Today’s session started off with a presentation by John Christian Spielvogel of Hope College on “Interpreting Sacred Ground: The Rhetoric of National Park Service Historical Battlefields and Parks.” Spielvogel is a professor of Rhetoric. Unfortunately I think he put too much into his presentation, causing him to read too quickly. He said the NPS voice is an attempt to be noncontroversial and to present the past as objectively as possible. The late 19th Century produced equal voices for both Federal and confederate veterans, giving both praise and criticism to both equally, thus facilitating the reconciliationist viewpoint of both sides having equal valor, equal honor, equal outlooks. This helped to sublimate the racial component of the war and also facilitated the maintenance of white supremacy by cutting African-Americans out of the reconciliation of the sections. It basically silenced the emancipationist outlook on the war.
Spielvogel said race and memory impact meaning. He said currently, the NPS is balancing veneration for the soldiers with historically accurate views that identify slavery as the principal cause of the war. The Battle of Gettysburg is seen as the beginning of the end of the war. There was national white reconciliation at both the 50th and the 75th Anniversaries of the battle. Reconciliation and memory also informs the interpretation of the Battle of Gettysburg.
During his presentation, Spielvogel compared and contrasted several wayside displays at Gettysburg with wayside displays at Cold Harbor Battlefield.
Spielvogel told us Reconciliation and Emancipation public memories failed to achieve dominance at Cold Harbor. That interpretation follows the path of movement, stagnation, and death. He said the Cold Harbor interpretation leads to a harrowing and somber visitor experience.
Spielvogel talked about the dominant interpretation as being a masculine outlook. Manliness was used interchangeably with courage. Manliness was also linked with notions of honor and a pious Christian faith. Courage, manliness, honor, Godliness were all values that helped the soldiers interpret the experience of combat. Heroic masculinity was diminished by earthworks. Fighting behind earthworks was seen as being less manly, less heroic, less masculine; however, the success of the earthworks was impossible to ignore, so the soldiers used them.
Spielvogel juxtaposed the heroic interpretation with the savage interpretation. The heroic interpretation can be seen at Gettysburg. The waysides there condense the actions of several bodies into the movement of two bodies. They tend to adopt the point of views of their generals, they make injury and killing secondary to other objectives, and they refer to acts of battle as being caused by inanimate objects rather than by people. This redirects injury and death to something not done by people but rather done by those inanimate objects. So bullets struck soldiers, other soldiers didn’t kill them. A body of troops drove another body of troops, they didn’t kill and maim soldiers which forced the survivors to run away. The heroic interpretation invites visitors to contemplate the heroism and masculinity of the soldiers.
Cold Harbor, on the other hand, challenges the heroic framework. The emancipationist and the reconciliationist interpretations both failed to achieve dominance. At Cold Harbor, Nature absorbs the physical and emotional weight of the battle as a witness. It doesn’t venerate violence as at Gettysburg. The interpretative rhetoric of the NPS at Cold Harbor suggests the inhumanity of war, pictures soldiers as animals who tunnel in the ground. The land is not hallowed but rather becomes a hole for vermin. There is no space for heroic ideology. One wayside, which talked about the soldiers enduring the agony of trench warfare for two weeks, rules out the possibility of a “good death.” The Cold Harbor concluding wayside, which speaks of the losses of both sides as “the Ultimate Sacrifice,” contextualize death within the soothing interpretation of national progress. It opens the way for more heuristic interpretations and stresses the savage meaning because it has been marginalized.
Commenting on Spielvogel’s presentation were Anne Mitchell Whisnant of UNC Chapel Hill and Edward Linenthal of Indiana University.
Anne Whisnant said we have coherent statements of particular positions embedded within apparently objective narratives. It obscures within a veil of objectivity other stories, and ultimately we have to ask ourselves, “Was It (the war, the battle) worth it?”
She pointed out the NPS sites themselves have their own particular histories, the NPS staff itself has a particular history and events that shaped its voice. We have to ask, who installed those waysides? When were they installed? Why? Have they been revised over time? When, Why or why not? Mission 66 (background information here, here, and here) overlapped the Vietnam Era, and that’s when the Cold Harbor waysides were deployed.
