Holding the High Ground at Harpers Ferry

By Andrew Vannucci ‘15

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.

Dwight Pitcaithley’s article, “A Cosmic Threat: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War,” discusses the evolution of interpretation at Civil War parks that has moved toward a more complete, nuanced telling of Civil War history and the backlash against it. Before recent changes in NPS policy, most parks focused their interpretation solely on the military elements of their story. Groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans interpreted this as appropriate deference towards honoring the men that fought in these battles. They saw moves toward setting battles in the context of social history (i.e., slavery) at these parks as taking attention away from and detracting from the sacrifices made by Confederate soldiers.

A memorial dedicated in 1931 by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to honor the memory of Heyward Shepherd, a free African American, and the first person to die in connection with John Brown’s Raid. Photo credit Andrew Vannucci.
A memorial dedicated in 1931 by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to honor the memory of Heyward Shepherd, a free African American, and the first person to die in connection with John Brown’s Raid. Photo credit Andrew Vannucci.

There is no doubt that military history is the essential component in programming at battlefield sites. Often, the most significant story to be told at battlefield sites is about the battle that took place there, the men who fought there and the men who died there. Hearing these stories and honoring veterans is important, but without setting these battles within a greater historical context battles loses their meaning in the bigger picture of American history. The preservation of an accurate historical memory and understanding of the war and the preservation of the physical sites themselves are equally important tasks. Pitcaithley’s article makes clear that Lost Cause influences contributed to the avoidance of this broader picture for a long time, but current programming at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park reveals just how substantial the transformations of recent years have been.

Our programming (tours, museums etc.) focuses on six major, interconnected themes: John Brown, the Civil War, African-American History, Natural Heritage, Transportation and Industry. These themes help build a larger historical context for the war. Park visitors learn about the effects of geography on the fighting and tactics of battle as well as their effects on industry that made the war possible. They learn about technological innovations such as the development of railroads and interchangeable parts that improved the travel of troops and supplies and the production of weapons and munitions.

Perhaps more importantly, the John Brown and African-American history themes help provide social and political context for the war. They help trace the beginnings of the conflict and help outline the war’s legacy. Through interpreting these themes, Harpers Ferry NHP consciously embraces, rather than shies away from, discussion of the causes of the war. Youth programs run by the education department build a discussion of John Brown around the “Thoughts on Change” program in which students examine methods of change and the morality and wisdom of the raid. African-American history programming focuses on the legacy of emancipation through the history of Storer College, the Niagara Movement and the ideological debate between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. As a result of the broad range of historical phenomena that occurred in the town of Harpers Ferry, the park is very easily able to create a nuanced portrayal of the American Civil War.

Leaders of the Niagara Movement pose during their 1906 convention in Harpers Ferry. W.E.B. DuBois is seated in the front row. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Leaders of the Niagara Movement pose during their 1906 convention in Harpers Ferry. W.E.B. DuBois is seated in the front row. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Sources:

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.

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