24 September 2008 by Published in: General musings 25 comments

Our friend Paul R. Taylor has a really interesting post on his blog setting forth his opinion on what should and should not be included in museum exhibits at Civil War battlefields. Paul’s post sums up my position on this issue perfectly, and I commend it to you.

While I understand the role of slavery in causing the war, I agree with Paul that most folks visit specific battlefields to learn about the events that occurred there. Consequently, I agree that the issue of the causes of the war and of slavery is best left to general Civil War museums and that these issues really have no place on specific battlefields.

Much of this controversy has been brought to the forefront by the ongoing debate about the merits of the new visitor center at the Gettysburg National Military Park. I don’t care for it, for a lot of reasons, some of which have already been elaborated here. I found the museum exhibits especially offputting. One thing that bothered me was the layout and traffic pattern of the museum exhibits; my friend and co-author Mike Nugent quite correctly likened it to herding cattle toward the slaughterhouse when we visited it back in June. I also don’t like the fact that so few of the artifacts from the Rosensteel Collection are on exhibit, and I really don’t like the idea of charging people to see the museum, particularly when the National Park Service sold this boondoggle to the public based on the representation that there would be no charge to see the museum exhibits, just as there was no charge to see the artifacts at the old visitor center.

I know that Kevin Levin has a very different perspective on this issue, and I respect both Kevin and his perspective. However, I respectfully disagree with him on this issue, just as I respectfully disagree with the original legislative mandate that forced the National Park Service to include this material in its interpretation of Civil War battlefields. Instead, I believe that places like the excellent new museum at the Tredegar Works in Richmond, or the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania are really the appropriate places to do this sort of interpretation, as they cover the ENTIRE war and not just a specific battle.

I offer this as food for thought on a controversial but lingering subject.

Scridb filter


  1. Andy Papen
    Wed 24th Sep 2008 at 1:42 pm


    I’ll preface my comment with the statement that Gettysburg doesn’t hold quite the emotional attachment that it does for many students and historians of the War, so I think I can be at least a bit unbiased (maybe!). I’m a Western Theatre guy; maybe I’d feel more strongly (one way or another) if this controversy were occurring at Vicksburg or Chickamauga or Shiloh. I’ve toured the Gettysburg battlefield many times and always enjoy going there. It’s just not the center of my Civil War universe. Still, the fact that it’s the Visitor Center at Gettysburg is going to be a lightning rod for strong feelings.

    I agree totally with your opinion on proper and relevant interpretation at battlefield parks, although I also respect and understand the opposing point of view. There are other venues for the interpretation of the causes of the War and events leading up to it. I haven’t had the pleasure of touring as many Revolutionary War sites as I’d like, but I certainly don’t see the pressure to interpret all of the causes and events leading up to the American Revolution at specific battlefields. For example, I don’t remember exhibits interpreting the entire American colonial experience and the break with Great Britain when I visited Cowpens. The visitor center at Cowpens interpreted…………………….Cowpens, plus the importance of the War in the South and how Cowpens fit within that context.

    Obviously, slavery is still a controversial issue even today. I agree with you that visitors to a battlefield come there to experience the battlefield, and understanding the causes of the war could be good motivation for them to visit Tredegar or Harrisburg (or others). I understand the point of view that, since battlefields draw large numbers of visitors (with at least some interest in the War), those same battlefield museums can be used to interpret a wider scale. I see that, to a point, but still think that it’s not necessarily the best place to do so.

    Maybe it’s time for a National Museum of American Slavery that would interpret all facets of the subject, including causing a civil war. Again, just food for thought, I suppose.

  2. Wed 24th Sep 2008 at 1:50 pm


    Those museums exist.

    See the U.S. National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, VA, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit.

    There are already plenty of venues to pursue these issues if they’re of interest to the battlefield visitor.


  3. Andy Papen
    Wed 24th Sep 2008 at 1:55 pm


    I forgot about the one in Fredericksburg.

    It all comes down to time and place, and those museums are much better places to interpret these topics than battlefields are.


