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Interpreting Sacred Ground: The Rhetoric of National Civil War Parks and Battlefields

J. Christian Spielvogel, University of Alabama Press, 2013, $34.95

Embedded within Christian Spielvogel’s incisive textual analysis lies a message important to all Civil War enthusiasts and battlefield trampers. Using three of the most popular Civil War sites managed by the National Park Service— Gettysburg, Harpers Ferry and Cold Harbor—as his laboratory, he demonstrates how language used on monuments, exhibits and other materials to describe and interpret the sites influences—and, to a large degree, creates—our understanding of these critical wartime events.

NPS has a dual responsibility at the 50 Civil War sites it manages: preservation and interpretation. Different priorities have prevailed at different times. The way language is used at Gettysburg, much of it from the Lost Cause or reconciliationist era, is not the same as the post–civil rights emancipationist interpretive material more recently installed at Harpers Ferry. Spielvogel investigates how NPS keeps pace with the public’s changing perspectives on the war.

“Scholarship on public memory of the Civil War,” Spielvogel asserts, “has not directly identified and assessed the Park Service’s key role as an arbiter of twentieth century Civil War memory.” Given the number of visitors at the three sites Spielvogel analyzes, NPS has a significant, and difficult, role to play. More people will get their understanding of the war through interpretive materials at the parks than from the myriad books written by scholars. NPS must balance a dispassionate description of specific events and people while interpreting their place in the larger issues, particularly slavery, that caused the war and affected the peace.

Eric Foner has written that every generation reinterprets history anew. The NPS must do the same. If we are to understand our complicated past, we must approach the legacy of the Civil War with open and critical minds. The historical parks managed by the NPS are an excellent place to start.

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.