Publication Date

March 1, 2000

Perspectives Section




The National Park Service (NPS) is reevaluating how Civil War battle sites present history to the public, spurred by a new federal law that "encourages" the parks to emphasize slavery as a cause of the war. The law coincides with ongoing NPS efforts to make the sites appeal to a broader swath of Americans by updating battlefield interpretations.

Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) crafted the new language about slavery and battlefield interpretations in this year's Department of Interior appropriations bill, which passed in November. The law praises current NPS representations of military history and asks park managers "to recognize and include in all of their public displays . . . the unique role that the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War and its role, if any, at the individual battle sites."

"The purpose is to begin the process of seeing," Jackson added, "not to antagonize or to take a scab off an old wound."

Interpretive materials at battlefields tend to reflect the legacy of their origins. Civil War veterans—Union and Confederate—founded the movement to make battlefields historic landmarks. Until recently, the NPS continued the tradition, initiated by the veterans, of focusing on wartime valor and the romance of national reconciliation.

NPS Chief Historian Dwight Pitcaithley and many other NPS staff members share Congress's opinion that it is time to update the parks for an era that recognizes that reconciliation was for whites only, and at the expense of African Americans; that slavery was central to the conflict; that African Americans were crucial to the war effort; and that the war is best understood not just as a military phenomenon, but as a social and political one as well.

Pitcaithley acknowledged that until now, the Park Service has mirrored what he sees as Americans' reluctance to talk about slavery and racism in U.S. history. Noting that Colonial Williamsburg, a privately run historic site that depicts life in colonial Virginia, has only added slavery to its interpretation in the last 10 years, Pitcaithley said the Park Service had been "in the same mode of thinking. [Slavery] was too sensitive a topic to discuss."

Representative Jackson sees things similarly. He likens the issue of race to a lens that filters how Americans see the past and the present. We're "in constant denial" that the lens exists, he said. He wants to get people talking about race and the institution of slavery.

According to Jackson, the Civil War era marks the foundation of America's racially distorted vision and of African American politics. He describes himself as a political descendent of the first African American congressmen, who became lawmakers immediately after the war. In that moment of "renewed hope," Jackson said, "millions of newly freed slaves felt a new commitment to the principles on which our nation was founded." With enthusiasm enough to recruit a bevy of first-year history majors, Jackson professed that we cannot understand the present if we fail to understand the past.

Jackson, who was raised in Chicago, traveled to 18 Civil War battlegrounds shortly after taking his seat in Congress. His southern sojourn was an attempt to learn about what he calls the "Dixiefication" of American politics. "I had no idea what I was going to find," he said.

What he found was that battlefield histories focused largely on soldiers and battle strategies, and he became convinced that they needed to do a better job educating the public about the war's causes. A member of the House appropriations committee, Jackson then launched a legislative initiative that, he said, met with no opposition from House colleagues.

Like Congress, the state legislature of Maryland has recently insisted on an organized assessment of slavery's history and lasting implications. In January, a task force composed of Maryland legislators and social scientists delivered to the state government a 500-page report on how the state's schools and cultural institutions currently discuss slavery. The task force, which was commissioned in 1998, hopes its research and recommendations will help Maryland institutions confront the history and legacy of slavery and will provide a template for other states with similar agendas.

The new federal law meshes with efforts already under way within the National Park Service. In 1995, the Fort Sumter site unveiled a new exhibit highlighting the role of slavery in the sectional conflict. And in August 1998, battlefield superintendents met in Nashville and outlined a new set of interpretive goals, including emphasizing "social, economic, and cultural issues"; highlighting people's diverse wartime experiences; creating more interpretive links among the battlefields; and making the war's history relevant in the present.

Park Service efforts are becoming increasingly systematic, in part because the law now requires it. Preeminent among the NPS's goals is to integrate current scholarship on the Civil War into battlefield histories. In a report for Congress to be published this month, the Park Service will discuss current battlefield interpretations and—with its vision trained on the war's sesquicentennial in 2010—how NPS personnel plan to revamp the parks' presentations. This spring, battlefield managers will reconvene, this time with eminent Civil War historians, among them Drew Gilpin Faust, Eric Foner, and James McPherson.

