online book

Book Cover to Rally on the High Ground. With image of unused cannon
Rally on the High Ground


current topic Foreword


"A More Perfect Union"

"Slavery in American Life: Past, Present, and Future"

Healing, Heritage and History:

1). "Healing and History: Battlefields and the Problem of Civil War Memory"

2). "Heritage and History: The Dilemmas of Interpretation"

"Citizen Soldiers of the Civil War: Why They Fought"

"Slavery and the Coming of the Civil War: A Matter for Interpretation"

"The Civil War Homefront"

"The Civil War and a New Birth of American Freedom"

About the Contributors

Rally on the High Ground

National Park Service Arrowhead


In the 2000 Department of the Interior appropriations bill, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. inserted the language that brings us together. The language is brief and, I think, suggestive of possibilities. It simply says that Civil War battle sites are, "often not placed in the proper historical context." With that language, Congress directed the National Park Service to compile a report on the status of our interpretation of battlefield sites throughout the system. Then the language directed me, the Secretary, "to encourage Civil War battle sites to recognize and include in all of their public displays and multimedia educational presentations the unique role that the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War." The Park Service--faithful to that mandate--has now compiled that report. It is a good report. It is quite candid. It consists of responses to a questionnaire that was sent to all of the managers of battlefield units and those answers bear reflection.

What I understand from those reports is that the National Park Service is doing a uniformly splendid job of presenting the facts of the battles themselves, often in immense detail, which in turn reflects the thirst and interest that visitors have for learning about what happened on those sites. They try to help us understand what Sir John Keegan refers to in his writings as the "mist of battle." The reports, I think, are equally candid in documenting our deficiencies in placing these battles in the larger context of both the causes of the war and the consequences--most notably--the issue of African slavery and its woeful legacy of racism and discrimination, which continues to this day.

As we undertake this task, I would suggest that there are a lot of reference points where we can see the National Park Service already pointing the way in their interpretation and context of other sites in the system. I am going to give you three or four examples in hopes that it will inform our ability to look broadly at these issues. One that comes to mind is Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, a remarkable town, that has been such a prominent site in American history. The Park Service, with the assistance of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, is mounting an exhibit commemorating and interpreting the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Brown. Now, that is a remarkable initiative. Whether you consider John Brown to be a visionary and martyr, or whether you consider him an outlaw and a fanatic, or all of the above, there is no question that the raid on Harpers Ferry and subsequent trial and hanging of John Brown stirred and divided this nation as few events have before or since in our entire history.

I would also like to take you to the Boston African American Historical Site. It is a site that the Park Service is particularly proud of because it interprets a trail that includes a number of sites linked in history, including the African American meeting house where visitors can trace the rise and the development of the leadership role of African Americans in the abolition movement. It is for many visitors climaxed with the Saint-Gaudens sculpture on the Boston Commons commemorating the African American 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the subject of the movie Glory.

In the last couple of years, the Park Service has put together a kind of a new concept, authorized by Congress, called the Underground Railroad Park. It is different because it is a virtual park. It does not consist of anyone place, it is about an entire movement, a network across much of the country. It gives the Park Service the opportunity to explain and honor the incredible network of people--North and South, black and white--who reacted to the fugitive slave law by organizing safe houses, assistance, communicating and assisting refugees as they moved up through the border states toward secure havens in Canada. It provides a marvelous opportunity to talk about the positive side of this long and continuing struggle toward a more perfect justice, with participation of many Americans from different regions of the country, black and white together.

Here in the District of Columbia, Bob Stanton, the Director of the National Park Service, has made a personal project out of showcasing the life of Frederick Douglass. His words continue to have extraordinary relevance for all of us today, and his home in the district honors this most effective and eloquent of all of the abolitionist leaders.

But the fact remains that it is the battlefields themselves that will always be at the heart of our remembrance of the Civil War. In each generation, Americans visit these sacred fields to locate their ancestors. They learn the strategy and tactics that gave birth to modern warfare. They find inspiration in the suffering and heroism of the participants and enrich their understanding of who we are as Americans. These places have remarkable meaning to our visitors. William Faulkner reminded us that "the past is not dead; it is not even past."

I want to emphasize that this Congressional directive is not meant in any way to compromise our successful and popular battlefield programs. What this Congressional mandate is about is challenging to find a larger view, lifting our eyes up from the din of battle, and seeing if we can enter into the lives of the participants in order to comprehend and reflect upon the causes and consequences of that struggle.

We have other opportunities coming at us in the National Park Service to expand our interpretation as well. I would like to give you just one example that has come as a result of recent action in Congress, in hopes that as we focus on the central task of battlefields, we can think more broadly about what we can draw from this period in history. We can use it to inform our public about who we are and how we address the future, while at the same time doing a more productive job of dealing with the legacy of the institution of African slavery.

Last March, I had occasion to accompany the President on his trip to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the thirty-fifth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Frankly, it was an emotional moment for me because I, along with Congressman Jackson's father and many other Americans, was in the streets of Selma during the March of 1965. I had not really had an opportunity to reflect on that event and I found myself--remarkably, 35 years later--as the Secretary of the Interior returning to commemorate that moment in history. I found myself in charge of interpreting an event, a historical event, in which I had actually participated. And of course, I had occasion to reflect on how that moment, those weeks in Selma, leading to Montgomery, leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, has so profoundly transformed the role of African Americans in the political life of our country. I listened to the President remind us, in the words of President Lyndon Johnson that "history and faith meet in a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom."

Now a couple of years ago in 1997, Congress designated the march route as a national historical trail. It authorized the Park Service, the Department of Transportation, and the State of Alabama to come together once again to develop an interpretive plan for the site that together make up this moment in American history. And as I met and talked with the participants from 1965, visited the sites, talked to the current city council members of Selma, it occurred to me once again, we have a choice about how we will do business there. That is to say, are we going to interpret this event and leave it at that, or in the spirit of Congressman Jackson's language directed to battlefields, are we going to think of this a little bit differently and ask ourselves, what is the context of Bloody Sunday and those events in Selma?

Burial of Soldiers at Fredericksburg


Of course, it does not take long to recognize that a pathway from Selma that led forward through the Voting Rights Act also takes us backward to Appomattox Court House and to the events immediately following Appomattox when African Americans received the right to vote. They went to the polls in extraordinary numbers, elected black officials to county governments, to state legislatures, to state offices, to the House of Representatives, and to the United States Senate. Many of these figures are mostly forgotten, but, in their time, they were eloquent, productive leaders who in many states laid foundations for the first time for public education in their states. They were the leaders in anti-discrimination legislation, public housing accommodations, and social services. And, I thought to myself, this brief moment in history, unfortunately, came to a halt within one generation, when African Americans again were turned away from the polls and denied the right to vote. It was there, in those events, that the pathway to Selma began, on which for a hundred years, church leaders, ministers, and public officials took the path toward Selma to reclaim the rights that had for one brief moment flowered in a period of American history, but now, were largely forgotten.

This is the task that Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, the Governor of Alabama, local officials in Selma, and I have decided to take up in the spirit of the broader implications of our history. We will be meeting in Selma to see if we can come together in a way that will interpret all of this history, for important reasons, because, without this context, it is impossible to really understand where we are, much less where we are going. Unless we understand where we have been—and that, of course, is the role of history and the challenge that is before us, because in each generation, we inform history with the values and insights of our generation—the task of history is never done. It is not just history, it is a living reality that is about our lives and how it is we work together, to inform and make our future better by understanding the past.

Bruce Babbitt

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