The Future of Civil War History: Reflections (Part Two)

Another noteworthy aspect of The Future of Civil War History was the emphasis on death and destruction wrought by the violent acts of human beings killing and maiming each other in battle. This was no accident. Peter Carmichael, who organized the conference alongside people from an unnamed government agency affected by recent federal government actions, has emphasized for some time that we need to move beyond a “New Birth of Freedom” theme to explore other organizing principles of site interpretation, most notably his own, which he styles “A Nation at War.” That trope was everpresent at the conference, haunting it in much the same way that other ghosts reportedly haunt Gettysburg to this day.

How Can Civil War Sites Offer a Usable Past during a Time of War? was the title of the first evening session, and I’d argue it was when the conference got under way in earnest. As engaging as Cathy Stanton’s presentation was, I found Peter’s comments even more revealing, because to me they set forth his notion of what he defined as “A Nation at War.” Peter’s been emphasizing this approach for some time: he asserts that the interpretive theme that emphasizes “A New Birth of Freedom,” including the theme of slavery, its destruction, and emancipation, has prevailed and that struggle is over.

Peter and I have had this discussion before in very compressed format: you can see it here between 28:02 and 29:34. What I would have liked is for Peter to have offered a keynote address to his own conference that set forth his views as the primary focus of subsequent discussion. I don’t disagree with Peter’s perspective so much as I think it’s incomplete, and that in its focus on death and destruction it overlooks other aspects of a nation (or nations) at war, issues that can also be addressed at a historical site.

The next morning, John Christian Spielvogel built on Peter’s analysis and his new book in discussing how battlefield interpretive stops described what happened at that place. Spielvogel compared wayside stops at Gettysburg, which emphasized the movements of units and leaders, with markers at Cold Harbor, which emphasize the style of warfare waged during those deadly June weeks. The conference then broke into various working groups and field experiences: the next time attendees could come together in a common session was an evening program devoted to Ghosts and Generals: Theatricality, Dark Tourism, and the Ghost Tour Industry, where one of the themes highlighted was ghost tours as escape from the realities of the battlefield (even as many of the tours featured ghosts from the battle). Of course, one can’t have ghost tours without talking about dead people.

The final morning began with a fine presentation by Mark Smith entitled Sounds and Smells of the Battlefield. Stephen Berry’s comments enriched an already gripping description of the horrors of the battlefield that remained present even when one closed one’s eyes. Once more destruction and death were placed at center stage at the conference. Both on Thursday and Friday, there were sessions devoted to subjects such as trauma and violence, but other topics were covered as well: what strikes me is what the conference explored in common experiences. The message was clear: war is violent, horrible, deadly, destructive, dehumanizing, and, as Sherman put it, hell.

That’s not a trivial point, even if it seems to be an obvious one. Peter highlighted it rather effectively on the first evening when he shared a photograph of three teenagers astride a cannon, then paired that image with one of a drone. He also pondered what would happen if one ended a tour of the battlefield with a photograph of a double amputee (although he later admitted that he had not put his suggestion into practice). Moreover, it’s been discussed before by, among others, John Hennessy, here and here (see how useful blogs are?).

rifle flowerAnd yet I wonder whether those of us to walk fields once drenched with blood in an area now called a park are always ignoring violence. My daughters have posed on and by cannons; I could argue that far from trivializing death, I have demonstrated how those weapons of destruction have been reduced to something else, much as one would place a flower in the barrel of a rifle.  Sometimes it’s enough to stand there and wonder what possessed men to withstand such terror and continue to fight under such circumstances as they are engulfed by chaos and confusion … and then return to do the same thing time and time again. After all, as we know from the photographs taken of Civil War dead, Americans at the time did not altogether shy away from the violence of war, even if they sought to cope with it in various ways that somehow took the edge off it … although how exactly can one say that after looking here:

Antietam dead … or here …

gettysburg dead

I happen to think that if we are serious about discussing “A Nation at War” at Civil War sites that we have to include such scenes, but that we also have to include other issues, such as the matter of democracy and dissent, the effect of war on the folks at home (and how the folks at home affected what happened at the front), how wars challenge the very values which they are supposedly fought to defend and preserve, and so on. Several NPS wayside interpretive markers indeed portray the horrors of the battlefield, as visitors to Gettysburg and Antietam can attest, in ways that go beyond the sharpshooter’s nest at Devil’s Den. People who walk the streets of Gettysburg already know far more about what happened there than they once did. Yes, there are ways that we can provide opportunity and space to ask certain questions and ponder our answers, but for me the essential issue is how do we render recommendations into concrete parts of the visitor experience, all the time recalling that there are many visitors who come to these sites for many reasons (and many who come more than once). We can’t define a visitor experience (let alone control and shape it) precisely because at some places there is no single experience in the first place. We can influence, but we can’t control what can’t be controlled, especially as it becomes even more difficult to control, contrary to the wish of those who are fond of gatekeepers and the like. Those days are gone, if they ever indeed existed.

