Healing, Heritage and History:
"Healing and History: The Dilemmas of Interpretation"
Being at Ford's Theater brings back many memories. My grandmother lived in Washington, D. C. when I was growing up and I used to visit Ford's Theater quite often. I think part of my enduring fascination with the Civil War and its legacy began here in my many visits. There are not many environs in which I talk, where I am in such awe. But the African Meeting House in Boston and certainly here at Ford's Theater are two places where the burden of trying to speak in ways that honor those who came before is overwhelming.
I have enjoyed, since my first visit to the Little Bighorn in 1980, a long and fruitful relationship with the National Park Service. It has been one of the great outcomes of my work on various historic sites. I have come to appreciate how important is the Park Service's work as stewards of our national memory, and how that memory has expanded beyond a narrative of war and politics to enrich our identities as Americans.
If an anthropologist from Mars would have come to the United States in 1950 or 1960 and tried to understand American history by looking at our landscape what would the anthropologist have found? Monuments, grave sites, homes of great men, great battles, and little else. Were that same anthropologist to visit today, he or she would look at a very different kind of landscape, speckled with sites having to do with women's history, labor history, as well as sites that complicate our national stories: Washita, Manzanar, Oklahoma City, and perhaps someday Wounded Knee and Sand Creek. To my mind, this is a very hopeful sign, symbolic of a nation mature enough and confident enough to engage these issues as an expression of the integrity of memory.
Now the National Park Service is called upon at a fortuitous moment to demonstrate its stewardship of integrity once again for this most profound engagement with our past, with an issue--to borrow a phrase from Robert Lowell's poem about the Shaw Memorial--an issue that "sticks like a fishbone" in our throats. I appreciate how volatile this issue is. I understand that there are different cultures in the Park Service, some resistant to change. I understand that there are regional sensitivities that will make it difficult to implement this in many ways. But the very process itself will be worthwhile. Any problematic story that stands at the center of the nation's identity will be difficult to engage. Can it, should it, be any other way? Don't we expect that Germany should agonize over proper memorials to the Holocaust? Wouldn't there be something wrong if they just whipped one out in a couple of weeks? Perhaps, as James Young says, there should never be a final solution to the German memorial question. Perhaps there will never be an end to our engagement with the issue of the Civil War and slavery, but it is our responsibility to try. How dare we ever criticize other countries--Japan, Austria, Germany--for their evasions of memory if we do not engage that which sits at the heart of American memory? If not at the sites of memory of the Civil War, where? If not the National Park Service, who? If not now, when?
Controversy over interpretation of the war, as any Civil War Park Service employee knows, is nothing new. Battlefields--Civil War or otherwise--often serve as ceremonial centers where various forms of veneration: patriotic rhetoric, monument building, preservation activities, and the ritual of battle re-enactment reflect the belief that the contemporary power and lessons of war are crucial for the life of the nation. These battle sites are more than ceremonial centers, however. They are also civic spaces where Americans of various ideological persuasion come to compete for the ownership of powerful national stories and to argue about the nature of heroism, the meaning of war, the efficacy of martial sacrifice, and the significance of preserving the patriotic landscape of the nation.
People's investment in these sites waxes and wanes with the cultural prominence of the Civil War. Interest is often sparked by major commemorative occasions or by a particular film or book or television series that captures the public's imagination about what Robert Penn Warren called America's "Homeric period." More recently, memory of the Civil War has been transformed by memories and histories of and by African Americans, perceived anew not as passive recipients of the fruits of white sacrifice, rather as agents of change who played crucial roles--North and South--in the war. Our memory of the war has been transformed by studies in the history of national memory itself, how processes of evasion, sanitization, and memorialization have too often characterized cultural responses. Cultural attitudes about the war are expressed in often bitter disagreements about the appropriate place and function of Confederate symbols: flags, songs, names of schools, textbooks, and monuments, for example. "Underlying these challenges," writes University of Mississippi historian Charles Wilson, "is the argument that the Confederacy and the Civil War had different meanings for blacks and whites and that images associated with the white past should not be used as publicly sanctioned symbols for the South as a whole." For many southern families, he observes, "the Confederacy represents not an ideology defending slavery but rather inherited stories of family danger, adherence to principle, sacrifice, and love of history. Calls to abandon these past symbols represent, to these southerners, a genealogical and cultural lobotomy."
So many issues at Civil War sites--as at other volatile sites: the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, for example--are razor's edge issues. Such controversies reveal people passionately engaged in the attempt to inscribe what they believe is the enduring legacy of the battle.
At almost any other cultural or natural history site, a call for context would be relatively innocuous. Context is defined as "the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs." Context provides an interpretive framework. It suggests the conceptual limits of a narrative. It situates an event in an ongoing stream of history. At natural history sites or museums, we expect to learn about the evolution of a species, or the results of archaeological work that offer a "biography" of a material resource. At a historic home, we expect our visit to be framed by stories of those who lived there, by descriptions of architectural change, or by analysis of how the evolution of domestic space reflected wider social transformations. Sites focusing on technology, music, politics all situate their stories in a context. At volatile sites, however, dilemmas abound: how can the story of the Little Bighorn be told incorporating very different experiences of Americans? Can a recent enemy be represented in the shore side visitor center at the USS Arizona Memorial without engendering accusations of physical or ideological defilement? Can Civil War sites do justice to the collected memories of Americans, "the many discrete memories," as James Young writes, "that are gathered into common memorial spaces and assigned common meaning?"
The problem, then, is not context, but continuing controversy over this context. The conviction represented in the appropriations bill certainly implies that unless slavery takes its rightful place in our Civil War narratives at National Park Service battlefields, the sites fail their interpretive charge, impoverish the intellectual and moral sensibilities of visitors, and become accomplices in continued processes of consigning to oblivion that which stood at the heart of the death struggle between the United States and the Confederate States of America. "Slavery," declared South Carolina planter William Henry Trescot, "informs all our modes of life, all our habits of thought, lies at the basis of our social existence, and of our political faith."
