The National Park Service is looking to rid itself of what it calls Southern bias at major Civil War battlefields and instead emphasize the horrors of slavery.
According to Reuters, ground zero for the project is Gettysburg, site of the largest battle ever fought on American soil. Plans are going ahead to build a new visitors center and museum at a cost of $95 million that will completely change the way the conflict is presented to visitors.
“For the past 100 years, we’ve been presenting this battlefield as the high watermark of the Confederacy and focusing on the personal valor of the soldiers who fought here,” said Park Superintendent John Latschar.
“We want to change the perception so that Gettysburg becomes known internationally as the place of a ‘new rebirth of freedom,”‘ he told Reuters, quoting President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” made on Nov. 19, 1863, five months after the battle.
“We want to get away from the traditional descriptions of who shot whom, where and into discussions of why they were shooting one another.”
The project follows the furor over Republican Sen. Trent Lott’s recent remarks which some felt endorsed racial segregation, prompting many Americans to revisit one of the uglier chapters of the nation’s history.
When it opens in 2006, the new museum will offer visitors a narrative of the entire Civil War, putting the battle into its larger historical context. Latschar said he was inspired by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., which sets out to tell a story rather than to display historical artifacts behind glass cases.
“Our current museum is absolutely abysmal. It tells no story. It’s a curator’s museum with no rhyme or reason,” Latschar said.
Approximately 1.8 million people visit Gettysburg annually. Latschar said a disproportionate number were men and the park attracts very few black visitors.
Three historians were invited to examine the site in 1998, and they concluded Gettysburg’s interpretive programs had a “pervasive southern sympathy.”
The same was true at most if not all of the 28 Civil War sites operated by the National Park Service. A report to Congress delivered in March 2000 found that only nine did an adequate job of addressing slavery in their exhibits.
Another six, including Gettysburg, gave it a cursory mention. The rest did not mention it at all. Most parks are now trying to correct the situation.
Park rangers and licensed guides at Gettysburg and other sites have already changed their presentations in line with the new policy. Now, park authorities are taking a look at brochures, handouts and roadside signs.
According to Dwight Pitcaithley, chief historian of the National Park Service, the South had tremendous success in promoting its “lost cause” theory.
The theory rested on three propositions: that the war was fought over “states’ rights” and not over slavery; that there was no dishonor in defeat since the Confederacy lost only because it was overwhelmed by the richer north; and that slavery was a benign institution and most slaves were content with their lot and faithful to their masters.
“Much of the public conversation today about the Civil War and its meaning for contemporary society is shaped by structured forgetting and wishful thinking” he told Reuters.
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