She told us that preservation histories always emerge through a process of various interests jockeying for preeminence. She said we have to ask how has the specific history of the Gettysburg Battlefield shaped its interpretation? We have to recognize that politics were embedded in the past interpretations.
Edward Linenthal said that waysides show what parts were prized, and that when we are at a battlefield we’re not really in a place but rather we are in a memory of the place, not the place itself. He told us the engine of sacrifice drives so much and there is a need for death to be meaningful. The more powerful depictions of the realism of war lead to a more vociferous appetite for more depictions of realism of war. He talked about World War I, where endurance became heroic, that courage, heroism, and masculinity were redefined as being willing to “take it.”
To tell you the truth, I think these folks are overthinking things tremendously. In my view, the 19th Century soldiers writing about manliness were doing so because they were writing about men acting as adults. Because the soldiers were supposed to be males, adults would be manly. Had they had women serving openly as soldiers, we would have had different expressions for adults than “manliness.” I don’t think Spielvogel really understands the differences between Gettysburg and Cold Harbor. The two battles took place in different phases of the war. They were fought differently and they had different outcomes. Additionally, as Anne Mitchell Whisnant tells us, the interpretive waysides were written in different times. Why shouldn’t they be very different? Trying to fit the rhetoric into paradigms of “heroic” vs. “savage” to me shows that fundamental misunderstanding of the two battles.
After that I attended the first field experience, “Rethinking the Staff Ride Model” with Christian Keller of the US Army War College faculty and Ethan Rafuse of the Army Command and General Staff College faculty. This was a pretty good experience. The above photo shows Christian in the center with Ethan to his right on Oak Hill. I liken the staff ride to a case study in military leadership and decision-making. The officers on the staff ride are given the real world situation faced on the battlefield and explore the thought processes that the officers who fought the battle went through and explore the ramifications of their decisions and actions at the three levels of warfare, tactical, operational, and strategic.
Here we are at the Peach Orchard. Christian and Ethan, in the center, have a discussion with Chuck Teague, on the far left playing as Daniel Sickels, and Brooks Simpson, on the far right, playing as George Meade. One of the techniques of the staff ride is to assign roles to different officers, and as the ride commences, those officers play their roles out by answering questions on what they were doing, and what thought process they used at the time.
This was a terrific experience, though it was misnamed. There really wasn’t any rethinking of the staff ride model. Rather, it was a lengthy discussion and demonstration of the current staff ride model.
After lunch I participated in a second Field Experience, “the Interpretive Layers of Little Round Top” led by John Heiser of the Gettysburg National Military Park, Jennifer Murray of the University of Virginia at Wise, and Garry Adelman of the Civil War Trust. This was a pretty good exercise talking about the history of Little Round Top, not only during the battle but also as it had been interpreted over the years, including the changes it had undergone. These changes included roads that were built, rebuilt, and moved, paths made and walked along, museums, amusement parks, casinos, and other attractions that were built there over the years, and how all of those changes basically destroyed parts of the historical terrain. John Heiser made the point that with over a million visitors a year, erosion on Little Round Top is due to the fact that we are loving it to death. We also talked about the influence of popular culture on interpretation. At first, the hero of Little Round Top was seen as Gouverneur Warren. But with the release of The Killer Angels, the Ken Burns Series, and the movie, “Gettysburg,” this changed to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who was really not even considered for the honor by the veterans who fought there.
The last presentation of the day was a panel discussion of ghost tours titled “Ghosts and Generals: Theatricality, Dark Tourism, and the Ghost Tour Industry.” I have to say I thought this was ill-placed. I think that if anyone was interested in watching it, they should have been given the chance to attend it as a concurrent session while the session on interpreting issues of Civil War Memory for the Classroom and Museum Audiences moderated by David Blight moved to the evening where everyone could see it. Karen attended that session and said it was really great. Unfortunately, we don’t have a chance of seeing everything going on in the conference. Going to a field experience means you miss two concurrent session opportunities per field experience. In a way, then, I feel a bit cheated because I’m forced to choose between activities I really want to experience.
Having said that, though, the conference is going well in my opinion, and I’m having a good time. Sure, it can be improved, but show me something that can’t be improved.