Some opponents of changes in substantive context argue that a site, or a monument, speaks for itself. It is enough for visitors to discern the meaning for themselves from the "facts" presented. All "facts," of course, are situated in a particular narrative and only take on meaning through them. A compilation or recitation of facts is not a narrative, but a chronicle.
I turn to one case study of memorial controversy, the Heyward Shepherd monument at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, site of John Brown's famous raid on the night of October 17,1859, and now a National Park Service site. This story illustrates both clashing memories of the meaning of the war and my conviction that only by telling the story--by recounting the biography of the monument--can this turbulent history come alive for visitors.
Ironically, the first casualty of Brown's raid was Heyward Shepherd, a free black man shot by one of Brown's raiders. On October 10, 1931, the dedication of a monument to Shepherd took place, part of an enduring attraction among white southerners to build monuments to so-called "faithful slaves." While Shepherd was not a slave, the United Daughters of the Confederacy adjusted the memorial message to incorporate Shepherd into the pantheon of faithful blacks who refused to join abolitionist forces. They had remained faithful to, it was supposed, those whites who knew them best and loved them. In addition to memorializing the faithfulness of such blacks, whites blessed slavery retrospectively as a system infused with civilizing, Christianizing principles, and the value of such principles was revealed in those blacks who refused to betray "their" whites.
The dedication was a remarkable event. Following speeches extolling the virtues of slavery and the wholesome world of the black "mammy," Pearl Tatten, the black music director at Storer College in Harpers Ferry arose and said "I am the daughter of a Connecticut volunteer, who wore the blue, who fought for the freedom of my people, for which John Brown struck the first blow. Today we are looking toward the future, forgetting those things of the past. We are pushing forward to a larger freedom, not in the spirit of the black mammy but in the spirit of new freedom and rising youth." No official notice was taken of her remarks, but she did receive a note from a United Daughters of the Confederacy member characterizing her comments as "untimely," and "out of place." Likewise, the Shepherdstown Register of October 15, 1931 reported that "her lack of propriety was severely criticized, though no reply was made to her statement nor any open notice taken of it."
There was outrage in the black community around the nation after the dedication. W.E.B. Dubois called the dedication a "proslavery dedication," and in 1932, the NAACP's Walter White asked if they might place a counter tablet on the John Brown fort--which then stood on the Storer College grounds--which would read, "here John Brown aimed at human slavery a blow that woke a guilty nation. With him fought seven slaves and sons of slaves. Over his crucified corpse marched 200,000 black soldiers and 4 million freemen singing ‘John Brown's body lies a moldering in the grave but his soul goes marching on.'" The president of Storer College, fearing white displeasure, refused this request.
The monument stood relatively ignored until the National Park Service put it in storage in 1971 during major restoration work in the historic area of Harpers Ferry. The service gave assurances to the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans that it would be restored to public view when restoration work was completed. Indeed, a decade later, in 1981, the monument was restored, but the park superintendent heard rumors that it would be vandalized. He also heard dissatisfaction in the black community about the monument's renewed visibility. Consequently, he decided to put a crate around the monument. There the matter simmered until 1991, when a number of evaluative reports about NPS interpretation at Harpers Ferry suggested uncrating the monument. It was suggested that "this monument be re-dedicated and plaques installed beside the original recognizing the role and the cause of the black freedom-fighters who accompanied John Brown on his raid." In 1995, the monument was uncrated with a new interpretive plaque nearby that talked about the monument's interesting history.
The Park Service was attacked from all sides. Local representatives of the NAACP said the monument should be thrown into the Potomac--here we have the Stalinist resolution of monument problems, destroy them. Many outraged neo-Confederates accused the Park Service of "political correctness," caving in to "special interests," meaning the alleged "racism" of blacks who wanted to reinterpret the monument. For example, one critic wrote to the National Park Service superintendent, "since any monument can be considered controversial, I was wondering; is the NPS prepared to pay for a new interpretive plaque for every monument in the country that is erected on an NPS site? Is the NPS prepared to pay for the replacement of interpretive plaques as each generation reinterprets the past? Or does the concept of interpretive plaques only apply to monuments concerning black Americans? If so, does this mean that the NPS considers black Americans...to be incapable of reading historic texts, considering who wrote them and when, and then making their own judgements accordingly?"
In this letter, as in many others, there is an assertion that the monument speaks for itself; secondly, the strong reaction engendered by a very modest Park Service interpretive plaque placed near a monument which dwarfs the plaque in size is revealing. Is the objection, I wonder, to any interpretive plaque, or only one that brings into public view the vexing history of this monument, a history that complicates not only the motivation for the monument and its message, but raises important issues about the causes of the Civil War? The interpretive plaque also calls into question the very reason for erecting a monument: the desire to put in place a message that is enduring, unchangeable. An interpretive plaque declares, whatever its message, that history is not a frozen set of facts, but resembles, declared the eminent historian Carl Becker in 1935, "an unstable pattern of remembered things."
My response to this particular critical letter would point out that it is in fact the case that the Park Service is always in the process of changing interpretive programs, and often changing plaques and putting up new wayside exhibits. The service alters the contents of recorded historical messages at sites or even puts up new monuments that profoundly enrich the historic landscape, such as the Indian Memorial at the Little Bighorn. And it is clearly the case that the biography of this monument briefly noted on the interpretive plaque--that is most revealing. The monument alone that commemorates Heyward Shepherd hides the tumultuous history of the monument's genesis, dedication, and existence, a history that reveals so much about the uses and abuses of national memory. It is also the case that those monuments that are most controversial are most in need of interpretive attention.
As with monuments, so too with battle sites. A Heritagepac e:mail alert responded to renewed interest in interpretation of slavery at Civil War battlefields by stating "battlefield interpretation should be about battles and not about subjective judgements on socio-cultural trends which happen to be politically-correct at this point in time." There is no question that many people go to battlefields to learn about the battles, and I always recall Robert Utley's caution that site interpretation must grow out of the events at the site. Given the academic world's regrettable lack of interest in military history, I understand some of the fears of those who see Civil War battlefields as among the few places where one can go and learn about, revel in, and imagine to one's heart's content the activities of individuals and armies. I can't imagine that this will ever be at risk. It is problematic, to say the least, to characterize as "trendy" the altogether defensible conviction that battles should be interpreted in the larger context of the Civil War, and situated in the larger context of what brought about the war.
