Are we historians or memorialists?

From John Hennessy, NPS (f0r Part II of this post, click here):

A significant percentage of historic sites  managed by the NPS (or the stories related to them) were received either literally or symbolically from the participants in the event or their descendants. Port Chicago, Jimmy Carter, LBJ in the Texas Hill Country (one of the best presidential sites), the Selma to Montgomery Trail, Martin Luther King, Jr., NHS in Atlanta, the World War II Memorial, Manzanar, and dozens of others.  Among these are Civil War Battlefields.  While most were privately owned prior to the War Department or the NPS taking over, there can be little doubt that the stories–indeed the history–associated with these sites were the domain, first, of the veterans, and then their descendants.  A few, like Manassas, were literally owned first by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  Descendant groups like the SCV still stake a powerful claim of ownership to the history of these sites and the way they are interpreted to the public.

D.S. Freeman was the featured speaker at the 1935 re-enactment at Chancellorsville. Note the immense battle map behind the podium.

The passage of virtually all these sites–most Civil War battlefields included–came with at least a tacit bargain that the NPS would continue to interpret the site in accordance with the participants’ wishes and inclinations (or those of their descendants). At Manassas, that understanding was explicit; it was enshrined in the deed that conveyed the first 130 acres to the NPS in 1936, which declared that the NPS would “care for and preserve this battlefield without prejudice to either the North or the South” and not detract from “the glory due Confederate heroes.”

The emphasis was on remembering, memorializing, and inspiring–and not on engaging in controversy or conversations that might bring scrutiny to the motivations of either side. The scope of the historians’ work was kept narrow, focusing on the narrative of the event only, with some later emphasis (in the 60s and 70s) on the human experience of battle.  As one 1930s NPS historian at Fredericksburg put it, “the most effective way to memorialize the epic deeds of our forbears is [by] sound instruction in the how and wherefore of those great events with all their inspirational quality.”

The result:  the NPS has over the decades largely abided the original understandings that brought these sites into the NPS. The NPS has historically mirrored the nation’s view of war–one focused on those things we can agree about:  Courage. Shared sacrifice. Loss. We have viewed Civil War Battlefields largely as memorials (indeed, the formal name to our park is: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park).

When in the 1930s someone challenged the historian developing the museum exhibits at the new Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center about the absence of context for the battles, the historian working on the project argued that there was no room in the exhibit for “disputable detail.”  What end” would context serve, he asked.  “The consequences of a major war are infinite….and these things shift with the bias of every writer.”  There was, however, “one result” that was “simple, striking and indisputable,” he wrote.   “Death admits of no argument.”

[Of course, those interested in the war have disputed the details of battles endlessly, carrying on the tradition of the veterans in doing so. THAT sort of “disputable detail” was fair game. The “disputable detail” referenced by the historian in this case clearly referred to context with cultural implications–that was verboten, and indeed successfully avoided for decades.]

Ranger McRainey at the Chancellorsville contact station in 1937.

But over the last couple generations, the NPS has faced a growing intellectual challenge offered by new scholarship on both the war and, especially, our memory of it.  We now have a vastly improved understanding of the relationship between history and memory.  We can see that historical memory is the collision of history and social thought—how they mix to shape perceptions of our past.  We can see clearly how that dynamic has worked with respect to the Civil War and the NPS–how the national memory of the war has affected (some day limited) NPS interpretation of Civil War sites.  And we can see how difficult it has been for some Americans to accept a broader interpretation and understanding of the Civil War–one that goes beyond strategy and tactics and human experience to explore significance and meaning.

We are bound by tradition and expectation, but challenged by new scholarship. And so we are faced with a question:

Are we who work at NPS sites historians, or are we memorialists?

I’ll offer up some thoughts on that in an upcoming post, but I am curious what you might think about the question.

2 thoughts on “Are we historians or memorialists?

  1. A thought provoking post. But I would lean towards Historian. In my mind it is a more broad description, whereas Memorialist seems to imply a narrower focus.

    On a side note, I spoke to a gentleman at our church (Fredericksburg United Methodist) last year that attended the 1935 Chancellorsville re-enactment. He was in high school at the time and drove out with his buddies in a Model T to watch. It was quite interesting to hear his description. It might be worth interviewing him and record his memories.

  2. Pingback: Are we historians or memorialists, part II: some thoughts | Fredericksburg Remembered

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