Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Civil War Memory blog

If every American high school student had a history teacher like Kevin Levin, keeper of Civil War Memory, the world would be a better place. Today he's continuing his previous discussion of the new interpretations of Civil War battlefields, a cause that Jesse Jackson Jr. has been advocating for awhile now. Jackson "introduced report language into the National Park Service appropriation budget that encouraged National Park Service Civil War park superintendents to expand the scope of their interpretation to include the discussion of such topics as slavery." How subversive! As Jackson put it,

When I go to Vicksburg or Manassas, or any other battle site, I ask what is the historical significance of this particular site. The park service superintendent responds saying right here was a left oblique and right there was a right oblique. So, the historical significance of Vicksburg is about an oblique. . . . At these sites, nothing tells us that there were no more Federalists or Whigs, and the Democratic Party was split in two, North and South, because of slavery after Lincoln won, or that we ended up with a two party system, Democrats and Republicans, based on the legacy of slavery. Nor is there anything to say that Lincoln ran on a certain campaign platform, and that South Carolina and other southern states said that if he won they would leave the Union. Then, when Lincoln took office he said he would put eleven stars back on that flag. All that has more to do with the history of Vicksburg and Manassas than a left or a right oblique.

Might as well turn the battle sites over to the Army, Jackson concluded.

A lot's at stake in these very public interpretations. Writes Levin,

As we approach the sesquicentennial it is safe to conclude that we are still wedded to an interpretation that treats the war as part of a broader narrative of American Exceptionalism or as an arena where the virtues of courage and steadfastness were practiced by men on both sides. From this perspective little has changed in how we view the war over the last one hundred years. According to this view our Civil War is something to celebrate rather than explore by continually asking new questions. Slavery and emancipation play almost no role since it forces us to address the tough questions of what caused the war, how the war evolved, and its short- and long-term consequences. No, better to keep our attention on the battlefields where such messiness can be avoided.

Now the National Park Service is broadening its horizons, bringing civilians in to its narratives, trying harder to do "good history."

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