I cannot see how even a cursory reading of nineteenth century evidence: political rhetoric, newspaper editorials, diaries, letters, songs, art, schoolbooks, sermons, not to mention Ordinances of Secession and the Confederate Constitution, for example, could lead to any other conclusion than that the arguments over the future of slavery was at the heart of the matter. And yet what is so self-evident to so many is read differently by others. What is central to this abiding controversy is not a disagreement over available evidence, but the difference between the sensibilities of history and heritage. "To understand something historically," Peter Novick reminds us, "is to be aware of its complexity, to have sufficient detachment to see it from multiple perspectives, to accept the ambiguities, including moral ambiguities, of protagonists' motives and behavior." Heritage, on the other hand, observes David Lowenthal, is a "felt truth," the past as we would like it to be." And, observes Lowenthal, "heroic dead are essential to the collective heritage."
Heroic dead are essential to the collective heritage. It is altogether human to resist the discomfort that comes with acknowledging that a loved one died meaninglessly, or in an unjust cause. Our urge to construct preferred narratives of sacrifice seems a constituent part of being human. I have had two recent, revealing examples of how this urge expresses itself in public. On April 19, 2000, I was in Oklahoma City for the dedication of the outdoor memorial. Before a crowd of almost 25,000 people, both Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating and President Clinton spoke of the 168 murdered as having "given" their lives. "There are places in our national landscape so scarred by freedom's sacrifice that they shape forever the soul of America," the president said. "Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Selma. This place is such sacred ground." After being immersed in the story of Oklahoma City for over three years, and corning to know well many family members and survivors, these words grated. The president tried to transform mass murder into patriotic sacrifice. It is a more comforting narrative. It situates the bombing in a long line of heroic narratives that shield us from, to use Hannah Arendt's words, what otherwise would remain an "unbearable sequence of sheer happenings."
For all the courage of family members, survivors and rescuers in Oklahoma City, and courage has been present in so many ways, these people's lives were not given in conscious sacrifice for their nation; these lives were taken in an act of mass murder. The landscape to which Oklahoma City is connected is not Valley Forge, Gettysburg, and Selma, but the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, the McDonald's in San Diego, and Columbine High School. listen to how the wife of a Secret Service agent murdered in the bombing responded to my question about the president's words:
You are right that my husband was always prepared to give his life for others. He once told me that he believed he would die young, in the line of duty. I do not think this was in any way an honorable or constructive way to die, or what any law enforcement person would choose as a way to "give" his life. Here's where my anger comes in. He was always prepared to defend the innocent, or put his life on the line to protect. He was given the opportunity to do neither in this situation. I believe we heal better when we accept the truth. This was nothing more than a damn waste of lives--all the more worthy of our heartbreak, and the families, all the more worthy of our sympathy.
Her response, I think, is a magnificent example of the integrity of memory, of how someone seared with recent loss has the moral courage to resist the allure of preferred narratives.
And just last week, I was asked to offer summary reflections at the Center for American Studies conference at the University of Texas entitled, "To Whom Was This Sacrifice Useful? The Texas Revolution and the Narrative of Jose Enrique de la Pena." Controversy has simmered for some years about the authenticity of this diary, one of several Mexican sources which contradicts the heroic account of the combat death of Davy Crockett and several others at the Alamo. De la Pena allegedly witnessed their torture and death and pointed out how courageously they endured their fate. The alteration of a sacred story, particularly when it is part of the creation story of Texas, is a dangerous act, and vociferous condemnation greeted the 1975 translation and publication of the diary. Today, 164 years after the Alamo fell, approximately 350 people came to the conference to view a new documentary film examining the lively and ongoing battle over the diary's authenticity, and to follow eagerly a report on the ongoing scientific studies of the paper, ink, and handwriting of the diary. Were it not for the account of Crockett's death, I doubt there would have been such a conference, and had there been one, it could have been held in a small classroom.
Situating slavery at the heart of the Civil War endangers comforting notions of sacrifice as well. The "lost cause" and the strategies of reconciliation David Blight discussed offers one response. For many southerners over several generations, Confederate death could only be honorable if slavery was not the cause of the war. For many northerners over the generations, the meaning of sacrifice was not problematic because victory was theirs. The need for an honorable cause contributed mightily to the South sanitizing beyond recognition the memory of slavery. The comfort of victory contributed mightily to northern memory forgetting murderous racism expressed in, for example, the New York draft riots or the rape of freed slaves making their way to Sherman's troops in Georgia.
It is not my purpose, nor would it be appropriate, for me to tell people how to make sense of the sacrifice of their ancestors in the Civil War. What I do believe is that we honor Civil War ancestors most profoundly when we present them not as stick figures in a comforting morality play, but as complex human beings capable of all the heroism, folly, violence, and contradictory impulses that continue to define the human condition. Restoring a richer context in which these battles are described and interpreted transforms the war into more than a bloodbath. Visitors then are allowed to reflect on participants as fully human beings with convictions that might attract us, repel us, confuse us, anger us, but ultimately leave us with an appreciation for the many reasons why they fought.
"Slavery and freedom remain the keys to understanding the war," observes University of Virginia historian Edward Ayers. "Celebrating the martyrdom of whites for black freedom can reduce white guilt. Celebrating the bravery of Confederate soldiers and the brilliance of Confederate generals can trivialize the stakes of the war." Ayers calls for a "new Civil War revisionism" that would complicate the tame narratives we now employ. The war, Ayers believes, "did not have a single chronology, a rising and falling, an obvious pivot, but rather competing and intertwining chronologies in different theaters, on different home fronts, in politics and in economy.... The war seemed more pointedly about slavery in late 1863 than it did six months later when the presidential election in the North threatened to capsize the Lincoln administration. Black freedom promised more liberation in 1865 than it had delivered by 1876." A new revisionism, he hopes, might inspire accounts of battle that convey "the swirl of action and reflection, the partial knowledge of those swept up in war." Finally, he declares, "if we recognize that the Civil War did not represent the apotheosis of American ideals we might look for that culmination in the future rather than in the past."
