A good friend of mine who is a historian with the National Park Service offered this observation the other day:
The present debate over Confederate iconography will, over time, fundamentally alter the place battlefields hold in America’s historic and cultural landscapes.
He’s absolutely right. Continue reading
Last night I returned from five days of battlefield stomping with thirteen wonderful students. I was hoping to write a few more blog posts, but I simply didn’t have enough time between the driving, walking and just trying to enjoy those few moments of downtime. All in all the trip reminded me of why I love working with high school students and teaching Civil War history. It goes without saying that there is no better way to convey the richness of this history than by doing it on site.
Thanks to Garry Adelman of the Civil War Trust and Peter Carmichael of Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute for spending time with my students. I didn’t anticipate this, but watching these two fine historians and battlefield interpreters reminded me of the ways that we approach these sites. This was something that I discussed with the group during one of our final reflections. Continue reading
In a couple of days I head out with thirteen students to follow the 20th Massachusetts Infantry from Antietam to Gettysburg. It’s going to be an incredible experience for my kids. We have a great deal of ground to cover both literally and figuratively. I want my students to grapple with the central questions that frame our civil war, including why men fought and endured, the importance of Union and the unraveling of slavery.
My trip also has a “social action” component. As we travel from site to site I am going to ask my students to think about why and whether we should preserve Civil War battlefields. Garry Adelman of the Civil War Trust is going to help us with this when he accompanies the group at Antietam. Continue reading
My first visit to Gettysburg came after the destruction of the National Tower on July 3, 2000. I was reminded of it earlier today while reading Jen Murray’s, On a Great Battlefield: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933-2012. Jen does a fabulous job of exploring the controversy surrounding the construction of the tower and more recent interpretive and preservation challenges on the battlefield. Continue reading
Photo courtesy of National Park Service
What follows is a guest post from my good friend, Garry Adelman, who shares his thoughts about last week’s Gettysburg commemoration.
I had been looking forward to the Gettysburg 150th commemoration for years. I knew—all Civil War people knew–it would be a big deal. Some could not wait to go; some treated it like the plague. That is Gettysburg. Fascination with the place, and resentment about its status as the Civil War Mecca of sorts, date back to the war itself as Gettysburg increasingly took its place as the war’s best-known battlefield.
Being obsessed with Gettysburg, I try my best to take a historian’s look at the place I love—I don’t call it the most important battle in, or the turning point of, the Civil War. Pickett’s Charge was not the biggest, bloodiest, or most consequential attack of the war. But nonetheless, almost like a cliché, the Gettysburg Battlefield remains my favorite place—and not just among battlefields. It is my favorite place of any sort. So, I was all but certain to have a great week. And I did. Thing is, it was much, much more enjoyable, meaningful, cool and enlightening than I ever expected. In an adult life full of great Civil War experiences across the country, the Gettysburg 150 week topped them all. I am giddy as I write about it. Continue reading
Word came today that the National Park Service will begin demolition of the old Cyclorama building at Gettysburg. It was just a matter of time. I never had a real problem with it being there, though I admit it was sort of an eyesore. I also have no problem with removing it for that reason, but what I have little patience for is that in doing so we are returning the battlefield to its 1863 appearance. That is little more than a comforting fiction. If that were the case we would remove all the monuments as well.
While browsing the Museum of the Confederacy’s website I came across this panel discussion from 2002 on the interpretation of Civil War battlefields. I attended this panel, which was held at the University of Richmond. It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years.
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.