On NPS Visitation & that Wall Street Journal article

Richmond Battlefield_attribution- National Park Service.jpg

So, two weeks ago I was interviewed by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal doing a story on National Park Service visitation at Civil War battlefield sites. As you may know, I was a long-time seasonal ranger for the NPS, and my “former” status means I can talk freely with the press—something that current rangers can’t readily do.

Anyway, the premise of the article, as presented to me, was that in light of declining numbers, what should/could the NPS do to generate more interest in the parks?

During the phone interview, I gave the reporter a little bit of background, explaining that park visitation has spikes and subsequent declines, usually associated with cultural and pop-cultural events—the centennial celebrations in the early 60s, the popularity of Ken Burn’s Civil War series in the 80s, and the release of movies like 1989’s Glory and 1993’s Gettysburg, for examples.

Unfortunately, those spikes came at a time when the park service was still a bit stuck in the rut of “who shot who, and where” interpretation. Further, I theorized that because most of the Civil War parks are in the South, a lot of that surge was from southern whites.

Sadly, for varied and complex reasons, African Americans have been rare visitors to the park battlefield sites, I told the reporter,  not the least of which is because of the legacy of Jim Crow, as public parks in the South have not exactly been seen as welcoming to blacks. That problem persists—-if your parents didn’t take you to the parks, you’re not very likely to take your own kids.

gen-stonewall-jackson-1a.jpgAfrican Americans have also been largely excluded from the narratives told at these sites as well. When they did show up, they faced monuments making the defenders of slavery look like superheroes.

So, I theorized, the “base” (though far from all) of the visitation surges has been white southerners looking to the parks for narratives about where their ancestors fought and where they did sacrificial and glorious deeds.

However, since about the mid 90s, I told the reporter, the NPS has made efforts to broaden the narratives at the parks, telling more inclusive stories and focusing on more than just old school military history. Social, cultural, and political history has slowly but surely begun to be reflected in NPS interpretation, telling richer and more diverse stories that shed light on the war’s causes, contingencies, and enduring legacies. We’re just now reaching a flowering of this at NPS sites, but there’s still a long way to go, especially at those sites down here in the deep south.

The downside, however, is that these changes have been off-putting to many in that “base” of white southerners, who don’t want to come to the parks and be exposed to what they see as the national government’s (the winners) version of the story.

It is uncomfortable and upsetting to them to be told and/or reminded that great, great, grandpa fought for a government founded for the direct purpose of preserving slavery, or that the post-war activities of their ancestors tended to celebrate and rewrite the Confederacy’s struggle and purpose, as a means of recreating and perpetuating slavery and racial barriers in other forms.

8185141_g.jpg“No!” They insist, “States Rights! Heritage, not hate!”

That, I told the reporter, probably helps to explain (to at least some degree) why the numbers are currently down at NPS sites after the surge in the 80s and early 90s. These people are more comfortable visiting privately or locally owned Antebellum homes and sites that tell the story they want to hear—or just staying away from history sites altogether. The current debate over Confederate symbols has only exacerbated this dynamic.

I’ve seen proof of this in two ways recently. While visiting a locally funded battlefield site in North Carolina, I encountered a visitor’s center staffed by a man spewing the Lost Cause, chapter and verse, and criticizing those parks funded by state and federal money “because they want to make everything about slavery.” Secondly, just yesterday I saw a Facebook post in response to the Wall Street Journal article in which the writer declared he’d stopped going to parks “because the liberal academics have re-written the story.” Others shared similar sentiments, but with more vitriol.

So then, what is the solution? Should the parks abandon their new emphasis on telling more honest and inclusive history in order to get this base back to the parks? Heaven forbid!

Instead, I speculated to the reporter, the focus needs to be on broadening the base of people that come to the Civil War battlefield parks. Youth programs need more support and emphasis. The use of technology to enhance the visitor experience must continue to expand (new and high tech museums and apps, etc). Park interpreters must hone their skills and energetically look at different techniques for presenting more engaging tours.  Social media must continue to be utilized (and perhaps traditional advertising) to demonstrate the expanding focus of the parks’ interpretations.

