Embracing the Origins of the Civil War at Harpers Ferry

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

By Marisa Shultz ‘17

The National Park Service, as Pitcaithley described in “A Cosmic Threat,” once avoided discussing the causes of the American Civil War. This attitude stems from two places: the feelings of reconciliation in the wake of the war and the attitudes of previous owners of battlefield land. As Blight described in Race and Reunion, after the American Civil War, Northerners and Southerners quickly reconciled by excluding, physically and otherwise, the newly freed population. This prevented the growth of the freed slaves’ narratives, and allowed the “Lost Cause” ideology to take root and spread rampantly. The “Lost Cause” ideology propagated that the Southern states went to war because of issues over states’ rights, thus eliminating the question of slavery – that prominent Confederates, such as Alexander Stephens had once held in such regard – from the common narrative. As Pitcaithley demonstrates with the Yellowstone campfire story, tradition and narrative thrive and obfuscate even when a more accurate alternative is offered, and thus the “Lost Cause” and similar ideologies permeated America’s collective unconscious and became “the truth.” With this being the case, for quite some time the Park Service avoided the question overall due to its controversial nature.

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Furthermore, the National Park Service inherited some of its battlefield lands from the War Department, which used these battlefields primarily as practice and training grounds. To the War Department running drills, what happened tactically and strategically at Gettysburg – the nitty gritty of the battle – mattered more than why the war started. Thus, when the National Park Service inherited the land, it had to make a decision: did it follow in the War Department’s footsteps, only looking at the battle, or did it expand upon this foundation and into contextual questions? Even if the battlefield land did not come from the War Department, the question of proportionality came into play: how much should be contextual and how much rooted in events specific to the immediate location? The NPS focused primarily on the specifics of battle until the past twenty years when the “Holding the High Ground” report was published.

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I work for the Education Department at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and I am so lucky to do so because it is an incredible location for discussing the Civil War in a contextual manner. Twice a week my department works with a specific group of students, called scholars, from around the nation; they are in a program called Junior National Youth Leadership Conference. On these days our staff and I dedicate the first part of the day to teaching them about John Brown, his raid, how his actions in Harpers Ferry escalated tensions between the North and South, and how his last penned words predicted the Civil War. During this time we are straight forward with the scholars about John Brown’s intentions, why certain African Americans fought with him and why some stayed home, and why John Brown’s actions scared the antebellum South. In the afternoon we put on simulations for the scholars to represent home life, working for the military, and being a soldier in the Union Army. We look at how martial law impacted the citizens of Harpers Ferry, how working in the arsenal was a dangerous job, and how soldiers drilled and practiced, rather than just simply talk about troop movements during the 1862 battle. In short, at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park we incorporate all aspects of our history and gladly embrace the controversy surrounding the origins of the American Civil War.


David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.

Dwight Pitcaithley, “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.

One thought on “Embracing the Origins of the Civil War at Harpers Ferry”

  1. There should be no “controversies” involved. The real problem is making more of one of the “causes” than is proper simply because it involves what has become a problem TODAY — that is, the matter of race. Slavery has always existed and, in deed, it CONTINUES to exist even today, and YES, in Africa. To make a particular period of history somehow of greater importance or evil and to make SOME practitioners of slavery more blameworthy than others is what has brought about all of this p.c. nonsense today. Was slavery what Jefferson Davis called “an occasion” of the war? Certainly. Was it the driving cause and meaning of the war? Absolutely not! The Corwin Amendment (not to mention Lincoln’s own words) prove that untrue. Neither is it a black vs. white matter as the largest slave holder in South Carolina at the outbreak of the war (AND the first man to legally hold a black man in servitude for life in the colonies) were BOTH BLACK!

    Wars are always complex and the so-called “civil war” in the United States was more complex than most. However it certainly did not revolve around issues of race and slavery as is the claim (and the desire) of many today who are trying to destroy all symbols and relics of the last constitutional republic founded in North America — the Confederate States of America.

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