Finally, it’s critical that those people who seek to define what a visitor experience might include should first consider what is already being done at various sites. I didn’t need someone to tell me about interpretation at Cold Harbor (an interpretation that in some ways perpetuates stereotypes of what happened at Cold Harbor) because I had been there already (several times). I recall the first time I visited the field (in 1974) and how I came away from that experience impressed by the cost of war and the eerie nature of the ground: the same thing happened when I walked along the stone wall at Marye’s Heights or up Bloody Lane at Antietam.  Yet I can’t recall a more fitting moment than that displayed in the final scene of the video below:

30 thoughts on “The Future of Civil War History: Reflections (Part Two)

  1. Stephanie March 23, 2013 / 4:02 pm

    I chaperoned a battlefield tour with my daughter’s high school Civil War class. The professional tour guide, who also wrote several books on Gettysburg that are carried in the museum bookstore, told us that photographers moved corpses and reposed them in other spots. He showed us photos that seemed to back his claims. Have you heard this before? Any ideas as to their motives?

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 23, 2013 / 6:28 pm

      Yes, bodies were moved and posed … the most famous being the supposed sharpshooter at Devil’s Den. It was done to make a better picture with a better story. The photographers were in business, after all, and they knew what would sell.

  2. rortensie March 23, 2013 / 4:08 pm

    Nice post. I do not think there is anything that can truly bring the true feel of the battlefield. Having been on the scene of death and decay at numerous aircraft accidents, the stench of death and decay is something that you can never rid yourself of. Neither are the images of ethnic cleansing that I have personally seen done in the former Yygoslavia and then walked in those countries (and then finding out the area I had walked in the day prior had been heavily mined). These images are some that if the NPS tried to recreate that individuals within our Society would complain about and force that we change how we represent the War.

  3. wgdavis March 23, 2013 / 5:44 pm

    At Gettysburg, there is a jarring dissonance of place names, where the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, Culp’s Hill, and Little Round Top present benign sounding names, as opposed to the Slaughter Pen, Devil’s Den, and the Valley of Death. While action was nearly equally violent at all those places, we focus most on Pickett’s Charge, with its Bloody Angle. Why is it that the action of Pickett’s Charge is noted historically and interpretively so much more than the action in the Wheatfield the day before, in which the fighting was far more vicious and personal, and of equal amounts of casualties?

    How does one stand there and explain that kind of fighting to a visitor and do so while framing it within the political and national impetus for the war? Does that impetus belong there at the Wheatfield? At Pickett’s Charge?

    For what it is worth, I think the overview is where one would place the action of battle into the general context of the time, citing slavery of course, and the political and economic landscape…but the war, the battles, I doubt anyone was thinking of slavery on either side at the Wheatfield, or at Pickett’s Charge.

    There is a wonderful quote from the film The Four Feathers [the late Heath Ledger version which is quite good]. The character Jack Durrance [played so well by Wes Bentley], blinded in service in Africa, was speaking at a memorial service for Veterans, and said, “You may be lost, but you are not forgotten. For those who have travelled far, to fight in foreign lands, know that the soldier’s greatest comfort is to have his friends close at hand. In the heat of battle it ceases to be an idea for which we fight, or a flag. Rather we fight for the man on our left, and we fight for the man on our right. And when armies are scattered and the empires fall away, all that remains is the memory of those precious moments that we spent side by side.”

    Perhaps the real question arising out of the conference is to ask “Where were the combat Veterans, to provide input into what goes on in a soldiers mind during battle?”

    Not in a half century have we had as many combat Veterans around who could provide the answer to that question, and though there may be variations about what the response is, it will not vary much beond Jack Durrance’s fictional words noted above, and the real words that we see in print or on TV when a Medal of Honor awardee is interviewed: to save lives.

    Political, social and economic impetus does not belong on a battlefield, it belongs in a visitor’s center, or a text book, or a history book, and maybe at the introductory interview between a guide and his tour group.