And, I told the reporter, we need NEW monuments and memorials on the battlefields and elsewhere, that celebrate and honor the efforts of the extremely diverse cast of characters that shaped the war and its consequences.

Further, I speculated that we might be on the verge of another surge in visitation caused by pop-culture, as Spielberg and Dicaprio have a movie in the works about U.S. Grant, and other projects are coming (long overdue) that focus on Harriet Tubman and Robert SmallsTubmanMarkerPlantation_54_990x660.jpgThat so many history-related movies have done so well lately, is an indication to me that people are still fascinated and hungry to know more about the past. 

I concluded the interview with a very optimistic tone about the future of the parks, pointing out that I was at that moment sitting at an Antebellum site here in Tuscaloosa (not NPS) where there was an older white gentleman roaming around, but also several kids and two African American women, all of which were reading the interpretive signs.

Almost none of that made it into the article. I asked the reporter who else he’d interviewed, and he indicated he’d spoken with Peter Carmichael, Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. Knowing Pete well (we worked together long ago as seasonal rangers), I said “Oh! I bet he gave you some good stuff.” To which the reporter responded, “well, yeah sort of. He is also optimistic like you about the new technology.”

Pete’s interview didn’t even make it into the article.

I’m not sure why the reporter was focused on such a pessimistic assessment, but as a result the piece has gotten a lot of attention and spawned others with cynical tones, like this one, or this one from the right-wing The Federalist, both of which tie the problem to a decline in the teaching of history in public schools (an assertion that is debatable itself.)

There has also been some pushback from NPS folks. John Hennessy, National Park Service historian, for example, has done a great job on his Facebook page of challenging the very premise that the park’s numbers are down. (And personally, I think if the number of reenactments and reenactors are on the decline, that’s a good thing. But my thoughts on that are a whole other discussion). The awesome folks at Civil War Trails also assure us that “the known and recent stats are encouraging.”

I think we would be better served by articles from such high profile platforms like the Wall Street Journal focusing on the great strides the Park Service has taken and continues to take in broadening the stories they tell. A recent trip I took out to City Point, Virginia (Grant’s Headquarters during the last phase of the war), for example,  focused on the plantation there, its forms of slave resistance, and the very complex master/slave relationship there. Further, a recent trip out to South Carolina’s Fort Moutrie NPS site led to an encounter with this amazing interpretive sign:


Man, I love this interpretation, especially that it concludes on an positive note (the sign is not NPS, but it is on NPS land). The NPS visitor’s center there also included displays on the Middle Passage.

So instead of throwing dirt on the grave of NPS Civil War Battlefield sites and pondering their demise, let’s focus on the transitional phase they are in now and support and champion the fantastic historians and curators they employ that are getting the story right, (especially because they often receive blowback from visitors that resent it).

Let’s also highly resolve to dedicate ourselves to helping the NPS spread the word about their mission in a way that broadens the demographics of their visitation, getting those numbers surging again. Shall we?

On Robert E. Lee’s “lost orders” & HBO’s upcoming “Confederate.”


Photo Illustration from The Daily Beast, depicting Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss

Please allow me to weigh-in on a suddenly hot topic:

Like many of you, I am a huge fan of HBO’s Game of Thrones. So the news about its creators working on a new series called Confederate caught my attention, as it did many others. When the news broke that this is what they are working on, a backlash of reactions appeared on social media.

The new show will create an alternate timeline/universe in which the South successfully seceded, and thus slavery has survived into our current time-period.

HBO says:

The story will follow “a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone — freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.”

Put me down on the side of the people who are outraged about this ridiculousness.

Of course the controversy probably has the creators and producers all the more excited about the project, and in their response to the criticisms one producer called the show’s content “weapons-grade material.”

I think a lot of the criticism of the show is a knee-jerk response. Games of Thrones has had a lot of sexual violence, needlessly gratuitous sex and nude scenes, and a lack of diversity. So, many people immediately felt the show’s premise would create an offensive “wish fulfillment” for Alt-right crackpots and/or Neo-Confederates.

I don’t buy that.

