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.

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