Why the Civil War Still Matters


Mr. Levin teaches history at St. Anne's-Belfield School in Charlottesville and blogs at Civil War Memory.

Much has changed within the historical profession and in race relations, but as we approach the Civil War sesquicentennial celebrations beginning in 2011 there is reason to be concerned. While academic and National Park Service historians have worked tirelessly over the past four decades to revise our understanding of the Civil War by emphasizing the importance of slavery, race, and emancipation as central themes of the war, the general public continues to hold onto a sanitized, white-only interpretation. From this perspective little has changed since the turn of the last century when reconciliation elevated Civil War soldiers and the war in general to a status that called for reverence and little critical questioning. Just think how surprised Americans were at the release of the movie Glory in 1989, which starred Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman and recalled the history of the 54th Massachusetts.

I dare say that Americans love to remember their past when they can set the terms of the inquiry. We prefer a heroic past that is continually progressive and exceptional compared to the rest of the world. Just reflect for a moment on the way we think about our Civil War compared with news of civil wars from around the world. For most people the news of foreign civil wars conjures up images of confusion, sadness, corruption, uncertainty, and violence. Individuals and causes are rarely viewed as heroic or the product of benevolent design. No, foreign civil wars are reflective of the failure of governments and of the individuals who occupy high positions of power. We may see these nations and societies as the victims of a corrupt past void of democratic tendencies. For many it no doubt confirms American Exceptionalism. Whatever the case, civil wars are events that happen elsewhere and to others. I point this out to draw a sharp contrast with the way many Americans interpret our own Civil War. If you peel away the celebratory layers you will see that it has a great deal in common with the way we view civil wars elsewhere. It is the celebration of the war which troubles me because it seems to me that our gut reaction to foreign civil wars is a much more appropriate stance. Where is the confusion, uncertainty, violence, and sadness in our Civil War? I see the Civil War as a humbling event that serves as a reminder of the fragility of governments and the depths of violence that we all too often reach. I agree with the late historian William Gienapp that the “outbreak of war in April 1861 represented the complete breakdown of the American political system. As such the Civil War constituted the greatest failure of American democracy.” I wish more people would approach the study of the Civil War from this perspective.

Most Civil War enthusiasts prefer a more entertaining or playful version of the war. I've seen it at Civil War Roundtables whose audiences hope for nothing more than the same tired stories about the same short list of characters. It's that little chuckle in the audience after the speaker strikes some sentimental chord that irks me. I see it in casual discussions when the person I am talking to finds out I teach a class on the Civil War and says:"Let me share a story your students will love." And yes you can see it in the coffee mugs, t-shirts, towels, and bumper stickers and in movies such as Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. What bothers me is the casualness of it all. W.E.B. Dubois warned against using history simply “for our pleasure and amusement, for inflating our national ego.”

My main point today is very simple: The Civil War still matters because as a nation we have yet to take it seriously. We've turned the war into a celebration of our collective imagination that emphasizes values that are deemed safe by white Americans. We choose to celebrate military leaders without coming to terms with the fundamental social changes that their actions wrought. And we reflect on the minutia of the battlefield completely divorced from their causes and their consequences. As the story goes, battlefields are places where white Americans sacrificed for values of equal worth--no blame, no guilt, no right or wrong. Messiness is rarely tolerated in these circles. Safer to debate whether J.E.B. Stuart, or this or that brigade were responsible for Confederate defeat at Gettysburg or any other battle than the controversy surrounding the recruitment of black soldiers and other divisive issue related to race.

As we approach the Sesquicentennial celebrations the question of how Americans remember their Civil War will be fought on many of its most famous battlefields. In 2000 the National Park Service began the process of reevaluating the interpretation of its Civil War battlefields and judged that it had fallen short in its coverage of the role of slavery and race. Southern Heritage groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans responded in a strongly defensive tone in the pages of their official organ, the Southern Messenger: “The present politically correct conventional wisdom is that the War Between the States was fought over slavery, period; that therefore all things Confederate are tainted by a tacit endorsement of slavery or its latter-day counterpart, 'racism,' and therefore those who venerate them are racists.” While the language of the SCV betrays a loose logic, their concerns are reflective of a deep-seated desire on the part of many to resist clouding their preferred narrative of the war with issues of race.

I see our Civil War battlefields as ideal locations to discuss complex issues of race. On battlefields such as the Crater in Petersburg it is absolutely essential that one does so. If we are going to take the Civil War seriously we have to learn to put aside what we have traditionally been comfortable examining; in short, we have to be willing to get a little dirty. Battles were not simply slugfests between mindless pawns manipulated by disinterested generals. The evolution of the war brought about an end to slavery and the recruitment of black soldiers into the Union army. Soldiers argued about slavery and race and many came to see on both sides of the Potomac that the war would eventually bring an end to the nation’s “peculiar institution.” We do a disservice to history if we do not acknowledge the centrality of race in our Civil War.

In closing let me leave you with a more immediate concern, one that I care deeply about and that animates my current research. I’ve spent countless hours walking the Crater battlefield trying as best as I can to piece together the events of that bloody day and also events that took place there many years later. Unfortunately, the Crater and other Civil War sites are not visited by significant numbers of black Americans. One black visitor to Gettysburg in 1999 had this to say: “When you’re black, the great battlefield holds mixed messages.” I find this state of affairs all the more troubling because I understand all too well the process by which they were cut off from any meaningful connection with these and other places that played a central role not just in the history of this nation, but the evolution of black freedom as well. Part of the process of writing about Civil War memory is to suggest what was possible. The study of the past is about acknowledging contingency. Our memory of the Civil War could have evolved in any number of ways. That it did evolve in a certain way serves to remind us of how important it is to step back on occasion and ask who is being served and who is being left out and why. My hope is that as we gear up to remember the Civil War as a nation that we take the opportunity to use our battlefields as well as scholarship to craft a more inclusive history that honors all who fought and how the founding principles that we hold so dear were brought closer to fruition.

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Frederick Thomas - 4/7/2006

Mr. Levin

Thanks for reciting a bit of the gruesome history of the great misbegotten crater. We need to be reminded of that litany of suffering as a guide to today's decisions.

