National Park Service: The Former ‘Unwritten Rule’ on Discussing the Causes of the Civil War


Note: Before I begin, let me be clear: this story is not a criticism of the National Park Service. They do a great job, and I appreciate their service in maintaining our public parks, including historic battlefields. This article would not be possible if not for the open and frank comments of current and former NPS employees. My goal is not to criticize the NPS, but rather, to show how our discussion of history at public places is affected by the views of the “general public.”
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One of the most controversial subjects in American history – perhaps the most controversial – is the cause of the Civil War.

Actually, it’s not that controversial among history scholars in today’s colleges and universities. For them, there is a consensus that the “fundamental” cause of the Civil War was slavery. Or to be more precise, that the cause of the war was a conflict between a Northern society based on free white labor, and a Southern society based on African slave labor.

But outside the academic environment, there is a lot of conflict and division on this subject. There are many people who believe that the war had nothing to do with slavery, or, that slavery was a minor factor at most.

Much of this dissent comes from Confederate partisans and what many call “Lost Cause” advocates. The Lost Cause belief, which originated among former Confederates who wrote their own history of the Civil War, supposes among other things that the defense of states’ rights, not slavery, is what the led to the war. The Lost Cause belief was once prominent among history scholars, but it has faded, especially since the Civil Rights era. The details of the Lost Cause belief have evolved; at one time, Lost Causers claimed that slavery was a “benign institution” which led to the slaves being “contented” and “loyal.” Today, few people deny the horrors of slavery, but you will hear claims that tens of thousands of “Black Confederate soldiers” willingly and loyally fought for the “Southern” cause.

So, how does the National Park Service come into all of this?

The NPS is responsible for maintaining government parks, which includes many historic battlefields, and national monuments and memorials. NPS staff prepare markers at these sites, and give tours. As such, they have to make decisions about what to place on markers, and what to say to visitors.

Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley, who was the Chief Historian at the National Park Service from 1995-2005, gave a talk recently about how the causes of the Civil War are discussed in public sites, such as those managed by the NPS. These particular comments made me go “wow”:

In 1998 a number of superintendents and NPS employees of Civil War battlefields met in Nashville to determine a number of issues related to battlefield management… one of those was the interpretation of the battlefield. They decided unanimously that it was time to start talking about the causes of the war in NPS battlefield sites.

It had been an unwritten policy since 1933 when Civil War battlefield were inherited from the Department of War that the Park Service didn’t talk about causes. It was too complex… too contentious… (they) didn’t want to rile the public.

In Virginia (which has a number of battlefields) that played out in a very interesting way… The NPS cut a deal with the state of Virginia that it would not produce any interpretive product – pamphlet, exhibit, slideshow – without getting the approval of the state historian and Douglas Southall Freemen. Just to make sure the Park service said nothing obnoxious about the South and about slavery.

The results of this meeting became public, it wasn’t a secret meeting. Over the next two years the National Park Service received 2200 cards and letters, most as a result of write-in campaigns from Sons of Confederate Veterans and Civil War Roundtables asking us to go in the other direction, to refute the decision of the Superintendents… to go back to not interpreting the causes.

A video of Dr. Pitcaithley’s illuminating and informative talk is further below. The National Park Services did not rescind its new policy.

That was over ten years ago. As such, I was very interested to read this comment on another site:

The question I have for y’all is about the partisanship of interpretation at national park service civil war sites. I myself am an NPS ranger at the African Burial Ground National Monument in Manhattan, where we tell the story of NYC+slavery. Many of my visitors have told me that the rangers at the actual battlefields tend to teach the civil war in a fashion that glosses over slavery or is actually pro-confederate. I’m curious if this tendency may have arisen from customer demand, equivocation from the park service, or other reasons. The park service appears to be broadening its interpretative model:http://www.nps.gov/hfc/pdf/imi/civwar-reconst.pdf but still I’m concerned that the full horror of slavery or its role as a motivating factor in the civil war is glossed over in favor of ranger guided tours that focus on the specs of weaponry and read like gun-centric pornography.

This makes one wonder: has the NPS policy changed, but the views held or approach taken by some NPS staff haven’t? It’s impossible for me to say, as I haven’t been to enough of these sites to be able to form my own opinion.

But it does show the complexity and difficulty of addressing controversial subjects such as slavery in public/government places. My own feeling is that, once the public at large comes to understand the war in the way the scholars do, these issues will go away. But how long that will take, I have no idea.
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From Youtube: Public historian Dwight T. Pitcaithley, Emeritus Chief Historian of the National Park Service, discusses how to address the various and controversial causes of the Civil War during the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Committee’s 2010 Signature Conference at Norfolk State University, “Race, Slavery, and the Civil War: The Tough Stuff of American History and Memory.”

(PS: I attended the 2010 Signature Conference at Norfolk State University, and I enjoyed immensely. Congratulations are in order to everyone responsible for it. )

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5 thoughts on “National Park Service: The Former ‘Unwritten Rule’ on Discussing the Causes of the Civil War

  1. Great post. You asked:

    This makes one wonder: has the NPS policy changed, but the views held or approach taken by some NPS staff haven’t? It’s impossible for me to say, as I haven’t been to enough of these sites to be able to form my own opinion.