  4. Wed 24th Sep 2008 at 2:56 pm

    Hi Eric, — Thanks for weighing in on this issue on my blog and now here. I agree that the broader issues of slavery, Reconstruction, etc. do not have to be addressed at every NPS battlefield site, but I do believe that it is justified at Gettysburg. I say this because of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address which does provide a window of opportunity in which to consider any number of issues (including race and slavery) beyond the military. And I assume you agree that it is an integral part of the battlefield itself that must be addressed. If you agree than how would you propose on covering the most important speech in American history, which places the battle itself within our broadest national narrative? It seems to me that the exhibit does just that. We can debate the layout and other physical aspects of the exhibit, some of which I am again in agreement with.

    Finally, I lose patience with the argument that the emphasis on the big picture means minimizing the actual battle. I don’t think it does that at all. First-time and even repeat visitors are given plenty to think about. One more point. Is your claim that the exhibit showing fewer artifcats backed up by any hard facts? Just curious. Thanks again Eric.

  5. Teej Smith
    Wed 24th Sep 2008 at 3:46 pm

    IMO, it’s a whole lot like going to the library to check out a book on a specific subject and being told I couldn’t possibly understand or appreciate the book unless I was familiar with the history of printing.

    I agree with Eric that there are museums that lend themselves to this type of interpretation and ,also like Eric, I don’t happen to think Gettysburg is the proper place. A more fitting site, IMO, especially when it comes to addressing slavery, would be Antietam for obvious reasons.


  6. Wed 24th Sep 2008 at 8:17 pm


    I think that there should be a separate set of exhibits pertaining to the address. That’s how I get around that.

    However, having said that, that’s not realistic. Therefore, I agree that there has to be at least some acknowledgment of the issue at Gettysburg.

    As for the artifacts, I can tell you from my own experience that a very significant portion of the Rosensteel collection, probably four or five times as many items, were on display in the old VC, whereas there are only two small displays of stuff from the Rosensteel collection in the lobby.


  7. Stephen Graham
    Thu 25th Sep 2008 at 1:12 am

    There are a number of battlefields or monuments connected with the Civil War where discussion of causes and slavery seems entirely appropriate. Surely Ft Sumter needs an explanation as to why the war came and the underlying causes of secession. Vicksburg also seems a natural place to discuss the matter, particularly due to the role of blacks in the campaign (Milliken’s Bend in particular) and as the post-siege Union garrison.

    But, as with Kevin, I think that any site needs some consideration of the war as a whole. The battle occurred as part of a larger event. Why are the armies present and what do they think they’re fighting about is always an appropriate question.

    You might also argue that Gettysburg has a higher burden to explain the entire war as it may be the only exposure many people get to the war. I’d rank this as a fairly minor consideration, though.

  8. Dave Powell
    Thu 25th Sep 2008 at 6:59 am

    Actually, I think most military parks have excellent resources to personalize the story. The Brien house, for example, was the home of a free Black. When Lee’s army was confiscating livestock, some of that “livestock “was human. Both are entirely appropriate departure points for a discussion of causes.

    I don’t have any problem with any of the parks providing some context. I’ve said this before, but Chickamauga provides one wall of such, done very well. And still manages to display the most significant collection of military arms in the country.

    I’m curious: how much display space in the new VC is devoted to slavery or context? How much to other stuff?

    I suspect the failure to provide more of the Rosensteel collection doesn’t really bear on the slavery display – but more on other decisions made at the VC. Don’t get me wrong, I think the new VC is turning into something of a boondoggle, especially now that user fees are being proposed, but I don’t think that the key controversy is how much slavery is featured.

  9. Stu
    Thu 25th Sep 2008 at 7:36 am

    FYI: Today’s “Winchester Star” (9/25) has a story in it about a new “expanded” visitor center being built over at Cedar Creek Battlefield.

  10. Thu 25th Sep 2008 at 9:40 am

    “I respectfully disagree with the original legislative mandate that forced the National Park Service to include this material in its interpretation of Civil War battlefields. Instead, I believe that places like the excellent new museum at the Tredegar Works in Richmond, or the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania are really the appropriate places to do this sort of interpretation, as they cover the ENTIRE war and not just a specific battle.”