The best interpretation at National Park Service Civil War sites already accomplishes some of what Ayers calls for. It attends to "the enduring appeals of battle," situated, however, in a larger story. And, just as attending to context resurrected the courageous voice of Pearl Tatten at Harpers Ferry--a voice silent for too long--thinking anew will no doubt give rise to voices North and South that will enrich our contribution to the enduring cultural engagement with the Civil War.
Suggestions for further reading:
Ayres, Edward. The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the Civil War. Jefferson.village.virginia.edu (Internet publication), 1999.
Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York: Pantheon Press, 1998.
Linenthal, Edward T. Changing Images of the Warrior Hero in America: A History of Popular Symbolism. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1983.
______, and Robert M. Utley. Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields. Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
______, et al, eds. The Enola Gay and Other Battles of the American Past. New York: Henry Bolt, 1996.
Lowenthal, David. The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
______. Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and Spoils of History. New York: Free Press, 1996.
Warren, Robert Penn. The Legacy of the Civil War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
Wilson, Charles Reagan. Baptized in Blood: Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983.
Young, James E. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.
Questions and Answers for David Blight and Edward Linenthal
Moderated by Richard Rabinowitz
Richard Rabinowitz: Here is a site-specific question for David. "We read repeatedly that the healing of this nation would have fared much better if the events in this theater on April 4, 1865 had never occurred. How different would today's race relations in America be if Lincoln had survived to have a second term?"
David Blight: Thanks. The Ford's Theater question no one ever wants to have to answer. Not that much. Reconstruction surely, the politics of Reconstruction surely would have been decidedly different. Now we're beginning to play counter-factual games but that's one of the great what ifs of American history. What if Lincoln lived? Certainly the politics of Reconstruction likely would have been different. But in terms of what happened to American race relations, in terms of the ways in which reconciliation took hold in the culture by the 1870s and 1880s, the nature of the Gilded Age, economy and society, Lincoln's second term would not have much changed that. On the other hand, the violence of this event, of course, the terrible violence of this event here was a part of that pattern from the war that would sustain a certain sense of bitterness for a long time. In my book, I do actually deal with responses to the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination. I did find that fascinating. The comments and actions of many Union soldiers who were occupying sections of the South in the wake of Lincoln's death are remarkable for the ways in which they were freely willing to express their bitterness. Their hatred is tough stuff to read, but especially interesting in terms of the ways in which the American Reunion took hold in the late 19th century. I don't think Lincoln's second term could have reshaped the politics of Reconstruction, although it may have rooted black rights deeper than they were under the Johnson administration. Reconciliation of North and South well after Lincoln's presidency would still have taken the same course. I don't know if you wanted another answer to that but that's my guess. Those are good questions for which we have no evidence; we can only guess at them.
Richard Rabinowitz: Let me combine two questions for Ed. "If the bombing at Oklahoma City is not a story of sacrifice in the line of duty, but an event of the murder of innocent unsuspecting victims, do you then think it should be a National Park Service site?" Another question which is parallel, a little more argumentative. "After such an impassioned and indeed eloquent speech, mentioning images of coffins and skulls of those who fell for their beliefs, can you not affirm that the interpretation of battlefields is to reveal their sacrifice to offer the visitor a glimpse into the past when such fratricidal carnage was witnessed? To dilute such interpretation with the general primer for the public on the egregious nature of slavery is to detract from the legacy of those who fell gloriously. Do you not agree in some small part with such a contention? Those 'honored dead' are in large part why the battlefields and this very theater are preserved. Why they struggled unto death is significant, obviously, but the visitor (and I) would rather hear the How."
Edward Linenthal: Well, let me respond to that very eloquent question and comment, the second first. Of course, I think the evocative power of sacrifice at the Civil War site is part of the compelling nature of the sacred ground, but, to my mind anyway, separating the why and the how is an absolutely fatal error because it takes away the entire notion of meaning. It takes away our sense of the kinds of commitments both in terms of political causes as well as the variety of individual causes why people fought. To my mind, if a culture cannot make sense of sacrifice, if it cannot answer the why question, then that is a culture that is going to be in a tremendous amount of tension. If we look back and think about the why question, then we have to engage the fact that there were those who died fighting courageously, heroically on both sides. But certainly in the case of the Confederacy, there are many people today who are glad that the Confederacy lost. These people tend to overlook the essential fact that many of them gave their lives for a cause in which they believed. I don't see it as adding something extraneous, nor do I see this call for interpretation as detracting in any way from the power and evocation of sacrifice. So we may philosophically disagree on the function of these sites.
As to the first question, we have long ignored sites of mass murder on the national landscape. We have either resurrected them in their former state or we have obliterated them from the landscape. Oklahoma City represents a particular kind of park, something I think quite new for the Park Service--a joining together of private and public where the Park Service are stewards but not the creators of interpretive programs. This is the first site of mass murder in terms of domestic terrorism to enter into the Park Service. It is immaterial what I think about the site, because I did not have anything to do with the decision to create it. But if I had something to do with the decision, I would say the community has a right to interpret great loss however it wants, and if the Park Service believes that this is an important part of the national landscape, an important part of talking about America identity, then it absolutely should be a part of the National Park Service.
Richard Rabinowitz: I have two questions about re-enacting. They are a little different, but I think it's a subject we haven't really talked a lot about today and maybe both of our speakers would want to address this. One is: "what value does the current phenomena of Civil War re-enacting have to battlefield interpretation? Does re-enacting deepen or cheapen our sense of history?" The other one is a little different. "How can we increase the African American participation in living history interpretations? For the first two years of the war, these ill-dressed heroes risked death, capture, and slavery to perform menial camp duties. They did this service to free their fellow men and for food, freed men and contraband and dug fortifications, built pre-fabricated bridges, were cooks' helpers, photographers' aids, gravediggers, etc. Most important, teamsters could handle the tricky task of handling six mules at a time and so on.
