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.

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20 comments… add one
  • Bryan Cheeseboro Dec 5, 2012 @ 14:03

    “but beyond that it’s unclear who we are talking about.”

    Didn’t CNN or some source conduct a recent poll that surveyed something like 42% of people believe the war was NOT about slavery? I hope that “camp of folks” is relatively small but 42% doesn’t sound “very small.”

    • Kevin Levin Dec 5, 2012 @ 14:04

      Check out the new post that builds a bit on your previous comment. Perhaps you can copy this over.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Dec 5, 2012 @ 12:21

    I visited Antietam this summer and I saw a placard on causes of the war (i.e. slavery) outside the Visitors’ Center that I had never seen before.

    I found out from an episode of Civil War Talk Radio that the NPS was dealing with incorprating cause and civilians and the home front into the battlefield parks (I think it was in the episode linked below). I certainly think mention of these things at any battlefield site is a good thing… especially at a place like Fredericksburg, a battle directly affecting civilians. But for many people who are only interested in battles as military strategy or those who don’t accept that slavery caused Southern secession and Confederate war, such information will often be seen as “PC BS.”

    • Kevin Levin Dec 5, 2012 @ 13:22

      It’s worth asking who are these people who only want to hear about battles and soldiers. You are right that some resistance comes from that very small camp of folks who simply don’t want to hear about slavery, but beyond that it’s unclear who we are talking about.

  • Rob Baker Dec 5, 2012 @ 4:02

    Show me a battlefield that has become a “political platform.”

    I think certain factions definitely (right or wrong) see battlefields as political platforms. You might find this article interesting Kevin.


    I think there are some interesting parallels between the situation in Ireland and in America. It really comes back to battlefield interpretation and the “eyes of the beholder.” It’s like you say all the time. Just because you read some books and visit battlefields does not make you a historian. Where’s the analyzation and interpretation? It’s usually non-existent. Instead, many battlefield visitors choose to project their modern political ideology onto the past because it provides a familiar understanding of that event.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 5, 2012 @ 4:04

      Let me clarify. What I am suggesting is that one would be hard pressed to find an NPS battlefield site, where the staff is using the landscape/resources to make a partisan political point.

      • Rob Baker Dec 5, 2012 @ 4:18

        I agree with that statement. But at the same time, tourists do find that political interpretation; and they usually tell the NPS staff as much. I’m not necessarily agreeing with Russel and Kirk, but there is some small validity in their statements. NPS staff is a collection of different types of researchers. Some very capable. Some not so much. Both parties provide interpretations on tours when answering questions. I’ve been to Chickamauga – Chattanooga Battlefields enough time to see both spectrums represented in full. I don’t think this is any type of NPS directive or initiative but simply the people factor.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 5, 2012 @ 4:24

          Good point. I guess my initial statement was in response to what I interpreted in their remarks that these sites would dominantly become political platforms with history placed on the sidelines. Very rarely have I gotten the sense that an NPS historian/ranger is trying to slip something political in a tour/presentation.

          • Rob Baker Dec 5, 2012 @ 5:20

            Right and I rarely get that sense either. It usually comes from Q&A at the end of tours when certain tourists ask questions looking for a specific answer and sometimes they get it. I have heard the “only 15% of the South owned slaves” a couple times on different battlefields. This happens a small fraction of the time though, for the most part I am pleased with the NPS staff at battlefields.

  • Margaret D. Blough Dec 4, 2012 @ 18:33

    OMG, Kevin, I was at that seminar too (interesting side note-campus has lousy signage, especially at night, and I kept going around in circles trying to get out until John Coski, who I asked for directions, generously got in his car and had me follow him out. Lovely man.). Over the years, I’ve gotten to know Dwight Pitcaithley. He and Jerry Russell came to form sort of a grudgingly respectful and even amicable (off the stage) team since they were at so many of these functions together. It was an interesting night and worth the trip.

    People keep telling me how great Russell was to know and how much he did for battlefield preservation. I’ll have to take their word for it. All I know is he said some truly awful stuff during the development of the current GMP at Gettysburg, including very personal attacks against Dr. John Latschar, that to me went so far beyond the bounds of legitimate debate that I’ll never be able to think of him without remembering that.

    • Ken Noe Dec 5, 2012 @ 6:12

      I never met Mr. Russell but somehow I ended up on his daily, anti-NPS HeritagePAC listserv. The second time I asked him to remove me, he replied with a long, angry email that included telling me that he was blacklisting me from speaking at a preservation conference. Indeed years passed before certain affiliated groups contacted me again for anything but donations.

      • Kevin Levin Dec 5, 2012 @ 10:45

        Sorry to hear that. Did you ever find out why he placed you on this list?

        • Ken Noe Dec 5, 2012 @ 10:57

          No, I assumed it was spammed to anyone with an interest in the topic and an email address.

  • ari Dec 4, 2012 @ 18:05

    I also forgot a word: “my”. Maybe Vicodin, wine, and commenting on blogs aren’t the perfect combination I thought they were when I started constructing this mess.

  • Lyle Smith Dec 4, 2012 @ 18:05

    If only Confederate soldiers had yelled Slavery! Slavery! Slavery! while firing their cannon and making their charges… it would all be so much easier to interpret.

    I think some battlefields may be better places than others to interpret the causes of the war. I think Fort Sumter is a better place than say Gettysburg, and Port Hudson is a better place than say Perryville. The former is possibly the 9/11 event of the Civil War and the latter is a place where blacks soldiers fought. Some places just lend themselves to talking about the causes, while others don’t seem to.

    • Bryan Cheeseboro Dec 5, 2012 @ 12:12

      “If only Confederate soldiers had yelled Slavery! Slavery! Slavery! while firing their cannon and making their charges… it would all be so much easier to interpret.”

      That actually happened… only it was the politicians saying “Slavery! Slavery! Slavery!” as their states seceded from the Union to preserve the institution.

      • Lyle Smith Dec 5, 2012 @ 15:09

        True, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m linking it to contemporary battlefield chants of Allahu Akbar! So on the battlefield by soldiers and not in speeches or writings.

  • ari Dec 4, 2012 @ 18:03

    Jerry Russell figures rather prominently in one chapter of new book. I had the opportunity to interview him on two (or maybe three?) occasions, and though I disagreed with nearly every word he said, I thought he was an interesting and decent human being.

    Well, look up there, it’s a comment that will interest nobody but me. Never let it be said that I’m not a narcissist

    • Kevin Levin Dec 4, 2012 @ 18:07

      I pretty much disagreed with every word he uttered in this panel, but he did incredible work for the battlefield preservation movement. No one can take that away from him. Really looking forward to your book.

      • ari Dec 4, 2012 @ 18:12

        Yeah, he was an immensely dedicated preservationist and also a pretty fascinating entrepreneur. He started the Order of the Indian Wars, which lives on without him. And though he was quite dedicated to the proposition that US cavalrymen, including Custer, had received a raw deal from historians, he also knew and liked Dee Brown, which was the context that most interested me about him.

        Anyway, as you say, he advanced the agenda of a movement that he cared about a great deal. We should all accomplish so much with our lives.

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