    Well stated Eric and I wholeheartedly concur.


  11. Thu 25th Sep 2008 at 9:53 am

    Richard and Eric, — The problem with your referencing of the Congressional mandate as the turning point of battlefield interpretation is that it obscures the long history within the NPS of how to approach these issues. NPS were debating the question of slavery and race at the Crater going back decades. I’ve found references going back as far as the 1930s. This notion that somehow Jesse Jackson forced NPS officials down the road of broadening their focus simply fails to do justice to the history of the parks themselves. Changes have been in the works for some time now.

    Are we really suggesting that by giving visitors a better understanding of how the battles filtered through the halls of Congress and the home front that the NPS is somehow doing a disservice to the men who fought and the people who continue to visit?

  12. Randy
    Thu 25th Sep 2008 at 10:13 am

    My two cents worth after my first vist to the new VC two weeks ago: you are being charitable to call it a boondogle. I experienced waves of anger and dismay as I went throgh the “exhibits”. The new Gettysburg VC is an artifactless journey through the entire war, and oh yeah, there is a smattering of Gettysburg related information and exhibits for those foolish enough to think they were visiting the Gettysburg Visitor Center to see Gettysburg exhibits and artifacts. A visit to the VC used to be a mandatory part of my Gettysburg visits. Not any more. I’ve made my first and last visit to what has turned out to be, at least to me, a tremendous waste of time and money. Don’t get me wrong; the old VC was a dump and I had high hopes for the new facility, so I’m not merely longing for the “good old days”. The new facility is very nice as far as the bricks and mortar go. That’s pretty much the only good thing I can say about it though.
    Slavery was bad, yeah, I’ve got it. There were battles before and after Gettysburg. Yeah, got that too. I already knew all of that and I don’t need a visit to Gettysburg, of all places, to have that reinforced. Maybe it’s just me but I visit battlefield museums to see artifacts and exhibits related to that battle; I prefer seeing real evidence of a battle, not short films of reenactors pretending to fight a battle, and I say that as a reenactor!
    Now, to top all of this off, the NPS is going to charge a fee to see this turkey! They are doing this, as I understand it, because there aren’t enough people going through the exhibits and paying to see the film about slavery, er, I mean Gettysburg. What’s sad is that I bet the NPS doesn’t have a clue why nobody wants to visit the place anymore. I can tell them why: who wants to go the Gettysburg and pay money to see a bunch of cardboard cut-outs and short films about pretty much everything except Gettysburg? Not me.
    Sorry for the rant, but this is just too much!


  13. Chuck
    Thu 25th Sep 2008 at 11:50 am

    I’m not quite sure what the fuss is about, especially to people who obviously know much about the subject and have seen many artifacts at various places. It almost sounds to me that many critics want the visitor centers to cater to very knowledgeable people on the subject and let those who know very little to take it upon themselves to get context somewhere else.
    However, the NPS Visitor Centers at all parks (historic and natural) are to orient the general public to the site and provide information on what to see. They are not necessarily geared for someone who knows a lot about the subject before arriving.
    At historic sites the site must be put into its historic context, otherwise how does a general visitor know why this happened?.
    If I’ve been to the battlefield before, rarely, do I return to visitor centers when I go back because I do not need the orientation. I’ve already read about the battle and seen the visitor center before. I’ve seen rifles and uniforms and bullets at countless museums and yes visitor centers. I now concentrate on the field itself, because I have much of the general knowledge given at the visitor centers. But there are many who visit battlefields for the first time and need the orientation. That’s what these places are for. Maybe the NPS should call them Orientation Centers to better let everyone know what the purpose is.

  14. David Rhoads
    Thu 25th Sep 2008 at 12:41 pm

    I must say I’m not particularly incensed about the Congressional mandate. Though I haven’t been to the new Gettysburg VC yet, the implementation of the mandate that I’ve seen at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Chickamauga has been well done and has taken advantage of features unique to each battlefield to expound upon the larger issues. In my opinion, the current interpretation–military and otherwise–at the battlefields I’ve visited is certainly no worse, and arguably better, than it was 20 years ago.