I understand that blacks constiituted about 6% of civil war deaths, or about 38,000 out of 660,000.

While that number is awful enough, the sacrifices of the other ethnicities must also be recognised, with some degree of proportionality. I would be very, very careful about exaggerating any group's sacrifices beyond what the numbers support, as that would be unfair to the others.

Frederick Thomas - 4/7/2006

Mr. Heisler:

Please feel free to disagree with my economic causation thesis, but think a moment before you use the expression "pro-Southern advocate" on me. My family tree includes two dead kids on each side. To be against the horrible losses of that awful war is not to favor one side or the other.

Besides, it was unnecessary. The rest of the black slave societies in the Americas had all been peacefully freed by 1885, and the same thing was happening here, two of its leaders being Davis and Lee, each of whom freed slaves in the year before the war.

Economically, however, please ask the question, cui bono? Demonstrably, the Northern industriialists benefited most, behind high tariffs, and the next 50 years were as explosive for the North as they were devastating for the South.

Charles Edward Heisler - 4/6/2006

Kevin, after reading the rather interesting exchange between you and others here, I realized that my question was redundant--if found your answer well stated there.
I do appreciate the response and I now realize that you intentions are admirable and agree with your purposes. These wonderful places should certainly provide enough quality information to satisfy as many visitors as possible.

Kevin M. Levin - 4/5/2006

All I want is a rich and accurate presentation of what took place on our battlefields and why. If that is too much to ask then so be it. The Park Service has forged a working relationship with some of the best historians in the business. I approve of this move.

Charles Edward Heisler - 4/5/2006

OK, your not guilty then Mr. Levin, but the question still stands. To what extent is the National Park Service responsible for correcting these "mixed messages" that some few park visitors seem to have with Civil War Battlefields?
I willingly admit to having political hangups especially with those that think gratuitous and redundant messages are educational or necessary

Charles Edward Heisler - 4/5/2006

It is my understanding that the establishment of these parks devolved from legislation from that generation of lawmakers that had served in the Civil War, the battlegrounds having been used for veteran encampments for many years following the War. Am I not correct that the four major battlegrounds were established withing twenty five and thirty years following the conflict?
Since these legislators and, no doubt, those lobbying for the preservation of these areas were combatants in the war, were to some degree participants in the veteran encampments, my assumption is that the initial impetous to preserve devolved from some desire to preserve the fields because of the importance they held to the veterans.
I am sure that the only motivation was not simple nostalgia and combat brotherhood but a desire to preserve the sites for historical study, a commendable purpose.
My point, one not well taken, is that the battle fields can serve all visitors based on the historical information that allows the visitor to understand the nature of the conflict that occurred and the soldiers that fought there.
I fail to understand why it is necessary to go beyond those important messages to discuss the politics behind the War--it seems to be gratuitous to do so. I say that not really knowing what the Park Service has in mind for these locations and would appreciate some clearer picture of what the NPS has in mind--you seem to know.
I would imagine that these discussions at the battle parks would be innocuous, certainly not outside the responsibility of the educational purposes of the parks but feel what ever money this new information costs might be better spent improving the existing displays.

Kevin M. Levin - 4/5/2006

You make some excellent points re: the disappearance of African Americans from the national narrative. As David Blight has eloquently argued, black Americans and accompanying issues of race were a direct threat to the general push towards sectional reconciliation that took place by the turn of the century. I like the additional image of the "Brother's War" as another theme that necessarily excluded discussions of race and black participation. The only black man to take part in the 1903 Crater reenactment in Petersburg was none other than Stonewall Jackson's personal body servant. I will leave it to you to figure out the symobolism here.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/5/2006

The question of African American's "connection" to the Civil War is a complex one. While I obviously have some strong opinions, I offer the following more to encourage careful thought than as conclusions in themselves.

1. The image of the Brothers' war, perhaps the most romantic and heartbreaking of the traditional images, excludes blacks and the myriad roles that they played in their own emancipation. They were simply not considered brothers; therefore they had no part in the romantic memory of the war.

In short that image is at best incomplete and at worst a lie intended to obscure the history of African Americans.

2. It is easy to forget just how thoroughly in the first half of the 20th century the memory of Black troops had been erases from the white popular imagination--and therefore from nearly all media--and reduced to near footnote level in scholarly work. To the extent that black troops remained, they were the caricatures of "Birth of a Nation" and "Gone with the Wind."

3. The scholarship began changing in the 1950s, a change that accelerated in the 1960s and 70s. But there is, generally speaking, a lag of a generation between what changes in historical writing and that change becoming common in public schools.

3a. Part of the scholarly discontent that surrounded the release of Ken Burn's the Civil war stemmed from that lag. Burns was calling "new" ideas that had been in the scholarly world for a while. Indeed for many scholars, the inclusion of African-Americans seemed paltry compared to their place the current superior scholarship. What many scholars (myself included) forgot was how new much of this was for its audience, and that even what seemed paltry might have a profound impact.

4. Much of the public history surrounded the civil war reflects the vision of the "Brothers' War." That's because most of it was built before the 1960s and was intended to attract southern and northern whites. State and national park services have actually done an ok job of trying to correct this, but any changes are dogged by controversy, often by people who don't want to admit that this was only in part a war of brothers.

5. In the end this was a war of conquest and liberation with the latter partially lost in the following decade. The image of the Brothers' war brought healing at the cost of forgetting that African Americans themselves were just as much at the center of the war as the white brothers.

Kevin M. Levin - 4/5/2006

I appreciate the response, though I disagree with your conclusions. First, I should say that I am not suggesting that any specific action will function as a cure-all for the situation. My primary concern is that our histories be as accurate as possible and that our public sites be maintained in a way that reflects the best histories out there. It seems to me that your anecodote re: the workers at Burger King is a non-starter.

Rob Willis - 4/5/2006

In 1992 my group did a living history at Cold Harbor. Arriving friday, three of my group and I needed one last bite of 20th century food before reverting to historical rations for the remainder of the weekend. We hopped in a car and drove to the outskirts of the Richmond battlefield park area and hit a Burger King for a bite.