"I do living histories at National Parks and re-enactments as the commissary sergeant of the 5th New York Duryee Zouaves. We have photos of cook's aids, and Winslow Homer painted our contraband teamsters at Yorktown. Yet, the availability of any re-enacters is nil. Indeed, the local Company B of the Massachusetts 54th Infantry is often hard pressed to come up with eight men and boys for a color guard. Perhaps the famous national spokesperson that could promote interpretation of these unsung heroes of the war of rebellion would be useful. A program for volunteers to portray their ancestors and the contributions made by them is in order but how?" So I guess the more general question is what contribution--positive or negative--is made to the interpretation of the Civil Way by re-enactment?
David Blight: Well the significance of re-enacters at battlefield sites, I would leave to you and your superintendents. In my last visit to Gettysburg (I believe it was in November or December) for a meeting there I could tell that every day of the year there are re-enacters in town. Exactly what their presence brings, I don't know, I don't live there. I'll say this about re-enacters, whatever prejudices I may have grown up with about re-enacters, I was always fascinated with these phenomena although I never have participated. Those prejudices have altered some in recent years. I edited a book of Civil War letters back eight years ago--the letters of a Massachusetts soldier from Northampton, Massachusetts. His letters were just dropped in my lap and I worked with them and published them with the University of Massachusetts Press. The press put on a little party at the Northampton Historical Society, which owned the original letters. And the re-enactment group that represented the 10th Massachusetts, which was Charles Brewster's unit, the man whose letters I edited, came out for this event--about thirty of them strong. They marched, they did maneuvers, they fired their guns, they all bought the book. Most importantly, one of them walked up afterward and said: "See this. I got Charles Brewster's Command Manual." He opened it up and there it was. "Charles Harvey Brewster," he signed it; it was his command manual that he had as a lieutenant in the real 10th Massachusetts. The re-enacter bought it at a collector's show, and there was that moment--whatever you want to call it--of authenticity, realization: "I've got Charlie's manual."
Now that was re-enactment. The other thing is that a lot of us historians at this conference in Boston two years ago, the 100th anniversary of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, at which I think they had the largest gathering ever of black re-enacters--an extraordinary event. An entire session of the conference was devoted to African American re-enacters on stage describing what they do. I'll never forget the moment when one of those re-enacters got up to the podium, like this, in front of the audience, maybe even bigger than this audience today. He clicked his heels, he turned to the right, he turned to the left, and when he turned this way, his profile was amazingly like one of the men in Saint-Gaudens masterpiece, and he said: "I am the man you see in that monument." And it was one of those moments when I could realize that re-enactment is about real stuff and real feelings, and so I am very careful about what I say about re-enacters.
I was also at a conference at the Huntington library in California last fall, attended by a whole group of re-enacters in southern California. There was a paper given that was somewhat critical of what they do. The first re-enacter got up and introduced himself as a surgeon, the next one got up and introduced himself as a lawyer, the next one got up and introduced himself as a teacher, and so forth. They were from every walk of life. They were trying to tell this particular author something about who they were--one of those moments where you had to realize re-enactments are real to the participants. So I don't know how important they are to actual battlefields, but they have become very important in the way Americans choose to remember this war.
The deepest difficulty is this problem of somehow trying to re-embody, re-enter the experience of the slave, because it resurrects all of those ugly notions of shame that are there in African American culture and have been there for decades, and decades, and surely, were there at the turn of the century in the way blacks commemorated emancipation in the War. They, themselves, engaged in a lot deflections of that slave past. It was necessary to their preferred narratives. It's a complicated problem. It's very interesting though that in this decade alone, blacks have begun to re-enact Civil War soldiers and their families on a large scale, and this apparently began particularly in response to the film Glory, which is yet another measure of how important films are--whatever else we might think of them.
Edward Linenthal: Just a quick comment on re-enacters--and I go back to my work on Gettysburg, which is now some years old. I really began to appreciate varieties in re-enacter culture. Before I started working on Gettysburg, I tended to place re-enacters in caricature because it's easy to do. But when I did some interviews with re-enacters, I learned about "farbs" (slang for re-enacters who need the comforts of life) and was really entranced with that whole notion. Farbs versus authentic folks--hardcore--and I thought about re-enactment as a insatiable thirst to touch, feel, and inhabit the past, which is really a religious orientation. I mean this has a lot to do with ritual and it seems to me that battle re-enactment is a particular of religious ritual.
The controversy over battle re-enactment and its function as something that may complicate our understanding of the Civil War as more than golden mist of American valor or something that really began in the centennial in the 1960s--especially when Bruce Catton begins to speak passionately against Civil War re-enactment. I don't know what's going on in how Civil War parks are interpreted, but I know it sticks in my mind from discussions with friends at Gettysburg. While battle re-enactment was famously popular at sites nearby the battlefield, certainly not on the battlefield, when the Park Service tried to do a living history exhibit of a hospital, mothers would come up and say: "Well, how dare you show my children these bloody stumps, and so forth and so on?" Well, if you're going to talk about battle, what is it in fact that you are going to talk about? So, there are some conceptual limitations to re-enactment but it seems to me also a very interesting subject. Tony Horwitz, I'm sure many of you know, deals with this at some length in Confederates in the Attic, a book that I very much like because there is such rich stuff in there. But it tends, to my mind anyway, to treat war as antiquarian, and human re-enactment becomes a very serious kind of issue. But there is a long history of controversy on battle re-enactment that is relevant to look at.
Richard Rabinowitz: This is a question that I think that opens up into a broader range of issues:
"When I first visited Civil War battlefields as a teenager in the 1950s and early 60s, I came thanks to my public school education, knowing that slavery was the root cause of the war and the abolition of slavery the most important result. It was obvious to me that it all related to the Civil Rights Movement of my youth. I didn't need to be told that, what I wanted to know about was what happened at the battlefield. Is today's public so abysmally ignorant of the causes and results of the war that it needs to be taught at the battlefields?" I guess I would broaden to ask of both of you as university professors and consultants on other kinds of projects to talk a little bit about where the responsibility of this education is placed in the context or the events of these battles. Where does that responsibility lie?