The NPS is mandated to emphasize the specific history of the lands entrusted to it. According to Gettysburg superintendent John Latschar, historic sites are uniquely able to evoke "emotional feeling connected to the place." They can provide a "sense of place" absent in a classroom. But, Latschar said, "we sort of let ourselves slide into exclusively doing that." Like the reluctance to discuss slavery, the NPS's focus on the local landscape has led to relatively narrow histories of the battlefields, to an interpretive chasm between local events and broader causes and consequences.

A new museum at Gettysburg, therefore, will try to mingle soldiers' stories with those of civilians who resided on battlefield grounds and whom the soldiers left behind at home. Its theme, "a new birth of freedom," borrows from Lincoln's immortal elegy and suggests the battle's significance to many contemporaries. At Manassas, an exhibit unveiled last summer discusses slavery and states' rights ideology. It also includes details about civilian life on the site, a subject under continuing investigation by archaeologists.

Pitcaithley noted that Congress rarely gets this closely involved in NPS interpretations. The last time was in 1991, when a new law directed park managers to broaden interpretations at Little Bighorn Battlefield. Formerly named for General George A. Custer, the battlefield had been a "Custer shrine" from 1946 to 1990, Pitcaithley said. New materials include Native American perspectives on the battle and discuss its historical context. According to Pitcaithley, they are a decided improvement.

Not everyone agrees, however. Some groups have challenged the changes at Little Bighorn, worried that new interpretations diminish the legacy of General Custer. But, Pitcaithley said, it is important to "separate those with a vested interest in how the park is interpreted from the public at large. . . . My sense is that the public appreciates as broad an interpretation of historical events there as they can get."

Civil War battlefield interpretations may prove an even touchier issue. As at Little Bighorn, those with "a vested interest" may not represent "the public at large." The NPS hopes to defuse any nascent conflicts, in part by insisting that new interpretations will supplement military history materials, rather than replace or diminish them.

Although some NPS historians see congressional directives as encroachments on their independence and authority, Pitcaithley considers the new law an affirmation that the NPS has been heading in the right direction. Latschar indicated that the NPS intends to work with concerned groups as it revamps interpretive materials; the gradual revision of programs is "going to take a lot of thought" and will mean "leaning on the academic community a lot."

The NPS hopes to reassure the parks' traditional constituents while trying to provide better history and attract more (and different) people to the parks. At their 1998 meeting, park managers asked why "minority populations" seemed uninterested in visiting battlefield parks and why "these sites appear to be irrelevant to them." Manassas superintendent Robert Sutton put it this way: "Quite honestly, most battlefields are not visited by many African Americans or other minorities." Yet, he said, "We exist for all American people, not for a specific constituency or a particular interest."

But passions run high in this subtly grained story of race, history, politics, and memory. In response to a query from Perspectives, many participants in a recent H-Net discussion saw the new law as evidence of creeping “political correctness.” Some warned list members to beware of an incipient “big brother” government, and one asserted, “while politicians make history they do not get to dictate it.” Reminding list members that slavery was not confined to the secessionist states and that African Americans were known to fight for the Confederacy, many claimed that the legislation was one-sided and that new interpretations would only obscure the historical truth.

Discussants were quick to ignite a debate about causes of the war, and many defended versions of the "progressive" interpretation—developed by historians during the Jim Crow era—that the war was the inevitable result of uneven economic development and that slavery was a secondary issue. Some reiterated the hagiographic vision of reconciliation: soldiers on both sides fought with dignity and dedication, so the battlefields should be consecrated to their memory.

Still other list members chimed in that social history and military history are not mutually exclusive and that slaves and free African Americans were central in many Civil War battles. Some pointed out that the new law only "encourages" but does not mandate changes and that the new interpretations do—in fact—conform to the current consensus among professional historians that the institution of slavery was a catalyst of the war. One participant said battlefield interpretations have been "political" at least since Congress became involved with them, in the 19th century. And many agreed with Latschar that "the myth of the Lost Cause" was, itself, a "most blatant example of political correctness."

Congress did not appropriate additional money to implement the changes it mandated. Pitcaithley said the NPS always welcomes increased congressional support, especially for interpretive programs. But he's not counting on it. Instead, changes to battlefield publications, films, exhibits, and tours will be spread over the next 10 years, to accommodate financial constraints. Latschar thinks it will be money well spent. "Explaining better why people were killing each other is a good way of using resources," he said.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.