shaped by the worst elements in our society such as ignorance, hatred, and dishonesty. I like to think that Civil War Memory is a place where you can exchange ideas and engage one another in a thoughtful way.
With that in mind I am sad to report that over the weekend Marc Ferguson passed away. Marc was a frequent commenter here going back almost to the beginning. I could always count on Marc to leave a thoughtful and challenging comment in response to my posts. During the research phase of my Crater project he emailed links to online collections and other resources he thought I should check out. Marc was incredibly helpful when I moved to Boston. He suggested places to visit and even offered helpful advice once I began to look for employment.
I knew Marc was sick, but we still talked about getting together. Unfortunately, that did not happen. I am going to miss having Marc around as I know many of you will as well. My thoughts today are with his family.