National Battlefield Park Bias

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.

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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.”

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16 thoughts on “National Battlefield Park Bias

  1. Harvey Nixon

    I appreciate so much the article and the replies… After reading the book the Real Lincoln by Thomas J. DiLorenzo… we need more discussion about the real causes of the Civil War and let everyone understand what really happened during this period of our history.

    Reply
    1. cassandra41

      For the Parks Department to say that it does not opine about the causes of the war is ludicrous. This is the same agency that “edited” Lincoln’s comments about saving the union and freeing the slaves in its Gettysburg facility. Whereas Lincoln had said that to save the union he would free ALL of the slaves (the comment used by the PD), the Department neglected to point out that he ALSO said that to do so he would free SOME or NONE of the slaves. That particular addendum was conveniently omitted. The PD has made it clear to those who give tours etc., that they had best toe the party line of “slavery and nothing BUT slavery” or they would find themselves without a livelihood. When I personally asked a PD tour guide at Sagamore Hill in New York about the attack on Confederate monuments, the man actually put his hand before his face and backed away telling me (somewhat shrilly) that he was not PERMITTED to discuss such matters. The idea that the PD is “neutral” in the present ongoing assault on history is pure nonsense.

      Reply
  2. Valerie Protopapas

    The problem, of course, is not the lack of scholarship or intellectual laziness, but the need to conform to AN AGENDA. In fact, the desire to have the matter of race as the reason for Southern secession absent any understanding of the constitutional RIGHT of any State to secede, affects not only the argument about the causes of the war.

    To begin with, there is/was nothing in law or custom — including the Constitution — that required the REASON(S) for secession to be morally, ethically or culturally acceptable to the rest of the States. A State could secede for any and all reasons as long as it fulfilled the constitutional requirements — that is a convention in which the delegates of the citizens of that State met and voted on the matter.

    Second, slavery still existed in the North. Abraham Lincoln opined that New Jersey’s slaves would probably be emancipated by the year 1900! Furthermore, Northern “black code” laws forbade blacks from entering Northern States which set up a situation in which wholesale emancipation of millions of blacks in the South without any preparation for such “freedom” guaranteed social, political and economic chaos in those States.

    Third, Northern abolitionists preached not emancipation but servile insurrection as seen in the “uprising” of Nat Turner. The “slave revolt” in Santo Domingo/Haiti had raised deep concern in especially the Cotton States for the safety of their white and even much of their black population. The slaves in Haiti killed not only whites, but mulattos because they were lighter skinned. When the United State Congress put into the Congressional Record these calls for slaughter published by Northern radicals, many States of the South considered that their “federal government” had become a malignant enemy and that the only hope was to flee from that “contract.”

    The simple fact is that today’s “federal” (central) government has an agenda in which it is using racial conflict as a means of sowing discord in the nation. This has been ongoing since the death of The Great Bargain in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Indeed, this has already gone PAST the assault on the South, its history and its heritage and is now being waged on AMERICAN history and symbols. As the Parks Department is simply one more “government agency” like the IRS and the BAFT, it would be foolish to expect anything else.

    Reply
    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      The question about the legitimacy of secession is debatable. I am aware, for example, that three (Virginia, New York and Rhode Island) of the original thirteen states joined the federal union conditionally by reserving the right to withdrawal. My greater personal objection, however, is that secession need not necessarily have led to war and the fact that the Park Service ignores the economic reasons that the North decided to coerce the Southern states back into the Union. They transformed the Southern states into an internal colony that remained impoverished more than a century after the war.

      Reply
      1. Valerie Protopapas

        All that you say is true and, in fact, was accepted as “history” until the middle of the 20th century when the issue of race became of utmost importance and “required” that the bloodiest war in US history be attributed to slavery and race however erroneously. This was no longer a matter of “differences of opinion” but of a political agenda and has remained as such since that time culminating in the ongoing crusade of Southern cultural genocide. Alas, if it were only something as simple and benign as scholastic debate.

      2. Brett Moffatt

        The question of the legitimacy of secession isn’t really debatable. It was accepted at the time of the founding, and reiterated in the Principles of ’98, and the cry of New England several times. The Federalist Papers were written to cover questions such as where sovereignty resided. There would have been no Constitution without the possibility of secession. Even Lincoln and most of the leaders in the North accepted it. What the North could not tolerate was the South not funding the federal government and all the monies which they milked from the South. It was so unfortunate that the South lost, because we lost our republican form of government, and have never gotten it back. The old quote, I think it was Andrew Lyle, to the effect that the citizens went into the war as citizens of their respective states, and came out citizens of a national government….and what they lost, we have never gotten back.

