Before 1998 official information provided by the Civil War National Park Battlefields like Gettysburg were specific to the historical events on the battlefields and the military campaigns connected with them. The Park Service avoided statements about the causes of the war for two reasons. First, they were unnecessary to the study of the military events. Second, they were subject to conflicting interpretations, best left to visitors to decide for themselves. Everything changed in 1998 when the National Park Service chief historian, Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley, decided to “correct the mistakes” of the Centennial Commemoration during the 1960s.
As this interview reveals, Dr. Pitcaithley knew almost nothing about the Civil War in 1998. He admitted that he had no interest “at all” as a child, never took a college course about it, did not even start “thinking about” it until 1990 and considered it a peripheral matter until his 1998 decision to push the Park Service to sanction an interpretation about the war’s causes. He was a self-proclaimed “Johnny come lately to the field [of Civil War study.]”
Due to his personal lack of knowledge, Dr. Pitcaithley turned to conveniently available sources for an understanding of Civil War causation that he would transform into “the voice of the federal government.” As an ex-officio member of the Gettysburg History Advisory Committee he met twice yearly with “Jim McPherson, Eric Foner, Gary Gallagher, Nina Silber and other luminaries.” Except perhaps for the unnamed “other luminaries” all generally dismiss any factors unconnected to slavery. They commonly equate the reasons for the secession of the first seven of the eleven Confederate states with the reasons for the war. They largely ignore Northern motivations to coerce the seceded states to remain in order to avoid the economic consequences of disunion on a pro-forma truncated federal Union.
Dr. Pitcaithley started getting written complaints after implementing his changes. He was surprised when some letters revealed his deficient knowledge, which he kept secret until ready to reply. One example was a letter that explained the Corwin Amendment, endorsed by President Lincoln in his first inaugural address and passed by a two-thirds congressional majority. Although impossible to ratify after eleven Southern states seceded, the Amendment would have permanently denied the federal government the authority to interfere with slavery in states where it was legal. During the interview, Dr. Pitcaithley admitted he had never heard of it.
Once confronted with the Amendment’s historical reality, however, Dr. Pitcaithley hurriedly learned enough to write a dubious response consistent with his pre-existing opinion. He held steadfast to the opinion that slavery was the only cause of the war that the National Park Service should mention, the Corwin Amendment notwithstanding. In crafting responses to other letters Dr. Pitchaithley explained, “I had read Jim McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and had many conversations with McPherson…I sort of offered the McPherson response” to all such complaints. McPherson’s viewpoints are implacably anti-Southern.
After the first parks changed the narrative, Pitcaithley voiced disapproval of the interpretation provided at Fort Sumter. Although it underscored the primacy of slavery to secession, it also provided quotes by Lincoln that revealed the 16th President’s own anti-black racism and his priority for coercion of the Southern states back into the Union over the emancipation of slaves. While the quotes were undeniable, he described them as annoying “interpretive spin” resulting from interference by Palmetto State historians. Pitcaithley evidently remains unaware that failure to mention the economic motives for Northern conquest is a form of “interpretive spin” by its omission.
The Park Service was wise to originally focus on the historical military events at the National Battlefield Parks. It should have declined to add editorials about the causes of the war, which are inevitably subject to “interpretive spin.” It is better to let visitors decide such matters for themselves instead of having the federal government—as Dr. Pitcaithley puts it—“telling them what to think.”