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.

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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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark October 8, 2008 at 12:55 pm

Outstanding post on a fascinating subject. I agree with your take for the most part; another question is that of geography. Many travelers to Civil War sites (such as myself, living in California) come from some distance to visit a few locations, so it would be important to ensure as comprehensive an exposure as possible. That said, I agree that it should be in context to the battle, monument, etc being exhibited.
While the idea of picking appropriate sites to place information on slavery and emancipation is one I agree with, I would also support all sites having some sort of NPS-standardized reference list, so if a patron, especially one who may not be able to visit multiple sites in one trip, wants to learn more about any issue, the information is at their fingertips.
The key point here is dissemination of information to as many people as possible, and battlefield and museum visitors are a huge part of this, as these folks are clearly interested. There is an implicit responsibility to promote learning, so I feel that the opportunity to educate should be seized.

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Stephen Graham October 9, 2008 at 12:02 am

Brett,
I fall someplace between Hennessy and Taylor on the subject. Any battlefield interpretation should place that particular battle within the larger context of the war. One part of that context is why the war occurred. It needn’t be a dominant feature at every battlefield, but it should rate the equivalent of a paragraph. One consideration is that each battlefield should presume that at least some visitors will be almost completely unfamiliar with the Civil War and some basic information should be provided to orient them.

With regard to mentions of the Civil War in those sites devoted to slavery, your analogy is flawed. The National Slavery Museum should discuss the war as it is important to the overall subject. Since it is in Fredericksburg, mention of the battles would be appropriate, with perhaps a suggestion of visiting the appropriate NPS facility for more information. But many sites will have no direct connection to the Civil War and thus it would be inappropriate to mention it. Understanding the details of Civil War battles is less important to understanding slavery than the reverse.

I think you’re incorrect as to your comments about the “best customers”. While actual visitor data would be interesting to examine, I expect that the one-time visitors constitute a far greater proportion of the revenue and visitor stream than the buffs do. So the exhibits should be tailored to the one-time visitors, rather than the buffs.

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Doug Nielsen October 9, 2008 at 10:33 pm

A fantastic question that I’ve actually thought of many times. I have family in Penn and Conn and every cival war exhibit we see highlights slavery. To be completely honest, I believe it is a guilt issue. To constuct a Cival War Museum and dedicate it towards some theme of slavery offers the donor, congressman, etc. forgiveness for past American sins. We are always hearing and learning about our “haunted past” of slavery where it seems France, England and others are off the hook of their imperialism/colonialism.

I also believe the exhibits should be tailored to the “I just drove from Colo to see this and will never be back” visitor. If this means concentrating on slavery than so be it. However, just as exciting is the stories of anti-slavery citizens and their sacrifices towards the cause of ending the act, white and black.

It’s the same idea as WWII? We focus on the mass killings of Jews even though there we many other ethnic groups slaughtered.

We focus on the Vietnam War and leave out the massacres of Cambodia and Laos. Etc. etc. etc.

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Doug Nielsen October 9, 2008 at 10:34 pm

I can’t even spell civil war correctly. I apologize, one year old twins screaming in the background.

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martybrvt October 10, 2008 at 11:18 am

I have to side with Eric on this. I think that most neophytes already have the perception that slavery caused the Civil War. While not untrue this is a gross oversimplification. As you suggest, slavery should certainly be a subject at Sumter, Harper’s Ferry, museums, but not necessarily battlefields.
In John Hennessy’s wonderful “Return to Bull Run” he does not preface the work with a discourse on causes of the war or the morality of slavery. He explains how the armies got there, what the leaders were trying to accomplish, then sets up and describes the battle. I think battlefields should present in the same manner.

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Stephen Graham October 10, 2008 at 11:22 pm

How many people reading Return to Bull Run are unlikely to have read some introductory Civil War history beforehand?

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marty hancock October 13, 2008 at 2:58 pm

Stephen,
Exactly. No use in preaching to the choir. I respectfully submit that most battlefield visitors are informed also. I would hope that the ones who aren’t would be moved enough by the events, the bravery, and the sacrifice displayed in these battles to seek more info on their own.

