If there was ever any doubt, it’s now beyond question that the American Civil War settled nothing and never even ended. Not only is the NAACP still waging war against the Confederate flag but now the Clinton administration is also waddling into the breach to make sure the nation’s Civil War battlefields teach the right messages. You may be able to guess what the Clinton crowd thinks the right message is.
Last year, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. managed to insert language in an appropriations bill requiring Civil War battlefield parks to “encourage” discussions of the role of slavery in causing the war. This year, Jackson and a platoon of left-leaning historians showed up at a National Park Service symposium to flap their jaws about the forthcoming discussions.
Kate Stevenson, the Park Service’s Associate Director for Cultural Resource Stewardship and Partnerships, and one of the Clinton administration’s major policy-makers on the battlefield issue, pronounces that “I don’t want to hear about battles when I go to a Civil War battlefield. I don’t care about battles.” She is by no means alone in her indifference to the history that really did take place on the battlefields and her passion for a history that never happened.
What John Latschar, superintendent at the Gettysburg battlefield park, wants visitors to learn is definitely not history. “I’m just absolutely convinced that we have a far more compelling need to move into the 21st century,” he told the Washington Times last week, “to give people the basic understanding of why the Civil War was fought, and the meaning of it all. … We can find that meaning in the words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which is the new birth of freedom.” That’s much more important, he says, than “remembering the names of Union and Confederate generals.”
Of course, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address had nothing to do with why the war was fought; it was delivered two years after the war began, and Lincoln’s war aims had far less to do with the “new birth of freedom” his speech announced than clobbering the seceding Southerners and “preserving the union” at the point of the bayonet.
Nor did abolishing slavery have much to do with the war. Lincoln many times denied that was his aim, and slavery continued to exist in the North throughout the war and until the 13th Amendment after the war abolished it.
Latschar offers what he says is a “proper” way to tell the story of the war without stepping on any of the toes that still wiggle over it in both North and South. The only problem is that his account, as reported by the Times, is just plain wrong. “When 11 states seceded,” the Times reports Latschar’s version, “Lincoln responded by raising an army to invade the South to put down the rebellion.”
Well, not exactly. Only seven states seceded at first, and Lincoln didn’t raise an army to invade them. Only after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter did Lincoln call for troops and the other four states secede. Whether the secession was really an act of “rebellion” is a question that cannot and could not be resolved by war or by historical scholarship; it’s a matter of constitutional interpretation, whether the states had the right to secede or not.
Given the demonization of the South and all things connected to the Confederacy in recent years, it’s pretty clear what characters like the junior Jackson and his squad of leftish historians and pet bureaucrats want to do. They want to use the immense interest that Americans really feel for the Civil War to push their propaganda down the American throat, to preach about the evils of slavery and racism back then and then preach some more about the evils of slavery and racism today that the war failed to wipe off the face of the earth.
Shelby Foote, probably the most distinguished living historian of the Civil War, who conspicuously was not at the tame symposium put together by the Park Service, says, “We could argue that kind of stuff till doomsday,” and that’s probably the wisest thing to say about the whole issue. Some 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War when the arguments that started it failed to resolve the conflict, and no one has discovered any better ones since.
The battlefields are not the proper places to teach the causes of the war, let alone which side, if either, was right, nor is the National Park Service the proper teacher. The 11 million Americans who visit these fields every year are entirely capable of figuring out why the war was fought and who was right and who was wrong. If they’re wise, they won’t let the central event in their nation’s history be hijacked by propagandists.