Reporting from the SCWH: Plenary Session on Monuments and Memory at Gettysburg NMP

Civil War monuments, particularly those commemorating the Confederacy, have been a hot topic of conversation in the past few years and historians have engaged in the debate through many mediums. Almost every major conference recently has had a plenary or session about what to do with Confederate monuments and what the historian’s role is in the discussion, and the Society of Civil War Historians was no different. The opening plenary session addressed “Monuments and Memory of the Civil War at the Heart of the ‘Gettysburg National Shrine’” with Daryl Black (Seminary Ridge Museum), Jennifer Murray (Oklahoma State University), Jill Ogline Titus (Gettysburg College), Scott Hancock (Gettysburg College), and Pete Miele (Seminary Ridge Museum) as panelists.

Black started the session off with a more theoretical musing about the role of historians in the conversations over memory and commemoration. First, he asked how the visitors themselves engage with monuments on the battlefield. He noted that this engagement can vary from visitor to visitor and even with the time of year; the July battle anniversary usually is more military and battle focused while Remembrance Day in November is largely focused on the monuments. Visitors come to the field from a variety of backgrounds and expectations about what they will take away from the experience. They make their own spaces of consumption within the set environment of the battlefield and they consume those memorial landscapes on their own agenda. Tour guides and museum interpretations assigning meaning to these places may or may not persuade visitors to change the way they consume or think about history and memory. Within these spaces, what is the historian’s role? Taking the role of “expert” in a conversation that is very “democratic” with visitors who have their own perceptions of the commemorative space can stifle the possibilities of those conversations. However, we are the experts that need to engage in the hard history of our field and the real implications of that history in our modern world, including issues of violence and exclusion in the historical narrative. In the end, historians must engage in these conversations whenever possible and ask how a critical analysis of history can supplant narratives based solely on heritage. Black asked how can historians can shape a new heritage to replace that which highlights white supremacy or rosy reconciliation.

Murray, Titus, and Hancock offered observations based on their research. Murray challenged historians to rethink the narrative of reconciliation based on early commemoration and the thoughts and words of Union veterans in the years after the war. Looking at the dedication speeches for Union monuments at Gettysburg there are three main themes: honoring the memory of those who died, Gettysburg as a defining moment of the war, and the Union cause. The organization in charge of the battlefield often promoted reconciliation for their own purposes, but the language of the dedication speeches often included parts about treason and the right and wrong sides of the war that challenges the more rosy narrative of fraternity in the years after the war.

Titus examined commemoration of Gettysburg during the Centennial as Cold War pageantry, using the Eternal Peace Memorial, Confederate state monuments, and the Cyclorama Center as examples. The Eternal Peace Memorial is the ultimate symbol of reconciliation, but it was dedicated on the foundation of excluding the history of African Americans and interpretation about emancipation. State monuments, such as South Carolina and Florida, were dedicated as part of the Centennial as part of efforts to exude national unity under a lenient NPS policy Titus called “no praise, no blame.” Lastly, the Cyclorama Center, dedicated in 1962 was a prime example of Cold War pageantry, designed to be a monument to Lincoln and American exceptionalism. While the building functioned to house the cyclorama painting, the architect also wanted it to serve as a “shrine for the free world” where leaders from all over the world could come to learn about United States democracy.

Hancock argued that revisionist white supremacist history and a lenient NPS policy in the second half of the twentieth century led to the placement of many of the Confederate monuments on the field. He argued that this leniency continues today and that the conversations between the National Park Service and Southern heritage groups are the same today as through the last century. Themes of sacrifice and unity perpetually lead to silence about issues of race, a theme that Titus also pointed out with the Eternal Peace Memorials during her presentation. Hancock took a more critical tone in his remarks about the NPS and Confederate commemoration and stated that the issue was not just about putting up or tearing down monuments, it was about dismantling the systems behind them.

Miele took a more practical approach to his remarks, talking about how to engage local communities through projects to educate and change perceptions about the memory of the war. These projects usually are long-term; he realizes that a one-day event or project is not going to change entrenched ideas about the Civil War. These spaces can also be filled with tension between the historian “experts” and the community, something that his colleague, Black, stated earlier in the session. But he advocated for the use of museum education programs and long-term engagement in the community to approach these issues of heritage and memory.

Using Gettysburg as a focus, these five historians engaged in the complicated question of what to do with Confederate memory and the role historians must play in the conversations happening all over the country. The remarks from Black and Miele offered questions and suggestions for how historians should engage with visitors and communities over the difficult questions of our field and untangle the web of heritage and commemoration that affects our modern perception of the Civil War. Murray, Titus, and Hancock offered insight into the history of Gettysburg commemoration through their individual topics and served as examples of how historians can use their voices to unpack how memory has been built over the decades. Understanding how the commemorative space was constructed from 1865 on allows us to not only explain that memory to the public, but find where voices and important elements have been previously excluded so that we can make that narrative more complete. The answer to the question of Confederate monuments and commemoration is not clear. The fact that there have been several plenary sessions at conferences over the past few years, all of which asked a lot of questions and posed a lot of suggestions but could not offer clear solutions, reflects how complex the conversation can be. But what is clear is that historians have a role to play and must engage in these difficult questions in whatever way we can.

Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated with her Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2017. She earned her M.A. from West Virginia University in 2012 and her B.A. in history with a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies from Siena College in 2010. In addition, Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park from 2010-2014 and has worked on various other publications and projects.