We were in our federal uniforms and of course drew the attention of the all-black restaurant staff. After getting over their nervous giggles, the counter folks asked us what we were up to. We explained that we were doing a program at one of the battlefield sites across the road.

We were met with blank stares. They were not only perplexed by the presence of the battlefields, they weren't sure what we were supposed to represent. In short, I don't think the black culture demands or even acknowledges much of American history beyond the bullet-point cultural touchstones that are passed to them. It may be a racist thing, or it may be a classic case of history being a "bore", something that afflicts all races equally, apparently. Either way, no number of plaques or programs are going to allow blacks to feel more included in the sites and attached history, when they aren't even aware of battlefields within their line of sight.


Kevin M. Levin - 4/5/2006

Over the past few years I've been working on a book-length study of postwar commemorations and memory of the Crater. This post appeared on my blog a few weeks back. I include it here for those of you interested in one example that falls within the wider discussion that has taken place on this forum over the past few days.

“Petersburg National Battlefield is an excellent site to illustrate the contributions of black personnel during the Civil War. Since blacks were utilized by federal and southern military officers, park officials can include data in each phase of the exhibits to explain the various occupations in which slaves and freedmen were employed.”

These are the opening sentences of a report (Afro-American History Interpretation at Selected National Parks) that was written in 1978 by a research team out of Howard University. The team was led by History Professor Joseph E. Harris and its goal was to analyze how well the National Park Service had integrated black history into their interpretations. Section 137 of the report focused on the Petersburg National Battlefield. The report clearly reflects the damage done as a result of the sanitization of the Civil War over the course of the twentieth -century. The tone of the report shifts back and forth between the frustrations with how little had been done even as late as 1978 on the one hand and with a specific set of recommendations that are based on careful observations. I present this in the context of the National Park Service’s recent decision to reevaluate their battlefield interpretations in a way that acknowledges the importance of slavery as a cause of the war and the role of emancipation and the recruitment of black soldiers during the war.

1. Interviews with employees revealed how little information about the black experience during the Petersburg campaign was shared with visitors: “Ranger ______, a historian . . . showed interest and was knowledgeable that black soldiers fought at the beginning of the campaign and at the Crater. She also stated that little information was presented concerning black personnel since few visitors are aware of their services during the battles. She stated that if questions were asked about black soldiers, more information was presented. However, Ranger _____ never stated what information was given to the visitors.”

2. The lack of black personnel was also a concern of the research team as the PNB “has never had more than a few black employees.” The majority of black employees were hired for positions other than guides and interpreters. “Therefore, there is a definite need to obtain black personnel on a permanent (three year cycle) basis with interest in interpreting the services of black personnel in the vicinity of Petersburg during the Civil War. Research information can be incorporated into living history projects to negate the voids that exist from 1864 to the end of the Petersburg siege. More significantly, these projects should portray the events from the black perspective. Black views concerning the war, slavery and emancipation can be obtained from slave narratives and the materials located in the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau.”

3. There is a revealing section in the report on how local black students at Petersburg State University felt about the way in which the Park Service presented the battle to the public. According to university archivist, Lucious Edwards, “The students are offended by the sympathetic presentation which glorifies the southern counterattack against the black soldiers at the Crater, while previous exploits of black soldiers are dismissed in a few words. Therefore, they consider the primary function of Petersburg National Battlefield as maintaining or glorifying the image of the Confederacy. Students have also concluded that local white residents view the park as their own personal recreation area and that blacks have only a token Negro’s heritage in a negative setting.”

4. Not surprising, the research team suggested that the PNB supplement their library and books for purchase by the public to included studies of the African-American experience. “PNB publications present very little information about black soldiers,” the report concluded, “and nothing about their interest in the Petersburg campaign. Similarly, these publications have completely omitted the existence of the free and slave community in Petersburg and their contributions to the war effort.”

5. Exhibits and Audio Visual Displays were also deemed to be insufficient as “black soldiers and laborers are virtually portrayed as invisible participants.”

6. Conclusion of the report: “The Petersburg campaign, including the Battle of the Crater, is an excellent theme to incorporate the significance of black personnel during the Civil War. In this campaign, black troops were used in enormous numbers and were eager as well as trained for battle. The bravery displayed by black soldiers was indicative of their performance throughout the war. Therefore, it is recommended that park officials not only incorporate the achievements of black personnel in their capacities as soldiers and laborers but that personnel are trained to present details concerning the black presence in greater Petersburg.”

What does all of this mean? First, I did not quote at length to embarrass the PNB. In fact a visit to the battlefield today reveals the positive steps that have been taken under the leadership of Chief Historian Chris Calkins. Both Calkins and the rest of the staff have been nothing less than gracious and accommodating throughout the course of the research for my study on memory and the Crater. I share this report to stress the extent of the damage done when a nation engages in selective memory. The Crater is an ideal place to honor and interpret the sacrifice of African Americans during the Civil War. More importantly, it is a place that can be used to both acknowledge the heroism of the common soldier as well as the divisive issues that brought these men together on the battlefield. As we approach the Civil War sesquicentennial I hope that steps are taken to reinterpret the war in a way that brings African Americans to our Civil War battlefields and a closer identification with this important moment in this nation's history. I am skeptical that this will happen; that said, it is the promise that change is possible which animates and guides my research and continued fascination with the way Americans have chosen to remember their Civil War.

Kevin M. Levin - 4/5/2006

Who said anything about guilt? Sounds like your the one with the political hangups. By the way I am not a Ph.d

Kevin M. Levin - 4/5/2006

It is almost impossible to respond as you seem to know so little about the origin of these national parks and the evolution of Civil War memory. There are too many excellent studies out there that you could read so it is a waste to try to explain it to you now. To say that the dedication of monuments and the public control of these sites is simply about "the men who fought on both sides" is absolutely silly.

