If You Can’t Accurately Interpret Civil War Era Politics, Maybe Leave Them Out of Your Tour

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.



6 thoughts on “If You Can’t Accurately Interpret Civil War Era Politics, Maybe Leave Them Out of Your Tour

    1. Thanks, Glenn. I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not to name the site, but I’m considering sending a letter to the site and just leaving it at that.

      1. I probably write dozens of personal letters and emails a year, equally split between folks I vehemently disagree with, and those I greatly admire. The common thread is that I allow the other person the luxury to respond in kind, without the pressure of an “audience” (politely stated). Since you and your friend were the ones in attendence, it is really only you folks can legitimately and accurately question the content of the tour. By naming names, you release the hounds of hell armed with second hand information (with all due respect) and the possibility of productive discourse is destroyed. Your plan for a private missive of some sort is a solid one.

  1. I agree. You should definitely name the site. Perhaps your tour guide was just a good ole boy or girl gone rogue or, more likely, the same with a presentation blessed by the site sponsors or even the state tourism agency. Your speaking up was admirable, but you aren’t on every tour. Please support truth by helping all of us choose truly enlightening and honest historic explorations. Goodness knows I can find plenty of this ignorant “knowledge” just by staying home and using the Internet.

  2. Where was it, NIck? Public shaming is needed here, if only for the rest of us who understand the origins of the Civil War (things that growing up in Gettysburg does to you; it might also be about shoes…). Letting them stay undercover means that those of us who might happen along don’t know whether we should grace them with our dollars and attention or not.

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