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Stephen Graham October 13, 2008 at 11:38 pm

As I indicated originally, I expect that the average battlefield visitor has a moderate awareness that the Civil War occurred, i.e., they aren’t at the same level as someone reading Return to Bull Run.

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Bobby Edwards March 25, 2009 at 1:23 pm

Very interesting topic, but I can’t understand the necessity of including slavery as an ingredient in interperting the battle. And, more importantly most of the battlefields here in Virginia are excluded from an adequate NPS Interpertation anyway. It’s up to the individual to do due diligence in doing his own battlefield research using all of the possible resources: Official Records, Maps, Book Articles, Magazine Articles, Old Letters, and Regimental Histories. That’s where the Study of the Battle Begins. It’s important to collect material from both sides in the understanding of what happened in the battle.

Over 90% of the Battlefields are Simply fields, woods, and terrain that no longer resemble the actual field of battle, when troops engaged in a life and death struggle. Historians write articles from a variety of sources, and when they paint the picture of action and engagements on a field with their Maps, Charts, and Diagrams, there may be much missing, especially if the original reports are flawed.

I would find it a bit insidious to see pamphlets on Southern Slavery or Northern Slavery, when visiting a Battlefield. Perhaps the Stories or Movies [Gangs of New York] about the Draft Riots in New York following the Gettsyburg could be appropriate at Gettysburg (as a Post Script), but I just can’t see interjecting an Issue that doesn’t relate to the Battlefield. Remember, Men Fought, Bled, Died, Cried, and Felt Pain on the Battlefield. They were not thinking of Political Issues, They were Thinking of Killing Others, of Protecting their Friends, and Of Surviving the Battle. Perhaps, Lawrence Chamberlin expressed it best, when asked why his Soldier Fought. It was Simple – “They Fought for Each Other”.

The Naked Display of Political Correctness on the Battlefield is the Reframing of History. As a Vietnam Veteran Seeing War on a Close Up and Personal Basis, My Brothers Have a Lot of Respect for those they Fought – The Enemy. There’s a Lesson to be Learned There. You will never find me Pushing any “Slavery Message Buttons” at Seven Pines, Ellerson’s Mill, Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines Mill, Savage Station, Glendale, Malvern Hill, Bermuda Hundred, Petersburg, Reams Station, Charles City Rd, Peebles Farm, Jones Farm, Davis Farm, Beef Steak Raid, Burgess Mill, Hatcher’s Run, Five Forks, Dinwiddie Court House, or any Other Battlefield in Richmond or Petersburg.

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Dan July 13, 2010 at 6:14 pm

An important question, this. Let me offer a bit of a view “from the trenches”, as it were.

As a seasonal NPS interp ranger at Chick-Chatt, I’ve done living history, car caravan tours, and impromptu talks (i.e., “Let me tell you about this collection of artillery shells”, etc.). My guess is that probably 75 to 85 percent of the visitors come equipped with a MINIMAL understanding of the war. They get that it was North vs. South, that there were battles, that slavery was somehow related, and that the North won. That’s about their limit. It’s up to us to bring them “up to speed” on the significance of Chick-Chatt.

The CW buff probably accounts for 15 percent or less (and I think that’s being generous) of our visitorship. That 15% can be roughly summarized as follows:

* 65% are in their 60’s-70’s
* 30% are in their 40’s-50’s
* close to 98% are white males

These demographics may be the exception; I’d love to see comparisons from NPS interps at other CW parks. But they do seem to be suggestive a couple of things:

1. Not only is the CW buff a minority figure, but the CW buff devoted to tactical minutiae is so small a fraction as to be almost non-existent (at least, in regards to actual park visitation).

2. With over two-thirds of the buffs in their dotage, and apparently very few younger fellows to take their place, we can probably expect an ever-increasing minimilization (is that a word?) of the CW buff as a noteworthy demographic overall, but especially on CW battlefields.

