This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.
For decades, it was an established truth that Civil War battlefield parks focused solely on military affairs, and not on any of the societal factors that contributed to bringing about the conflict. Though today parks emphasize a variety of reasons for the war – most prominently slavery – the reason that such discussion was absent for so long lies in the continuation of something which the war sought to remedy: a divided nation.
Public opinion on the Civil War and its relationship to slavery was bitterly divided due to many groups of people, most of whom had some connection to and therefore a measure of pride in the Confederacy, not being able to accept that the war was fought, first and foremost, for the preservation of a system dependent upon slavery. Because slavery is now acknowledged as an evil, connecting it to the Confederate cause made it hard for descendants and enthusiasts to take pride in Confederate heritage. As a result, Confederate heritage groups utilized their numerical strength to wield a significant amount of political muscle, pushing an agenda stressing that battlefield parks should focus solely upon military affairs. Not wanting revered battlefields upon which their ancestors bled for victory to become “sites of shame,” those with Confederate ties agitated such that the National Park Service did not dare even attempting to speak of the War outside of its basic martial composition. Indeed, the parks, influenced by such groups, mostly told the story of what happened, not why.
Appomattox Court House National Historical Park (ApCo) has, very recently, adopted features that help tell a much more expansive account of the Civil War. It was not until the early 2000s that the slave quarters were called anything but the “servants’ quarters.” The visitor center’s theater held showings of a film that, until it was replaced for the 150th anniversary, did not mention much of anything but the actions of the armies, and did not dwell upon why they fought in the first place. Sir John Keegan once said that “an army is…an expression of the society from which it issues,” and if such statements hold any truth, then a proper history practically demands a more comprehensive study of life beyond that of just the soldier and the army.
Such a comprehensive study of life is conveyed through every possible medium at ApCo. “Living history” programs draw from a varied cast of characters, incorporating more perspectives than just those of soldiers, such as a doctor, a freed slave, a civilian resident, and so on. Ranger talks are structured in such a way that they paint a picture of the Appomattox Campaign and subsequent surrender as a sort of nexus for history: the events are ultimately caused by a variety of social, cultural, economic, and military factors, but they unleash their own consequences that create liminal connections with the modern world. The narrative of the park’s history does not end with the surrender; indeed, it is still unfolding. The Civil War was a war to end slavery and establish equality for all. One need only give the news a brief glance to see the relevance of Appomattox Court House continuing to reassert itself. We are in no way a society of equals yet, but pursuit of that goal is as noble as ever, be it in the 1860s or the 2010s.
Pitcaithley, Dwight. “A Cosmic Threat: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War,” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of Memory, ed. James O. Horton and Lois E. Horton, (New York: The New Press, 2006): 169-186.