From Beth Parnicza:
This post continues the story of park infrastructure expansion during the Mission 66 period, introduced here.
Two movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s captured Americans on a global and local level: the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement. As tensions mounted at home and abroad, the National Park Service prepared to turn 50 years old. As part of the NPS anniversary “Mission 66” initiative, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP seized the opportunity to craft new exhibits in the old museum space at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Museum and Administration Building (now known as the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center), and at the new Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center.
The challenge was high. The park’s small staff of historians faced the greatest expansion of interpretation since the park’s creation. Staff had to balance their understanding of the past with the conflicts and societal understandings of the present. Our past defines us and provides us with an identity, but we can only understand the past through our own experiences. In this sense, the past becomes another layer of the present that manifests in history books, exhibits, and storytelling. To help visitors connect with the war, the new exhibits needed to fit a modern generation’s understanding of the Civil War as the conflict neared its centennial anniversary.
Looking around the existing gallery space, the park’s historian staff must have been both dazzled by the possibilities and alarmed at the open-ended questions they confronted. How broad in scope should the new exhibits be? How do we fit such a vast and compelling story into a compact space? How do we teach visitors with an increasingly distant view of the war? Which stories of the Civil War should we tell?
The historian staff, led by Albert Dillahunty, decisively answered these questions with a museum prospectus in 1959. While the battlefields undoubtedly welcomed well-informed visitors and specialists, Dillahunty focused on visitors who had “little knowledge of tactical warfare and military maneuvers” who could “be stimulated through the introduction of background material and applicable human interest highlights.” If successful, the exhibits would “entertain the specialist, inform the layman, and excite the curiosity of those who are finding a new interest in the Civil War.”
Many visitors were, in fact, finding a new interest in the Civil War. With the ending of the Korean War and the increasing tensions of the Cold War, park officials in Fredericksburg noticed a trend that today sounds like common sense: “War and threat of war has, we believe, aroused a keen interest in military history.” With a nation preparing for war, Americans looked to the past for answers—and hope.
“Laid against the background of one of America’s most historic cities, the battle of Fredericksburg , in many of its essentials, is as modern as today’s newspaper account of Korean fighting—the pontoon bridging of rivers under fire, beachhead landings, street fighting, heavy and sustained artillery bombardment, the storming of strongly fortified heights, field telegraphic communication and aerial observation.”
In the Civil War, Americans found a war they could relate to, a critical attribute as they faced the threat of nuclear warfare. There was something familiar about the nontraditional aspects of Civil War battlefield combat in the Battle of Fredericksburg. By understanding the past war through the lens of a present conflict, visitors gained a frame of reference.
Many of the new exhibits also depicted a nation refined by war, suggesting that the Civil War truly made us better, despite its inherent strife. To convey this understanding of the war (a popular opinion then and now), the exhibits focused on commonalities and nationalistic ideas. Although this did not produce remarkably analytical exhibits, it marked a dramatic departure from past collections of relics by weaving a general story throughout the exhibit space.
Another innovation from earlier exhibit practices was the extensive social history presence in the proposed exhibits. The 1960s saw a great expansion in Civil War social history literature, and in keeping with the times, park historians crafted an entire room to address camp life, women in the war, and relief agencies like the U.S. Christian Commission at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center.
Many of these camp life and relief exhibit cases focused on the shared experiences between the warring sides, as one case’s title strongly suggests: “Friendly Enemies.” In an era of rising international tensions, Americans looked to a shared past in which the warring sides had more in common than divided them.
To understand the similarities and differences between Union and Confederate soldiers, the park’s historians planned a case to feature each and display typical uniform pieces. Take a close look at these two cases, which originally stood side by side in the upstairs exhibit room at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center and were later moved downstairs when the “gun room” was dismantled in the 1980s.
On the left, the Union soldier is barely armed and clearly overburdened, carrying a rifle, knapsack, haversack, and overcoat, accompanied by the quote, “…bowed under 58 pounds of army essentials…our private was a soldier, but not just then a praiser of the soldier’s life.”
Opposing “The Union Soldier” stood “Lee’s Men,” armed to the teeth with a rifle, knife, bayonet, cap pouch, and revolver. The Confederate soldier’s description gave a different view of soldier life: “No soldiers ever marched with less to encumber them, and none marched harder or faster.”
The Confederate soldier’s case also includes an individual soldier, Randolph Fairfax, who “typifies the young manhood that both sides lost in the war.” By highlighting Fairfax and elevating the Confederate soldier in the Lost Cause tradition, this case tells a local and national story of an individual and his country at war and in reconciliation. Focusing on a local soldier gave visitors someone to identify with, and the subtle emphasis—consciously or unconsciously done—on the Confederate soldier and Southern manhood allowed exhibit planners to walk a tight line that emphasized mutual bravery and lost potential in both Union and Confederate soldiers. With honor to both sides, most visitors would find little to incite anger or division; instead, they could take pride in their roots, northern or southern.
Such shared honor belonged primarily, however, to white visitors. Perhaps the greatest sign of the times in our Mission 66 exhibits is reflected in what was missing at both Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Centers. Neither exhibit includes any mention of slavery or the Emancipation Proclamation.
In a segregated park planning new exhibits amid the upheaval of the Civil Rights movement, a deep discussion of divisive and potentially offensive topics risked trouble. Certainly, grasping the importance of slavery and emancipation was and remains critical to understanding the Civil War. But was an American visiting public (predominantly white southerners) that was looking for reassurance in the past ready to consume these heavy subjects?
The overwhelming silence—both in the exhibits and planning documents—answers with a resounding “no.” Planners working to implement plans for a “Negro Picnic Area” on the Wilderness Battlefield had no intention of explaining the roots of segregation policies in the conflict that established freedom but not equality.
Through silence, inclusion, and emphasis, historians and planners constructed state of the art exhibits that crafted a narrative designed to “stimulate interest, provoke thought, afford a sense of realism, and provide a measure of understanding and enjoyment otherwise unattainable.” While this narrative falls short of today’s analytical standards, the exhibits fit neatly into the context and purposes of an age on edge from Cold War tensions and Civil Rights struggles. In terms of replacing their predecessors, these exhibits were well-organized by theme and visually appealing, rendering them leagues ahead of the earlier relic displays.
An understanding of the influence of society on our recently dismantled exhibits presents a conundrum to our current efforts as historians and exhibit planners. If our very competent predecessors were so swayed by the influences of their time, what evidence of our own shortcomings will remain in 50 years? How does society shape our interpretation of the Civil War today? What do you think?
Sources in order of use above: Goals for new exhibits: Albert Dillahunty; Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, “Museum Prospectus for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park” (Fredericksburg, 1959), 2, in park files; Increased park visitation and war threat interest: “Master Plan for the Preservation and Use of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park: Mission 66 Edition,” Page 4 of 7, General Information section, and Volume 3, Section C Public Use Data, Page 3, in park files; Comparison between Korean fighting and Battle of Fredericksburg: Master Plan, Page 1, Interpretation section; The expressed goal of encouraging patriotism in the exhibits: “Master Plan,” Page 4 of Objectives and Policies section; For more reading on the emergence of the Lost Cause and its role in reconciliation: To grasp the tip of the iceberg, I recommend David Blight, Race and Reunion, which describes how celebrating southern manhood and southern heroes helped to bring the nation back together at the expense of the newly freed slaves, who were free but far from equal; Plans to establish a “Negro Picnic Area” in the Wilderness: Master Plan, Page 4 in Design Analysis section; Crafting a stimulating and provoking exhibit: Museum Prospectus, Page 1.