    Also, as a footnote to the current discussion, it seems to me a bit disingenuous to direct people to the National Slavery Musuem in Fredericksburg as an alternative to the Gettysburg VC inasmuch as the National Slavery Musuem, with the exception of a sculpture garden on the site, has yet to be built.

  15. Dan
    Fri 26th Sep 2008 at 1:17 pm

    It may be a copout, but…as long as they preserve the battlefields, it doesn’t bother me how they interpret them. You can always count on the military buffs to want to do the guided walks & staff rides, the social/political/economical scholars to do their own thing, and the general public to take whatever its offered. To each his own.

    What bothers me more is nonsense like the following, where the preservation of historic ground is considered conditional based on how that ground is interpreted. That’s the sort of “value system” that makes me hopping mad.

  16. Jim Epperson
    Fri 26th Sep 2008 at 2:55 pm


    My problem with the attitude you espouse is that it is very similar to someone saying he likes going to school, but he only wants to be taught what he wants to learn. None of this boring English grammar stuff! If we see the battlefield parks as having an educational purpose (and I do), then it is well within the purview of the NPS to teach the whole story at those parks where it is appropriate. I would say that Gettysburg is one of those parks, for a number of reasons: (1) As the “flagship” park, it is the only Civil War battlefield many folks will see; (2) Because of the Gettysburg Address. No one is making anyone go to those parts of the exhibit space that deal with race, slavery, and the causes of the war. There is the issue of funding, of course. But I think we would fail the public at large to miss this chance to educate people.


  17. Valerie Protopapas
    Sat 27th Sep 2008 at 4:01 pm

    The Gettysburg Visitor’s Center and a lot of other “museums” are nothing more than studies in political correctness. They give us “history” that carefully censors out and adds in all that is needed to validate their ideological point of view. George Orwell had nothing on these folks. In keeping with the politically correct agenda, slavery is presented as the central issue of the war quite contrary to actual history which shows a good many issues other than slavery as reasons why the South wished to withdraw from the Union – including oppressive taxes, a rise in collectivism (an old New England concept enhanced by the immigration of many Germans during the 1840s), the growth of the power of the federal government at the expense of the States, the People and the Constitution and the realization that the region would soon be reduced to a permanent minority status and unable to protect the rights and interests of its people against the Northern juggernaut.

    Even references to the issue of slavery fail to recognize and inform about the calls by radical abolitionists like John Brown and those who supported and financed him for slaves to rise in armed revolt against their masters and other whites in the manner of the Nat Turner massacres. No wonder non-slave owning Southerners – white and black – were incensed at Northern federal representatives for not speaking out against what were essentially calls for anarchy and mass murder.

    While it is no doubt possible to present an objective presentation on a particular battle, it seems that the Parks Department and other so-called “historical” institutions have a very real agenda in their presentation of the War of Secession (it wasn’t a “civil war”!) and I for one object to my tax dollars financing this skewed and mendacious presentation of “history” according to the current politically correct viewpoint.

  18. Kent Dorr
    Sun 28th Sep 2008 at 10:54 am

    Gee…maybe whats needed is an alternative museum/interpretive center…or re-education center, if you will, to explain the Lost Cause and its effect on the Post Civil War period. Completely free of any discussion of slavery which we know wasnt involved in the Civil War. I know Id travel (even with gas prices what they are) to see a museum filled with relics and artifacts of all the Black Confederate soldiers who fought to preserve their freedom to be incarcerated for life in the Grand Old South.

  19. Valerie Protopapas
    Mon 29th Sep 2008 at 1:19 am

    Mr. Dorr, your sarcasm doesn’t prove intelligence, just a closed mind. There is enough information around even in the “history” of those who focus entirely on slavery to prove what I have said. Furthermore, you and those like you tend to focus on slavery without bothering to find out ALL about it – like who sold blacks to whites in the first place (other blacks), who bought them in Africa and shipped them to American (Yankees) and the fact that when Northern industrialists found slavery less profitable than using the white immigrants off the ships from Europe, Northern slaves were sold South – NOT “emancipated”.