    Leave the carnage on the battlefield and in the museum, and for gosh sake, don’t worry about the ant-war folks, the carnage will fuel their fire.

    My two cents anyway.

  4. M.D. Blough March 23, 2013 / 9:03 pm

    There have always been people who believed that if one only educated people as to the violence of war it would change hearts and minds. That has quite repeatedly shown to be a fantasy. When the Alexander Gardner photographs of Antietam dead first went on display, it was a groundbreaking event. Before that battle deaths were the subject of romantic paintings. Less than a year later, at Gettysburg, photographers were rearranging corpses.

    I don’t believe for one second that the fight over the role of slavery ended with the adoption of the New Birth of Freedom. I was heavily involved in the hearings and meetings that led up to the adoption of the current GMP at GNMP. The fight was long and brutal and there was no great surrender ceremony at the end. It’s not just Confederate wannabes. The reconciliationist meme with its whitewashing of the causes of the war by talking about noble people fighting for their unspecified beliefs and relentlessly focusing on who shot who where is palatable to many who don’t want the tensions and unresolved issues of a more expansive interpretation.

    Ultimately, I find Carmichael’s obsession with the brutality of war to be as limited and limiting as the who shot who them was. Wars are brutal, etc. However, not all wars are created equal. Is World War II which ended German and Japanese expansion and brutality the same as World War I? I think that any analysis that fails to deal with the why will always be incomplete.

    I think, in recent years, the NPS has done a remarkable job of coming to terms with the reality of no matter what they do, people will be angry, and providing as complete a picture as they can of what happened and why and doing so in the best venues. People won’t get a long lecture on slavery while doing a Pickett’s Charge tour but they will get the information in the film and museum at the VC.

    • rortensie March 24, 2013 / 4:52 am

      Here’s my question, why would you lecture about slavery during a Pickett’s Charge lecture? To me, you are missing the mark of the lecture. At that moment, no one was thinking about African Americans. They were either thinking of their assigned task or praying they lived through it.

      • Al Mackey March 24, 2013 / 9:58 am

        I think, Ray, if the talk is the only thing about the battle being discussed, then the background of what brought those men to that place to start with is appropriate. During the field experience, Scott Hartwig said that many, many times, he’s asked on battlewalks what brought the two armies to Gettysburg. A complete answer has to include why the confederates wanted their independence.

        • rortensie March 24, 2013 / 10:48 am

          Al, I’d agree somewhat but if they were truly wanting to know why the armies came to Gettysburg, it wasn’t slavery. Lee had multiple reasons to invade northwards. Overall, why did the Civil War occur, then yes: including slavery, tariffs, etc, in the discussion.

          • Al Mackey March 24, 2013 / 4:38 pm

            But ultimately, Ray, they seceded and wanted to win their independence for a reason, and that reason was to protect slavery from a perceived threat. Ultimately, that’s what got those men to Gettysburg in the first place.

          • rortensie March 24, 2013 / 6:18 pm

            But how do you incorporate the African-American’s who fought for the Confederacy? 😉

          • wgdavis March 25, 2013 / 5:47 pm

            If that is the question, yes. But that is not the question when someone asks, “”Why Gettysburg?”

          • Nancy Harper March 25, 2013 / 6:16 pm

            Why Gettysburg ? The Scottsdale Civil War Roundtable had Bud Hall of The Civil War Trust into town last week and being that he knows about the campaign leading directly to Gettysburg, let me give you the general thoughts ; and one possible answer to the question.

            Gettysburg was the end of a campaign that began at Brandy Station, south of Gettysburg a short ways. Here, the largest cavalry battle was fought about 3 weeks prior to Gettysburg. Hall suggests in his lecture, this event shifted the war –

          • Al Mackey March 26, 2013 / 9:17 am

            Discussing the role of slavery doesn’t take much time. It is part of setting the scene. “In 1860 and 1861 the sectional conflict over slavery and its role in the United States exploded with the election of Abraham Lincoln, who wanted to cut off its expansion and thus posed a threat to its existence. The cotton states seceded, and after the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops, four upper south states joined the CSA. From April of 1861 to the summer of 1863 Union forces in the East had been met with several defeats. General Lee decided on a second invasion of the North, and his army was heading toward the Susquehanna when he found out the Army of the Potomac was in pursuit and he recalled General Ewell’s corps in order to concentrate here at Gettysburg.” There you have it. You’ve placed the battle in context and told why they were fighting the war and what brought them to Gettysburg and you’ve only taken about five minutes, if that, to do it.

