Offering history of slavery can put cannons in context

Reality wins: The Park Service will finally include the issue in Civil War presentations.

May 14, 2000|By David M. Shribman

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- The great Civil War battle fought here has been over for more than 135 years. But the lessons of Gettysburg and the war's other battlegrounds - are about to change profoundly.

In the next several years, along with the exhibits on the weapons of the battle, the personalities who led it and the sharpshooters who fought it, Gettysburg and the rest of the Civil War battle sites are going to discuss a subject that they almost entirely suppress: slavery.

Abraham Lincoln, whose brief battlefield commemorative delivered here in Gettysburg is perhaps the best-known speech in the English language, may have fought the Civil War on the pretext of preserving the Union -- but he recognized that all Americans knew slavery "was somehow the cause of war." But from Vicksburg in Mississippi to Manassas in Virginia, the Civil War battlefields managed to avoid the unavoidable for generations, assembling displays and interpretive programs that focus on the conduct of the war but not its cause.

That's about to change, thanks to Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., a Chicago Democrat who inserted language into an appropriations bill requiring the National Park Service to confront slavery directly at the Civil War sites.

The willingness to address sharpshooting but not slavery at the battlefields is an example of the way American history, a chronicle of the struggle to establish and expand human rights, has become antiseptic in the telling. But Jackson, son of a civil-rights activist and member of the House Appropriations Committee, has been wandering through Civil War sites, wondering how slavery had been bleached from the battles. When he confronted Park Service guides, he was told that including slavery in the displays would require nothing less than an act of Congress.

Within months, Jackson delivered them an act of Congress.

Last week, in its struggle to comply with the Jackson provision, the Park Service gathered scores of battlefield officials and guides in Ford's Theater in Washington and invited Jackson to lecture them. ("There's more to Gettysburg than Pickett's Charge," he said.) The Park Service also assembled a group of distinguished historians to conduct a seminar on the nature and significance of slavery and to prepare battlefield interpreters for what Ira Berlin of the University of Maryland called the task of "integrating the history of slavery into history's sacred grounds."

That will take some doing. Although Berlin argued in his remarks last week that "American history cannot be understood without the institution of slavery," the Civil War sites have been slow to change. A report from a conference of battlefield managers held two years ago in Nashville found that the Park Service approaches battlefields the way veterans do when they visit the battle sites of their youth. "Like the returning veterans, we focus our interpretation on the experience of soldiers."

That's certainly true at Gettysburg. "The emphasis is on the three days' battle," said Terry Fox, a retired schoolteacher and a licensed Park Service guide here. "This is a military park." Indeed, the park is heavy with exhibits of field artillery, cannon and barrels. One corridor of the Gettysburg visitors center includes 145 carbines, longarms, rifles and percussion smoothbore muskets.

"We have had a tendency to concentrate mostly on the military tactics and battles themselves," said John Latschar, the Gettysburg superintendent. "We can appeal to a whole lot more people and provide a whole lot better understanding of what the battles are all about, if we put these battles into context and describe why they were fought."

Gettysburg hasn't yet adjusted its museum programs. But Latschar says that ranger programs this summer will emphasize the causes of the war, the meaning of the Gettysburg Address, the life of the common soldier and the impact on the home front when the breadwinners left to fight. "We need to put a human face on these soldiers," said Latschar. "The time is right."

Meanwhile, the Park Service will hold a two-week seminar for "front-line National Park Service interpreters from Civil War sites" designed to broaden the exhibits and programs and to examine the social and economic context of the conflict -- not only slavery, but also industrialization, demographics and the broad sweep of Western history.

Not that there's unanimous support for this approach. At the Ford's Theater seminar, a Park Service interpreter asked what right Jackson, who is not a historian, had to impose his views on the historians who do work for the government. Jackson said that the newly passed act of Congress represented "the will of the people." He added: "An act of Congress created your job."

David Shribman is an assistant managing editor at the Boston Globe. Reality wins: The Park Service will finally include the issue in Civil War presentations.

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