Charles Edward Heisler - 4/5/2006

The NPS is making a bad decision because the imposition of discussions of slavery, causes of the war, etc. detracts from the majesty of these battlefields. Such discussions are redundant and unnecessary as well as serving special interest pleaders for whom these battlefields do not exist.
It is unlikely that such plaques and NPS discussions are going to attract more black Americans who are, according to your one 1999 example at Gettysburg, receiving "mixed messages" from these sites. How does the proposed signage rectify that "feeling"?
I might note, that I also get mixed messages from battlefields as I expect most Americans do when they visit--having mental conflicts is not necessarily a bad thing.
I also disagree that we have somehow alienated our black citizens from these battlefields thru lack of information--is it possible that any Black American motivated to visit these battleparks could not be aware of exactly what they represent?
In my mind, Political Correctness is indeed behind this initiative to enter into resigning the parks.
As a Civil War historian you know who built these parks, why they were dedicated, and what the purpose of the efforts were. Is it necessary to go beyond the needs of the men who fought on those fields--that should be enough.

Charles Edward Heisler - 4/4/2006

Dr. Levin you state the following:
"Unfortunately, the Crater and other Civil War sites are not visited by significant numbers of black Americans. One black visitor to Gettysburg in 1999 had this to say: “When you’re black, the great battlefield holds mixed messages.” I find this state of affairs all the more troubling because I understand all too well the process by which they were cut off from any meaningful connection with these and other places that played a central role not just in the history of this nation, but the evolution of black freedom as well.

My question is simple--to what extent am I, the great grandson of a disabled Union soldier obligated to feel guilty about the fact that the great battlefields of our Civil War sends a "mixed message" to one of the few black visitors to these battlefields? Tell why you, or I, should pander to this level of ignorance and incredible callousness of such a statement. What obligation do I or you have to further educate individuals that have had unprecedented opportunities to learn about the history and sacrifice of white Americans to end the enslavement of this person's ancestors?
Why do you feel something should be done and I feel a seething anger at such insensitivity from a black visitor?
As an educator, I believe I might have been able to straighten out that mixed message rather quickly and without a plaque discussing the role of slavery in the battle of Gettysburg.
You do understand that all failings to comprehend the significance of the Civil War by Black Americans is the result of some cultural fault in White America? Why can't you and all of us, hold Black Americans responsible for figuring out the connections and if that can't be accomplished, understand that all the plaques in the world probably won't cast a glimmer of light in that awful dimness?
Black Americans have not been cut off from history, the study of history, or the understanding of history--not at least in the last half century and if they don't feel the connection then what more can be said or done?

Kevin M. Levin - 4/4/2006

Mr. Heisler, -- Your reference of "PC" or "Leftist Claptrap" is nothing more than an excuse to not engage in the issues. If you have an argument against the recent decision on the part of the NPS to revise its battlefield interpretations than present it. Otherwise save the meaningless banter for elsewhere. It's ashame that this kind of meaningless mumbo jumbo passes for sound intellectual discussion

Charles Edward Heisler - 4/4/2006

Mr. Thomas, please drop the conceit that the "real cause" of the Civil War was economics--that song and dance has deluded generations of pro-Southern advocates to babble this nonsense.
Simply assume the agrarian nature of the pre Civil War South was the same without slaves providing the labor and try to make the argument that a Civil War would have taken place in America.
While I disagree strongly that the NPS should be allowed to reinterpret battle fields into some form of PC clap trap, which will enivitably happen if this sad process continues, one simply cannot allow the importance of slavery, the institution of slavery, in a causation role for the war to be diluted.
However, there are enough reasons for the public to visit Civil War battlefields, enough good and valuable lessons to be learned, without the imposition of Leftist claptrap, the kind of claptrap that has, over the past few years elevated the battlefield contributions of black soldiers far beyond actual results. If this movement continues, one can be sure that these regiments will stand side by side with the major combatants, on every field where white soldiers battled each other.
The real lesson that should be learned at these places is the terrible cost of war--we need to ask in our interpretations, what human potential was lost in these fields? How much would the American experience have been advanced if the best and the bravest Americans had not slaughtered each other with such efficiency? I suspect that is the real lessons of these fields and I suspect that many visitors, uninformed of the "contribution of black regiments" and the institution of slavery, might well sense the cost of that loss when they visit. What a waste? Absolutely!
A necessary waste? Apparently!
What more needs to be learned. We can ask the people that created these battlefields, the veterans and veteran's groups that demanded the creation of the fields, implanted the monuments, and argued for generations about what happened on the fields. My reading of those folks that "The Union" was important. "Our way of Life" was important. Finally, to remember our collective bravery was important to the creators of these fields. We know what the veterans of these battles commenorated in these battle parks, we should listen to them today.
I would hope the National Park Service remains permanently out of funds before they are allowed to drip the current silliness of Political Correctness all over these hallowed fields. I do not trust them or the legions of modern historians who have argued for the imposition of a all things black on this struggle--so wrapped up are these historians in serving their revisionism and mutual toadying to each other and to minority groups that we cannot give them sway on this matter.
Leave the battlefields alone--they mean and say everything that needs be said about what occurred on the blood soaked acres--those horrors and sacrifices need no interpretation from the latter day apologists.

Kevin M. Levin - 4/4/2006

Rob, -- I am so glad that you chimed in here and I completely agree with what you have to say. Your points re: Chancellorsville/Spotsylvania are right on target. That said, I would go further to say that it is the responsibility of a competent guide to point out those connections as a means to help the visitor better understand what took place and why. This can clearly be done without running the risk of being labelled an activist. In other words, the goal can be purely historical.

Rob Willis - 4/4/2006

This is a terrific discussion, and I see the validity of both approaches. The great handicap historians concerned with the Civil War must deal with is the incredible myth machine that has developed over time, and the relatively few formal opportunities to reach the general public with a real chance to correct them. We are a sound-bite society, and an issue as complex as the Civil War is not a subject that can easily be digested into sound bites with any hope of truly communicating the complexities of the causes, events, personalities, etc. The same holds true for all of history.

The strength of a Civil War historic site is the ability (in theory and fact) to draw numbers into a potentially captive classroom, as both of you have suggested. What is communicated by the "teacher" in those short but critical moments will vary according to each, but to my mind and in my experience the excellent interpreter has an opportunity to offer insights on a peripheral basis, not nessecarily to completely inform but to spark an interest in historical tangents that the 'tater (spectator) will investigate on their own.