It is clear these guys intend to show why it was important that the United States won the war, ended slavery, and preserved the Union. It actually will probably only anger Neo-Confederates to see it theorized that had the South won, slavery would have continued to thrive—as we know that one of the Lost Cause’s main contentions is that not only did the South not secede to defend slavery, but that they would have gotten rid of it on their own. Hogwash

Lord knows I don’t mind anything that annoys the people that still buy the Lost Cause myth.

I further suspect that the show will theorize that had the Union not been preserved, the colossus the United States became in the 20th century would not have been around to turn the tide of two world wars, and triumph in the Cold War (or did we? Hmm).  I’m guessing in this alternate history, Germany wins WWII, and/or that Russian communism has gone global.

And lastly, it is clear that the show’s creators hope that by creating this alternate world, they will be able to explore racial issues in an open and honest way, making it clear how the legacy of slavery in the US still permeates and defines our society. Surely, Neo-Confederates and Alt-right folks won’t find comfort in that.

So I don’t think these guys have in mind some kind of Harry Turtledove-like nonsense. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt on that.

Yet I am still mad about this, in fact, a bit enraged.

Because this is HBO, and because it’s the creators of Game of Thrones, this show is likely to be pretty good TV, if not great. The studio has enormous resources and a track-record of producing amazing shows. Further, because of the controversy, the audience is likely to be huge.

And THAT is what makes me mad.

Why not use those resources, those talents, and that built-in audience to tell a REAL story about “freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall” to mass audiences in a quality way?

History has enough amazing, untold stories out there, that I simply cannot understand why we need to create an alternate universe to make the point that it is a good thing that the Confederacy lost, that the Union was preserved, that slavery was ended, and yet that its legacy still shapes and defines the political, social, and cultural fabric of modern America.

As you all know, I am a big champion of Mercy Street, and to a lesser degree Underground. Neither show was cancelled because of a lack of audiences, and in the case of Mercy Street, the funding woes of PBS was the primary culprit.

Keep in mind, we still live in an America in which large numbers of people (probably a majority) still have no clue as to what really caused the Civil War (and/or actively deny the facts) and of what went on during slavery. Doesn’t the current national debate over Rebel monuments and flags tell us that we still need more mass education about what the Confederacy stood for? Why explain that to people within the context of a fantasy world?

Imagine if you can, an alternate realm in which HBO uses its creative talents and resources to produce shows like Mercy Street and Underground, telling stories that are all the more compelling and impactful because they are true, reaching far larger audiences than PBS and WGN combined.

It isn’t like HBO does not already have a very fine track record of producing powerfully engaging history movies and mini-series, and in fact have a much anticipated project in the works based on Harriet Tubman. (What’s taking so long on that?)

Further, the Game of Thrones show-runners admit to being “history nerds” that came up with the idea for this new show after reading Shelby Foote’s description of the “lost orders” before the Battle of Antietam. It got them to thinking about the importance of contingency in historical events, and that led to the show’s concept.

But guess what guys, historians have long been arguing for the importance of contingency, and they do it in the context of solid historical facts. So could you. The “lost orders” story was compelling to you BECAUSE IT REALLY HAPPENED.

In fact, I just talked about the lost orders in my Civil War course this summer, and the class all agreed that you just can’t make stuff like that up. I’m guessing the vast majority of Americans have no clue about it.

So here’s what I am saying: Give us a show set in the late 1850s or during the Civil War, filled with real-life characters—or perhaps even better, in the 1870s during Reconstruction. Do your research and you’ll find a treasure-trove of real life events that you could fictionalize into truly compelling and thought-provoking TV, accomplishing all the goals you have in mind for Confederate, and yet it would be all the more powerful because it’s all so true.

All good historians know that the 19th century is filled with “weapons-grade material” still waiting to be told to mass audiences.

PLEASE go mine those stories and drop this inane idea.

Now I am going to the theater to see the new hit movie,  Dunkirk . . . you know, a true story.


Preserving sacred land in Virginia, but not in North Dakota; Yorktown’s New American Revolution museum; Miranda on Drunk History; A Civil War comedy?

Image result for petersburg battlefield

More great National Park Service news: The other day we learned about the impending creation of a Civil Rights National Monument in Birmingham, as well as the potential saving of almost all of the Malvern Hill Battlefield in Virginia. Now, we learn that a bill that has long been in the works is close to approval that would triple the size of the Petersburg National Battlefield, making it the largest Civil War park in the nation. Virginia’s senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have been working on this for a long while, picking up where others before them left off.

