The skirmish at Monocacy, “the battle that saved Washington,” stalled Jubal Early’s rebel army of 15,000 men just 55 miles from the nation’s capital in 1864. Since the site in Frederick, Maryland, became a National Battlefield nine years ago, visitors have been reminded how Gen. Lew Wallace’s vastly outnumbered men desperately bought time for reinforcements, repulsing the last major Confederate invasion of the Civil War. Now, however, the young park is adopting a new focus.
“We are researching the slaves who were there,” Cathy Beeler, the park’s chief of interpretation, explains. “We’re taking a more holistic approach to interpreting the battle, and are planning to hold a seminar on slavery in conjunction with Antietam next March.”
This more “holistic” approach is becoming common at the nation’s battlefields, thanks to Jesse Jackson, Jr. Last November, the congressman from Chicago inserted language into the FY-2000 Interior Appropriations Bill requiring that all federally funded Civil War battlefields address the issue of slavery.
As Jackson sees it, some battlefields are “missing vital information about the role that the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War.” His provision directs the secretary of the interior
to encourage the National Park Service managers of Civil War battle sites 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.
Jackson’s attempt to legislate historical interpretation has outraged a lot of people, and not just neo-Confederates. Leaders of the Civil War Round Table Associates—one of a burgeoning number of groups representing 25,000 amateur and professional historians nationwide—have vigorously protested the new Park Service guidelines. They point out that the majority of people don’t go to Gettysburg or Antietam to learn about the causes of the war; they’re interested in the battle.
Robert W. Meinhard, professor emeritus of history at Winona State University in Minnesota and a self-described liberal, is among the most vocal opponents. “The battle is why the battlefield park exists and that is why people come,” he argues. “The precious few minutes available for interpretation must be devoted to the battle. . . . I would like to see a new park devoted to teaching about slavery as the cause of the war, which I feel is very important. But not on battlefields. Being a teacher for many years, I know that you simply can’t have split objectives and cover both adequately.”
Another point man in the opposition is Jerry L. Russell, a Little Rock-based political consultant who runs both the Round Table Associates and HERITAGEPAC, a political action committee devoted to battlefield preservation. He also believes that the addition of a socioeconomic focus to the 15-20 minute battlefield instructional programs detracts from the battles themselves. “Clearly not,” Park Service chief historian Dwight Pitcaithly assured Russell in correspondence. “The job of the National Park Service . . . is to discuss the events of the battle and place them in a larger context.”
But Russell sees the same problem as Meinhard. “It’s a zero sum game,” he says. “If they add something about slavery, something about the battle is consequently lost. Its that simple.”
“If they want to create a museum devoted to making a case for slavery as the cause of the war, I’m all for it,” Russell continues. “But Congress established the national battlefields with a mandate to commemorate the battles and the men who fought there. This should carry more weight than Rep. Jackson’s directive.” Russell and other military historians insist they don’t have a problem with social history in principle; imposing it upon battlefields is what upsets them.
Jesse Jackson, Jr., however, makes no pretense about his objective. At Ford’s Theatre in May, he spoke at a two-day forum on slavery, the national memory of the war, and its impact at home. “Until these hallowed grounds . . . become sites where everyone in our society can find their story,” he told battlefield officials in closing, “you have not done the job expected of you by our Federal Government.”
When one park interpreter at the seminar pressed Jackson about what right he, a lawyer by trade, had to impose his views on government-employed historians, Jackson replied that the new act of Congress represents “the will of the people.” He then added, “An act of Congress created your job.”
Leading Civil War historians, including Princeton’s James McPherson and University of Maryland professor Ira Berlin, also spoke at the forum. “Did slavery cause the Civil War? The perennial question cannot be escaped,” Berlin told the Washington Post shortly before the event. “It has to be addressed.” But on every battlefield? Military historians are up in arms, demanding the right to decide within local contexts. “Let’s get back to the purpose of the parks,” retorts Jim Court, longtime superintendent of Little Bighorn, “which is to interpret them individnalty.”
Yet those who maintain the battlefields are currently working diligently to do just the opposite in order to comply with the policies established at the Ford’s Theatre gathering. Field interpreters at Antietam will soon be taught to incorporate social history into their programs. Last summer, Manassas unveiled a new exhibit on slavery, civilian life, and the states’ rights perspective. And Vicksburg completed a relatively new exhibit, “Grant’s Canal,” which details the story of local plantation slaves impressed into manual labor by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the siege of Vicksburg. Even the Maryland state legislature has picked up on the initiative, assembling in 1998 a task force of legislators and social scientists that delivered a 500-page report this past January on how the state’s schools and cultural institutions currently address slavery.
So far, this juggernaut has met relatively lithe resistance. Changing museum exhibits, however, is an expensive undertaking. At Vicksburg, Superintendent Bill Nichols feels limited by available exhibit space in the current museum, which he wishes to replace. “It’s my understanding that a follow-up meeting to the Ford’s Theatre seminar will be held, perhaps in October, although the date hasn’t been set,” he confides. “We simply don’t have the funding to update our exhibits—some of which date back to the 1960’s. The Agency’s next goal is to develop a strategy for getting that money.” He concludes that “The Park Service’s attempts to meet the new policies are still very much piecemeal.”
In most eases, the “outdated” exhibits at Civil War battlefields teach the tactics and statistics of each battle, keeping with the wishes of military veterans who sought to tell the “story of the battle” in the early years following the establishment of the National Battlefields. And the story of Civil War battles, most military historians contend, had nothing to do with slavery.
But the truth of the battles isn’t appropriate for a modern American audience, at least according to Jackson, who toured 18 battlefields to learn about what he calls the “Dixiefication” of American politics. Gettysburg National Military Park is, unfortunately, having more success than Vicksburg in its attempt to conform to Jackson’s revisionist demands. “Sadly, Gettysburg, the most-visited of Civil War battlefields, doesn’t even mention slavery,” complains Katie Lawhon, the park’s public affairs specialist. “But, thankfully, we’ve got a plan to change that.” The “plan” is a five-year project to build a new museum that will address, “among other things,” the issue of slavery.
But Vicksburg has not been as financially successful as Gettysburg. Thus, the success of its future fundraising now rests on its willingness to follow the dicta of the Ford’s Theatre gathering—the more politically fashionable a new addition or renovation, the more likely it is to receive federal dollars. Must Congress mandate historical interpretations when allocating money? “It’s the age of political correctness,” Joe Avalon, publisher of the Civil War Interactive website, explained to the Washington Post in April, “and we have to include African-Americans in every story.”
Jim Court knows firsthand the effects of legislating historical interpretation. His Little Bighorn National Monument was a shrine to General George Custer until a 1991 law forced it to include a Native American focus. Materials now include Native American perspectives on the battle and its historical context.
For years, Civil War battlefields have followed a non-p.c. tradition—one of discussing battlefield valor and a romantic ideal of national reconciliation. But if today’s visitors need to hear “the entire story” of the Civil War in 20 minutes or less, what will be omitted?
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