As I suggested, the southwest Missiouri theater offers a host of lessons in racism (black, white, indian), political and constitutional arguments, tales of suffering, injustice, econmic failure and success, neighnors killing each other, etc. A good guide could open the eyes of the tourist to many unknown dimensions. Does Gettysburg offer the same opportunity? Only as a point of constrast to the long-term pain of the theater mentioned above. However, does the Spotsylvania/Chancellorsville site offer a richer tapestry to interpret? I think so. The physical, social and emotional fabric of that area of Virginia was torn to pieces on several occasions during the conflict, and is an ideal laboratory to investigate several different facets of the history of the area and the country.

However, as a forum for activism, I would agree with Mr. Miller that battlefields are off-limits. I have watched fat, costumed lost-cause-types parading on hallowed ground, flying Confederate flags (which, by the way, doesn't offend me for historical reasons, but mightily so for crass political ones) simply to claim some sort of fringe ownership of the site for a disconnected reason. I would be equally offended at any group who attempted to use such sites to advance a modern political agenda.

Battlefields should be places of naked introspection, and serve as tinder for deeper discussions and understandings of the war, whether on site or off. They have the advantage of being one of the few physical reminders of the war that is accessible to everyone with the will to show up. To afflict them with modern political activism is slightly obscene and certainly inappropriate.

R. Willis

Richard F. Miller - 4/4/2006

Ditto on your last sentiment, Kevin. But having thoroughly enjoyed my daily escursions to your blog, I knew I was in for something special here--and was not disappointed.

Kevin M. Levin - 4/4/2006

Of course I don't mean by causal analysis anything that happened prior to the Holocaust. Only the information necessary to help me better understand what I am looking at is relevant. Granted there will be some disagreement, but we could probably come up with the relevant background information based on well-regarded texts within the field. This is all I expect in reference to Civil War battlefields. Perhaps we are closer to agreement than we think. By the way, I've thoroughly enjoyed this exchange. You've raised some excellent points and questions for me to think about.

Richard F. Miller - 4/4/2006

Dear Kevin:

Nazi mass murder is not only relevant but also directly material to my concerns. If by causal analysis you mean anything that happened prior to and simultaneously with the Nazi extermination program, then any all evidence, subject to the usual tests of relevance and materiality, is fair game. The question however is what "use" to make (or has in fact been made) of the Holocaust afterwards--and here is where the trouble (except among crackpot Holocaust deniers) begins.

PETA says the slaughter of food animals is a Holocaust. Some Israelis will use the memory of the Holocaust to deflect concerns about their country's behavior in administering lands occupied after 1967. Some Palestinians revel in comparing Israel's policy towards them as a Holocaust. Some opposed to abortion call it a Holocaust, while neo-Nazis sometimes refer to non-white immigration as a Holocaust.

In the meantime, what the Holocaust was in fact begins to shade out under a torrent of trivialization, bad metaphor and politically opportunistic usages--all of which occur post-event.

Once again, lesson-mongers must beware. There ought to be a rebuttable presumption that events stand for only for themselves, with a heavy burden of proving otherwise on those who insist on connecting dots the way the ancients saw heavenly beings made up of randomly distributed stars.

Kevin M. Levin - 4/4/2006

I am interested in the process by which Civil War battlefields became more than simply sites where men fought. Once the first reunions were held or the first monuments were dedicated those sites ceased to be simply battlefields. Visitors take in more than just a landscape, they take in a landscape consciously shaped by groups who had competing interests - many of them as you know were driven by political and racial agendas.

Now I agree that it is important to keep the history of the battle as far from this continuing interpretive process as possible. As I've said before I have no interest imposing on the past a perspective or model that is driven by presentist concerns. I want to know what happened and why. In the end I hope my research reveals missed opportunities of interpretation on battlefields like the Crater that were left out for reasons already stated. Battles were part of a larger story and these sites are ideal places to tell that story. The interpretation should help people better understand the battles and why they took place.

As a point of comparison it would seem incomplete if the interpretations presented at Nazi Concentration Camps failed to mention both long and short term causal events as well as other events at the time of the Second World War which could help the visitor better understand what happened and why. Perhaps this example is irrelevant, but I thought I might throw it out there.

Richard F. Miller - 4/4/2006

Dear Kevin: As I have acknowledged in two previous posts, the Crater is one of the few places where race and traditional military history intersect. I also suggested Harper's Ferry, and (although I am unfamiliar with the state of its preservation, if any) would add Fort Pillow.

So far, we remain on the same page. However, where one thinks of connecting (not in one's head but as part of a class lesson) the battle of the Crater and the Lost Cause, we part company. The place to teach the Lost Cause begins with the history of slavery and is perhaps best taught by excerpts from the novels of Thomas Nelson Page, articles from Southern Historical Society, posts from so-called "neo-Confederates" (whatever they are) or better yet, the movie Gone With The Wind.

On your website, you laud R.G. Collingwood, and once again, we are on the same page. But here is another "great" to consider: Herbert Butterfield and his Whig Interpretation of History (1931). In line with the spirit of that book, I become inherently suspicious the moment anyone begins telescoping tomorrow's unforseeables on yesterday's events. My skepticism is a habit born of listening to too many salespeople promoting this year's model of "The Lessons of History."

Kevin M. Levin - 4/4/2006

I think you are taking quotes from some of my blog entries out of context. Your particular passages were meant to be read as a reflection of what I tend to think about not what I necessarily feel others should here.

My comment re: the Crater battlefield and the chapel was meant within the context of my ongoing research of how this particular battle was commemorated and remembered following the war. You keep talking about using the battlefields as a forum to discuss the "root cause" of the war. I am not suggesting that battlefields be reduced to politics or anything else for that matter. Battles took place and the movements of armies deserves to be studied until one is blue in the face. I spend much of my time reading these books. This is not about traditional military history v. social history, but about trying to better understand what in fact took place and why. Battles did not take place in a vacuum.

