Sunday, December 7, 2008

The National Park Service, Slavery, And The Sesquicentennial

I mentioned the National Park Service in my post a few days ago about preparations by various organizations for the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. David Woodbury at "Of Battlefields and Bibliophiles" put up an article that illustrates how the NPS has been working on this issue since 1998, and how it started with a doozy; presenting slavery as a primary cause of the war at Civil War battlefield exhibits.
Mr. Woodbury has a very interesting statement in his post that has triggered some thoughts. He writes:
"I don’t get the controversy. It’s just history. The men who fought and died so bravely don’t need us to protect them from the politics of their day – they were unapologetic about it. And if not them, whom do we think we’re protecting? Confederate re-enactors?"
Let's unpack this paragraph together. I like the idea of history as something we can have some tranquility over, to come to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in a place where all can learn, understand, and interpret an untrammeled accounting of this monumental event, good and bad. That's going to be quite a challenge, because a cornerstone of such a discourse is an agreement on the first principles of the history itself. That is something we don't have.
The next point he makes helps us remember why that schism exists. People were unapologetic about the politics of the era, yes, but the caveat is that as soon as that era ended, the apologias began, a phenomenon we have explored in our discussions of the origins of the Lost Cause mythology. When men like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens surveyed the wreckage of the Confederacy they had helped build and lead, they systematically began to change their story to promote an alternative history, one where states rights supplanted slavery as a primary cause of secession and war, and one that took hold of the national consciousness and historiography for over 100 years.
The power that the Lost Cause mythology has on our memory of the Civil War, slavery, reconstruction, and race relations stretching up to the present is what, to help answer Mr. Woodbury's final question, is being protected. This is over a century of history-making and telling, of teaching and learning, that we're talking about here. The mythology of the Lost Cause, with its rationales, excuses, scapegoats, and heroes, is a much more palatable history for all of us to swallow when considering the debasement and savagery of the antebellum period, the war, and Reconstruction.
We have a responsibility; however, to study history honestly and objectively, regardless of whether the facts may be embarrasing, painful, even disgraceful to some. In order to do that with the Civil War, there are subjects that need to be revisited, difficult though it may be. With a fresh look at primary data, we can scrape away the obfuscation of the Lost Cause, and that's what the Civil War community has been seeing through successful works by McPherson, Gallagher, Foner, et al.
The community that sees and reads these works is small, but the sesquicentennial and the anticipated surge in public interest is going to explode the size of it. It will be an opportunity to undertake this reappraisal, not just in the halls of academia, but for the general public, for the neophyte, for the student who learned about the war decades ago and has their interest rekindled by this anniversary.
As they seek out information and education, it's good to know that things that are easily available and inexpensive, like battlefield tours and landmarks run by the NPS, will provide at least some measure of honesty and allow for more clear and integral understanding.

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