online book

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



current topic Introduction

"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

Introduction by Robert K. Sutton
National Park Service Arrowhead


On the morning of September 19, 1889, General William Rosecrans left his room at the Read House hotel in Chattanooga, boarded the Chattanooga, Rome and Columbus Railroad, and rode out to a spot near where he had stood twenty-six years to the day earlier. He, no doubt, felt a sense of irony, for the spot was the battlefield of Chickamauga where he had suffered his most crushing defeat during the Civil War. The Battle of Chickamauga had effectively ended Rosecrans' military career. But today, "Old Rosy" was a hero. Today, he would address veterans from both sides of the conflict. "People shall come and visit," he said, "with the interest due to the great- ness of the events which occurred on this battleground. It took great men to win that battle, but it takes greater men to wipe away all the ill feeling which naturally flows out of such a contest. "

The following day, Rosecrans would again be one of the guests of honor. He and former Confederate General John B. Gordon would again board the train and ride to Crawfish Springs, Georgia. When they arrived, they mounted full-blooded steeds and made a grand entry to join 12,000 people who had gathered for more speeches and a gigantic barbecue. These events were all part of a rolling tide of momentum that less than a year later would culminate in the creation of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Veterans from both sides of the conflict sup- ported the effort. And when Congress passed the legislation creating this first Civil War battlefield park, it fully recognized this joint Blue and Gray effort. These battlefields would be protected permanently "for historical and professional military study," so that students and visitors could learn about "some of the most remarkable maneuvers and most brilliant fighting in the war of the rebellion."

The healing process would continue, and reach its apex when, in July of 1913, many of the surviving veterans from both sides of the battle at Gettysburg tottered up and shook hands at the same place where they had tried to kill each other fifty years earlier. Over 50,000 people came together for this "Peace Jubilee." And, on July 4th, they listened to President Woodrow Wilson, as he made his own Gettysburg address. As Professor David Blight has described so well in his essay, there was much symbolism in Wilson's appearance at this event. He was the first southern president elected after the Civil War. His father had been an ardent Confederate sympathizer. President Wilson earlier was quoted as saying that the South had "absolutely nothing to apologize for," in regards to its secession from the Union. Not surprisingly, then, Wilson's speech focused on unity. He reflected on the valor of the men who fought, the reconciliation between both sides, and concluded that the Civil War could now be considered "the quarrel forgotten."

The theme of reconciliation and healing was the context in which the Civil War battlefields were set aside as sacred places. This was a very good thing. Throughout world history, most civil wars, especially those as bloody as ours, generally ended bitterly. So, the fact that these former combatants could come together in peace and friendship was truly amazing. But, this "quarrel forgotten" had its downside as well. In setting aside their differences and in symbolically joining hands over the wall at Gettysburg, most Americans had forgotten that the war was fought over slavery, and that slavery was abolished when the war was concluded. They also forgot that, in large measure, the war had ended when it did because over 220,000 African American soldiers-135,000 of them former slaves-had joined the Union cause. Professor Blight observes that there were no black veterans at Gettysburg in 1913. The only African Americans in attendance "were the laborers who built the tent city, who built and cleaned the latrines and dispersed blankets to the white veterans." So, the war was over, the nation was healing itself, but the country had defaulted on its down payment toward emancipating the former slaves.

Slavery was the central cause of the Civil War. Each of the distinguished scholars who have contributed to this volume agrees with this statement. They would further agree that slavery was not the only cause of the war, nor was slavery President Abraham Lincoln's stated cause at its beginning of the war. But, when all of the issues are reduced down to their essence, it is hard-if not impossible- to deny that the institution of slavery caused the Civil War. Many of the essays that follow cite Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens' statement at the beginning of the conflict, on the relationship between the Confederate government and slavery. "The new constitution," Stephens declared on March 21,1861, "has put to rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution-African slavery as it exists amongst us-the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization. This is the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution." He left absolutely no doubt that the institution of slavery was the central pillar upon which the new government would stand.

