Category Archives: Battlefield Interpretation

Looking Beyond the High Ground

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.

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RIP Marc Ferguson

Union Soldier in Forrest Hills Cemetery by Milmore

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.

 

The Future of Civil War History

I am very excited to share what promises to be one of the most educational and entertaining conferences to come down the pike in quite some time.  From March 14-16, 2013 the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College will host a three-day conference titled, “The Future of Civil War History: Looking Beyond the 150th.”  Peter Carmichael somehow managed to wrangle up roughly 100 historians of all stripes for a wide variety of formal presentations, panels, working groups and field experiences.  The goal is to “facilitate discussions between panelists and the audience about how the historical community can make the Civil War past more engaging, more accessible, and more usable to public audiences as we look beyond the 150th commemorations and to the future of Civil War history.”

Please take some time to browse through the conference website.  There are plenty of opportunities to get involved, including a number of very interesting working groups that will commence in preparation for the conference.  I strongly encourage those of you who teach history, work in some capacity in public history or are just deeply interested in the Civil War era to register soon since spaces are limited.

I am super excited for this event.  It’s a chance to spend time in one of my favorite places and best of all I get to participate.  I am a panelist for a session on how to engage museum audiences and students around issues of Civil War memory and I will be chairing another session on interpreting USCTs at Civil War sites.

See you in Gettysburg.

 

Why Petersburg’s South Side Depot Matters

I couldn’t be more pleased to hear that we are one step closer to seeing Petersburg’s South Side Depot renovated and utilized by the National Park Service as a welcome center and as a site to interpret the city’s rich Civil War history and beyond.  It’s nice to see the involvement of the Civil War Trust as well.  While I fully support their focus on battlefields it is essential that they involve themselves in the preservation of endangered sites beyond the battlefield that can only enhance the public’s understanding of the war.  In the case of Petersburg the battlefield was the city itself.

As someone who has thought a great deal about the challenges of interpreting the city’s Civil War history the addition of this site downtown will assist the NPS in their continued effort to reach out to the local population, especially African Americans.  I explore some of these more recent challenges in the final chapter of my new book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory.

Many local blacks that I interviewed during the course of my research never learned about or even visited the local battlefields, including the Crater.  One gentleman shared that while growing up he believed the site of the Crater was off limits to blacks.  Others simply believed that the NPS’s mission was to interpret and protect and interpretation that appealed to whites only.  As recent as the 1970s black students at Petersburg State University believed that the primary function of the NPS to be the “maintaining or glorifying the image of the Confederacy.”  The upshot is a history of mistrust that the NPS has worked hard to overcome since this time.

A comment by NPS Superintendent Lewis Rogers echoes these concerns:

I’m African-American. When I grew up, I didn’t think there was anything in the Civil War for me. I learned there were African-Americans who fought in the Civil War, and Native Americans who fought in the Civil War, both of which fought at Petersburg.  We want to reach out to the urban population … and to become more a part of fabric of the community. We have four sites, but most are out in more rural areas. … We want the opportunity to be right in town and be part of the fabric of the community. We hope it will also help stimulate the economy.

An NPS presence downtown will build on the addition of walking tours that have proven to be very successful and popular among locals.  The Depot itself will take this one step further by applying the necessary assets to interpret not only the battles, but the postwar period as well.  William Mahone used the Depot as an office during part of this period, which opens up a number of avenues to discuss his involvement in the railroads as well as the racial politics of the Readjuster Party during the 1880s.

All in all this is really good news for Petersburg and I can’t wait to see what they do with the place.

 

The Killing Fields of Gettysburg

It’s a good question and one that I’ve touched on here at Civil War Memory.  Our battlefield monuments fit into a broader celebratory landscape that is pervasive throughout our memory of the Civil War.  Gettysburg is a place where we can feel good about ourselves as Americans and our history.  It is almost impossible for me to imagine a monument such as the one at Verdun at Gettysburg and I believe it to be a barrier to fully understanding what our civil war was about.

Unfortunately, the following image, which I took during a visit to the Gettysburg Visitor Center, more accurately reflects our attitude toward how Americans chose to make war on one another.