Interpretation of Slavery at NPS Battlefield Sites

Here’s a lively panel discussion from 2002 regarding the mandate to place Civil War battlefields into the context of how slavery brought on the war as part of interpretation at battlefields.  I have to say I disagree vociferously with the two panelists who spoke against it.  I think what has happened since has vindicated the change.

The video’s description reads, “Historians talked about the merits of a federal law requiring Civil War battlefields to incorporate exhibits and programs on the role of slavery in U.S. history. Following their remarks they answered questions from the audience.”



  1. Did it really take an act of Congress to get slavery into the NPS retelling of the Civil War at its sites? How sad.

    So the Museum of the Confederacy hosts what is essentially a debate on the interpretation of slavery at NPS sites and they don’t have a black person on the panel. Sad.

    Jerry Russell sounds crazed. Referring to a female authority at the NPS as the “Boss Lady”? Really? He calls those opposed to his viewpoint “the enemy”? Is this 1965? I realize that some people loved the guy, but at least in this context he appears irrational.

    1. To be fair, Pat, I believe the NPS may have been in the process of changing their interpretive stance prior to Rep. Jackson’s bill. As former Gettysburg Superintendent John Latcher said at the Future of Civil War History conference in 2013, for years the Park Service taught the Lost Cause. Change can be very upsetting, as you know. I understand Mr. Russell did wonderful things for preservation, but I agree his position wasn’t based on reason. As to the panel, who would you suggest they replace and with whom?

  2. Krick’s speech was also fairly weird. Referring to communism twice (“workers’ paradise” “dialectical materialism”) when the subject was including slavery in interpretation of the Civil War reminded me of the folks back in my youth who implied that anyone interested in civil rights was a communist. It had no place in the discussion except to excite prejudice.

    His opposition to museums was also odd. Now that the museums will include slavery, he raises the issue that money spent on museums will take away from buying battlefield land for preservation. I note that he did not call for the closing of the museum which organized the panel that he spoke so that its assets could be sold and the proceeds used to purchase battlefield land. Perhaps it was because it was the Museum of the Confederacy.

    He also says that before slavery can be interpreted at the battlefields, the battlefields must be preserved. In other words, blacks have had to wait 140 years to get their story told and they will have to wait another 140 years when we get the last piece of land at Chancellorsville until we get around to mentioning slavery.

    For all of his anti-Communist rhetoric, a dog whistle on race I realize, Krick might want to recognize that the battlefields are not being lost to Communist reeducation camps. When I was at Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, and the Wilderness last year it was McMansion developments and buffets and motels catering to historical tourism that were on hallowed ground.

    1. I was very uneasy listening to Mr. Krick because of his vague references to unnamed people. I’m always suspicious when someone refers to unnamed people when they’re trying to convince me of something. I want names so the claim can be verified.

  3. jfepperson · · Reply

    I remember this being a big and controversial deal on the old newsgroup. It even affected a local CWRT, which took up about an hour prior to a guest presentation (not me, a friend of mine) discussing it. Based on what I have seen at the parks I have visited lately, it has been done fairly well.

    1. It was a huge controversy on the Gettysburg Discussion Group, too. I think the NPS has done a wonderful job with it.

      1. Pat Young · · Reply

        I saw the new Chancellorsville Museuem when it opened last year and it was wonderful .

        1. Shiloh has done a good job as well.

  4. Al, you get over to Gettysburg much more than I do (heck, you could almost sleepwalk there)—Do they do much (anything?) with the “slave-catching” that the ANV did during the campaign?

    1. They have some special programs during anniversaries about the African-American community in Gettysburg in which they discuss that a little bit. It’s not a lot.

      1. My understanding is that when you go to Gettysburg, it is “slavery always” and that they no longer mention Lee, Meade, or Pickett. 🙂

        1. That’s what you get for believing the confederatis in CWT, Pat. 🙂

  5. Watching Krick mock the notion of inclusive interpretation for the NPS led me to take a look at visitation stats for different sites. Krick seems to claim that inclusion really does not matter because, while Civil War battlefields sans inclusion are heavily visited, while other sites with more inclusive interpretation are not. So I took a look at some other such sites.

    Gettysburg gets roughly 1.2 million visitors per year. Ellis Island gets roughly 3 million visitors a year for its extremely inclusive interpretation, Fort Sumter, which also requires a voyage, gets 800,000

    The Boston African American NHS gets about 400,000 visitors per year. The Richmond NBP gets half that many. In fact, Richmond and Petersburg combined get fewer visits than the Boston site.

    The Lowell NHP, which is devoted to manufacturing and immigrant labor, gets more than half a million visitors per year, only 10% fewer visitors than Vicksburg.

    Inclusive interpretation does not alienate modern visitors, particularly those born after the end of Jim Crow, and those sites that tell inclusive stories get good visitation.

    1. I agree, Pat. Great data.

  6. My son was visiting an antebellum home in Florida in 2010. He didn’t ask about slavery, but the guide told him that the War was about tariffs and not slavery. I just wondering, was that just that one guide or were other guides in other parks doing the same thing?

    If a spokesperson for a park is ignorant of how slavery effected what happened at a particular battle, then I am perfectly happy listing what he or she has to say and will accept that I have to get my knowledge of slavery at that particular battle from some place else. If I think that a person is deliberately trying to alter the facts, then I think I have a right to ask that evidence be provided to verify his or her statements. Any objections?

    1. That was probably a locally run site with a barely trained docent. If someone is giving out false information, instead of starting an argument there I think I would communicate with the management afterward.

  7. Thank you for that good advice.

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