3. Most women who come to CW sites seem to be dragged along by their husbands/boyfriends. Most kids are probably also dragged along because the parents think that history is “good for them to know”. I have my doubts as to whether either demographic will take to the subject on their own—unless we somehow attract their interest (and given that they now account for 51% of the world’s population, and thus a good chunk of the change necessary to keep the NPS running, I’d argue that we need to). Perhaps a Women’s Civil War Contribution National Historic Park would solve the problem?

4. We hear so much about how Ken Burns’ series turned so many people on to the subject. From here…I just don’t see it. If so many people suddenly became very interested in the war thanks to that series, then they have yet to materially act on that interest through battlefield visits. This begs the ever-more-pertinent question: does audio-visual engagement (which many claim to be the future of establishing personal connections of history) stimulate other forms of participation? Or does it merely add up to one more cool TV show/web-site/Tweet/YouTube video, with no more lasting effect than the one previous?

Here at Chick-Chatt, of course, the buffs have the option of the yearly March Seminar in the Woods, chaired by the park historian and by visiting Chickamauga expert extraordinaire Dave Powell. That’s tactical minutiae to the nth degree. But for the NPS to remodel its exhibits/interpretation in favor of that demographic is, as far as I can see, unadvisable.

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David July 25, 2010 at 2:42 am

I think that the Civil War was fought on much larger issues than Slavery. To continue the brainwashing that public school students receive from their textbooks at the battlefield interpretive centers is a waste. It’s almost as if abolishment of Slavery was a side issue at that time, although I’m sensitive to those who view the slavery experience as one of extreme importance. But the political issues that brought Washington to a boil before the secessions have got to be understood in order to understand what has gone wrong with our country today. I live in North Carolina, and it’s with a heavy heart I keep reminding myself of her betrayal in 1867-8. I can’t help but see that the so-called reconstruction acts were the end that the corrupt elite in Washington sought all along. It’s because of the Civil War experience that North Carolina, and the other Southern States as well went through, and then the post war usurpations that although we look like a state, it’s only for appearances. For example, even if Gov. Perdue wanted to support her fellow Gov. Jan Brewer in another clearly state’s rights issue she knows that NC cannot defy the Federal Government since we have never been released from our 1868 occupation. There is a lot of complicated political manuvering to learn about w/r to the Civil War, dwarfing the issue of slavery. But that’s a racial guilt issue and it’s going to be remembered long after the chicanery going on in Washington at the time is buried and forgotten. The Battlefield action is taken out of context when not considered along with the politics, and I doubt that the Generals on either side thought much or at all about the slavery issue. Again, it was the Union fighting for survival, and A. Lincoln was going to use every trick he could think of so it didn’t expire on his watch. He managed to save it, but the patient is now dying in spite of him- or because of him? Although the Civil War brought an end to the institution of black slavery in the South, by the same token, it ends up we are all slaves to the government whether we know it or not, and haven’t had a peaceful year since then i.e. not under the thumb of an emergency executive order, which still need to be brought to an end if we ever want to live as free patriots in our own coutry.

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Bobby Edwards August 2, 2010 at 8:11 am

CONCERNING RACE – In all issues of race from the past through the present, there are those who have a purpose in their objectives of describing others and painting them as racist. Throughout the country, large numbers of citizens gather together in groups or individually to protest the enormous spending and waste of the Federal Government. Almost immediately, the Big Spenders advocates start re-framing the protesters as “Racist”. This technique is a favorite Re-Framing Technique, where if you Paint Your Opponent as Racist – Somehow, they have lost Credibility and An Ability to Establish their Anti-Government Concerns – that could be Destroying the Treasury of the Country.

The 150 Year Sesquicentennial Commissions in Many States are Composed of large Numbers of those Who Will Re-Frame the Events on “Afro-Centric Memory Affairs”, All the While – Attendance of Afro-Centric Attendees will be Zero or Almost Zero, if 3 visits to Gettysburg or Other Battlefields or NPS Locations are any Indicators . Tens of Millions of Dollars Will Go to Telling a One-Side Story, Afro-Centric Related that Has Nothing to Do with the Battle, that These Men, boys Fought, Bled, and Died for Defending their Cause – “Reunite the Country, or Defending Their State”. These 150 Year Sesquicentennial Events Will Become a Collection of Liberal and Progressive Educators, Patting Each Other on the Back about How “Black Sensitive” they are, and at the Same Time Will be Denigrating the South for Slavery – IGNORING the Slavery that Existed in the North, or the Failure to Really Free the Slaves in Their Territory, Until After the Civil War was Over.

