September 29, 2008

Civil War Battlefield Exhibits - Final Comments

Kevin Levin and Eric Wittenberg have followed up my earlier post with their own takes on the interpretive changes underway at our ACW battlefields. Having read the many responses over the past several days, I’ll make this final observation.

Kevin makes the case that Gettysburg has become a symbol for so much more than just a large-scale Civil War battle. That Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the “tide-turning” historiography of Gettysburg and its sheer size make it a most unique place compared to any other Civil War battlefield. Therefore, I concede his point that Gettysburg can, and perhaps should be an excellent choice to feature a broad narrative of the entire war and its causes. In a response to Eric’s post, Kevin also points out that interpretive debate has been going on for decades at these parks and therefore, this latest round should be viewed as no big deal. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this latest round was the first time that Congress legislated that a certain perspective be presented! Further, it appears that the controversial Congressional mandates and Jesse Jackson Jr. speeches from the past decade dictated that such a broad-based view not be limited to our premier ACW battlefield, but should extend to all NPS sites. The fact that all sites must now broaden the scope of their interpretation and its apparent depth is the crux of my issue, which I think Kevin agrees with.

What seems to be oh-so-carefully-worded is the real “why” of those mandates, though I have a hunch that it’s a sister racial elephant sitting in the other corner of this room. Kevin writes how “one is hard pressed to find black Americans at Gettysburg today, although it seems to me that they have as much of a reason to do so as any citizen” and that “Gettysburg belongs to all Americans.” Jackson’s speech entitled “A More Perfect Union, which got the legislative ball rolling, says basically the same thing. No argument here to any of that. In fact, I’d say it’s self-evident, or, at least should be. The essence of the “problem” however, as vocalized by Jackson and Gettysburg Superintendent John Latschar, is a perceived lack of African-American interest in these Civil War sites, i.e., the absence of black faces at Gettysburg that Kevin mentions. This lack of interest was driven, in Jackson’s opinion, by an inability (unwillingness?) of African-Americans to “relate” to the traditional battlefield interpretations with their, as he saw it, narrow military focus which apparently translates into a primarily “white” focus. Latschar acknowledged this as well by saying in 2003 that, "Generally speaking, Civil War parks have failed to appeal to the black population of America." Further, any interpretation based solely on military matters put the NPS in the position of subtly endorsing a Southern point of view, a characterization that retired NPS Chief Historian Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley felt was well taken. According to Latschar, "For the past 100 years, we've been presenting this battlefield as the high watermark of the Confederacy and focusing on the personal valor of the soldiers who fought here." According to three visiting historians in 1998, Gettysburg's interpretive programs had a "pervasive southern sympathy." This is illustrated by what has become famously known as "Pickett's Charge" rather than, say, "Meade's Defense." The “cure” then, per Jackson and Congress, was to readjust the interpretive lens so that Civil War battlefields would be more “accessible.” As Jackson himself acknowledged, “Race, I must tell you, is the lens through which I, as an African American, view American history.”

Gee, and so many of us thought that the fundamental reason for the NPS’ interpretive sea-change was all in the name of superior scholarship and delivering a more advanced understanding of the war. While no one suggests that the purported African-American disinterest in the study of Civil War battlefields is a “good” thing, I’m still sincerely struggling to understand why so many view it as a “bad” thing. Again, to quote Latschar: "Park visitors are predominantly adult white males. Males far outnumber females and white visitors far, far outnumber black visitors and all other minorities. If the park is going to survive as a public institution supported by taxpayer funds, I suggested that it might want to appeal to a broader cross-section of the American taxpaying population." Is this a deftly-worded political statement or a simple economic one? Remember, there are historical topics ad infinitum that people could have an interest in, but simply don’t. My mother-in-law has a keen interest in 19th-century quilts and the related shows and events that go with it. The entire scene is female-dominated. Should they somehow change things to make it more palatable to males?

The black contribution to the northern war effort was immense and should be celebrated. It is quite possible the Union might not have been saved had it not been for the contribution of the 100,000+ USCT’s. Today, I believe there are a good number of African-American men who interpret these soldiers through various reenactment groups. I’ve also seen many African-American women at so-called “sutler’s camps.” The level of African-American scholarship within the Civil War is self-evident. My hope is that anyone of any ethnicity or color who wishes to learn about the Civil War will be welcomed into the public dialogue with open arms. This, of course, holds true for participatory activities as well.

On the other hand, it’s OK by me if someone has no interest, either. Let’s just not tap-dance around why we’re making these fundamental interpretive changes at our national military parks. From what’s been written and discussed, I’ve inferred that the core reason is a belief that we want to attract more African-American visitors to Civil War battlefields and in order to do so, we’re altering the narrative to include discussions that the powers that be believe will be of greater interest to them. Thus, another example of Gallagher’s Reconciliation Cause giving way to the currently vogue Emancipation Cause. Publicly proclaiming that we’re broadening the narrative to give visitors a more well-rounded, historically accurate contextual picture is a straw man argument that dodges the real issue, in my humble opinion. And there’s nothing wrong at all with that core reason – let’s just be honest about it!

Latschar has previously said that Lost Cause mythology was, in its day, the ultimate in “politically correct” thinking. He makes a very good point; let’s just admit that this current trend in revising the interpretation at Civil War battlefields is likewise primarily driven by contemporary racial politics. And hey, that’s OK! If so many of us say that we need an “open dialogue” about race, and I believe we do, then let’s start by admitting that we’re going to talk about race.


Unknown said...

Paul, -- Wonderful post. You provide a first-rate summary of the debate and some things to think about. I agree that evolution of interpretive changes at battlefields is, in part, political. That said, it's always been, the only difference is how the those in control manage to shape public perceptions and narrative of the war. One final question: Even if we admit that some of these changes are political, why can't those changes be steeped in the best scholarly work currently being produced. I guess I don't see a conflict. Thanks again.

Paul Taylor said...


Thanks again for weighing in. I wholeheartedly agree that if we're going to have changes, then let those changes be steeped in the best work out there. My whole point is that I just wish the decision makers would have unambiguously admitted, especially NPS historians, that these fundamental interpretive changes were set in motion primarily by contemporary racial sensitivities, and not by any newly-acquired and enlightened scholarly perspective.


Unknown said...

Paul, -- You may want to check out Jesse Jackson Jr.'s website, which includes an impressive reading list of Civil War and related titles for those interested. I say this because he clearly has a deep interest in the war and if he has read even a small fraction of the book is indeed well informed. In other words, I wonder if in the end it is the change in scholarship over the past few years that inspired his legislation.