Remarks Delivered at OAH & NCPH Annual Conference
Peter Carmichael - Ashley Whitehead
21 April 2012
"Good afternoon. Thank you, Joan. As Joan mentioned, I cut my teeth as a historian in the National Park Service. My first job was actually at Appomattox Courthouse in 1985, and I remember seasonal training very well. We were told by the chief historian that we were to emphasize Appomattox as the point of reunion between North and South, that we were not to deal with any kind of controversial issues. I had the job of portraying a Union solder. Forty hours a week, I had to pretend it was 1865, 8 hours a day. And we were actually given access to some really interesting source material.
"One of the park historians had gone to the National Archives and done research on the Pennsylvania regiment that had occupied Appomattox immediately after the surrender. This was amazing stuff about the transition from slavery to freedom. Now, keep in mind, I'm an undergraduate, not engaged with the historiography, and this material that I read talked about or revealed the labor difficulties between freed people, former slave-holders and the Federal army. Now, of course, the Federal army expressed or explained those labor difficulties through the lens of race, because they reduced this to an issue of black people just not working hard enough.
"Now I'm a green, seasonal interpreter and you can imagine what I said to God knows how many people, playing my part as a Union soldier would, I said, 'we can't get African-American,' (I didn't say that of course), I said, 'we can't get black people to work around here.' Of course it's horrifying to think that that's how I interpreted that piece of history, but the point is simply this: at that time, the Park Service, in terms of its human infrastructure, lacked the people to help me as a seasonal interpreter to contextualize that material.
"Now, in really a very short time, what a sea change we have in the National Park Service. And we have two people here that are largely responsible for that: Dwight Pitcaithley is in the audience, former chief historian of the Park Service. Bob Sutton as well. It was really unimaginable (even 15 years ago) that interpretation on the battlefield would become contextualized, that we would move away from, and I shouldn't say move away from, that we would consider in a broader way who shot whom and where. Now we're getting to the historical significance of those battles, of that tactical history.
"As you all know, all the Park Service folks came under a great deal of criticism for this, but that criticism is really fading. I mean, there are a few pockets of resistance out there, and those pockets of resistance, their argument's generally that when we contextualize the battlefield we are somehow not paying honor to them. But, again, that is barely pertinent.
"So we've got to move ahead. One thing that strikes me is that we have a hard time doing as historians, public historians or academic historians, that we need to recognize that the interpretive battle has been won. Certainly there are pockets of the lost cause out there, and we certainly need to contend and address those issues, but we often bring undue attention to those pockets of resistance. And the blogging is largely responsible for that, in exciting and talking about the issue of the Confederate slave. Man, that's not an issue among professional historians, that's not an issue with most of the public, but it is an issue with really, I think, a small minority.
"So we need to look ahead. I hope we'll also talk about that this afternoon. In my estimation, the great challenge ahead is for Civil War battlefields to be places of Civic Engagement. Unfortunately, Civil War battlefields today resemble decorative landscapes. They are largely depoliticized and I think this is best exemplified by the ways that cannon figure into visitors' experience. The iconic symbol of the Civil War has lost its meaning as a weapon of destruction and death.
"Cannon, as you well know, have become the jungle gyms where scores of kids, as you probably seen, have imperiled themselves on the gun barrels doing all kinds of acrobatic feats while their parents were gone. Or, what has the cannon become? A toy trinket that is purchased at a gift shop then taken home as some kind of nostalgic reminder of the Civil War.
"When we allow this to happen, when we allow the material culture of the Civil War to become decorative pieces, we miss an opportunity to explore why Civil War soldiers were conflicted over the morality of killing and destroying their enemy. And we also miss an opportunity for visitors to reflect on the ways that we wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how our adversaries fight against us. I would recommend that during battlefield tours, as well as in museum exhibits (and this is where I think Bob [Sutton] and Dwight [Pitcaithley] are probably overjoyed that I decided not to go into the Park Service), I suggest that we juxtapose with our artillery pieces, our cannon: this. [displays slide of military UAV / drone] That we show visitors drones, so that we can explain to them that, when lethal force is applied, that it is never applied with surgical precision. As many of you well know, under President Bush there were roughly 45 drone strikes in 8 years. Under President Obama, in a single year (2009) there were 51. Some people suggest that these drone strikes result in nearly 20% casualties.
"Now, of course, these figures in the Civil War era are under revision right now, but nonetheless, you can do all the revisement of the numbers you want, civilian casualties in the Civil War were extraordinarily light, within a global perspective. But students and visitors need to understand how the use of lethal force can both further and undermine political objectives of war.
"Many in Pakistan, as we know, are turning into enemies of the United States because of these strikes, just as the Union shelling of Petersburg and Atlanta turned many southerners into ardent Confederates. At the same time, the shelling of Petersburg and Atlanta also undermined the Confederate' capacity to wage war.