What was the institution of slavery like? Professor Ira Berlin warns in his essay that it is a grave mistake to underestimate the complexity of slavery. But, Berlin continues, this complexity should not dissuade us from studying or explaining the "peculiar institution." He further provides a historical context to help facilitate our understanding. Slavery was the most vile, obscene, hideous fact of American history. It forced the separation of husbands from wives and parents from children. It brutalized people physically and psychologically. But, as Professor Berlin also points out, slaves did not surrender to their plight. Slaves carved out niches for family life, religious worship, education, formal and informal associations, and created a remarkable culture, language, music, and cuisine. They created these in secret. "Indeed," Professor Berlin says, "the creative legacy of slavery is so great that we must concede that if slavery is the darkest part of America's past, it may also be the most creative part of America's past."

Slavery was a profitable economic institution. Over the years, scholars have debated whether the slave economy was efficient or inefficient-that debate likely will continue. There is no doubt, how- ever, that cotton, the major crop produced by slaves, was by far the most valuable export crop in the United States. Professor James Horton points out that by 1840, cotton was more remunerative as an export than all other exports combined. Not only was the fruit of their labor lucrative, but the laborers, themselves, were quite valuable as investments. Professor Eric Foner notes that by 1860, there was more capital invested in slaves than in all railroads, all factories, and all banks-North and South--combined. So, economically, the institution of slavery was profitable.

Furthermore, slavery was protected by the United States Constitution. Southern states held enough political power that it was impossible to expect that the Constitution would be amended to abolish slavery. Thus, enslaved and free African Americans, alike, increasingly recognized that a war was the only realistic hope to end this institution. So, as the southern states moved toward possible secession, most free blacks and slaves were cheering them on. Professor Horton quotes black abolitionist Charles Lenox Remond, whose advice to southern states was "stand not on ceremony, go at once."

When the South actually did secede, Horton observes, African Americans ignored the fact that President Lincoln's initial war aim was to reunite the Union and not to end slavery. They enthusiastically threw their full weight behind the Union war effort for as long as it took to kill the institution of slavery. At first, their offers to fight were not accepted, so they volunteered their services to do anything to help in the war effort. Professor Berlin observed that as more and more contraband slaves came into Union camps, Union soldiers increasingly recognized and sympathized with their plight and gave them aid and comfort, although the early official policy was to exclude fugitives from Union lines. Eventually the government changed its policy, allowing escaped slaves to be considered as contraband property of war. Technically they were not free, but rather confiscated property. For all intents and purposes though, as far as they were concerned they were no longer slaves.

Then, not long after the Emancipation Proclamation, black men were allowed to volunteer for military service. Eventually nearly a quarter-of-a-million black soldiers would participate. For them the stakes were very high. If they were captured, two things might happen to them-both bad-and both worse than what their white counterparts would face. In the better of these bad options, they would be sold into slavery. In the worst, they could suffer the fate of the black soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, and elsewhere, who surrendered and were then massacred, along with their white officers, by Confederate soldiers. But, if they were successful, they would help end slavery in the United States forever.

Slaves in the deep South, who could not escape to Union lines, found creative ways to sabotage the Confederate war effort. Professor Drew Faust has observed that the white women left to tend the plantations were ill equipped to manage the slaves left in their charge. For their part, slaves found new and creative ways to make their owners' lives miserable. Professor Faust quoted one Mississippi woman who said that she feared "the blacks more than [she] did the Yankees." In short, the entire institution of slavery was in chaos behind Confederate lines. Slaves did not rise in open rebellion, but they just as surely undermined the social fabric of the South and sped the destruction of slavery from within.

The reasons African American soldiers fought and the slaves still in bondage resisted their plight were clear-they wanted to end slavery. The motivations of white soldiers were more complicated. Professor James McPherson describes two reasons that soldiers fought. First, they fought for their comrades. They believed that carrying their personal weight in battle was very important. It was far better to take their chances in battle than for the people back home to hear that they were cowards. The soldiers also fought for causes. Ironically, both sides believed they were fighting for liberty. To most Confederate soldiers, liberty meant that they were exercising the principle of the American Revolution, to determine their form of government and to defend their homes, property, and families from the northern invaders. To the northerners, on the other hand, liberty was correlated with the republican ideal that this democratic form of government was based on majority rule. It had to survive. If it did not, in Lincoln's words, "the last best hope on earth" would be lost.