I believe battlefields should be interpreted broadly not as a means of promoting one's political preferences, but for the sake of getting the story right. Visitors to the Crater miss an important aspect of the story if their guide ignores the fact that black Union soldiers took part. And why did they take part? Well, because the Emancipation Proclamation authorized their recruitment. Of course there is a broader story to be told. There is your connection. Why were a certain number massacred following the battle? A deep seated racial hatred is part of the answer in addition to the fact that many Confederates and white Southerners viewed their participation in the battle as a direct threat to the Southern social hierarchy.

Richard F. Miller - 4/4/2006

Dear Kevin: Hardly "mindless pawns." Indeed, based on contemporary accounts it's hard to imagine "minds" being more fully alive than when consumed with the business of tactics, survival and killing. The brilliance and the blunders typical of CW maneuver warfare are difficult to top as evidence of active intellects. Sadly, I believe the way in which you characterized my sense of the appropriate limits of teaching history on battlefields is evidence of the widespread prejudice against military history, at least among allegedly "top tier" universities.

The studies you cite are all well and good (indeed, based on reviews of my work, I'd probably qualify as one of the "others" you mention) and I use them often. However, if you're using McPherson's Cause and Comrades as evidence, you'll also be conflating his distillation of soldier opinions over four years of war with what did or did not happen during (Gettysburg, again) three days in July. That's the problem with your proposed use of battlefields as classrooms dedicated to root causes; it transgresses chronology on some rather chronology specific real estate.

Historians have to be very careful about presentism. Take a statement from your blog: "It’s a short walk to Cemetery Hill and the small chapel with its famous Tiffany windows. This to me is "ground zero" of the Lost Cause Movement. A walk through the cemetery reveals a number of important men from the battle, including Mahone, George Bernard, and David Weisiger."

Really? While "to you" it may be "ground zero" of the Lost Cause movement, to the original combatants it could hardly have been that since Lost Cause historiography was a later invention.

Let me then ask what a discussion of Lost Cause has to do with what happened during the battle of the Crater that it should be imparted on the battlefield itself. What happened with Mahone's monument was post-war.

You've declared on another post: "The Civil Rights Movement presented a challenge for centennial event organizers and participants. It not only challenged the country’s self-proclaimed status as the leader of the free world at the height of the Cold War, but pointed out serious problems and omissions in the way Americans chose to remember their Civil War." I agree entirely. But why do battlefields become the vehicles for supplying these omissions? In what I regard as a sharp rebuke to the teaching profession, it took a movie (Glory) to remedy this inexcusable gap, which the teaching profession (all but a very, very few books) had studiously ignored in the preceding 30 years.

So, why not make a movie? There, the battlefields are truly "fluid" (shot in Georgia I believe) and Battery Wagner (long since washed into the sea) can be rebuilt to suit the needs of the storyteller.

Again, I must return to my title--battlefields (real ones) are inappropriate vehicles for pedants peddling the narrative de jour.

Film (or your own classroom) works much better.

Kevin M. Levin - 4/4/2006

I don't see how referencing specific issues beyond the battlefield is necessarily a form of social activism. While I agree that one would be hard pressed to find letters that refer to slavery as the "root cause of the war," soldiers clearly shared their thoughts about specific issues revolving around race and politics throughout the war. Your image of the battlefield seems to be of mindless pawns manipulated to various positions. Recent studies by historians such as James McPherson, Reid Mitchell, Chandra Manning, and others suggest that their thoughts extended beyond the battlefield. I see the boundaries between battlefields, the home front, and national politics as much more fluid than what you present. Class trips to battlefields is not about imparting "lessons" but about trying to give them a better sense of what happened and why. In other words, my interests are purely historical.

Rounding up fugitive slaves was clearly on Lee's mind during the Gettysburg campaign so why shouldn't the issue of emancipation - already six months old - not enter the discussion on the battlefield. I am not suggesting that emancipation enter the discussion in order to impose some broader meaning on the Civil War, but as a way of better understanding the campaign itself. This is not activism, but simply acknowledging the factors that shaped the movement of at least one army.

Richard F. Miller - 4/4/2006

Dear Kevin:

Thank you for your response. Essentially, you present the same case as in your Op-Ed. To avoid simply repeating my response, allow me to enlarge it to include several observations about the way in which social activism, whatever its agenda (and I consider the Lost Cause movement to have been socially activist in its time) will, like most forms of advertising, gravitate towards the largest crowd.

But first, let me address the issue of the NPS's past errors of interpretation. The existence of a "pendular" movements in historical interpretation is not necessarily laudable. That the NPS once embraced a Lost Cause narrative may be an argument for abandoning such a narrative but is no argument for embracing a so-called "balanced response" today. Rather, it stands as a warning about the perils of investing in any social narrative concerning battlefields, except in those instances previously noted where battlefields convincingly intersect with certain important social themes.

If anything, battlefields are distractions from genuine discussions of the "meaning" of the Civil War. One cannot visit Shiloh, and simultaneously attempt to visualize opposing troop deployments at the Hornet's Nest while considering the role of race, class and sectionalism as possible root causes for war. This separation is entirely reciprocal--rare indeed is a social history of the war that includes either battle narratives or maps.

If slavery "influenced" the battle of Gettysburg, then (local black residents excepted) that influence came in November 1863 ("a new birth of freedom"), and not the preceding July. What was influenced at Gettysburg was our recollection of the purposes "served" by that battle, a construction that was imposed months later, and perhaps finally adopted as a consensus years later. To meld them into "lessons" on the ground where the action took place three days in July is not only to transgress chronology but also to impute "meaning" where none existed at the time--I vehemently disagree with those scholars who claim that genuinely contemporary soldiers' letters, diaries, after action reports, and reporters' newspaper accounts (not those written months or years later) demonstrate much if any "root cause of the war" deliberation or shifting meanings. My experience has been that contrary claims tend to draw on evidence increasingly distant from the battle.

So why convert a battlefield into a classroom to teach--and I cannot avoid using this phrase once again--a "favored" narrative? After all, few are the visitors to battlefields who lack at least a high school education. Why not impart the favored narrative there, or in a college classroom? In short, why not let battlefields be battlefields?