"Now this is just one examples of how we might engage Civic Engagement on Civil War battlefields. But in any interpretive approach in the future, we must do so without going beyond the battlefield. That's one of my great regrets about this seed change in interpretation at Civil War parks, we too often say we have to go, 'beyond the battlefield.' This is, in fact, inconsistent with what public historians and academic historians have been saying: that we must listen to our audiences.
"But when it comes to military history sites, public historians and academic historians often subordinate visitor needs. Those needs are often about what? Who shot whom and where. So then how do we tap our visitors' passionate interests in traditional military histories (which we all recognize the limitations of that) so that they don't focus on strategy and tactics in isolation?
"My suggestion is that we create gaming situations, which place visitors in the wheelhouse of war, where the visitor has an immersive experience connected to the ground and one that unfolds, through self-discovery and visitor initiative. These gaming situation would largely pivot around 'What If?' scenarios, giving the visitor the chance to make command decisions on the field, but revealing at the same time that those decisions were embedded within a social, political and cultural context. We can talk about some of my ideas about this.
"As you can imagine, I have ideas about the content, but when it comes to the actual implementation, if it involves technology, I'm utterly clueless. Turning on my computer is an adventure for me every morning. I'm sure there's some real technical issues here that have to be addressed for this to be practical.
"I think this is, though, a practical idea in this important regard: it satisfies the visitors' craving for knowing what happened on the ground, but at the same time it will give them altitude on a battle, so that they can explore the nature of war from a range of perspectives, while also considering the civic costs and meanings of Civil War battlefields.
"Inspiring public interest in Civil War history, I don't believe, is going to come from new interpretations or new subjects. It comes down to getting people to connect with the process of discovery. Yet, as professional historians, we continue to focus on providing the 'right' themes, certainly important, but I would suggest to you that the challenge is encouraging people to think historically, while also giving them a diversion from the daily grind of life.
"We need to break the divide between education and entertainment, and we must find a way that our historical sites and classrooms become venues for leisure as well as education. And we can do so without sacrificing our engagement to Civic Engagement. Thank you."
"Good afternoon. Well, as someone who is coming from a park that is just literally days away from the beginning of our 150th commemorations, you can imagine there is a flurry of conversation going on as we try to figure out our major goals for the 150th, what we're hoping to accomplish. But even more so, what we're hoping to kind of set in motion in the years that follow. 'Cause as we all know, it doesn't end in 2015, or at least we hope it doesn't. And really, I think that for those of us like myself who are the front-line interpreters, we've been even more keen on observing who is coming to our park right now, and who has been calling to ask about what kind of programs we're offering. Where does the interest lie? And I think that observation has really provided kind of the inspiration for the three points I'm going to talk about today, and hopefully discuss later on.
And the first of those is that it strikes me again and again, on an everyday basis, whether we have five people come into the visitor center the whole day or whether we have a special event with 500 people, that we still have a ways to go, and it should be the goal of the 150thin general, I think, to help teach our visitors to become historians in their own right.
"For instance, there is still this conception of history that is this monolithic entity. People come to Richmond, to the park. They of course think Richmond was the Capitol of the Confederacy, they think everyone was a diehard secessionist, they have a very black and white view of what each side was about. And I think one of the fascinating stories, and just one of many we can delve into, is kind of how that monolithic view just is not accurate. It helps us think more precisely, more accurately about life in general, but certainly about history. There's a cluster of Unionists living just outside of Richmond and, in fact, Union spies living in Richmond, and that just shocks people to no end. To challenge them and to provoke them to think about the various dynamic groups that come in and make up this cluster of people, this cluster of states called the Confederacy or, vice versa, the Union, should be one of our major goals: to think not so much in terms of black and white, but in these shades of grey. Not so much the monolithic history.
"Likewise, I know that the 'Rally on the High Ground' initiative made huge strides for the National Park Service to include tours and history and exhibits that are more inclusive of the African-American story, the slavery story, the emancipation story. And I think that's done wonders for the Park Service. But I think we're starting to maybe go a little bit too far in that direction. Again, becoming a little monolithic ourselves as interpreters, that we kind of have to find balance between the Emancipationist emphasis of interpretation of the war and Unionist emphasis. Not to say we need to go all the way back to the Lost Cause interpretation of the war, but I think that we need to be careful about going from one side to the other so fast in reaction to kind of the 'troubles' that the Centennial caused, the Civil War Centennial, back in the 1960s. The Civil Rights issues certainly veered a very far way from that, but almost concernedly so I think. So we just need to be careful about how many interpretations we do let in, not becoming so one-sided in that.
"And finally along this point, this first point, teaching people how to become historians, there is an issue of using living history. As Pete[r Carmichael] brought up about his experience at Appomattox, living historians are vital to what we do in the National Park Service. Visitors love them, no matter what they say it seems like, seeing someone in uniform brings it to life for them: somebody to talk to you, you can interact with them, you really have to have living history.
