Are we historians or memorialists? part II: some thoughts

From John Hennessy, NPS.

In our last, we posed the question–speaking of those who work at NPS battlefield sites–are we historians or memorialists?  Today, some thoughts in response.  [By the way, for those of you interested in the public memory of the Civil War, visit on a regular basis Kevin Levin’s blog, Civil War Memory.  He stirs things up in a way public historians generally cannot.]

Veterans of the 114th Pennsylvania dedicate their monument at Chancellorsville.

Historians or memorialists?  I’d offer that we are a bit of both.  We must be.  As I pointed out the other day, many NPS sites come to us directly from participants or descendants.   Are we not affected by the mandate or wishes of those who bequeath their legacy to us?  Of course we are.  Should we be?  Absolutely, unabashedly.  The National Park Service, as part of the government, is charged with helping to sustain our nation—its identity, its values, its memory.  We as a nation acquired and accepted these battlefields as a form of tribute and commemoration to those who fought on those grounds.   Continuing to fulfill that mandate is a moral and national obligation. We are not, and should not be, above the forces of historical memory and tradition.

Does that imply some restraint, some compromise in our practice of history? No question, but those compromises must come largely in the realm of presentation rather than substance. We have a mandate to be respectful, thoughtful, careful, both to the history we present and to our visitors. We’re not out there to create mayhem and controversy.

But pure devotion to the role of NPS sites as memorials (and NPS historians as memorialists) necessarily commands us to narrow the scope of our historical inquiry–to limit ourselves only to those things that support that narrowed mission. Jerry Russell, the late, heroic battlefield preservationist and perhaps the greatest of all advocates of the continued and singular view of battlefields as memorials, felt strongly that that’s exactly what we should do.  His rationale rested on his belief (shared by many) that the nation needs a single heritage, a single national memory:  “This nation’s future and survival rests upon all Americans having a shared experience, a shared understanding of American history, a shared language, and a shared culture–a culture that unites us, not one which divides us.”  One version. A common understanding.  A single memory.

But the obvious question: whose memory becomes The One? White Southerners? Northern abolitionists? Slaves? The women North and South who jumped into industrial jobs?

As it relates to the Civil War, Jerry’s wish for a singular, uncontested memory was an American reality for probably a century (he famously often said that we don’t really need to understand WHY soldiers were fighting; we need only know that they did, where, and how).  Most scholarship focused on drilling deeper into the narrative of the Civil War, revealing details about battles and leaders that were and are sometimes compelling and interesting. Public historians (including myself, the author of two books on battles) joined and reflected the search for detail. Often lacking in our work–and antithetical to the downward drill for detail–was the upward quest for understanding and meaning.

THAT is what has changed over the last couple decades.  And rightly so.  For us to be simply memorialists–to embrace a single version/perspective/memory/understanding of the Civil War–requires us to consciously confine our inquiry, to limit our desire to understand, to ignore the varied perspectives of participants, to quash our search for meaning (a natural and inevitable human exercise). That’s like asking an astronomer to seek no more understanding of the cosmos, or a mathematician to simply practice what has already been learned.  Building knowledge and understanding generation by generation is the foundation of human progress.  To ask or expect historians at Civil War parks to (I think uniquely) pretend it’s not runs counter to human instinct and logic.  It just ain’t going to happen.  Nor should it.

There is a mainspring to maneuvering through the maze of public mind and historical fact and interpretation:  public historians must be able to help visitors understand the distinction between history and memory—why history has sometimes come to us as it has—and, when needed, untangle the two. This exercise in fact enriches our jobs and the visits of those we encounter. It is also the only path, in my view, that permits us to be both historians and memorialists.  If we don’t clearly understand the powerful impact of collective memory on our perception, understanding, and even construction of our national narrative, then there is no way we can intelligently move between the two.

The bottom line: as public historians (especially those working for the government), we must ensure that the inevitable compromises we must  make will come in the realm of presentation rather than in the sacrifice or restraint of our quest for knowledge, understanding, and meaning.

2 thoughts on “Are we historians or memorialists? part II: some thoughts

  1. As a female, politically liberal, Civil War enthusiast, I find that the traditional battle narratives leave me feeling rather cold, concentrating as they do on the decisions (and cults of personality) of the major generals and neglecting the larger questions of who was serving in the armies and why, and what was going on to support those armies “behind the scenes” on the home front, as it were. I think this is why I’m so enamored of the work of Chandra Manning and Drew Gilpin Faust, who tend to take on the question of what the invisible people (common soldiers, enslaved people, women both white and of color) were doing while the battles were raging.

    It’s also why one of my favorite interpretive signs at FRSP is the one at Chancellor House that relates what little is known about the enslaved people living there, since it both makes them visible and illustrates the problem with studying history that deals with those who didn’t leave much historical record of their own. It’s amazing how quickly history disappears if there’s no one to keep it safe.

  2. Thanks, Andrea. That exhibit at the Chancellor house site has elicited a fair amount of comment over the last few years, most of it positive. I suppose that reflects the fact that the its mere presence on a battlefield landscape still comes as a surprise to some. I have found that the public very much appreciates it when we recognize that before these were battlefields, they were homes and farms, with a life that was radically altered by the coming of war. Telling that story–which can and does lead us to many interesting places intellectually–is the sort of thing that I mean when we talk about “the upward quest for understanding and meaning.” Thanks for reading and commenting.

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