          • Al Mackey March 26, 2013 / 9:28 am

            This is actually pretty easy to do. It’s all part of setting the stage. “In 1860 and 1861 the sectional conflict over the role of slavery exploded with the election of Abraham Lincoln, who wanted to cut off its expansion, thus creating a perceived threat to its continued existence. The cotton states seceded, and after Fort Sumter was fired on and the President called for troops four upper south states joined the CSA. From the firing on Fort Sumter in April of 1861 to the summer of 1863 the Union, in the East, had suffered several defeats. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared all the slaves under rebel control to be free and allowed the enlistment of black troops into the Union Army. Now in the summer of 1863 General Lee decided to launch a second invasion of the North. Of his three corps, General Ewell’s corps was near the banks of the Susquehanna River when General Lee learned of the pursuit of the Union Army and the replacement of General Hooker with General Meade. He ordered Ewell to return to the Gettysburg/Cashtown area to concentrate the army to meet the Federals.” There you have it. You’ve placed the battle in historical context, told why the men were fighting, told why they came to Gettysburg, and you’ve done it in about five minutes, if even that long. You can take another five minutes to give a quick overview of what happened in the battle up to that point and you’re ready to go. At the end of the walk you can talk about effects of the battle, the Gettysburg Address, and how the battle is remembered–another five minutes.

        • wgdavis March 25, 2013 / 5:45 pm

          Not necessarily.. It depends on the context in which the question was framed, and who is asking it. If the question is “Why Gettysburg?”, then the answer is one of Confederate strategy and Union response. If the question is “Why did they fight?”, then the answer does not necessarily include slavery, as the majority of combatants were not fighting for or against slavery but for their perceived rights, the restoration of the Union, Independence from the Union, etc….meaning a principle. If the question is why was there a Civil War then you can get into the specifics of the slavery issue.

      • M.D. Blough March 24, 2013 / 11:55 am

        I never said you would lecture about slavery during a Pickett’s charge tour. During the heated debates over expanded interpretation during the development of the current GNMP GMP, some opponents of expanded interpretation insisted that it would mean lectures about slavery during battlefield tours, etc. That was never the intent. The NPS has a statutory duty to place the battle in its overall historic context. There are appropriate times and places for doing that. At Gettysburg, there is an excellent film and museum. I can’t imagine it coming up during a battlefield tour unless someone ASKED about the causes of the war, as Al Mackey, noted or during a town tour which would deal with the unique dangers to and experiences of Gettysburg’s residents who were black.

  5. Brad March 24, 2013 / 6:48 am

    Reading the reports from this conference or whatever it was has made me slightly queasy. The image I get — and maybe it’s incorrect — of Peter Carmichael superimposing his view of how the Civil War should be interpreted. Hello, who died and made you God? To say that we should move beyond the theme of slavery, emancipation, reconstruction and the struggle for human liberty is the height of arrogance, in my view. It has taken African Americans over 120 years to win their their rights and someone says, “ok, that’s over, next topic”?

    Wow, war is hell. Now, there’s something we haven’t heard before. If you’re trying to make people understand the human cost of the war, any war, they can understand that on certain levels but when war is televised into our living rooms all the time and video games, the ability to make people understand is lessened.

    I also see some 21st Century attitudes or mind set seeping into these kinds of discussions instead of understanding how people felt in 1860. To understand why people made the supreme sacrifice go back and read McPherson, Manning, etc.

    The thought also comes to mind that if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Carmichael and co seem to see that in reverse.

    Sorry for the ramblings but that’s my initial reactions when I read some of these reports.

    • Al Mackey March 24, 2013 / 9:48 am

      Brad, I don’t think Pete is trying to dictate how to interpret sites. I think he has a vision of what he would like to see and is proposing it for us to consider, and in his Interpreting Pickett’s Charge Field Experience he demonstrated what he was talking about. I thought, even though done in cold rain and sleet, it was fairly well done. He contrasted memorialization at Gettysburg, specifically the Virginia Memorial, with memorialization at Verdun, specifically the Memorial to the Dead of the 69th. {here: } He also contrasted the battlefield at Gettysburg with the battlefield at Verdun {see photo here: }During the field experience, he and Scott Hartwig took us a short distance along the charge route, then faced us back and asked us what we thought we would have seen on July 3 from that point. At several points, while talking about the charge and what it took to do it, they added the effects of it on the men by including excerpts from letters the men wrote.

