Interpretation of Slavery at Civil War Battlefields

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.

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.

Continue reading “Looking Beyond the High Ground”

Battlefield Preservation or Destruction at Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg

Update: The above image of the proposed trails was made available by John Spangler of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.

Here is a story that should concern all of you about the integrity of the Gettysburg battlefield.  The Lutheran Seminary had embarked upon the construction of a historic trail that looks to threaten some of the most important ground from the fighting on July 1, 1863.  Behind the scenes some preservation groups have expressed reservations, but this story needs to go public and the Civil War community needs to make the Seminary folks aware that their plans for the future are intrusive and a threat to the historic resource that they are committed to protect.  The Seminary Ridge Historic Preservation Foundation held a public information session a few days ago only after the project had commenced and damage had been done to the landscape.  From what I am hearing the panel was unable to address how they reconciled the destruction of the land with their preservation mission.  Their plans also include the construction of trails on the western face of Seminary Ridge.  The Lutheran Seminary cannot simply fall back on the position that this is private property since this project has been partly funded by federal funds.

I don’t know all the details, but at the least the SRHPF should be able to answer questions from those people worried about preservation about how this project will impact the physical landscape of the battlefield.  Below are a few pictures that were sent to me that show some of the construction (or destruction) that has already taken place.  Let’s get the word out.

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 Battlefield as Classroom (New York Times)

"Field of Lost Shoes" at New Market Battlefield

In December 2008 I was honored to deliver the keynote address for the National Park Service’s annual commemoration of the battle of Fredericksburg.  I used the opportunity to reflect on how I utilize battlefields to connect my students to American history.  Last year I decided to revise it to reflect the various places that I took students during my time in Virginia.  Taken together these trips remain my most memorable and enjoyable teaching experiences.  Thanks to Clay Risen of the New York Times for agreeing to publish it in their Disunion column.  This is my second essay in the series.

Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students in central Virginia, bound for one of the area’s Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite day of the year. It allows us to imagine ourselves as part of a larger community, one extending far back into the past. In those moments, in those still-dewy fields, the distance between the present and past collapses. I suspect it’s the same reason that bring hundreds of thousands of people each year to Fredericksburg, Manassas, Richmond, Petersburg and the Shenandoah Valley: We want, we feel compelled even, to understand what happened, why it happened and what it means that it happened.

Read the rest of the essay.