I wanted to weigh in on the long simmering debate about the new Gettysburg Visitor’s Center in particular and how the NPS interprets the Civil War in general. I’ve seen this in print (Civil War News), on message boards (I belong to several, GDG, CWDG, TalkAntietam and CivilWarWest) and now on blogs (Eric’s and Kevin’s). Since I dont have anything else fresh today I thought I’d weigh in on this today.
I confronted this issue a few years ago on a visit to Chickamauga. The VC there had expanded and there was now an area that talked about the causes of the war. My first reaction was, “what the hell is this?” I was disappointed that display space was going to something other than the battle.
Since then though my opinion has shifted. I think part of it has come with talking to people and realizing that their grasp of big historical facts is sadly lacking. I don’t want to get a bunch of angry comments but anyone who believes states rights was the principal cause of the war is sadly mistaken. States rights had a part of it but more importantly to Southern leaders was protecting slavery. If there was one particular right they were worried about the federal government interfering with it was slavery, not tariffs (although I am willing to admit that the two main sections of the country had differing ideas on tariffs) or any other issue. I don’t think the Civil War was fought exclusively over slavery but slavery has to be the main cause.
Somehow this has been twisted in the public mind to the point that I wouldn’t be surprised if 50% of the general public could name slavery as the main cause. I think the NPS’s job at the parks is to educate the visitor’s. And interpreting the battle should be their main effort. On the other hand though when its all said and done that visitor should also know why two armies fought for a crossroads in Pennsylvania, or a railroad junction in Northern Georgia. They should have some understanding of why this great nation made a great effort for four years to kill each other.
And the general public is not likely to visit too many Civil War sites. If they are going to go to a Civil War site its likely to be Gettysburg just because they’ve heard the name before. Chickamauga or Vicksburg (or Fort Donelson, or Shiloh, or or or ad vaseum) might have had a great impact on the course of the war but they’ve likely never heard about Chickamauga. The people who live closer to Shiloh or Chickamauga might go there instead of the long trek to Gettysburg.
Since Gettysburg just got a new VC it should definitely have displays on the causes of the war. And as VCs are updated throughout the system they need to also have displays on the causes. It would have been a shame if the new VC had been built with no mention of why two American armies tried to destroy each other at Gettysburg. For the hardcore buffs no museum will ever be good enough. It won’t have enough guns or flags or maps or whatever else is for favorite thing to see. Also for most hardcore buffs the museum is one area we routinely skip. We’re there to see the battlefield. I make an effort to pop into the VC to see if there are any announcements about ranger led walks or something similar but I hardly ever look at the museum if I’ve ever been there before.
I think Gettysburg does have some issues as far as what is displayed and how much of the collection is displayed. I’ve heard stories that the displayed items are fewer, and that there are more reproductions on display. I have not yet seen the new VC so I cannot comment on that. My dad will be out there in less than a week and he’ll give me the news but I’m not sure when I’ll be able to see it with my own eyes. I’m sure the stories of doom and gloom are exaggerated, as are the stories that proclaim it the best VC in the system.