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Friday, January 02, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Park Service's Civil War reinterpretation delves into controversy behind battle
By Delia M. Rios
SHARPSBURG, Md. Along Antietam Creek, witness to the Civil War's bloodiest day, battlefield Superintendent John Howard watches for signs that the struggle over how we remember the war is making its way to these quiet fields.
In nearby Washington, where wagonloads of Union wounded passed President Lincoln in the street that September of 1862, Dwight Pitcaithley keeps a vigil of his own from the downtown office where he presides as chief historian of the National Park Service.
But at Antietam as at Shiloh, Richmond, Manassas or Chickamauga and Chattanooga the visiting public largely shows quiet acceptance as a century-old tradition falls away and the Park Service confronts the still volatile subject of slavery as the core cause of a war that compelled 620,000 men to their deaths.
"No outrage, no protests, no controversy," Pitcaithley repeats with each recitation of changes at the battlefield sites.
Even at South Carolina's Fort Sumter where the war's first shots were fired April 12, 1861, and where members of the park staff, their superintendent says, sit "on the point of the sword" slavery has entered the storyline without incident.
It wasn't the battle the Park Service had braced for.
The cause of the Civil War is one of the most enduring arguments of American history. Academics began reaching a consensus half a century ago that the political, economic and social divisions of the 1860s inevitably led back to "the peculiar institution," as slavery was called.
But there remains deep attachment to the idea historians flatly call it myth that the South, overwhelmed by Northern might, waged a heroic contest for states' rights in what's known as "The Lost Cause."
From the 1890s to the 1990s, a tacit agreement on the battlefields held firm: There would be no talk of what had set brother against brother, only recounting of the military strategies and tactics played out in places like Devil's Den at Gettysburg and Chattanooga's Missionary Ridge.
Tens of millions of dollars is being spent to bring the battlefields in line by the war's 150th anniversary.
What may have quelled controversy are the unequivocal voices of the past. An army of first-person accounts and original documents has been deployed in new exhibits and interpretive materials, allowing the drama's actors to explain themselves. They speak plainly to the present, breaching the long silence on the single most contentious question of the war.
At Corinth, Miss., for instance, next summer's visitors to the southern gateway of the Shiloh battlefield will view Mississippi's declaration of secession in its entirety. "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery," the second paragraph reads, " ... and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization."
The change has required deft handling.
In Richmond, Va., the former capital of the Confederacy, the superintendent ran exhibit language by city fathers "to make sure every word is what we meant," Pitcaithley said. To allow for public comment, planned displays at Fort Sumter were put on temporary full-color vinyl panels before installation. Copies of interpretive text were sent to South Carolina officials and university historians.
Certainly, there is strong opposition to this reinterpretation, even in the absence of a public backlash. The recent outcry in Richmond against a statue of Lincoln, seated with his son Tad, is a reminder of the emotion surrounding the war's memory.
Allen Sullivant, chair of the Heritage Defense Committee of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, objects to what he views as a partisan assault on Confederates as "the bad guy in the situation." Jerry Russell, national chair of the Civil War Round Table Associates, is adamant the battlefields, which draw some 11 million visitors a year, should remain solely about the battles and the men. He and Pitcaithley who are friendly have publicly crossed swords on the issue, as Russell put it. But he realizes "we will never have a meeting of the minds."
Indeed, when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt took the stage back in 2000 at Ford's Theater where an assassin's bullet struck down Lincoln and urged the nation to "lift our eyes up from the din of battle," there was every reason to believe there'd be war of another sort.
No wonder Howard listened carefully from the Antietam fields, where the sacrifices of 23,000 men led to the Civil War's moral turning point.
A small rise where William Roulette's farmhouse still sits overlooks fields where, on Sept. 17, 1862, Union troops marched south, then turned west toward the sunken road where Confederates lay in wait. One story has Roulette on his porch, urging the men on. In four hours, Bloody Lane, as history knows it, claimed 5,000 casualties.
What propelled them forward after such carnage?
"What in the world were they doing out there?" Pitcaithley asked on a recent summer morning, making his way from the old Roulette place to the Miller cornfield, where the volleys of lead cut the stalks like knives. "It is THE question as far as I'm concerned."
Soldiers prayed for the sun to set to end the bloodletting. Only Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's retreat to Virginia allowed Union forces to claim the field after a tactical draw. Lincoln, looking for a sign in the battle's outcome, declared from Washington, "God has decided this question in favor of the slaves."
He announced the Emancipation Proclamation six days later. For the North, it was now a war for freedom as much as for union.
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