David Blight: Jim Horton is going to answer that one. Ignorance, yeah. Well, I mean Americans understanding of the past is what they choose to make of it all. It's done for any given citizen. I teach at a pretty elite little liberal arts college in New England. My students come from generally good high schools with good educations, but I find their historical education has become like we have become in the academy--very fragmented, bits and pieces, parts here and parts there--in many cases they don't connect events very well. They do have some notion, clearly most of my students have some notion that slavery caused the Civil War.
They know next to nothing, to be perfectly frank, about Reconstruction. I think it's still the lost history. We tend not to do summer institutes on Reconstruction. Name me a historic site about Reconstruction. We just don't treat that period as we treat the Civil War. But it's full of events, telling events. Why don't we have a national memorial to the Fourteenth Amendment? That is because it's everywhere and it's in everyday of our lives in some ways.
So ignorance is always our enemy. I assume it is in my teaching. I learned about that, I spent a year teaching in Germany as a Fulbright professor and it wasn't ignorance that I encountered from my German students. They were fascinated with the United States--at least they were in the early 1990s. There may be a little anti-Americanism setting in around the world because of globalization now and so on. They were fascinated with America but it was mostly what they knew through movies and popular culture. They have a popular culture conception of America, but what I was forced to do then is sort of slow down. I had to teach in English, slow down and develop a careful narrative of events that I had stopped doing in many ways in my own teaching. Because my audience now really needed to connect things. I tried to bring that back here, because I think my own students often need it. Whose responsibility is this? That is a huge question, Richard. It's everybody's responsibility. We are all teachers. You're (National Park Service interpreters) the front line teachers more than we are.
I still maintain the most important teaching I have ever done in my life was when I was a high school teacher for seven years. I used to take groups, busloads of fifty students from Flint, Michigan out East, as we said then, for five years in a row to Gettysburg, Antietam, and Harpers Ferry. I did a five-day tour of those sites. I had several people at those three National Parks who had become friends and my helpers in doing all of this. It was probably the best teaching I ever did because it was at sites, and I was doing it with Park Service rangers and historians. It was participatory and experiential. We're all teachers, we're all responsible for it, and we're all public historians. There is a prejudice in the academy, to be perfectly frank, about this business of public history. We're always concerned about our methods and we should be, that matters at tenure time, usually. But it's the history that's out there in the minds of the people walking the streets that matters most. Everybody has some sense of history and if we don't give it to them, somebody else will, so we're all teachers and we're all responsible for it. I have sort of been dragged kicking and screaming sometimes into the realm of public history, because I didn't always know what to do by some of my colleagues who are in this room. I'm damn glad they did.
Edward Linenthal: I mentioned at dinner last night to Jim Horton and David that I had a methodology once but it was shot off quite some time ago. But I put some cream on the area so it's a lot better now. Look, you folks know as well if not better than we, where the public is in terms of what they know about history. We have captive audiences and they have to read books because they have to take exams and they define themselves in certain ways. What I think is of real interest, where all of us have a role to play, is appreciating history not as this frozen set of facts that are sort of stored away. Ira Berlin talked today about slavery as a historical process that changes over time. Isn't one of the wonderful things that we can do at places like battlefields is talk about these places, places that have histories, that reveal our cultural engagement in a whole variety of ways? These are archives of memory in all kinds of ways. They are not only battlefields where a battle took place; they are also battlefields of memories that reveal a lot, about who we are as Americans.
I read you those wonderful words of Carl Becker, sounding very much like a so-called-dare I use the term--revisionist historian, writing in 1935 that history is an unstable pattern of remembered things. It seems to me if we can help people appreciate this, then every generation will ask questions anew of the past, engage the past in different ways, uncover new voices, and resurrect voices that have been lost. That will be a tremendous step. We have a job to do in the classroom in the area and you have a job to do on the front lines in that area. That is to my mind a tremendous conceptual challenge.
I want to pick up a point I think that's explicit in the last couple of comments. If the visitor is indeed deficient in prior knowledge coming into the park, what is the visitor most deficient in, what part of the story does the visitor know most about or less about. If we focus on right obliques, left obliques, battlefield tactics, or on the specifications of ordinance, is it because we believe the visitors are more or less knowledgeable about those issues, than about the broader contextual issues. So, I think it's an interesting argument that if the visitor is more knowledgeable about the broader issues, we may not see this as our responsibility, because people are supposed to know this from outside. So, what we are teaching in many parks may be things that in fact are so detailed and so complex that they provide extraordinarily high threshold for the ordinary visitor. Visitors have to become very interested in technical issues in order to engage the material presented by the parks.
Richard Rabinowitz: I want to look at the set of questions here that deal with our attitude toward the people of the past, so I'll read these two together. They are different but they can be joined. "The text of this message, presented today seems to be that it is time that the role of slavery in the genesis and the conduct of the Civil War be interpreted. Fair enough. Today's subtext, however, seems to be that the interpretation of slavery needs to be condemnatory of everyone who did not adopt an early twenty-first century attitude of outrage toward this 'peculiar institution.' How does the Park Service propose to ensure that the people of the past, including slaveholders and their supporters, are presented on their terms and not on ours?" That's one question, the second question, which is coming at this in another way. "Can the Confederate battle flag used outside the context of the battlefield be likened to the swastika as an icon whose meaning has changed over time?"
Edward Linenthal: I really, I have a dentist appointment now. Sorry, David. These are wonderfully thought-provoking questions, and setting the humor aside, I take this very seriously. I don't think it is very helpful to talk in the same breath about the Confederate flag and the swastika, unless we were talking generally about the volatile symbols. I don't see how linking these together is helpful. Confederates were not Nazis. Nazis were not Confederates. The flag issues that are erupting in so many places reveal how potent a symbol it is, however, and it seems to me that those who argue that Confederate symbolism was used as part of the racist reaction to the Civil Rights movement are absolutely correct. Reading Dan Carter's Politics of Rage, his fine biography of George Wallace, helps one appreciate how important Confederate symbolism was to whites who opposed the Civil Rights movement, often violently.