For one, social activists--and they include anyone, right or left, seeking to impose the "lessons" of history on their contemporaries--cannot resist a good crowd. And battlefields do provide good crowds. But I also believe, as you have noted anecdotally on your website, that the particular "lessons" about themes like race don't necessarily sell as well in the classroom as they might with the visual aid of the Copse of Trees forming a backdrop. One reason for this is probably that the lessons that some insist we learn are actually tied into a number of contemporary and highly controversial political issues, not all of them relevant to the reasons why the war was fought and certainly not to what happened between July 1 and 3 1863 at Gettysburg. In fact, for certain promoters, these "lessons" just happen to segue conveniently into such matters as affirmative action and racial preferences, reparations, cultural and racial assimilation, and so forth--matters about which there remains no clear consensus in the country. Some might prefer a certain consensus and feel that imparting their narrative of the war to summertime crowds on battlefields is a good place to start.

For their purposes, perhaps it is; but it isn't good history.

Kevin M. Levin - 4/4/2006

Thanks Richard for the thoughtful response. My purpose was not to put forward an instrumentalist interpretation of the past. The thrust of the post was to suggest that the evolution of Civil War history has tended to minimize if not ignore issues of race. Battlefields are not static sites as the letters of the men who fought there clearly show. Their letters reveal a great deal about the progress of the war just a few months following the Emancipation Proclamation. Recent scholarship, including studies by Margaret Creighton and Ted Alexander suggests that race was central to Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania and many of the black residents who lived in the area.

As for the NPS's responsibilities as stewards of the battlefields it seems to me that the racial cat was let out of the bag long ago. The NPS set the terms at the beginning of the 20th century as to how it would interpret Civil War battlefields and it chose to adopt a narrow "lost cause" interpretation. In short, it steered clear of any references to issues of race, slavery, and emancipation. And it did so for political reasons. Perhaps on battlefields like Chancellorsville or Bull Run their decision mattered little, but on battlefields like the Crater and other places it grossly distorted the story in a way that continues to impact the way we think about this particular battle today. The upshot of this as I pointed out in my piece is that few black Americans identify with the Civil War. Again, this strikes me as sad and unfortunate given the centrality of race to the war and the evolution of military campaigns.

I claim no insights into why people visit battlefields, but that they probably have little interest in issues beyond the battlefield does not mean that the NPS should not address them as important historical factors. Seems to me that this is all the NPS is engaged in. Battlefields are classrooms; they must be interpreted. At the turn of the century they were interpreted in a way that conformed to a strict racial hierarchy. It seems reasonable to suggest that our interpretations today ought to mirror the best scholarship.

Richard F. Miller - 4/3/2006

Nice try, Mr. T., but the location of Jackson's arm was famously confirmed by Gen. Smedley Butler in the 1920s--and that location is the garden of the Lacy house, otherwise known as Ellwood. It's no more a cemetery than my backyard. Regarding Bigelow, Jr.'s massive study of Chancellorsville, for some matters, especially regarding troop positions and movements, it remains the gold standard. In short, it is precisely his "estimates" (your foolish word) that remain valuable. What is disputed about Bigelow is his treatment of Hooker, the reasons for his halt and the effects of his concussion on his decision to withdraw. Of course, that has since been persuasively revised by Sears--but then if you were a genuine historian rather than a poseur, you'd know that already.

Regarding the likely fictitious "Major Simmons," if in fact you spoke with someone by that name, he'd have to be about 125 years old, since the current NPS marker for Jackson's death dates to the 1940s. Once again, nice try.

You are as poorly informed about me as you apparently are about AIPAC. I've never had the honor to belong to that organization. But even without belonging, you and I would remain on opposite sides, especially regarding the integrity of intellectual integrity of your posts.

One reason why I'm reluctant to deal with you is because as an historian, you're simply a fabricator; thus, the factual information you cite is generally untrustworthy. Let me refresh your memory of one such example. In your post #73096, from last December, you claimed far lower numbers for the death count at Auschwitz and gave as a source a New York Times article dated 18 January 1995. You declared, "Too bad they [the NYT] had no internet postings back then, but if you wish to go to the microfiche I believe the date was January 18th, 1995."

Of course, as serious researchers know, the NYT is available online as far back as 1851. (Incidentally, as all but a fake would know, archival copies of 19th century newspapers are generally available on microfilm, not microfiche.) Having a retrieval account with the NYT, I went back to the date, month and finally the year you claimed--guess what? No such article exists involving the Russians and Auschwitz.

In subsequent posts, I challenged you repeatedly to substantiate your claim. You never did.

In my view, that puts you in the Michael Bellesiles class of historian. Google him if you don't know who he is. But after you Google him, you'll understand why I generally don't respond to your posts.

As Mr. Cravatts notes of Hostadter's analysis, even paranoids copiously footnote their claims. You seem to be one paranoid unable to do even that successfully.

Frederick Thomas - 4/3/2006

The Rock of Chicamaugua was a fine general, but I believe I referred to his distinguished fellow Virginian "Stonewall."

John Bigelow, Jr. may equate to revealed religion in your mind, but his plans of the battle were based upon estimates, because the Confederate units were unfamiliar with the terrain and provided approximate information. The only landmark was the plank road, but which way and how far? Hard questions of a dark evening.

As far as the church is concerned, I was told that this building with a small cemetery was originally a church. If you wish to assume differently, it's your call.

The US National Park Service used the location estimated or confirmed by the Major Simmons I spoke to as their benchmark, without giving credit to him or anyone else for the location.

Note the Jackson monuments set by the confederates which the NPS thought wrong. I believe Bigelow assumed this location as well, even though it put him in front of Carolinians, not Mississippians, and too close to the plank road.


Shouldn't you read the report on the Israeli Lobby, as a member in good standing? Download here:


I do appreciate an important member of AIPAC taking the time to debate the American Civil War.


Richard F. Miller - 4/3/2006

That is, Ge. Thomas Jackson's arm...