    Meanwhile, of course, the North had “black codes” which forbid blacks from living or in some cases even ENTERING those states. Massachusetts, for instance, had the office of “Negro Whipper” which was used when a black “overstayed” his welcome in that state. Ohio and Illinois had “black codes” and the most rabid abolitionist certainly did not want liberated slaves anywhere near his own town or home. Like so many other “do-gooders”, their “compassion” was a thing of ideology and not humanity.

    So let’s just admit what cannot credibly be denied, shall we? That is, that slavery has existed as long as mankind (and still exists), that it was used by all concerned from the black chieftains in Africa to the Yankee slave ship captains to the slave owners BLACK and WHITE in the North and the South. As the title of a famous author’s book on another issue entirely put it, “there is blame enough to go around”.

    Let’s also admit – if you are able to overcome your own prejudices enough to do it – that slavery was legal and constitutional while the war waged by the North against the states in the South that legally and constitutionally seceded from the Union was IL-legal, UN-constitutional and, in fact, barbaric. You may not like those facts, but they are just that FACTS.

  20. Melissa Strobel
    Mon 29th Sep 2008 at 2:41 pm

    I agree – and have blogged about – the idea that the visitors’ center can and *should* be a place to learn about Gettysburg in particular. That’s far from saying that the battle should not be contextualized into the bigger picture of the war in general, and certainly even the underlying causes, so that a person walking in off the street can get a broad view of what happened and *why* it happened. I take issue (mainly) with two things: That the museum has over-generalized itself, and that opportunities to put an issue like slavery into the context of Gettysburg was either overlooked or ignored. If one is going to go into issues like that at a specific location, then it should behoove the curators and staff to put it into context with the battlefield. That didn’t happen, and I’m a little confused as to why.

    Another major problem is that the old VC *did* cater to the scholar as well as the tourist, especially with the wealth of artifacts that were on display. To say that this present VC is better and is “as it should be” smacks of the recent trends of dumbing things down to the general public and thinking they’re doing them a favor.

  21. Chris L.
    Mon 29th Sep 2008 at 4:19 pm

    I was at the new VC back in June. My observations are:

    1. The new movie is pretty much a waste of time and money. My expectations were that the movie would provide a great overview of the battle. Instead I felt like I was being given a lecture on slavery and civil rights. The between 5-10 minutes spent on the battle was disappointing and I felt that my $48 spent so the family could see it was wasted.

    2. The exhibit area was a maze. Whoever described it as being herded like cattle is correct.

    3. The ratio of material in the exhibits was disproportional for why people are there, to learn about the battle. I was so frustrated by going through section after section of slavery and not Gettysburg items, that by the time I got to the battle exhibits I was losing interest.

    4. Whoever thought putting movies describing the battle in each of the battle day sections is nuts. First, if you don’t show up at the right time, you are stuck in an exhibit area which channels people through. That makes it a little hard to stand around waiting. Second, you’re trying to watch a movie with people milling around and talking. That makes it an awful environment to actually try and digest material. Chickamauga correctly put their nice movie in the theater.

    5. I do agree that the material on display is pretty sparse, but I don’t agree that it needs to be a collection display.

    6. Some of the displays concerning organization of ACW units and what to take on your campaign were nice.

    7. The “book” store is atrocious. I was depressed by the lack of selection for Gettysburg and ended up buying a book on Stones River.

    In some ways what was attempted was nice, but it falls very short of being successful. My humble opinion is that the whole concept needs redone. To start with, the pre-battle and post-battle exhibits should consist of one area apiece. There is too much of an imbalance now and it detracts from why most people are there, to learn about the battle. Next, the exhibit areas need redone so you can actually go to the one you want without walking the maze. Having to plow through the crowd to return an interesting section is poor design. Also, for the die hard artifact people, there needs to be an exhibit area that is regularly displaying different parts of the collection. Third, add a movie that is solely about the battle. You can keep the current one but there needs to be one that actually focuses the battle itself. Of course, having an actual movie about Gettysburg is going to kill what little traffic there is for the current movie. Finally, the bookstore needs to have a far greater selection of books about Gettysburg.

