Are Slavery and Emancipation the ONLY Things Worth Studying from the American Civil War?

by Brett Schulte on October 8, 2008 · 14 comments

There have been quite a few mentions of the Gettysburg Visitor Center over the past few weeks in the Civil War blogosphere, and some of this has spilled over into the question of what type of interpretation should be seen at our Civil War battlefield visitor centers.

John Hennessy, National Park Service Chief Historian at the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania Military Park, recently made some comments over at Civil War Memory on the ongoing debate about battlefield interpretation.  John stressed that “Every word, every twitch of our muscles ought to help visitors understand what happened, why it happened, and why it mattered (and matters).”   He believes battles should be placed into context, but that specific aspects should be viewed through the lens of the battlefield in question.  I can’t say I disagree with anything John said.  He makes a lot of valid points.

What troubles me, however, is the growing trend to want to do too many other things at battlefields, prominent among these a desire to highlight slavery, rather than interpreting the actual battle itself.  Too many battlefields really don’t lend themselves well to the non-military aspects of the war.  Recent blog entries on the subject by Eric Wittenberg at Rantings of a Civil War Historian and Paul Taylor at With Sword and Pen are concerned with this growing trend as well.  The basic views are these:

  • John believes all aspects of the Civil War should be taught at all battlefields.
  • Paul believes some aspects of the Civil War should be taught at various battlefields, but that all aspects of the Civil War do not belong on every battlefield.
  • Eric believes battlefields should stick to the military aspects of the war and leave other aspects to more appropriate venues such as the forthcoming U.S. National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

While I can see that John and Eric’s views are mutually exclusive, John’s comments and Paul’s ideas from his blog entry are not necessarily so.

At this point you are probably wondering where I stand on this issue and you more than likely think I agree 100% with Eric on this subject.  You would be wrong.  To me, there can and should be a place for non-military aspects of the war in the interpretation of some, *but not all*, battlefields.  For instance, battlefields where the war started and ended, specifically Fort Sumter and Appomattox in the East, are good places to look at the causes of the war and place an emphasis on this aspect.  Battlefields which saw USCT units participate such as New Market Heights, the Crater, Fort Wagner, and Olustee, to name a few, are perfect places to highlight African-American contributions to the Union war effort and atrocities committed against these soldiers.  Battlefields such as Antietam, which played such a crucial role in Lincoln’s release of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, should include interpretation which highlights the cruelties of slavery and its large role in starting the war.  And Gettysburg should obviously have a portion of the Visitor Center space dedicated to the Gettysburg Address, a much more logical subject of interpretation than say, slavery.  How many slaves were freed at Gettysburg?  How many people in the surrounding area owned slaves?  How many had even seen slavery close up?  With all of this said, I think at almost every battlefield the military aspects of the battle in question should be the primary method of interpretation.  In some cases, especially at places like Fort Sumter and Appomattox, the military history of the battle should share the primary slot with the causes of the war and all other aspects of the conflict.

cppbanner Are Slavery and Emancipation the ONLY Things Worth Studying from the American Civil War?

So tell me readers.   What is your opinion?  Are you with John Hennessy?  Eric Wittenberg?  Paul Taylor?  Me?  Or are do you fall somewhere else on the spectrum?  As I see it, there are different degrees of focus.  It’s never all or nothing. 

Dimitri had it right months ago.  The NPS is ignoring its best customers, the people with an unending desire to learn more about the war their entire lives.  Instead, they cater to the one time visitor and ironically, the new and increased focus on slavery does little to “educate” people who forget everything other than the horrendously simplified and incorrect “Meade beat Lee and the Civil War was pretty much won for the North”, if they even remember that much.

Let me throw out several hypothetical questions.  Should the new U.S. National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg devote exhibit space to Civil War battlefields?  Should the primary exhibit at the U.S. National Slavery Museum be on Civil War battlefields?  Should EVERY museum or site in the United States which deals with slavery or slaves contain exhibits on the Civil War?  Should a place such as Lincoln’s Cottage north of Washington, D.C. have exhibits on battlefields?  Should a museum dedicated to the home front include detailed tactical discussions of battles?  If not, why not?  These are in some ways similar to the one going on now.

Certain areas of the Civil War blogosphere would have you believe that slavery, along with its eventual eradication as a result of the conflict, are the only important reasons to study the war.  Paul Taylor points out race as the elephant in the room and gets to the real heart of the matter in another recent post at With Sword and Pen.  This argument isn’t really about the need to view the Civil War through multiple lenses.  It’s about the desire of some to force feed the Emancipation Cause on the general public just like the Lost Cause view of the war was force fed on the same public in the past.  Neither is the right way to go.  While the study of the Civil War’s advancement of race relations (and the subsequent setbacks of Reconstruction) is a needed and worthwhile endeavor, it is most certainly NOT the only reason to study the conflict.  To do so, and to tell the public to do so, would be as wrongheaded and misguided as the Lost Cause view of the Civil War that was foisted on the unknowing masses for the better part of the last 150 years.  Unfortunately, some people with a public platform are intent on just such misguided action.

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