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.”
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.
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. )