      3. Valerie Protopapas

        That was the problem with the 14th Amendment, an amendment that was never legally ratified. A comment was made upon it by Orville Browning, a friend of Lincoln who helped him manufacture the false flag operation at Fort Sumter that “permitted” the federal government to wage war against the States of the South (treason according to Article III, § 3 of the Constitution). The the sea-change that amendment made in the vision of a Federal Republic, Browning said:

        “Be assured that if this new provision [the 14th Amendment] be engrafted in the Constitution, it will, in time, it will, in time, change the entire structure and texture of our government, and sweep away all the guarantees of safety devised and provided by our patriotic Sires of the Revolution.”

        Orville Browning, Secretary of the Interior, 1867

        The easiest way to understand what happened was defined by historian Shelby Foote who stated that before the war, the statement was, THE UNITED STATES ARE. After the war, it was, THE UNITED STATES IS. Simple. No more “sovereign states.” No more real power existing anywhere but in the “national government” as Lincoln himself defined it.

      4. Phil Leigh Post author

        I stand by my earlier opinion that the legitimacy of secession is debatable. While there are no Constitutional provisions prohibiting it there are also no provisions authorizing it. In contrast, the European Union has such a provision, to wit, Article 50.

        Nonetheless, the Park Service is wrong to equate the reasons for secession with the reasons for war. It is not addressing the question: “Why did the North decide to fight?” The answer most commonly provided by historians like McPherson who is advising the Park Service on the primacy of slavery is, “The North fought to ‘persevere the Union.'”

        That is an abstraction. The reason Northerners wanted the Union preserved was to prevent the economic consequences upon the truncated federal Union that would result from Southern secession. That is why the North insisted upon coercing the Southern states back into the Union. It was not done for an abstract principle of “persevering the Union.”

      5. Valerie Protopapas

        Sorry, but secession was acknowledged in the Constitution. Indeed, both nullification and secession were the ACTUAL “balance of powers” between the States and the federal government. The ones we learn of today are INTERNAL to that government and, as I believe Jefferson or Patrick Henry pointed out, when the federal government is able to define its own limits, it HAS NO LIMITS. See today’s national government.

        The three States with secession provisos in the ratification documents — New York, Rhode Island and Virginia — were able to ratify the Constitution without any problems from those States who did not. And as the Constitution was a contract or a compact, legally no one signatory may have more (or less) rights than any other. Hence, via the ratification of the three States mentioned above, secession was an acknowledged right in the Constitution (see searchingforlincoln.com)

  3. Jerry Dunford Sr.

    Shameful, but this is what has happened to our nation. We have Liberals in every part of our Federal and state governments, in our classrooms as teachers, and they have been lying to our citizens for the past 100 years, and each year they lie more. They hate the Southern/Confederate history, the truth shines the light of barbarism on the North and Lincoln and his band of robbers, arsonist, rapists and murderers. So they try to change history from fact to what they like.

    Reply
    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jerry.

      I believe it is, however, a mistake to assume that all political liberals are not among those who respect Confederate heritage. Labeling all political liberals as hostile to Confederate heritage deters those who do respect the heritage from saying so. It also leads supports to fall into the trap of critics like Professor Brooks Simpson who try to characterize Confederate heritage supports as people who are actually trying to promote a present-day political agenda as indicated below.

      https://civilwarchat.wordpress.com/2016/07/02/will-brooks-simpson-debate/

      Reply
      1. Valerie Protopapas

        Interestingly enough, many liberals just LOVE the Civil War Trust and its effort to save the battlefields. Unfortunately, that organization seems to have no interest in preserving the factual history of those same battlefields and is silent at best on the assault on Southern history. The problem is whether or not the individuals involved — liberal or otherwise — are willing to debate HISTORY or if they use “political correctness” to shut down debate. If they do, it doesn’t really matter what part of the ideological spectrum they inhabit. They are promoters of a false agenda which is designed to “rewrite” history.

        Read Orwell and understand what this whole thing is about. The motto which Orwell provided Big Brother is simple: Those who control the past control the future;
        Those who control the present, control the past.

        To make sure his readers understood the world that Orwell PREDICTED, he made this SEMINAL statement which every decent, intelligent and rational person should take to heart no matter where he stands on these issues:

        “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” – George Orwell

      2. Phil Leigh Post author

        I agree that the Civil War Trust seems to be uninterested in presenting a balanced interpretation of the Civil War.

        As noted in another comment, however, I do believe that Confederate heritage supporters can come from the left side of the current political spectrum. The unfortunately common practice of attacking those opposed to Confederate heritage as liberals is repellant to those liberals who do, in fact, support Confederate heritage.

      3. Valerie Protopapas

        As noted, it is not a matter of political spectrum, though it would seem that most of those against the South are from the left, but of the inability or unwillingness to debate and dialogue using the facts (not so much “the Truth” as people often make different “truths” out of the same facts!). I am reminded of my mother who, when we “debated,” used to complain, “Don’t confuse me with facts!”

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