As a historic symbol, of course, the flag is part of our nation's history, and needs to be displayed in museums, and certainly in living history or battle re-enactments. Continuing to give it prominence above a state capitol, however, seems to convey that the fundamental truth of the Confederacy, that African Americans were inferior beings, is still an operative concept in the public policy of a city, state, or nation. Here the flag does become a racist symbol. There is a wonderful discussion about various possibilities regarding Confederate symbols in Sanford Levinson's Written in Stone. These are raging debates that will, no doubt continue for some time.
David Blight: Well, briefly I take your point. It's a very good question. How do we care about the dead? How do we take the past-ness of the past seriously? How do you take the people within the past seriously? Especially that we don't impose a set of sensibilities of our own--that's one of the principal problems we all have. We all have our prejudices and sensibilities and we sometimes impose them. In this book, I've just finished, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, I have a long chapter on the "lost cause." I also have a long section near the beginning of the book, where I try to lay down the shear variety of memories that people had, and I deal at some length with white southerners experiencing total war, experiencing total devastation and complete defeat. A loss of so many loved ones, family and so on. This was the experience of trauma on a scale most Americans have never experienced. I use for example Kate Stone's magnificent diary, it's called Broken Burn, which was the name of her plantation in Louisiana. It's a tragic, telling, fascinating story, a diary of a southern plantation woman who loses two of her three brothers in the war and the third one comes home and he's got battle fatigue. Actually, he's got post-traumatic stress syndrome, although they didn't call it that. He can't speak much for two years. Eventually, her life revives. She finds a man to remarry and her life does go on.
In the "lost cause" chapter, I had to deal with some people that I, of course, didn't like that much. I make the centerpiece of the chapter a woman, Mildred Rutherford, who worked out of Athens, Georgia and was the Historian General of United Daughters of the Confederacy from about 1908 to 1916. She has an incredible collection of scrapbooks at the Museum of the Confederacy. If you ever want to do research on the "lost cause," that's the place to start--dozens and dozens of scrapbooks including one full with hundreds of lynching and Ku Klux Klan post cards. She was a vehemently racist woman who had enormous power. She had southern congressmen wrapped around her finger. So she was a difficult woman to deal with, but I had to treat her for who she was, a part of her time, a woman of immense political skill. She was anti-suffrage, she believed women should wear antebellum gowns and all the rest, but there she was a very political woman all over the country for her cause. There was something human and fascinating about her and I tried to capture that. We have to get inside people's lives and whenever they lived. The thing one has to do with the "lost cause," for example, by the late nineteenth century is to treat it as a matter of "truth" and "mythology." In fact, go read the first issue, just the first issue of the Southern Historical Society Papers, which was the organization of the Confederate veterans in the early 1870s that came together to create the Confederate history of the war. They were led by Jubal Early and just note the times they use the word "truth" in the opening introductory essay. They are about truth; truth, truth, truth, truth, and they believe it. They don't believe Yankees and northerners can ever write their history.
Now the battle flag. I don't have a lot to add. Reactions to the battle flag are always of at least two different kinds. There's the individual reaction and there is the collective or collected--Ed wants that term collected--reaction. There's the question of whether it should be representing the state. Whether it should be a symbol of officialdom of South Carolina or Mississippi or anywhere else for that matter, that's one set of questions. Should it represent the people of South Carolina in some way? Another set of questions is how individuals react. If you have personal memories of the aftermath of a lynching in the South, where Confederate flags were used, yes, it's like the swastika. Why is it any different? I mean on the other hand, if your individual experiences with the Confederate flag had mostly to do with seeing it as a patch on the shoulders of a marching band, then, that's a different kind of reaction one might have. So we have to try to figure out whether this is an individual reaction or is it a collective reaction to how it is used by the state. I wish in this country we could fold it, and put it in museums.
Richard Rabinowitz: This is a question that uses Ed's digression into the Indian experience to be provocative. "Do you believe that Little Big Horn, Washita, and Sand Creek should interpret the whole history of the Indian experience? Can that logically be performed due to limited space, time involved in interpretation for a visitor's experience and financial resources? If one's visit is to all the above-mentioned places then a repetitive theme will exist that has little to do directly with "place," making the uniqueness of those places irrelevant." I guess I would like to ask, to sort of help sharpen that question, is there a ground between the local history, the events of the site itself and the day of the battle--is there a relationship between that and context? How can we bridge those two things or do they have to be seen as such radically alternative notions? What are the ways in which we could understand larger stories, larger narratives as having something to do with the site itself? Is that a possible approach to drawing together the various strands of this audience?
Edward Linenthal: Again, I appreciate the thoughtfulness and the articulate-ness of this question. I guess I would frame it a different way--whoever asked this. I don't see it as either/or. Again, let me go back to Robert Utley, who cautioned me once as I was waxing eloquent to him about what interpretation could be done at the Little Big Horn. He stopped and said: "remember Ed, these are going to be seasonal rangers telling these stories." He continued by saying: "remember, always, interpretation must grow out of, but not necessarily be limited to, the experience of the site." There was a caution in a 1975 Park Service directive, concerning expanding the story at the Little Big Horn, that it should not be--it was a wonderful phrase--the occasion for an interpretive jihad that recounts the entire history of the Indian-White relations. So no, I don't think you can probably do it all. I mean it's not a place where you're going to tell the story of every Native American tribe and whether they were hunters, gatherers, or whatever. But, it certainly--the Little Big Horn to my mind--is one of the great success stories of American public culture, because it's a site that the National Park Service has mindfully transformed from shrine to historic site. It has confronted the enduring truth of first interpretation. It has not been able to tell side-by-side, differing and sometimes irreconcilable stories about the Little Big Horn. It is clear when there is an interpretive talk that's being done on tactics at the Little Big Horn that you can talk about Indian culture and how they fought war and the cultural roots out of which that came. You can talk about images of honor, valor, and courage in Native American culture and among the Army in the 7th Cavalry. So, you can do meaningful kinds of context. The Little Big Horn does absolutely talk about the Little Big Horn and the roots of Indian-White conflict. The major interpretive theme at Little Big Horn is clash of cultures. That's the context. Of course, it's done uniquely. Here's an example of how it's done well. I don't see this as a zero sum game at all.
