Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Slavery and Public History

Apparently, and amazingly, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the National Park Service interpretation of Civil War sites included mention of the principal circumstances which led up to secession, and war. Even today in some Civil War circles there is debate about how much a Park Service visitor center museum should devote to the issue of slavery. I’ve never really understood how putting a battle in the context of the long, sectional rift between North and South would detract from a visitor’s appreciation of the military events that unfolded in a particular place. From the ratification of the constitution to the Kansas Nebraska Act, the issue of slavery literally shaped the nation into free and slave soil sections neatly delineated on the map.

I do know that some people feel very strongly about keeping causes and battlefield interpretation separate. The late Jerry Russell of Civil War Round Table Associates was adamant about that – he was a veritable crusader on the subject.

What’s behind such passion? Why is it soooo important to some people to make sure slavery is treated as incidental to the gathering of these great armies? I think we have to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that those who are bothered by mention of “causes” in the visitor’s center don’t really believe slavery was the principal sticking point between the sections (or may be loathe to admit it), or else they don’t want their reverence for the (Southern) fighting man to be tainted by the stain of slavery in such a holy place. Personal valor is tarnished when overshadowed by the big picture and overriding national objectives. The battlefield itself may be the last refuge for the Confederate soldier – the last place in the study of that era where his motives remain pure.

Personally, I don’t get the controversy. It’s just history. The men who fought and died so bravely don’t need us to protect them from the politics of their day – they were unapologetic about it. And if not them, whom do we think we’re protecting? Confederate re-enactors?

I stumbled upon an interesting interview with the former Chief Historian of the National Park Service, Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley, who succeeded Ed Bearss in that position. I took this snippet from the National Parks Traveler website, but the full interview can be read at Thunderbear, “the oldest alternative newsletter in the federal government.” P.J. Ryan, a former ranger, conducted the interview in issue #277.

It’s especially interesting to read about how he responded to the outraged letters, and the strategies he employed with audiences of the “sons of the Confederacy” objecting to the new initiative to treat the causes of the war in NPS battlefield exhibits. Four words: purple heart lapel pin.

… until nearly the turn of the 21st Century the NPS had pussy-footed about the main cause of the Civil War -- slavery. Would you comment on the 1998 Nashville Conference that changed all this?

When the NPS inherited the Civil War battlefields from the War Department in 1933, the interpretive programs for the parks focused on the battles themselves and contained nothing on the reasons why the battle occurred. The NPS purposefully continued this practice until the 1990s when John Tucker installed a small exhibit at Fort Sumter that linked slavery with secession. By the late 1990s, the Civil War battlefield superintendents decided that with the approach of the 150th anniversary of the war, the NPS was obligated to include in its interpretation something about the causes of the war. The Nashville meeting resulted in a unanimous decision on the part of the managers to include the causes of the war, and specifically the core cause of slavery, in new exhibits and brochures. It was, of course, the right decision.

Certain historians managed to turn the old bromide, "History is written by the victors," on its head portraying the Confederacy as misunderstood, heroic underdogs fighting for their "states rights" against brutal invaders. Did you find this a challenge?

The Lost Cause interpretation of the war which was developed in the decades following Appomattox using the histories of the war written by Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens and other former Confederates, held that protection of states' rights not property rights (slavery) was the principal cause of secession and war. The teaching of Southern history over the years anchored this interpretation of causality not only in the South, but in many places in the North as well. And while this interpretation still carries great weight in the public discussion of the war, scholars for the past 40 years or so have focused on debates over the future of slavery as the central cause of secession. Having said that, I must quickly say that it is equally incorrect to argue that the war was prompted because Northern voters wanted to rid the country of the institution because of moral objections to it. So it gets complicated, and therein was the challenge the NPS faced in inserting information about the coming of the war into its interpretative programs.

The Southern leaders and their soldiery were actually more colorful, romantic, and militarily more creative and competent than their Northern counterparts, so any interpretation based on straight military "facts" put the NPS in the position of subtly endorsing the Southern point of view. Do you agree?

Whether southern leaders were more colorful, romantic, and creative than their northern counterparts is a question you will need to ask Ed Bearss. You would be hard pressed, however, to find a more colorful figure than Dan Sickles before, during, and certainly after the war. But the point is well taken that by focusing strictly on military action one avoids the larger issues at play during the war. Superintendent John Latschar at Gettysburg has written about how the names of various parts of that battle emphasized the southern, more than the northern, point of view. After all, we do call it "Pickett's Charge," rather than "Meade's Defense."

The Sons of the Confederacy, various Civil War round tables, numerous private individuals and members of Congress generated more than 2,500 letters stating that the NPS was hijacking American history by stating that slavery was the main cause of the war and must be so addressed by
each park. These letters ended up on your desk. How did you respond?

Diplomatically, I hope. The letters actually contained two arguments. One was that battlefields were not the place to talk about causality; that introducing the reasons for the war diminished the importance of the combatants. This was an argument I never understood, believing that a complete understanding of any battle must be based on why the war started in the first place. The second was that slavery was not the cause (or at least not a significant cause) of secession and war and the NPS was simply being "politically correct" in suggesting that it was. Even before the letters started pouring in, I did a great deal of homework by speaking and corresponding with the leading Civil War scholars in the country. Once the letters started arriving, I knew two things. First, that every letter must be answered because, as taxpayers, every writer had the right to hear what the NPS was planning and why. Second, I knew that my response had to be historically correct and based on the best of current scholarship. So, we responded with a two and a half page letter explaining the intentions of the NPS. In several cases, we received follow-up letters which we also answered. These were especially interesting as I and the correspondent were able to delve more deeply into the reasons of causality. I wrote about this at length in my chapter in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American History (2006).

Did your military background and purple heart prove useful?

One of the striking aspects about a large percentage of the letters was that the writer would begin with a paragraph on his military experience and/or the military traditions of his family. The intention, I believe, was to establish the notion that veterans knew how to interpret battlefields and bureaucrats in Washington did not. After a while, I started including a bit about my experience in the Marine Corps and Vietnam to help balance the playing field. I also started wearing my Purple Heart lapel pin when addressing Civil War gatherings. At the end of the day, I don't know how much my military background helped; I am certain it didn't hurt.

What was your most useful tool in the discussion?

Well, I began these conversations quoting the best Civil War historians in the country, historians like Jim McPherson, Gary Gallagher, Eric Foner, Ed Ayers, and others, but they were dismissed as either "Yankee" historians or "Scalawag" historians. So I started using primary sources which are readily available. Charles Dew's book on the secession commissioners was helpful. I also used quotes from the four declarations of secession from South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas, as well as quotes on the problems facing the country from leading elected officials including James Buchanan, Alexander Stephens, and John J. Crittenden.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Fantastic post. Thank you for the article and interview. Your statement "it's just history" is very interesting and one that I agree with. I think we could arrive at that more even tenor if the first principals of an historical event were not manipulated, ie the Lost Cause mythology. When primary data is altered, then embraced by some parties, we lose sight of what we're really talking about.