A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to make a return visit to Gettysburg, my first in two years. The primary reason for my visit was to see the new Gettysburg National Military Park (NPS) Museum and Visitor Center, which opened in September 2008. I was not only anxious to see this new state of the art facility, but also to examine how the NPS was telling the story of the Civil War, which had become a subject of controversy in the last decade. What I found was that, at Gettysburg, they got it right.
Since the NPS assumed management of Gettysburg and other Civil War sites from the War Department in the 1930s, the sole focus of their historical interpretation had been on the battles themselves. There was no discussion of how each battle fit within the broader canvas of the war and there was no information presented on how the war came to happen. Most of all, there was certainly no discussion of slavery as the cause of the conflict. To mention slavery at all was and still is seen in some quarters as, at best, inappropriate, and, at worst, politically correct revisionism.
But in 1998, this all began to change. NPS superintendents decided that, with the approach of the 150th anniversary of the war, it was high time they began including the causes of the war in the interpretation they presented to the visiting public. However, when this “radical” change became public, the NPS was inundated with thousands of letters from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, members of Civil War Roundtables, the general public, and Southern members of Congress claiming the government was slandering the South with its “PC” interpretation of the war. These letters also charged that the NPS was going to turn battlefields into "South-bashing, hate-generating propaganda centers."
While most modern historians agree that slavery was, indeed, the central cause of the war, some still object that such a discussion is inappropriate for a battlefield site. Dr. James Robertson, the noted Civil War historian from Virginia Tech University, said, “I don't think there is any doubt about it - without slavery, there would have been no Civil War." Nevertheless, he also stated that slavery did not belong in the story told at the battlefields. Using Antietam as an example, Robertson said, "Antietam Battlefield is no place for [this] kind of museum, exhibit, display, propaganda or whatever you call it.”
While I am a great admirer of Dr. Robertson’s work, I cannot agree with him on this subject. If he were to get out of the classroom and the symposium circuit, he would find that most of the American public does not really know how this national tragedy came to be, or what it cost us as a nation. At best, they were taught the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, which was the “politically correct” history in this country for over 100 years and which states categorically that slavery was not the cause of the conflict. At worst, their teachers simply skipped all mention of the war and its cause entirely. As a result, most Americans have no context from which to understand these battlefields and the horrific events that took place there.
In contrast to James Robertson, other historians, such as Dr. James McPherson, have applauded the NPS action and encouraged historians to engage in the resulting public debate. McPherson argues that battlefield parks can both tell the story of the war and the battles they interpret, stating, "It's not a zero-sum game. If you broaden your interpretation by adding non-military context to the issues that doesn't mean reducing or diminishing the quality of interpretation." In fact, McPherson believes we have a duty to tell the story: "We expect Germans and Japanese to confront their own history…yet somehow we don't always ask ourselves to do the same thing, that is, confront aspects of our past."
If the new Gettysburg museum is an example of this approach, the NPS is to be congratulated on their work. From the time you enter the museum and watch the opening film, “A New Birth of Freedom,” until you exit, you receive a balanced, accurate, and compelling story of the war’s causes, the course of the conflict before Gettysburg, the three days of fighting there, and the aftermath. The exhibits and displays are informative and, at times, deeply moving. An example of the latter is the transitional display between the hall on the final day of battle at Gettysburg and those that cover the battle’s aftermath. As I walked from one hall to the next, I found myself staring at a huge wall covered in photographs of soldiers, all of them casualties at Gettysburg. I found myself frozen, unable to move, as literally hundreds of faces looked back at me, each seemingly begging for me to see them, to remember them…each a son, a brother, a husband, a father. It was incredibly powerful and I simply could not turn away. When I finally did move on, I turned back so I could see how others reacted. Each person had a reaction similar to mine. They would stop, stare at the wall, and seemed rooted in place. One woman gasped and placed a hand over her mouth, while her husband could be seen to quietly say, “Dear God.”
The other aspect I must complement the NPS for is the heavy use of soldier’s letters and diaries to tell the story. From the narration at the cyclorama painting to the museum exhibits, the emphasis is on the experience of the average soldier, his fears and hopes—and this is properly so. The best way for people to understand the cost of this war is to hear in the words of people just like them, who lived these events and bore its cost so dearly.
When I left the museum, I drove to the Gettysburg National Cemetery, walked among the headstones, remembering the words Lincoln delivered there, and quietly thanked each man for what he gave to us as a nation. But the cost of that terrible sacrifice becomes especially apparent when you walk among those stones that simply have a number on them. These are the unknowns, boys and men whose names we will never know. I could not help but think that, for each of them, there was a mother or a wife, who simply stopped getting letters after the first three days of July, 1863. Eventually, these soldiers’ names would appear on an official list as “missing,” and no word of their fate or how they died would ever be received by their grieving families.
From there, I journeyed to Little Round Top. I got out of my car, walked to the crest of the hill, sat on large stone, and quietly took in the view. I am not sure I had any great epiphanies as I looked about me, but the entire experience was, as it always is, very sobering and very grounding. My problems and the stresses of work and life in the early 21st century seemed suddenly very small.
My heartfelt thanks go to all those who labored to bring the new interpretation at Gettysburg to life. They succeeded in their goal of making the history they present to the public more relevant, honest, and real. The end product is something every American should see and, more than that, truly experience. It serves as a reminder of all that was done and suffered here to make the nation whole and to give us the “new birth of freedom” of which Lincoln so eloquently spoke. And, in doing so, it also seeks to tell all of us that our work in that regard is still unfinished.