As the Civil War dragged on, Union troops increasingly accepted the abolition of slavery as a cause worth dying for. Professor McPherson cites Ohio Colonel Marcus Spiegel, who in 1863 wrote to his wife that he did not "want to fight for Lincoln's Negro population any longer." A year later, just before he was killed in Louisiana, Spiegel again wrote to his wife, but this time he had observed the "horrors of slavery," and he was now "a strong abolitionist." Many, many other northern soldiers shared Spiegel's change of heart.

Colonel Spiegel's letters to his wife tell how he felt about the war, but what about his wife? How did the war affect her? How did it register to all of those left behind? Professor Faust notes that the homefront was quite different for each side. Four out of five white southern men of military age entered the army, as compared to less than half of northern men. And, a much higher percentage of southern men died in comparison to the overall population-6% in the North and 18% in the South. As noted earlier, southern women who had to tend to plantations had the doubly difficult task of providing for their families and trying to manage the slaves, who could sense that their freedom was not far off. But all women in the region had a difficult time. With so many men gone, and a chronic shortage of food and other necessities, many families grew truly destitute. In general, the situation in the South for the families left behind was much more difficult than in the North. And, as if the want of necessities was not enough, many of these families had to contend with the devastation caused by battles that had been fought in their backyards.

Once the war was over, it became increasingly important to the soldiers on the losing side to understand and explain why they had lost. To General Robert E. Lee the reasons were not terribly complicated. As he bid farewell to his troops at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, he simply noted that "after four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources." The so-called "lost cause" theory thus was born. To elaborate on Lee's statement, this theory suggested that the Confederacy was doomed to defeat almost from the outset, because the North simply had too many men, too much industrial might, too much of nearly everything for the South ever to win the final victory. That rebel soldiers fought so bravely, that the southern people were so committed to the cause, and that the Confederate military had such capable leaders were the reasons that the war lasted as long as it did. But, when General Ulysses Grant threw thousands upon thousands of soldiers into battle in the last year of fighting, there was absolutely no chance for a Confederate victory.

Like a poorly fortified infantry line, the "lost cause" viewpoint had several weak points. Throughout history, a number of weaker opponents won stunning victories. In our own Revolutionary War, the struggling colonies faced enormous odds, lost more battles than they won, and had to contend with the fact that nearly one-third of their own population supported and even fought for the enemy. Yet, the colonies eventually gained their independence.

While the Union victory was a simple proposition for Lee, historians since have recognized that the issues are a bit more complex. As the Civil War centennial approached, a number of scholars reevaluated the various Union victory theories as retrospective studies. Among these works, David Donald edited a small volume, titled Why The North Won the Civil War (1960). Five leading American scholars from that period prepared papers from each of their specialized interests-economic, diplomatic, military, political, and social history-to analyze why the North won and the South lost. In this, the first "how and why" book on the war, each historian argued that the result owed less to the North's superiority in resources than to its more competent leadership, application of resources, and superior commitment to its mission.

Since 1960, several other "how and why" volumes have been published. The most recent, Writing the Civil War (1998), edited by James M. McPherson and William I. Cooper, Ir., surveys the most recent scholarship on the Civil War, focusing on military, political, social, economic, and constitutional issues. In this volume, the scholars again analyzed the "lost cause" interpretation. Not only was this theory fraught with serious problems, it was, in fact, an incorrect theory. Northern victory, instead, resulted from an evolutionary process, in which the iradication of slavery became a political and military goal, along with the destruction of other Confederate civilian property. Further, when Grant became overall commander of Union forces, he recognized that he operated under a civilian commander-in-chief, and he balanced military strategy with political realities to concentrate his military strength in ways that would achieve ultimate victory. On the other hand, the Confederates were not able to establish the same overall military purpose. Recent scholarship also strongly suggests that the South essentially lost its will to fight toward the end of the war. Another trump card, often overlooked in earlier studies, was the addition of over 220,000 African American soldiers at a critical point in the war, which helped to seal Union victory.