Richard F. Miller - 4/3/2006

Mr. Thomas:

Back to school, sir. Gen. Thomas's arm is not buried in "a small church" but resides in the garden of Ellwood, otherwise known as the Lacy house (not be confused with the other Lacy House across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg) near, but not at, Chancellorsville. Moreover, the site of Jackson's death has been known, and marked, for decades, positively identified by John Bigelow, Jr., the great historian of the battle of Chancellorsville. Bigelow's treatise was first published in 1910 and he was not "an army historian."

Better luck with the "Israel firsters!"

Frederick Thomas - 4/3/2006

...and very poignant.

My son just bought a house a little south of Spottsylvania CH, and within 20 minutes of five or six major battlefields.

It's a haunted place. Stonewall lost first his arm, then his life just up the road at Chancellorsville, winning the most remarkable victory of the war. The arm is buried in a small church, alone. Jackson himself was buried at his home in Lexington. An army historian believes he has identified where Jackson was shot by Mississippi troops.

Marye's Heights at Frederickburg saw piles of immigrant Irishmen in blue before the stone wall and sunken road, perhaps the bravest and most foolish assault of the war. The anchor point of the Confederate right at SCH is less than a mile away. To the south, Cold Harbor and Petersburg have similar stories.

I do not think I will ever tire of considering what life was like for those brave men. I wish that war had never been fought, but we are a contentious race.

Thanks again for your post.

Rob Willis - 4/3/2006

It can work both ways, but it is nearly impossible to stage the type of thoughtful interaction needed. There are places that are (could be) ideal to examine the very real and confused issues inherent in many regions during the war. One such is southwest Missouri, which saw a bewildering combination of opposing militia groups (often from the same county), divided and jealous political/military grandstanding, indian troops fighting on both sides, and volunteer regiments from the upper west (Iowa, Wisconsin, illinois, etc.), all thrown into a mix of guerilla warfare, stand-up battles, throat-cutting spies, and absolute hatred. With a proper interpreter the events which took place there, especially from May 62'January 63' couldn't help but capture the attention of a diverse audience.

A small story- I have done Civil War living histories for the NPS for years, all with certain rewards, but one stands alone as the most touching. At the Spotsylvania battlefield, our group had completed our Sunday morning demonstration for the crowd and were serving as backdrop for the ranger's lecture. Up eased a very old black woman, dressed in her church clothes, and wobbling along on the arm of who was probably her grandaughter. She remained very quiet as the lecture was completed, then softly asked the ranger a simple question, but one which took the wind out of every historian's sails and put a tear in our eye: "What was it, about Robert Lee, that so many folks [confederate soldiers] were willing to pass[die] for him?"
It was poetry, and would have lost impact had it not come from this little old cataract-riddled granddaughter of a slave. You could have heard a butterfly flap by in the silence. The ranger had no answer.

This was where history rubber met the public road. But as I mentioned, it is impossible to orchestrate these types of moments, they just need to happen. Hopefully, the more historians are able to get in front of a crowd, the more opportuities we have to be stumped, and that is a good thing.

R. Willis

Frederick Thomas - 4/3/2006


While slavery may be the root cause of the Civil War to Mr. Levin, the real cause was economics, and the constitutional interpretations which each side asserted relative to that.

The South was an efficient export economy which depended upon sales of tobacco and cotton to Europe for its livelihood. The North was an ineffective manufacturing ecomomy which required high tariffs to compete.

Those high tariffs meant that Southern cotton could not be exported freely, which badly hurt the South economically. In 1861, the South paid 70% of the Federal taxes, from only 40% of the population. This inequity was enough to induce secession by the Southern states.

Such causes underlie all modern wars, and to assert that slavery was "it" is simply nonsense. Even Mr. Lincoln did not believe in freeing the slaves, except as a tactical political stunt after the war was three years underway. Those who did were a few quakers.

Also annoying is the silly moralistic tone of the article. Asserting that Americans have not yet begun to admit their (boo-hoo) awful crimes vis-a-vis blacks is so much caca.

Far too much devastating social engineering has been inflicted on the country in general and the blacks in particular that it is amazing that any of them have survived it. Want to see what the Great Society produced? Go to any ghetto and count the drug pushers.

What was immoral about the war was,

-first, the Commander in Chief raising an army to attack his own country,

-the killing of 660,000 young Americans for no clear reason,

-a war with no constitutional basis,

-the destruction of the economy of the South for over 100 years, and

-the horrible reconstruction debacle which devastated black-white relations even today.

I wish Mr. Levin would give us more history and less moralistic pratter.

Richard F. Miller - 4/3/2006

Mr. Levin:

You write:

"My hope is that as we gear up to remember the Civil War as a nation that we take the opportunity to use our battlefields as well as scholarship to craft a more inclusive history that honors all who fought and how the founding principles that we hold so dear were brought closer to fruition."

In your quest for a usable past--based on your preferences, a past that can be used to address the current state of race relations--you suggest broadening the NPS's stewardship to include "interpreting" say, Gettysburg, Shilo, or Ball's Bluff to include your favored themes.

There is a great difficulty with this. Simply put, there is little about race per se that happened at Gettysburg--although a battle did. Battlefields are static places, tied to particular topographies, lines of march, offensive and defensive formations, and so forth. To superimpose "root causes" of the war--about which you and I almost certainly agree--on specific chunks of property with very peculiar histories quite literally diminish the events that transpired there.

The question you're really asking is why people bother to go to Gettyburg (or any other battlefield) at all. If you prefer people to visit battlefields for reasons other than those which you imagine prompt them (after all, you cannot know for certain the motives of millions of visitors), then the place to address those issues isn't the battlefield but classrooms where words like "Gettysburg" are first heard. Granted, some historic sites--you mention Petersburg to which I would add Harper's Ferry--represent important intersections between race and war, and adding your favored interpretations might be more appropriate.

And it also needs be said that NPS stewardship is only that--a trusteeship, with all Americans as beneficiaries. Thus, the imposition of various "themes" beyond a recounting of the events which are directly tied to what in fact happened there becomes more the purview of private scholarship and political discourse than it does publically-owned battlefields adiminstered by the NPS.

Indeed, beyond simply explaining what happened there, battlefields are best left mute for visitors to draw their own conclusions.