Why the National Park Service Is Right

In 2000 the NPS began the process of reevaluating the interpretation of its Civil War battlefields. NPS officials judged that it had fallen short in its coverage of the role of slavery as a crucial factor in the cause of the war and its role in the evolution of the conflict. Southern Heritage groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans were quick to respond. The following appeared in the SCV’s official organ, the Southern Messenger: The present politically correct conventional wisdom is that the War Between the States was fought over slavery, period; that therefore all things Confederate are tainted by a tacit endorsement of slavery or its latter-day counterpart, “racism,” and therefore those who venerate them are racists.” Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley, retired Chief Historian of the NPS asserted, “We’re not being responsible public servants if we don’t explain the history that underpins these battles.” This ongoing debate highlights the wide gap between heritage and history or academic and amateur historians.

The NPS utilized the talents of some of the nation’s leading academic historians. Their recommendations reflect widely-held assumption going back to the 1950’s that slavery played a vital role in the events that led to secession and war. Many outside academic circles continue to maintain that either slavery was irrelevant to understanding secession and the war or that there were so many issues involved that it is historically inaccurate to highlight the “peculiar institution” specifically. Needless to say that I am not going to get into this debate as I believe it has been played out. There are more interesting questions to ask. The NPS is absolutely on track in the reevaluation of their interpretation. One of the common arguments made is that these battlefields ought to commemorate the men who fought and therefore should not mix other issues. Officials should concentrate on the movement of troops and other tactical issues. My problem with this is that it reduces these men to chess pieces and ignores the fact that they were concerned about political issues such as slavery and emancipation. Anyone who has ever read the letters of these men can attest to this; they closely followed issues related to slavery in newspapers and commented extensively on its relevance one way or another. The other problem with this argument is that it turns the battlefield into a vacuum. Focusing solely on battlefield issues ignores the fundamental question as to why these men were fighting. One is left with the impression of men simply falling out of the sky to kill one another without any reasoning. It would be similar to explaining the events of 9-11 without any reference to Islamic extremism. Imagine being given a tour of “Ground Zero” and the tour guide provides a detailed account of the events of that day without any background information. It’s like: “Well, one day a couple of guys from Saudi Arabia decided to fly a couple planes into the World Trade Center.”

Move away for a moment and consider the more local question of the role of slavery and emancipation in reference to specific battles. In the case of the battle of the Crater it is difficult to imagine a more appropriate place for the discussion of these issues. On the one hand it is impossible to understand the recruitment of close to 200,000 black soldiers without some understanding of slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation and also difficult to appreciate the responses and behavior of Confederate soldiers after realizing these men had been included in the Federal attack. I see this landscape as an ideal place to discuss questions of black freedom and related issues. In short, it is as much a part of the history of that battle as the movements of troops and in my mind more important. In the end this debate underscores the success of reunion and the ascendancy of an interpretation that concentrates on the shared values of the men in the ranks. This can be seen today in the continuing fascination and popularity of Civil War reenacting. Many seem to be driven by a desire to achieve an authenticity in outward appearance—failure to do so may result in being labeled a “farb.” However, in doing so one runs the risk of engaging in farb-like behavior of the mind. People travel to Civil War battlefields for all kinds of reasons. I have no problem if someone wishes to concentrate solely on the military side of a battlefield; however, it is the responsibility of the NPS to provide first-time visitors and others with a mature account that reflects both the horrors of battle and relevant background.

Thank You John Hope Franklin

The most recent issue of The Journal of Southern History (November 2005) contains the presentations from a roundtable discussion that took place at last year’s Southern Historical Association (SHA) convention in Memphis, Tennessee. Duke University Emeritus Professor John Hope Franklin was one of the participants. The panel discussion commemorated the 50th anniversary of the association’s meeting in that same city and a panel that focused on the recent Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court. Franklin, who worked on the historical background of the Brown case was asked to take part. Although he served on the SHA’s planning committee for that year, Franklin refused to take part as the Peabody Hotel would not allow black historians to book reservations. In a letter written shortly before the meeting was set to take place, Franklin explained: “There are times when one gets weary of inconveniences and risks of humiliation; and in order to retain one’s sanity and self-respect he must have periods of time in which he unrealistically insulates himself from such experiences.” Beyond problems related to travel arrangements, Franklin was also weary of the negative reception that he was bound to receive by many fellow academics.

Here is a bit more from Franklin’s 2004 speech, which provides insight into his decision not to attend the meeting in Memphis.

