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. Continue reading “Holding the High Ground at Harpers Ferry”