  22. Dave Powell
    Tue 30th Sep 2008 at 12:55 pm

    Some of these comments have been pretty amusing.

    There are really a couple of different issues being discussed here:

    !) should the VC include Context, i.e. slavery? Some yes, some nos, but it seems to me that no one has really made a case that the VC has sacrificed display space to overly long renditions of causes and thus slighted the battle. Some context is necessary, I think.

    And it is also clear for some that ANY mention of slavery is too much – A return to the moonlight and magnolia days of Gone with the Wind. I met one of those types at Chickamauga a couple of weeks ago. I think their presence is the strongest argument for the need for context.

    2) the other issue centers on the way the VC interprets the battle. Based on what I’ve read, the raw space is not a problem – the way it is used is. I have no quarrel with those arguments – I think more of the artifacts should be on display, if only to give folks an idea of the shear immensity of the battle and the aftermath.

    I also have issues with the idea of charging, given how the new VC was sold to us in the first place – better, cheapter, nicer, etc.

    Less books in the bookstore? That flies directly in the face of the educational mission of the NPS, and thus contradicts the idea that we include slavery. Frankly, wnen I walk into an NPS bookstore at a given park, I want that store to be the BEST resource in the area for the park’s particular focus. It it’s not, they have failed.

    Dave Powell

  23. Chris L.
    Tue 30th Sep 2008 at 5:30 pm

    “…but it seems to me that no one has really made a case that the VC has sacrificed display space to overly long renditions of causes and thus slighted the battle.”

    If I remember correctly, there are twelve sections. Three dealt directly with the battle with I believe a pre-battle and post battle sections. That left seven sections that were non-battle related. At best you are looking at a 50-50 split. In my view that isn’t acceptable. And based on watching other people that day, most weren’t interested in the non-battle items either. One section for causes, one for after effects, one for The Gettysburg Address, and the rest for the battle seems more properly focused. Just like the movie, there was way too much focus on things that should not be the focus of the VC. And the movie does even a poorer job than the exhibits.

    Slavery is a complex historical issue. Trying to increase the focus on it only causes unneeded arguments at the Gettysburg site. People aren’t going to Gettysburg to hear about slavery except at a cursory, slavery was one of the war’s major causes, level at best.

  24. Phoebe Krajewski
    Sun 12th Oct 2008 at 6:56 pm

    Hi Eric,

    Just got back from a the Monumental City Fife & Drum Corps ‘mini jam’ in Patapsco Valley Park, Ellicott City.

    I took my postcards, and displayed a poster inviting the musicians to meet for the First (?) Annual Remembrance Day ‘ceremony’ honoring B.G. Elon Farnsworth ….I asked folks to gather at the 1st VT Cavalry monument in the D shaped field at 5 pm. on the 22nd. (that’s right, in its present location! LOL)

    I am selecting some Civil War tunes to be played, and I THINK we will have fifers AND drummers (in various states of sobriety, their having been jamming at O’Rourkes since the end of the parade…)

    How GRAND if we could find a BUGLER to sound a charge at 5:30! Do you know any? I hope to read my new poem as we SHIVER together remembering this brave young Union hero. Rae Ann is hoping to make it, as well. Can you get the word out in your circles? on here maybe? Also, I’ll try to let J.D. know.
    We may never get an ACTUAL monument erected, but Elon’s monument CAN live in the HEARTS of THE PEOPLE. That’s us. I honestly hope that this will be the beginning of a lasting ‘monument’ to him, long after you and I are gone.
    Thanks, and I hope to see you there to say a few words!

    How GREAT would THAT be?

  25. Sun 17th May 2009 at 3:35 am

    Better late than never…I’ve been to the G’burg VC. I ain’t impressed, people. I’m not a Neo-Con by any stretch, but if things go in the direction of the new VC in CW interpretation all over, you can forget about any kind of rememberances of Confederate history. To be one who venerates their Reb ancestors is going to put you squarely in the sights of those who would call you a racist at the very least. there were two sides to this struggle, and only one side will be presented. Makes me sad, it does!

Comments are closed.

Copyright © Eric Wittenberg 2011, All Rights Reserved
Powered by WordPress