And yet while we are protecting all this land that has been deemed sacred to U.S. history, the protests continue in North Dakota to preserve land sacred to Native Americans. Now we get news that some 2,000 US military veterans are starting to arrive at the Standing Rock site, dedicated to creating a human wall around the protestors to protect them in the event of a forced removal (just think of the historical ironies of that for a second). North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple has ordered the protestors to leave, though noting that force would not be used to make them comply. Hiding behind feigned concern for the protestors (which reminds one of actions taken by certain officials during the Civil Rights movement), he insists that the order is meant to protect them from some rapidly approaching severe winter weather. I love the response of the Standing Rock Sioux to the governor. In a statement on Wednesday, they said that because “the Governor of North Dakota and Sheriff of Morton County are relative newcomers” to the land, “it is understandable they would be concerned about severe winter weather.” Further, the Great Sioux Nation has survived “in this region for millennia without the concerns of state or county governments.” Nice. Let’s hope this situation does not get any uglier, but with the veterans arriving, I think it is quickly reaching a boiling point. Our nation does have a history of dealing harshly with protestors like this (even when they include veterans), and I fear for what kinds of things can happen in Trump’s America. (Too bad that North Dakota does not seem to be represented by men like Warner and Kaine).

And while we are on Standing Rock, I highly encourage you to take he time to read the blog post of Wisconsin basketball player Bronson Koenig about his experiences at the protest site, his recent delvings into Native American history, and the impact it all has had on his ongoing personal self discovery.  It is a great read that will take you much deeper into what is going on out there than we see in the headlines.

Well we know about the new American Revolution museum soon opening in Philadelphia, but there is also a new one already open in Yorktown, Virginia. According to the Virginia Gazette, the new facility is heavy on technology designed to draw visitors into an immersive experience (and includes battle simulation games). “You never want to do technology just to do technology,” one of the institution’s media managers said. “So we didn’t just do something because it looked cool or because it was a big wow, but rather, does it present the content in the way that is going to mean the most to the visitor who’s interacting with it?” As a result, the new $50 million museum has 22,000-square-foot gallery that, in addition to 500 artifacts, contains four film experiences, six computer interactives, projections, audio wands and more. I’ll be in the area in just a few weeks, so I can’t wait to drop by and see the new place. I’ll let you know what I think! Stay tuned.

Did you catch Lin-Manuel Miranda on Drunk History the other night? It was pretty funny, although I think it did not completely live up to the hype. It was most successful at painting the lead up to the Hamilton/Burr duel as all very high school-ish (if that is possible), but clearly Miranda knows Hamilton’s story so well that he can tell it pretty adeptly even while drunk. That mutes the comedic aspects of the show, though Drunk History was able to compensate for it pretty well with their always hilarious renditions of the story-teller’s words. If you missed it, you can watch it here at the Comedy Central website. (You’ll need to sign in by using your cable/satellite account info). I love that Miranda concludes by noting that although he was killed by Burr, Hamilton won in the end because someone eventually made an amazing Broadway show about how great he was. Indeed!

Looking for a good history movie on Netflix? How about a Civil War comedy? Not sure how it is possible to make a good comedy out of such a tragic event, but over on Civil War Pop, Christian McWhirter lets us know that an independent film called Men Go to Battle somewhat pulls it off, and manages to be historically accurate. I think I’ll check it out.

And while we’re back on the Civil War: there is apparently a new mini-series set to air in a couple of weeks called Blood and Fury: America’s Civil War. The rather hyperbolic title of the show does not inspire much confidence that this thing will be any good, nor does its description that tells us that the “war’s most significant battles” were “Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettsyburg, Nashville, and Petersburg.” What, no Vicksburg? How does Fredericksburg make that list but not Vicksburg? Or Atlanta, for that matter? I’ll try not to pre-judge though, so lets see how this thing turns out. It premieres Dec 14 on The American Heroes Channel.  (What the heck is that? I’ll have to check to see if I even have that!)