“There were two anticipated experiences, however, that greatly influenced my state of mind, even as I discharged my duties as a member of the program committee of the Southern Historical Association, which, by that time, some African American historians were calling the Confederate Historical Association. In the summer of 1955, I was invited to spend a portion of that summer at a conference in Braunschweig, Germany, to offer assistance in the rewriting of the textbooks that had been used in the German schools to make certain now that there was no longer a taint of Nazism in anything the young poeople would be studying. As I went through that exercise I could not help wondering: if young southerners had earlier been exposed to books that emphasized the common humanity of all people of the South, perhaps the problems that we confronted in 1955 would not exist.

The other experience was also a European experience. I had been invited to read a paper before the International Congress of Historical Sciences meeting in Rome in September 1955. The Americans I met there were not concerned with such trivia as where I would stand when I read that paper and whether I would eat at a sidewalk restaurant or have my meals in my hotel room. Instead, some of the historians were more interested in my joining their department as their chairman than how I would act when we had our audience with the Pope. It gave me the perspective that I needed to remain firm in my resolve not to go to Memphis, although, at that time, I was drooling to see and hear William Faulkner.”

You can read much more about Franklin’s life and distinguished academic career in his new autobiography, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin.

Let’s Hear It for the Girls

Anyone following trends in Civil War publishing has probably noticed the increase in gender studies. The 1996 publication of Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War by Drew G. Faust underscored the connection between southern slaveholding women and Confederate defeat. Though the book received a great deal of attention in academic crowds it made little impact in more popular circles. That is unfortunate as the book is well argued (though I take issue with certain conclusions) and fairly easy to follow. Most importantly, Faust emphasizes the close connection between the battlefield and the home front. I hate to water her argument down, but in essence Faust argues that slaveholding women were unable or refused to maintain support for the Confederate military effort by the middle of the war, and as a result pressed the men in their lives to return home.

As in other categories of Civil War studies books on women – depending on the authors – tend to fall into one or two camps: analytical or popular. Let me mention two such books that I recently reviewed for Civil War Book Review. The first is Elizabeth Varon’s, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew. The second is the more recently released, Wild Rose: Rose O’Neale Greenhow, Civil War Spy by Ann Blackman. Check out my reviews for a detailed analysis. The former book is a bit more analytical. Varon analyzes Van Lew’s success as a Union spy in terms of her ability to manipulate the gender assumptions of the time. Blackman’s book is much more narrative driven. Some readers (including this one) will no doubt take issue with certain conclusions re: her importance to the Confederacy; still, the book remains an entertaining read.

I am thinking about offering an elective next year on women and the Civil War. My Advanced Placement classes in American history are dominated by female students. However, many of them steer clear of history electives their senior year. Perhaps this will keep a few more in the fold.

Response to “Obligatory McPherson Post”

I am finally getting a grip on what is troubling me regarding Rotov’s obsession with McPherson, and more specifically, this so-called “centennial” interpretation of the Civil War. As to the latter, I can report that there is no centennial interpretation out there. I took the time to read old posts on Dimitri’s site (I know, “get a life”, but this is what you do when you are procrastinating finishing a paper that must be delivered next month) and could not find a coherent statement defining the school of thought. What I did find were relatively brief snippets of criticisms about how certain historians interpret McClellan or tend to push specific narrative points such as “Lincoln Finds a General.” But does all of this taken together really constitute a coherent school of thought? I think not. I am assuming that a distinct “school of thought” must contain fundamental or foundational assumptions/principles that distinguish it in the broader historiographic landscape. Examples include the Lost Cause interpretation of the 19th century and the Progressive and Revisionist schools in the 20th century. If there are widely accepted assumptions surrounding the study of the Civil War, they include the relatively new school of social history which takes seriously the view from the ground, including the home front and the common soldier, etc. In addition, Civil War history must acknowledge the crucial role that slavery and African Americans played in the coming of the war and the evolution of the war itself. The problem, as I see it, is the sharp split between popular history which analyzes battles in a vacuum divorced from broader issues and academic history which concentrates on issues away from the battlefield without serious consideration of the military side.

As for criticisms of McPherson the rock star, all I can say is that it is time to move on. In reference to the interviews and excessive adulation it is enough to say that 99.999999% of Americans could care less. The Civil War community, including academic historians, “buffs” preservationists, etc, doesn’t even appear on any meaningful public radar screen. Let’s not turn McPherson’s public image into something it is not: I am confident that he will not be appearing on Entertainment Tonight anytime soon. And if he wants to write a volume on the Navy for the Littlefield series, so be it. George Rable, who is an incredibly talented historian at the University of Alabama, is now writing the volume on religion in the Civil War. I may be wrong, but he has no prior experience researching this topic.