To talk about slavery as one of the great causes of the war and the kinds of interpretive risks, then what you do at individual sites can be tailored to those sites. Absolutely, the way it's done at the Little Big Horn, which is a different site from Washita, revolves around an entire different interpretive challenge than the Washita challenges. Is it a battle or a massacre? And on that answer rides a sea change of interpretation. Context is absolutely provided there as well. The story of Oklahoma City will not just begin at 9:02 a.m. on April 19th. It will talk about the milieu and the context in which this kind of violence arose and its roots in the fertile soil in American culture from which it came. All right. The essentials are there. Why can they not be there at Civil War battlefields without diminishing what in fact is there? I think and sense that this is a zero sum game that we're in fact altering, damaging, injuring, or doing violence to the story is not a problem that I think is a real problem. I hope that my response to the question makes some sense.
Richard Rabinowitz: We have two questions. I think these should be the last. They are sort of historian's questions. One says: "What effect did the Dunning School"--referring to William Dunning, he's a professor at Columbia in the early 20th century--"have on American memory of the Civil War?" And the second question is: "In regards to what caused the Civil War, when did the state's rights, not slavery, argument take hold in the South? It seems like a post-war rationalization but when did it start?"
David Blight: Now, we're in a graduate seminar. The William Dunning school of interpretation of Reconstruction was named for the historian William Dunning who taught for many years at Columbia, trained a generation--more than a generation--of scholars between 1905 and the 1930s. They wrote and re-wrote the history of Reconstruction. They laid down, deeply laid down, with full scholarly apparatus the tragic legend of Reconstruction. No question about it. What Kenneth Stamp called the tragic legend of Reconstruction was the conception of Reconstruction as a hideous mistake, as W. E. B. DuBois once called it, ironically. It was the notion that the radical Republicans took over the South, essentially colonized it, used black suffrage, the black vote to get themselves into power and to stay in power. Most Reconstruction governments, said this interpretation, were carpetbag governments run by northerners or by blacks. It was also the argument that it was a misuse of Constitutional authority by the federal government, that it was exploitation and oppression of the southern states beyond human limits.
The great hero of the Dunning school was Andrew Johnson and the great villains were Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner and the other radical Republicans of the time. That is a simplification of the Dunning school. What impact did it have on Civil War memory? A tremendous impact. But it wasn't just the Dunning school. The Dunning school came along as scholarship to harness and to develop a set of ideas and assumptions. There was a set of ideas and assumptions all over American culture in search of a history. The Dunning school gave them a history and the way that argument, ultimately, really served Civil War memory (and it is still with us) is in the notion that the South lost the war. There's no question about that. They were defeated. Slavery was destroyed. But the South won Reconstruction. The Dunning school with careful scholarly apparatus supported what the "Lost Cause" ideology had been arguing in careful ways for fifteen to twenty years, and that was a kind of victory narrative about Reconstruction. The victory of Reconstruction belonged to the South and the nation's victory over this ill-begotten wrong-headed crusade for racial equality during Reconstruction. It served the ends of forgetting what Bruce Babbitt this morning referred to, the 600 black politicians who served in legislatures and in the Congress during the Reconstruction years up to about 1890--an extraordinary political achievement. An achievement Eric Foner discussed and made famous in two books.
You cannot underestimate the impact of the Dunning school. It was directly related to the impact of a film like Birth of A Nation. You have to see the Dunning school and the context of the broader culture at the turn of the century, in which this whole plantation legend about the contented slave has been so deeply put into our consciousness. I never fully understood this until I did a great deal of research for this book on Thomas Nelson Page, Joel Chandler Harris, and other writers. There are many imitators who created the plantation school of American fiction who were the best selling authors of the 1890s in America.
Every story Thomas Nelson Page wrote was narrated by a faithful slave in dialect, and such was the voice in the ear of the millions of readers. This voice about slavery by the 1890s was always a happy "darkie," who was loyal to his masters, always helping the Confederate soldier come home--either dead or alive--and in the end usually conducting the marriage ceremony between the white woman and the Yankee veteran. D. W. Griffith's famous film, Birth of A Nation, is our most notorious example of how this kind of racism made it into popular culture, but Griffith made dozens of short films before he made Birth of A Nation. These little ten-minute films were happy "darkie" stories. In one of them, the faithful slave is so determined not to be freed that he finds his masters will and goes out and buries it in the ground as the Yankees are coming, because he's so desperate not to be free. I laugh at that too. I make my students read some of this. They laugh at it. But they have to understand and we have to understand, that the felt history, the felt need of that era, and the Dunning School certainly served it.
When does states rights take hold in the South? I will be very quick with that. You know the story about how Kentucky never left the Union. Nothing against Kentucky here, but Kentucky never really seceded from the Union but it joined the land of the "lost cause" after the war. It would never join the Confederacy during the war, but it became Confederate after the war. Go read the Louisville Courier Journal in the 1870s and 1880s. If you want to read one example of the states rights theory, in two volumes, read Jefferson Davis' Memoirs. His defense of the Confederacy published, in the early 1880s, is a 1200 page theoretical exegesis. It's incredibly turgid and often unreadable, but it sold widely. It was a vehement defense of the Confederacy as the vessel of the legacy of the American Revolution and the compact theory of government. But the states rights theory had been well worked out by the earliest apologists for the Confederacy. One of the best early examples is E. A. Pollard's famous book, this one is only 700 pages, published in 1867, called The Lost Cause. The Confederacy is immediately immortalized as a political revolution for independence against the oppression of a larger, more powerful, more wealthy foe that wanted to take away its political liberty. Everybody in the Civil War, the states rights argument would go, fought for liberty. It's just that one side had superior numbers and resources.