The Times Are A Changin’

Two Civil War Veterans at the 1913 Veterans Reunion at Gettysburg. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been thinking about visitation to historic sites in recent weeks. I wrote a post for Muster last year about visitation trends at National Park Service Civil War historic sites, but the topic is back in the news with two articles in the Wall Street Journal and Politico lamenting a supposed decline in visitation at both Civil War sites and historic sites more broadly. I’m currently working on a new piece for Muster about what we can do to keep making Civil War sites relevant in the future, but in the meantime I went back and reread John Coski’s opinion essay for The Civil War Monitor (Summer 2018) about the state of Civil War public history. Dr. Coski is an excellent scholar and public historian. He’s also the go-to expert on the history of the Confederate flag. Unfortunately, I disagreed with almost every argument he made in this piece.

Coski contends that public historians at Civil War historic sites have tried to “make the Civil War more attractive and more politically palatable for people who have not been interested in the subject as it was taught in schools and presented at historical sites until recent decades.” While he offers lukewarm support for this goal, he cautiously warns that these efforts can go overboard and potentially alienate people who have long-supported Civil War historic sites. If “traditional” audiences stop visiting and sites continue to struggle with recruiting new audiences, the future of Civil War public history could be in trouble as popular interest in the era continues to wane.

Coski’s argument is understandable and fair, but in making the argument I strongly disagreed with his characterization of public historians and their goals when working at Civil War historic sites.

A common talking point that Coski emphasizes is that “the rise of digital technology” has played a role in declining visitation trends. People can now learn about historic sites online without visiting them, and so they simply choose to stay home. The problem with this argument, however, is that there has been no comprehensive study undertaken to prove a correlation between increased digital technology usage and decreased visitation to historic sites. While both trends can be true independently, it is not at all clear to me that one trend explains the other. Plenty of other historic sites and museums have had no problem with declining visitation. For example, visitation to art museums has experienced a slight increase in recent years, and the popular National World War II Museum smashed its previous visitation record in 2018. In fact, some argue that digital technology actually boosts visitation to museums and historic sites because people see content online and become more motivated to visit in person. This data seems to suggest something besides digital technology as the cause behind sluggish visitation at Civil War sites.

Coski continues by arguing that public historians are trying to attract new audiences by “emphasizing non-military aspects of the conflict and repudiating the Confederate side of the story.” Here again, these claims are questionable. Have Civil War sites placed an increased emphasis on the political aspects of the Civil War? Absolutely. Are many sites more willing to discuss the role of slavery in creating the conditions for armed conflict? Absolutely. But just because non-military topics are discussed more in-depth does not mean that military history has been removed from the story. Moreover, it’s not clear to me what it means to “repudiate” the Confederate side of the story. Is Coski saying that public historians are completely ignoring the Confederacy, or are they just interpreting the history in a way Coski disagrees with?

I have been to Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House, and Fort Donelson over the past five years. Every single one of these battlefields discussed military history through programs, wayside markers, and museum exhibits. Gettysburg has an enormous Civil War weapons collection in its museum that rivals anything you’ll see anywhere else. Every single site told stories from the Confederate perspective. Every single site has dedicated public historians who are ready to discuss military history, political history, and Confederate history. Not a single monument has been removed from a Civil War battlefield managed by the National Park Service. I concede that the war’s narrative has most certainly changed (for the better), but when Coski asks, “what about the majority experience? What about the millions of white Americans on both sides who fought and endured the Civil War?” I just have to roll my eyes. Last I checked they were still there.

Coski then expands his discussion of Confederate history at Civil War sites by asking whether “emphasizing ‘relevance’ mean[s] the only legitimate way of studying the war will be as a morality play.” He also contends that the popular backlash to Confederate iconography is a “rejection of Civil War history that accords respect to the fighting men on both sides.” Today’s backlash against Confederate iconography, according to Coski, is unique because the “breadth and depth of anger aimed at the Confederacy, Confederate symbols, and all perceived vestiges of Lost Cause thinking” has led to “a widespread willingness to vilify anything associated with the Confederacy as ‘racist.’ Labeling is becoming a surrogate for understanding.” As such, public historians who emphasize “inclusiveness, tolerance, empathy, and an acceptance of complexity” fail to live up to their own self-defined standards by attacking the Confederacy this way.

Here again there is much to disagree with. For one, striving for relevance does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy or relying solely on emotion to win hearts and minds. Discussing Civil War era politics or the experiences of women and people of color during the war is no more a “morality play” than a narrative that focuses on sectional reconciliation or the shared valor of Union and Confederate soldiers. Striving for relevance means expanding the narrative and creating space for multiple perspectives. It does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy at the expense of so-called identity politics or political correctness.

Second, who among Civil War public historians in their professional life is going around doing nothing but vilifying the Confederacy at their workplace? Do some people get heated on social media about the Civil War? Sure. Do some people want all Confederate monuments taken down? Sure. Do some people feel like Confederate icons are intimidating and that the entire Confederate political experiment was rooted in racism? You bet. But in Coski’s telling of the story, interpretations at Civil War sites nowadays largely consist of visitors being treated to long rants from public historians about how bad and racist the Confederacy was in the interest of attracting new audiences to their sites. Public historians design gimmicky programs, share their personal views, and strip the past of its complexity as historical understanding is placed at the bottom of the food chain. As such, visitors are allegedly treated to an interpretation of the war from an “activist” perspective that is more interested in shaming than understanding. This description may accurately explain the culture of social media interactions on Twitter, but I completely reject this characterization when it comes to describing trained professionals whose job is to provide a compelling, complex, and accurate interpretation of the Civil War. Many public historians today reject the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War because it is largely inaccurate, but that does not mean they also reject a nuanced understanding of the past that acknowledges the complexities of Confederate allegiance and military service.

Here’s the thing. I don’t think the white actors of Civil War history are going anywhere. I don’t think public historians at Civil War historic sites place anything ahead of telling a good, accurate story. I don’t think anyone who’s long been a student of the Civil War should be alarmed by the fact that Civil War scholarship is expanding and changing. I don’t think a “both sides fought for what they believed in” or Lost Cause-inspired interpretation is the solution to bringing back audiences to Civil War historic sites. I don’t think complaining about identity politics today is particularly wise when for a very long time Confederate identity politics dominated the culture surrounding historic interpretation at Civil War sites.

Where we go from here is a difficult question, and I think there’s a lot more evaluation and study needed before we can start to formulate an answer. While I think Coski’s basic wish to remember the traditional audiences of Civil War history is fair, his characterizations of Civil War history and the public historians who interpret it today are badly flawed.

Cheers