    • Patrick Young March 24, 2013 / 12:17 pm

      Hi Brad. First let me say that as someone who worked on human rights cases for 15 years, I am very sympathetic to some aspects of Peter’s point of view. We have not had war on our land (except during 911) for many, many years. Few Americans visit conflict zones or serve in the military. There is a lack of understanding or empathy with people around the world caught in situations like our own civil war. I’m not sure if better wayside markers could solve that, but it might be worth a try.

      As for the notion that somehow there is a final consesus that the war was about slavery, here I would agree with you Brad. In the last five months I’ve had two discussions with two different women who brought up the causes of the war with me. The first was a high school AP history student. She is liberal, Jewish, lives in NJ. Her mom is a college professor. She told me that in class she learned that slavery was not the cause of the war. The second woman is a college professor here in New York. Her courses touch on the Civil War although she is not a specialist in mid-19th century American History. She told me that the war was primarily about economics and industrialization. Both women have no Confederate ancestors (their families came to the US in the 20th century). Both would identify as liberal and pro-civil rights.

      The consensus on the cause of the war may exist among folks who go to academic conferences in Gettysburg, but I meet intelligent, educated people all the time with no ideological ax to grind who are unaware of it.

      • Dan Weinfeld March 24, 2013 / 7:52 pm

        I have to agree with Pat 100%. I’ve lived between Boston and New York for 4 decades and I’m not part of the academic world: first it’s hard to find anyone interested in the Civil War up here. For those who have some passing interest, the biggest influence is definitely still GWIW – more lasting in impact than any high school history class. For the self-styled sophisticates, the favored reason is a more nebulous economic conspiracy theory: In the post-Vietnam, liberal North-east, no one is naive enough to think that the U.S. Govt would “fight” for a noble cause, let alone to end slavery. (Just as no one here would believe that the US went into Iraq for WMDs or to promote freedom). Anyone who thinks this battle is won needs to start doing Leno style “man on the street” interviews.

  6. Mark Pethke March 24, 2013 / 8:07 am

    I’m sympathetic to at least part of Carmichael’s criticism, as I understand it, for I’m not sure the carnage is really represented on the battlefield, or if so, that’s it’s mostly in the abstract. We can intellectualize that Antietam, Shiloh, and Gettysburg were horrifically bloody places, but the battlefield cemeteries are set apart from the field and do not necessarily draw visitors. The battlefields themselves are peaceful parkland with classically inspired shrines (think the Illinois Monument at Vicksburg or the Pennsylvania Monument at Gettysburg) that recall sacrifice but certainly not the same way that sacrifice is presented at what is, for me, the most haunting of battlefields: Little Bighorn. Imagine Gettysburg without equestrian statuary and massive marble monuments but instead dotted with several thousand tombstones. The visit would be different and I suspect the discussion would be too.

  7. jfepperson March 24, 2013 / 8:43 am

    I think the “sanitized” version of the battlefield story—cleansed of all blood and gore—is just as false a picture as the one that ignores the lurking issue of slavery and the black experience. We shouldn’t go overboard in adding either perspective, but they need to be there.

  8. rcocean March 24, 2013 / 12:30 pm

    People who visit Civil War battlefields want to hear about the battle and men who fought and died there. They don’t go there for a lecture on slavery or the civil rights struggle (!). If you’re going to waste precious time yakking about slavery, why not talk about the tariff or states rights. Its a quagmire that no one should get bogged down in. I’m always struck how people always want shoehorn their beliefs on some captive audience. The last thing I want is some guide wagging his finger at me reminding me that “whole lot a dying went on” or “Don’t forget about Black people” while I’m touring the park.

  9. Nancy Harper March 24, 2013 / 2:23 pm

    I did enjoy watching the presentation on blogging from last summer as posted. Excellent views and discussion. I see that there are many more presentations listed that I will plan to watch. For me, I am a building architect – and this inquiry into american history is a huge interest that I find fascinating. I am into historic preservation of sites, buildings and culture related .

  10. Matt McKeon March 25, 2013 / 6:43 am

    We can emphasis the blood and guts aspect. But I think its ultimately not a communicable experience. I also think there is a weird “pornography of violence” vibe. I remember when “Saving Private Ryan” with its horrific Omaha landing sequence, came out. In a few years we have become accustomed to that particular sensibility(desaturated color, handheld camera, stuttering camera speed). I’m sure that is what’s being rerun through peoples’ minds during a tour of a Civil War battlefield.

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