- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2000

GETTYSBURG, Pa. Guides at the nation's Civil War battlefields have quietly begun to tell a politically correct version of the story of slavery and the war. Not everyone is happy about it.
For the last century slavery and the causes of the war have been absent from the exhibits, tours and even bookstores at the nation's military parks, in favor of factually neutral military history.
A group of prominent park superintendents, with some prodding from Congress, is changing that.
"I'm just absolutely convinced that we have a far more compelling need to move into the 21st century to give people the basic understanding of why the Civil War was fought, and the meaning of it all," says John Latschar, superintendent at Gettysburg National Military Park. "We can find that meaning in the words of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which is the new birth of freedom. And I think that is a far more important thing to try to have the visitors take home with them than remembering the names of Union and Confederate generals."
But some historians say battlefields aren't the place for it, and others recall how the Smithsonian Institution set off a firestorm of controversy with a revisionist history of the flight of the Enola Gay, which dropped the first of the two atomic bombs that ended World War II. The Smithsonian's original treatment of the exhibit, which harshly condemned the Americans with text sympathetic to the Japanese view, upset many Americans, particularly World War II veterans and members of Congress.
Injecting politics into Civil War history similarly upsets some historians. "I just think to pop all that into it muddies the water," says Shelby Foote, the Civil War historian. "There's a place for it, but it's not in the middle of the battle."
The debate at the Civil War battlefields is over what to tell, and where to tell it. But it's also the next chapter in the discussion of the Civil War, the pivotal event of American history.
For most of their history, the Civil War parks have explained military maneuvers and something about the soldiers who fought there. That's because originally the parks were run by the War Department, which kept them as shrines to the soldiers who fought and died there. Visitors were mainly veterans or soldiers' relatives. When the National Park Service took over, it just kept up the tradition of talking about the course of the battlefield.
The parks administrators trusted their visitors to know the context of the war and its causes from other sources, Mr. Latschar says. But as the quality of history education has declined, that's no longer true of many of the 11 million visitors to the battlefield parks.
Gettysburg's audience now is typically made up of families making a once in a lifetime trip to the East Coast, making their first and only visit to a Civil War battlefield.
"We've got a certain amount of time with those folks in which to give them an understanding of not only what happened here, but why it happened and why it's considered important," Mr. Latschar says.
Since 1998 he and some other park superintendents, particularly Robert Sutton at Manassas (Va.), have been working on "broadening" some would say distorting the history they tell. When Manassas opened its renovated exhibits last summer two panels now told of slavery's role in prompting the war. And Richmond's park opened its new visitors center in June, with slavery front and center in the story.
Then, last year, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., Illinois Democrat, inserted language in the fiscal 2000 appropriations bill that requires parks to "encourage" battlefield parks to include the role slavery played in causing the war.
Some historians bristle at having Congress, the most political of American institutions, mandate how to tell history. "There'll be a lot of resistance out there to it a lot of concern, and the concern obviously is this Orwellian 'Big Brother' telling you how to think," says Robert Lee Hodge, a battle re-enactor who lives in Springfield, Va.
He and others say it's just not possible to sum up the causes of the war in a placard or exhibit.
Shelby Foote agrees. "We could argue that kind of stuff till doomsday," he says.
Mr. Sutton at Manassas and Mr. Latschar dismiss these concerns. Says Mr. Latschar: "There isn't any debate in the academic arena. There's a debate in the public arena."
Debate in the academic arena or not, Mr. Latschar worries about the likelihood of controvery.
He enlisted an an advisory panel, headed by James M. McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Princeton University. Mr. Latschar thinks they have found a way to tell the story properly: Lincoln was elected on a platform that opposed the expansion of slavery, the Southern states became convinced that would strangle their economy and overwhelm them in Congress, and when 11 states seceded, Lincoln responded by raising an army to invade the South to put down the rebellion.
But even if everyone agreed on why the war happened and not everyone does not everyone thinks the National Park Service version of history belongs at the battlefields.
"I don't think there is any doubt about it without slavery, there would have been no Civil War," says James I. Robertson, professor of history at Virginia Tech and a leading authority on the war. Nevertheless, he says, slavery doesn't belong in the story told at the battlefields.
Mr. Hodge says there's a reason the parks were built where they are, that a battle happened there because the terrain is the way it is. "If you start talking about broader things that are not generally site-specific, i.e., causes of the war, you begin to de-emphasize why the park is there." He says he's found that many Park Service staffers think the new direction is "a waste of time."
The park superintendents are just playing a game of political correctness and demographics, he says: "It's almost a fear that you're a bad person if you don't have a reflective percentage of the population in your exhibits."
Even those historians who don't oppose the overall plan nevertheless question the wisdom of using space in the small visitors centers and resources in tight park budgets to do it. "These are places that are always strapped for cash," says Brian Pohanka, an Alexandria, Va.-based historian. "Many of them have a hard time maintaining what they have, let alone expanding."
Many historians say there's a place to talk about slavery and the war at Harpers Ferry, where that is central to the story, or about black soldiers at Richmond, where thousands of black Union troops fought.
"Where it's site specific, where somebody can walk out that building and see what happened there, then it's OK," Mr. Pohanka says.
But there's Antietam, where the power of remembrance stems from the 12,000 Union troops and 10,000 Confederate soldiers that were killed, wounded or captured in one day, the bloodiest day in American history, four times the casualties on D-Day in World War II.
"Antietam Battlefield is no place for [this] kind of museum, exhibit, display, propaganda or whatever you call it," Mr. Robertson says.
Mr. Latschar argues that omitting the context would be an anomaly. He notes that Minuteman National Historic Park in Massachusetts and Yorktown in Virginia tell what led up to the battles, and what America winning the Revolution meant.
Mr. McPherson argues that Civil War parks can also do both: "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 his view the parks 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."

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