Brooks Simpson on “Slavery, Emancipation, and the Sesquicentennial”

Yesterday in his blog, Crossroads, Brooks Simpson discusses how the National Park Service has too often neglected slavery and emancipation in interpreting Civil War battlefields. Simpson writes:

NPS sites don’t always tell us much about the story of slavery and emancipation.  For example, I don’t recall seeing too much about Benjamin F. Butler’s decision to classify escaped slaves as contraband when I visited Fort Monroe several years ago, although the cell in which Jefferson Davis spent some time was featured.  I haven’t been to Petersburg in some time, but, back in the 1970s, you would have been hard-pressed to know about the story of the black division at the Crater; north of the James, when I visited the sites of Forts Gilmer and Harrison, I was unaware until later of the role played by black soldiers in those areas.  Given that this was some time ago, things may well have changed, and I owe it to myself to return for a visit to this area, anyway.

Having been to the Petersburg battlefield more recently, it is fair to say that African Americans are better documented there than in the 1970s. I was part of a group of scholars from a conference on African Americans in the Civil War held at Virginia State University during my last trip there in May 2005, so maybe our visit was not representative. But as I recall there was at least one commemorative marker devoted to black troops on the battlefield and my book on black Civil War veterans was on sale in the park’s gift shop (as if the latter fact proves anything).

Brooks Simpson in his blog also refers to a trenchant post on this issue by John Hennessey, who blogs at Fredericksburg Remembered. Simpson provides a link, but what Hennessey wrote is so interesting, here is an excerpt:

A few weeks ago my colleague Steward Henderson and I gave a tour, “Forgotten: Slavery and Slave Places in Fredericksburg.” Though we gave the tour first over the summer as part of History at Sunset, this particular program was for 70 people from three historically black churches in town. It was almost entirely an African-American audience. The tour went well–I think most of the sites and material was new to much of the audience. The energy level was high all around. In the midst of it, a gentleman pulled me aside and said, “Are you going to get in trouble for doing this? You know…your bosses. I didn’t think you guys were allowed to do things like this.” During the day, I received a number of comments along the same line, suggesting surprise that we, the NPS, would do a tour dealing with slavery.

The comments speak loudly to how at least a small corner of Fredericksburg’s African-American community (which probably reflects a much broader view) perceives the role of the NPS in the interpretation of the Civil War. We can hardly fault the perception–for many decades, such a tour would simply never have been done. But, the comments do suggest that while we have done much to broaden our understanding and interpretation of the Civil War and its implications for all Americans, some people still see the NPS as, at best, ambivalent and, at worst, hostile to an interpretation of the war that goes beyond traditional bounds. I am not discouraged by this, but this little whack upside the head is a reminder that we have much work yet to do.

Having worked with if not for the National Park Service (I researched and wrote a flood history of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park back in 1996-1997 as part of a cooperative agreement between NPS and the University of Maryland), I gained a working sense of its culture. Good history for the Park Service is less important than the good name of the institution in the halls of Congress. Certainly, NPS is a highly professional organization, but like all government agencies it avoids doing things that would threaten its funding. So it shies away from the controversial and tends toward an approach to history that will have the broadest appeal and offend the least. At one time, anything having to do with African Americans in the Civil War qualified as controversial and some aspects still do (i.e., black Confederates). For better or worse, the reconciliation interpretation still has the broadest appeal since it avoids moral judgments about the combatants. It also has the inertia of decades behind it. Slavery and emancipation is clearly making inroads into the NPS interpretation at Civil War battlefields to judge from my own experience and John Hennessey’s observations. But it is a slow process because the National Park Service treads carefully so as not to offend any of its constituent groups.

Certainly the vocal constituent groups now include African Americans. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. since at least 2000 has made a cause of how the National Park Service incorporates race into battlefield interpretation. Kevin Levin blogged on Jackson and Civil War battlefields over at Civil War Memory in August 2006 and May 2007 and rather than repeat his remarks please visit the links I’ve created and read them for yourself. But it’s safe to say that the growing political influence of African Americans in recent decades has complicated the interpretive task of the National Park Service, which probably more than anything helps explain its caution having to do with race and the Civil War.

Brooks Simpson closes his post by writing: “if you want Americans to understand the Civil War not only as a war of national reunification triumphing over separatism but also as a conflict that led to the most radical and revolutionary transformation in American life, I’d suggest that you get moving and do something.  You can’t be unhappy about the stories told by others if you leave the storytelling to them.

By founding Civil War Emancipation and blogging on the coming of freedom for the slaves, I’m doing my part. But clearly the reconciliation Civil War narrative still is more popular, at least with the public. Hopefully, academics and other history professionals can change that fact and the Sesquicentennial strikes me as a golden opportunity to do so since people are paying more attention to the topic than usual.

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About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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