National Park Service
Children re-enacting Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg
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Coming to Terms with the Civil War at
Gettysburg National Military Park

In order to understand the interpretive challenges we are facing at Gettysburg NMP and our other Civil War sites, we must first understand the historical struggle for the memory of the Civil War era in the United States.

The first 100 years of that struggle for memory - from the end of the war in 1865 to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965- can be aptly summed up by the adage that "The North may have won the war, but the South won the history." This version of memory - classically labeled "The Myth of the Lost Cause" - proclaimed that the Civil War was caused exclusively by a struggle over "state's rights" (slavery was not a cause of the war), that the Confederacy was defeated because of the overwhelming industrial and manpower advantages of the North (thus, defeat did not mean dishonor), and that slavery was a benign institution necessary to protect the well-being of an inferior race.

School group and Park Ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park
Over the last 35 years, the "Myth of the Lost Cause" has been systematically challenged and thoroughly discredited within the academic world. But not so in the general memory of our nation, where it persistently remains. For example, the Immigration and Naturalization Service exam for prospective citizenship includes the question "The Civil War was fought over what important issue?" There are two correct answers: "Slavery, or, states rights." And the popular debate continues. In the month preceding our meeting here in Houston, newspapers both North and South covered arguments and debates dealing with the contested history of the Civil War, such as the pros and cons of a statue of Abraham and Tad Lincoln in Richmond, the pending referendum over a new state flag in Georgia, the "Lost Cause" overtones of the movie Gods and Generals, and, as always, NPS interpretation at Civil War parks.

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