The State Sesquicentennial Commissions Have Already Been Packed – The Events Organized, and the SCV or Southern Heritage Groups Excluded. These Commissions Have a Mission, and It is Less About Civil-War Memory than Jamming Down the Throats of Southerners that They Lost the War and That Slavery Was at The Heart of Everything in The War.

These Same Liberals Fail to Report on the Millions of Africans Still in Slavery Today, or Do They Fight For Their Freeing or the Abolition of Slavery in Africa. Nor, Do they fight to Hold Northern Legislators, or Abraham Lincoln Responsible for Not Freeing the Slaves, the Day the War Started.

If This Was a War About Slavery. It’s Only a Continuing War Against Southern Conservatives, and another Extension of the Liberal Progressive Efforts to Destroy Constitutional Government and Conservative Independence from an Over-Reaching Government. Perhaps, One Needs to Examine the Big Central-Progressive Government Models of Northern States of Today, against the Conservative Individual Responsibility Models of Southern States to See the Real Outcomes of the Results of the Civil War.

The Massive Failures of These Commissions Will be the Omissions of Real Heritage Memory Issues of those Searching for Answers to their Ancestors Involvement in the War to a Re-Framing of Political Issues the Progressives are So Sensitive About. Crowds Will be Down and Disappointments Up. It’s Their Typical Answer in the way they Run Government – Spending Too Much Money and Getting Too Few the Results.

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Jeff R November 12, 2010 at 2:07 pm

I’m a little late to the party, ok 2 years behind but I’d like to jump in. Since moving to South Carolina three years ago I have begun a growing interest in the Civil War. I am nowhere near buff/historian status, nor am I from the “north fought to end slavery, the south fought to keep it… north won end of story” folks.
I guess you could say I lean Paul in this argument. I surmised during a short one year stay in South Carolina in the early 1980’s that the state was still made up of mostly South Carolinians and Southerners from other states. Today sees a large influx Northerners, at least in the Charleston area where I reside. In 1981 when I lived here virtually everyone you spoke to in Charleston spoke with a geechee dialect (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=geechee). Today when you walk the old slave market on Market Street you hear accents from New York, Jersey, and PA and the occasional soft southern drawl.
Now, I have both southern friends and northern friends here and its astounding when, talking about the Civil War how many of the northerners say the reason for the war on the part of the SOUTH was to keep slavery. When asked ‘what about something like States’ rights?’ “Nothing to do with it” is the general answer, or worse a blank stare!. My Southern friends will answer with a gamut of different causes, which if taken together as a whole define what the war was fought for from a Southern view. Not one has ever stated to me that slavery was a direct cause for the conflict, although some have classified it as a subsidiary cause.( I guess I should add that all the people I’m speaking of are white.)
As to the argument, I would say from my limited experience and knowledge, that the actual reasons/causes of the war from both perspectives should be taught or displayed prominently at certain battlefields or Civil War sites. At the very minimum places that have achieved historical importance over the past 150 years; i.e. Ft. Sumter, Gettysburg, Appomattox, etc.. In saying this I am in no way denigrating the memory or sacrifices of the men of both armies that met, fought and died in the smaller engagements like Secessionville in SC on 16JUN1862, any piece of real estate that men died on is important regardless of side.
However, looking at this from the point of view towards educating the American public as to the truth and root causes of the war, any one of the aforementioned battlefields attracts many times the visitor’s daily/yearly then Secessionville except possibly when the battle re-enactment is held there.
Regardless of whether its politics, educators, academics or plain ignorance of people fostering the belief that the ACW was “all about” slavery, the facts surrounding its causes should be an integral part of the major historical sites education or tour programs to counter whatever institution(s) perpetuating the slavery only myth.

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