Earlier this week a friend and I undertook a short two-day trip of various Civil War historic sites in Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee. We had a great time and saw a lot of neat history, highlighted by a wonderful visit to Fort Donelson National Battlefield. Unfortunately we encountered some bad history along the way as well.
I will not name the site here, but this particular house tour was loaded with all sorts of Lost Cause nonsense.
- “The war wasn’t all about slavery. It was about independence.” Why did they want their independence?
- “Grant owned slaves during the war.” Wrong.
- “Grant said he’d drop his sword and stop fighting if the war became a fight to end slavery.” Wrong, and obviously that didn’t happen. The guide’s comment was extremely ironic given that there was an exhibit right behind him about Grant’s support for the enlistment of black troops into the U.S. Army.
- “Lincoln was a racist who didn’t care about slavery.” I agree that he held racial prejudices, but that does not mean he was indifferent about slavery.
- “The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free any slaves.” Wrong.
- “It’s not a PC thing to say, but there were thousands of blacks who served as soldiers in the Confederacy. Frederick Douglass saw them on the battlefield.” Wrong and wrong.
And on and on and on.
I usually keep quiet on tours, but there were multiple times when I had to push back against the tour guide’s interpretation. I felt bad afterwards for speaking out so much but I had never been on such an inaccurate tour before.
I believe all tours at Civil War historic sites should incorporate some discussion of the political ramifications of why the Civil War was fought. But in that moment I really felt like this house tour would have been better if it just focused on the furniture and fancy guns and left the politics out of it. At least people wouldn’t leave the tour in some sort of fantasy land where the war had nothing to do with slavery and 20,000 African Americans voluntarily fought for the Confederacy and their continued enslavement.