    I think part of the problem is the natural human tendency to avoid public confrontation. NPS staff, at least those who deal with the public, tend to polite to a fault; not so their audience members. I’ve led local history tours that touch on the Civil War, and had enough experiences with SCV types — there’s at least one on every tour, and probably several when it comes to ACW battlefields — who are ready to jump in challenge anything that doesn’t agree with their chosen interpretation. They can easily hijack the whole presentation, and at a minimum are disruptive. So I would suspect some interpretive guides gloss over those issues simply because they don’t want to deal with the jackass who’s eager to interrupt everyone else’s experience to make his chosen point. It’s not exactly a profile in courage, but it’s understandable.

  2. Thanks for this post. My public history students at Portland State University are currently working with the NPS’ new, inclusive Civil War interpretive framework as we produce a podcast plan for the NPS’ CW150 Commemoration. We have a collection of resources posted on our class blog that help shed light on the NPS’CW150 approach (http://hst409509.wordpress.com), as well as past commemorations that sacrificed, among others, the theme of emancipation for that of reconciliation. I think that the 16 themes outlined in the seminal NPS document “Holding the High Ground” as well as the upcoming “Civil War Handbook” are (and will be) instrumental in providing a more holistic, inclusive approach to interpretation at Civil War parks. I’m especially heartened at the tack the NPS’ Midwest Region has taken by creating an expansive “Civil War to Civil Rights” interpretive framework that connects sites to the broader legacy of the Civil War. However, it’s been my experience that line interpreters, while extremely talented, are often threatened by change. (I know, because I came up from the ranks of ‘em.) From my experience, parks at a management and supervisory level are fully on board with a new inclusive direction for interpretation; we just need to ensure that it translates to the field level and is reflected in day-to-day visitor contacts. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I am an NPS employee as well as a university instructor.)

  3. I’d like to echo both Andy Hall’s and Greg Shine’s comments, with a couple of my own, drawing on my experience as a seasonal park ranger. First off, I think it’s really hard to talk about the causes and context of the Civil War. Like you all have mentioned, it’s an extremely emotional debate, that everyone has an opinion on. It’s far easier to craft a program solely on battle tactics. But, that doesn’t mean interpreters should not talk about the causes – personally I don’t think a program on the Civil War is complete without some mention of the causes/contexts of the Civil War. So why do interpreters continually disregard those policies? My thoughts in no particualar order…
    1. There are still several “Lost Causers” in the NPS.
    2. Many don’t want to provoke and are afraid of disruption. I feel young interpreters especially have a hard time with this, and are worried about causing a scene. But, the young guys must realize the fact that they are the interpreter, the ‘one in charge,’ and how to use that to their advantage.
    3.Unfamiliarity with Rally on the High Ground and complacency/staleness – We’ve always done it this way, and visitors have always, for the most part, enjoyed it. Why change?
    4.Cannon-huggers and playing to your base. What I mean by this is crafting programs focused on tactics – and tfor the ‘regulars’ who travel to battlefields annually every year.

    Question is, whatever the reason, how do we change it? Well, I think the sesquicentennial efforts underway are a good start. Change though, must come from within – it is up to the individual parks and interpreters themselves to create change with help from national and service wide initiatives. Hopefully, with all the renewed interest in the Civil War with the 150ths approaching, there will be unparalleled opportunities for interpreters and visitors alike to discuss the causes and context of the Civil War

    • Jacob,

      I can relate to the things you’re saying. This summer, I visited the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, VA. A docent, a lady who appeared to be in her mid-20s, gave a tour. During the tour, she made a point which I don’t exactly remember; perhaps she was saying that the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t apply to the Union Border States. What I do recollect is that she said, “I say this because people are always telling us to be sure we mention it.”

      As you suggest, different sites have different audiences, and it’s easy to see how some NPS staff might… “fall into the trap,” to use a term, of saying things that they perceive the audience wants to hear.

      I think that the problem in a lot of cases is a subtle one: NPS staff will probably always tell the “truth,” but it may not be the whole truth. That is, their comments may be lacking in the detail and context which would make those comments truly insightful and meaningful. Time constraints in some sites can add to this problem. The end result is a lost learning opportunity.

      It will be interesting to see if the long sesquicentennial period gives NPS staff a chance to grow, by applying learning from exposure to (what we hope will be) bigger and more diverse audiences over the next few years. Perhaps the post-civil rights generation, and now the nascent Obama generation, will ask the kinds of questions and make the kinds of comments that will lead some staffers to adjust how they approach and interpret what is a very touch subject. Perhaps.

      And good luck with your blog!

      • Thanks for the kind words about the blog – my buddy and I have been following the Civil War/Public History blogosphere for a long time, and finally decided to jump in and give it a whirl.

        One point to follow up on your comment. I too hope that the post-civil rights and the Obama generations will help push interpretation into a different more inclusive approach. However, staffers need to be willing to meet those generations where they are. I see embracing social media and other new technology as critical not only in bringing about the discussions, but fostering their growth, and providing opportunities for visitors to connect and interact with these tough, complex questions.

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