"However, it seems like at a lot of places, not just National Parks but kind of across historic sites, we have living history just to say that we have them. And it has kind of become an issue for me when I think about how much we really tell people by doing the same cannon demonstration over and over again, by showing them how to load and fire in nine times. What is that really getting people to know? As the picture of the cannon I pointed out in the beginning to separate the mechanics of how you would fire the gun, kind of the cool factor of being near a gun and having it fired at a living history artillery demonstration, from the fact that it is a killing machine. We need to use those living historians, I think, in a much more smart way, I guess.
"And one of the ideas that we have come up with at Richmond, we're trying out for the first time actually during the 150th anniversary of the Seven Days Battles this summer, is trying to use our living history folks to further emphasize the story that we are trying to being out. For instance, when talking about difficulties of coordination and communication on battlefields like Gaines Mill and Malvern Hill, we're trying to stage our living historians, because we have a big group of them, to come out from different spots in the tree line and see exactly where they end up, divide groups of visitors to basically be parsed out among those different groups of living historians and see just how difficult really that coordination on the battlefield is, to see just how difficult it is when you walk two steps and all of a sudden you can't see the enemy scout lines. Really get the people to interact with the living history on an intellectual level, not just 'oh, that's a cool guy in a blue suit and he has a rifle,' but what can the living historian do to really challenge us to think about and really help further the story that we're trying to tell?
"The second point that's really an issue, I think, is this topic of relevance that Bob [Sutton] brought up. It's an issue that we always talk about in interpretation, how do we make Civil War history or history in general relevant? And basically since the 1960s, the kind of new wave of social history that has come through has done wonders to emphasize the history and experience of the people who normally weren't influenced before or emphasized before: women, minorities for instance, just to name some of the many groups, the lower classes.
"But I think in our attempt to be so inclusive of all these different parts that we kind of break down the history so much that we say, well, 'no, I'm female, so I would definitely want to hear the female experience.' We don't talk about how it all kind of fits into the broader picture, and what that relevance means for the community as a whole.
"Along those lines, I would suggest that we talk about relevance in the park, we often talk about the visitors desire to be one the place, on the battlefield, at the time of the event, on the date that it actually occurred and having that, 'wow!' moment, that really emotional and intellectual connection. That to them is relevance. And trying to dig into that and see how we can kind of create those moments on a daily basis, because not every day of course is an anniversary of this battle, is really important I think for us. And certainly we've done that, we've done the real-time tours, again be on this place at this time kind of tours, we've done some personalized tours following individual brigades, individual regiments, even individuals themselves. But what we really don't do is kind of delve into the depth behind the experience of the people who lived those events.
"For instance, talking about humanity, and how humanity is exposed at vulnerable moments in the battle. When we talk about kid's programs, instead of having them come and learn how to load and fire a cannon, we should be talking about, at least I think, ideas of teamwork and leadership and character, decision making, how to make tough decisions, things like that that kids are going to walk away with a Junior Ranger Badge and say, 'well I know how to load and fire a cannon,' is actually going to walk away knowing something about character. Maybe knowing something or thinking a little bit more about how to make tough decisions, interacting with people and learning that these people, these historical actors, were people just like ourselves, they had some of the same personality flaws as us, they certainly could have been great individuals in some cases to look up to and be inspired by. But we really need to delve more deeply into that issue of relevance, those universal human truths that we all can relate to, not just a story of African-Americans , a story of women, a story of a lower-class person, you know, and so on and so forth, but things that we all can relate to and experience on a daily basis.
"And thirdly, as I mentioned at the beginning, certainly our efforts don't end in 2015. We have to think about what comes after the 150th, about the 150 years, as I mentioned, after 2015. We have this huge Reconstruction story to deal with and (Pete was saying) that really shouldn't be moved necessarily off the battlefield all the time. It's hard to think of many sites that do dedicate themselves to interpretation of the Reconstruction era, in fact it's very difficult to come up with those. But there are ways that we can definitely tie those stories to the battlefield still. We don't have to move beyond the battlefield, and for those of us who are tied to a specific battlefield and work there, I think we have a lot to work with as we talk about the legacies of why those soldiers fought in those spaces to begin with, what it means after the war. So getting to that Reconstruction topic is, I think, absolutely vital, something that we really can't let visitors say, 'oh it's 2015, I'm tired of touring around, all the big events and all the artillery demos are over.' That's when it really comes into kind of the heart of these discussions.
"And along those lines, too, very similar to what I said earlier about the Park Service and historic sites in general emphasizing the African-American story, the emancipationist view of the Civil War, there are a lot of people who think of Reconstruction itself either as a complete success or a complete failure. Again we have to attack that monolithic, that binary view of history, and again we have to think about, 'it's not a finished story.' When visitors come to sites after 2015 and they want to hear about Reconstruction, thinking about how that story does continue, it just doesn't end in 1877. It doesn't end then, it's still going on and, in some ways, it's ok it's not quite finished yet. Too many times, visitors want that neat package, they want that 'who's right? who's wrong? when did it start? when did it end? who participated in what?' But it's really those variances, those shades of grey where I think visitors are very surprised to see that oftentimes they can kind of see themselves as historical actors, and I think that that is what is one of the most special moments as an interpreter in the Park Service. Thank You."