Interpreting Sacred Ground: The Rhetoric of National Civil War Parks and Battlefields by J. Christian Spielvogel (review)
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Interpreting Sacred Ground: The Rhetoric of National Civil War Parks and Battlefields. By J. Christian Spielvogel. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2013. Pp. ix, 190. $34.95 cloth)

In this book, J. Christian Spielvogel illustrates how the National Park Service (NPS) has crafted interpretations of the Civil War through themes of reconciliation, emancipation, equality, masculinity, and the morality of war. The author examines Gettysburg National Military Park, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and the Cold Harbor Battlefield, a unit of Richmond National Battlefield. This [End Page 327] book exists within a group of studies regarding Civil War memory that have emerged in the last two decades, but were made popular by David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001). According to Spielvogel, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park places slavery at the center of the causes of the war but links John Brown’s failed slave insurrection in 1859 to the racial progress of the twentieth century and, thus, visitors walk away with the “impression that racial inequality is a thing of the past” (p. 3). He argues that the reconciliationist memory of the war is the overarching theme at Gettysburg National Military Park. There the ideas of resoluteness, faith, and gentlemanly behavior distort the reality of Civil War combat. He is more pleased with the savage interpretation of the Battle of Cold Harbor.

There are places within the book where Spielvogel exhibited the need for more sources or more careful reading of historians’ work. For example, in chapter two, he discusses the ways in which African Americans have different memories of the Civil War. His arguments about the black reconciliation viewpoint versus the emancipation viewpoint could have been strengthened by reading Donald Shaffer’s After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans (2004) and Barbara Gannon’s The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (2011). He also sells W. E. B. Du Bois short by criticizing him for being inexperienced as a leader solely because of the failure of the Niagara Movement, as Du Bois, among other things, co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Other examples in which more historical reading and analysis were needed came in chapter three. General Ulysses S. Grant did not lose seven thousand men in less than an hour at Cold Harbor as the author claims (p. 94). It is odd that he says this considering one of his sources is Gordon Rhea’s Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864 (2002), in which Rhea gives a long analysis of the June 3 casualties. It is also not true that Fredericksburg was the first battle in which Confederate troops fought behind earthworks (p. 95). This [End Page 328] is demonstrated in Earl Hess’s Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864 (2006).

It is curious why there was no analysis of the western theater battlefields; however, Spielvogel asks some questions that are useful for anyone interpreting the Civil War, but especially the National Park Service, which preserves some of the war’s most iconic battlefields. He is most effective in arguing against the employment of “military strategy discourse” where the commanders of the armies are substituted for the soldiers’ actions. Within that context he encourages the NPS staff to be more explicit regarding the soldiers’ experience in combat. He challenges readers to think about the ways in which we may be generating an interracial reconciliation memory that ignores racially motivated savagery in regards to the service of the United States Colored Troops. As we have reached the middle of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and are three years away from the centennial of the NPS, it is a good time to think about how the staff of historic sites has adapted various themes to understand the Civil War.

Emmanuel J. Dabney

Emmanuel J. Dabney holds an MA in public history from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (2010) and a BA in historic preservation from the University of Mary Washington (2008). He works for the National Park Service...


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