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Interpreting Sacred Ground

The Rhetoric of National Civil War Parks and Battlefields

J. Christian Spielvogel

Publication Year: 2013

Interpreting Sacred Ground is a rhetorical analysis of Civil War battlefields and parks, and the ways various commemorative traditions—and their ideologies of race, reconciliation, emancipation, and masculinity—compete for dominance.
The National Park Service (NPS) is known for its role in the preservation of public sites deemed to have historic, cultural, and natural significance. In Interpreting Sacred Ground, J. Christian Spielvogel studies the NPS’s secondary role as an interpreter or creator of meaning at such sites, specifically Gettysburg National Military Park, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and Cold Harbor Visitor Center.
Spielvogel studies in detail the museums, films, publications, tours, signage, and other media at these sites, and he studies and analyzes how they shape the meanings that visitors are invited to construct. Though the NPS began developing interpretive exhibits in the 1990s that highlighted slavery and emancipation as central facets to understanding the war, Spielvogel argues that the NPS in some instances preserves outmoded narratives of white reconciliation and heroic masculinity, obscuring the race-related causes and consequences of the war as well as the war’s savagery.
The challenges the NPS faces in addressing these issues are many, from avoiding unbalanced criticism of either the Union or the Confederacy, to foregrounding race and violence as central issues, preserving clear and accurate renderingsof battlefield movements and strategies, and contending with the various public constituencies with their own interpretive stakes in the battle for public memory.
Spielvogel concludes by arguing for the National Park Service’s crucial role as a critical voice in shaping twentieth-first-century Civil War public memory and highlights the issues the agency faces as it strives to maintain historical integrity while contending with antiquated renderings of the past.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-7

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-9

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pp. ix-x

I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to the many people who helped me over the course of my research on national Civil War parks and battlefields. I am grateful to Dan Waterman at The University of Alabama Press for his expert editorial advice and consultation, as well as series editor...


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pp. xi-15

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pp. 1-21

This book examines how the National Park Service (NPS), through its interpretive history exhibits, invites the American public to interpret the legacy of their most divisive and destructive national event: the Civil War. A rhetorical analysis of the artifacts that the NPS uses to interpret the war at...

I. Race and Memory

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pp. 23-82

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1. “We Are Met on a Great Battle-Field”: Race, Memory, and the Gettysburg Address

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pp. 25-54

Gettysburg, a pivotal symbol of Civil War memory, is best known for two events: the battle itself, fought July 1–3, 1863, and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered at the Gettysburg National Cemetery dedication a little over four months after the battle. Although Civil War enthusiasts still revel...

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2. Reviving Emancipationist Memory at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

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pp. 55-82

The rhetorical dimensions of Civil War memory are most salient in struggles to assess the nature and extent of racial inclusion and equality in America.1 The popular “reconciliationist” memory became so dominant by century’s end that it seemed transcendent, creating feelings of...

II. Violence and Memory

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pp. 83-99

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3. Savage and Heroic War Memories at Gettysburg National Military Park

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pp. 85-105

For over a century dominant public memory of the battle of Gettysburg has helped Americans imagine a battle full of resplendent drama and climactic narrative tension. Over time many have come to view the battle as a glorious struggle that foreshadowed ultimate Union victory and featured...

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4. The Symbolic Landscape: Visualizing Violence at Gettysburg National Military Park

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pp. 106-131

How is battlefield injuring and killing represented visually at national Civil War battlefield parks such as Gettysburg National Military Park? This chapter addresses the visual representation of violence through the physical landscape, monuments, photographs, and vivid “word pictures” featured within the stops on...

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5. “The Waters Ran Red”: Savage Interpretations of War at Cold Harbor Visitor Center

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pp. 132-151

The number of battlefield deaths rose significantly in the bloody spring of 1864, as Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln’s choice as newly appointed general-in- chief of the Union armies, attempted an aggressive and coordinated strategy to destroy the dwindling Rebel forces and the Confederacy’s will...

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pp. 152-159

National Park Service Civil War historical parks and battlefields bring history to life for millions of Americans. By preserving and interpreting important national landscapes to reflect their appearance of years past, the Park Service stimulates our historical senses and enraptures the imagination. But if the history...


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pp. 161-174


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pp. 175-182


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pp. 183-190

E-ISBN-13: 9780817386313
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817317751

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 859687449
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Interpreting Sacred Ground

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Battlefields -- Conservation and restoration.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Battlefields -- Study and teaching.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Study and teaching.
  • United States. National Park Service.
  • United States -- Race relations -- History -- 19th century.
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