But, what does the Civil War mean for us today? Dwight Pitcaithley, chief historian for the National Park Service, has posed this question as the "so what" of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln predicted in his Gettysburg Address that the Civil War would usher in a "new birth of freedom. " And freedom, as Professor Eric Foner says, "is the central word in our political vocabulary." No word has been invoked more frequently. Further, the meaning of freedom has not been fixed, and has changed frequently throughout our history. The Civil War dramatically expanded the definition of freedom. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution, ended slavery then after the war forever. All citizens-whether they were previously free or enslaved-now had equal protection under the law, and all males had the right to vote. During Reconstruction, these revolutionary ideals were put into practice. African Americans voted and held political offices. After Reconstruction, the nation retreated from its commitment to liberty and found ways to deny these blessings of liberty. This retrenchment, however, was not permanent. Future generations would determine that the Civil War amendments were indeed intended to do exactly what they said. So, the "new birth of freedom" was a legacy-<>ne of the "so whats"-<>f the Civil War. Civil War battlefields are another legacy. The paradigm under which the Civil War battlefields were created was healing, reconciliation, and remembrance in addition to the fighting that took place there. As Professor Edward Linenthal points out, however, sometimes this remembrance went to extremes. At Harpers Ferry National Historical Park there is a monument to a gentleman named Heyward Shepherd. Heyward Shepherd was a free African American resident of the town, who, in one tragic twist of fate, became the first casualty of John Brown's raid in Harpers Ferry. In 1931, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument to Shepherd's memory, not as someone tragically caught in the crossfire, but as a faithful black who refused to join the abolitionist forces. The monument extols the virtues of slavery, although Heyward was not a slave, and tried to demonstrate that the whites really knew what was best for blacks before the Civil War. Pearl Tatten, an African American music director at Storer College in Harpers Ferry attended the dedication for the Shepherd Monument. She stood up during the ceremony and said that it was wrong to dwell on the slave past, but instead she wanted to push "toward a larger freedom not in the spirit of the black mammies but in the spirit of new freedom and rising youth."

Professor Linenthal points out that National Park Service staff, after great soul searching about whether or not the monument should even be in the park, decided that the Heyward Shepherd Monument should remain, and that an interpretive marker should be placed nearby to explain its interesting history. Park management was attacked from all sides. Members of the NAACP wanted the monument destroyed, and neo-Confederates accused the park of catering to political correctness. So, instead of avoiding controversy, park management steadfastly held its ground. As a result, visitors now can see the big picture, the United Daughters of the Confederacy text on the monument and the park interpretive marker, which discusses the controversial issues. Both messages are instructive and important in the evolution of Civil War interpretation. The symbolism surrounding Heyward Shepherd, of course, is much larger than the monument and the interpretive plaque. John Brown brought his little guerrilla army into Harpers Ferry with the intention of capturing the government arsenal there, then distributing the guns to slaves and free blacks to start a rebellion to end slavery. Although John Brown's raid was a dismal failure, and although Mr. Shepherd was in the wrong place at the wrong time, the event itself became a catalyst for the Civil War. So, in this context, this story has the potential to enter a much larger interpretive arena.

Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. recognized that this large palette, like the Heyward Shepherd/John Brown story, offered the setting for a new paradigm of National Park Service Civil War interpretation. As he wrote the report language for the 2000 National Park Service appropriations bill, encouraging park managers to enrich their interpretation, he envisioned that battlefields could become classrooms to explain how this cataclysmic event influenced American history and culture. And the lens through which he viewed these events was the metaphor of an earthquake, which goes something like this: Jackson defines the period from 1619, when the first slaves arrived on American shores, until 1861, as the "tremor" phase. The constitution was written, protecting the institution of slavery, and Congress frequently compromised to accommodate slavery. The period from 1861 to 1865 was the great quake phase, the American Civil War. Then, everything from 1865 to the present has been the "aftershock" period. Some of these post-Civil War tremors have been intense, and have forced us to reflect on our history. But the Civil War perfectly exemplifies this metaphor. It shook the nation like no other event. It redefined the concepts of liberty and freedom. But it did not end racism, it did not end hatred, and it did not establish racial equality.

National Park Service Civil War battlefields certainly will not right all the wrongs of the past. But, they have the opportunity to become laboratories, places that will help all Americans, from all ethnic backgrounds, understand their past. People should expect to visit a Civil War battlefield and come away with an understanding of not only who shot whom, how, and where, but why they were shooting at one another in the first place. And, when the story of the shooting is finished, visitors should understand that all of this bloodshed turned the nation in a different direction. The Civil War reshaped the national economy, the political system, and the social structures in ways that still reverberate in our local and national lives today. The essays that follow are written by many of our most eminent scholars on the Civil War period. They will serve as a primer to help develop a new paradigm for interpreting our Civil War battlefields.


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