Okay, so maybe I'm a hypocrite.
That thought occurred to me as I was sitting at a traffic light the other day. The light was slow, the radio was off, and nothing else was going on, so my mind did what it does best and started to wander. For some reason it wandered on over to Gettysburg, and ended up at their new visitors center.
I've not been there in person yet.....well, except for the wandering mind thing....but I've seen pictures and read up on it some. Mighty spiffy-looking place. But when they built the new visitors center, they added something that had not been present in the old visitors center. Something, in fact, that is not typically found at other Civil War battlefield park visitors centers. When they built the new one at Gettysburg, they included a section about what brought about the war.
In other words, they're telling folks who visit Gettysburg about the Big C - "The Cause."
No big deal you say? Well bear with me, because yes it is. When word first got out that they were going to do this, or were thinking about doing it - I forget which or when it happened - but when word first got out, it caused something of an uproar. Some folks thought it was a darn good idea, others thought it was a darn bad idea.
The lines were basically drawn along what you might think of as the context divide. The battle-context crowd on one side, and the wider-context crowd on the other.
The battle-context supporters will say that the purpose of a battlefield park, and the visitors center that goes with it, is to tell the story of that particular battle. That's it. No need to bring in outside issues. Folks can learn about those somewhere else if they want. But the battlefield park and its visitors center is for learning about the battle. (A bit more to it than just that of course, since it would include learning about some of the people involved, human-interest stories, perhaps some background about the larger campaign, etc. But, all of that still falls within the context of the battle. This is how visitors center typically approach it.)
This, in fact, was the original approach when the first Civil War parks were created around the turn of the 20th Century. The timing there is important because of.....brace yourself because here it comes.....the wider context of who was behind the creation of those parks, and what was occurring in the rest of the country at that time. But that's an entry for another blog day. Suffice to say for now that the Civil War vets behind the creation of the original parks weren't interested in bringing The Cause into their new parks. That was not their purpose, or their focus.
In any case, the wider-context supporters will usually agree that the focus should be on the battle; but they will add that you need to place that battle in a wider context for people, since it did not occur in a vacuum. That means you have to include something about what brought about the war in which the battle took place. Otherwise......brace yourself again.....you have no real context for the battle. It's as if the battle exists as its own world, with nothing before or after.
Now I'm sure you're dying to know which side of this divide I fall on myself. Well, I ended up landing on the wider-context side of the line, and it wasn't nearly as big of a jump as I thought it would be. I've always been a study-the-battles kind of guy, but I've also always been drawn to the larger issues of the war. So when this whole issue cropped up about the new center at Gettysburg, I could see both sides, but when it came right down to it, I had to vote wider-context. Because I do agree that the battles did not take place in a vacuum. To paraphrase George Michael, ya gotta have context.
And that's why I'm a hypocrite. Sort of. Maybe.
What do I mean? The Shiloh Discussion Group. When you browse through the categories and topics on the board, you'll see that there's more there than just the battle itself. The categories and discussions go back as far as Fort Henry in early February, and extend through to the siege and fall of Corinth at the end of May. There's also a section about some of the people involved in not just the battle, but the campaign as a whole. So in other words, we try to place the battle of Shiloh in a wider context. The focal point is the battle. But the battle did not take place in a vacuum. It was part of a wider campaign and even a wider war.
We all know this of course, it's not like some big secret. But the point is, while our discussion board focuses on Shiloh, it tries to look at the battle in a wider context. That's no accident. I'm a big believer in the whole wider context idea.
Now, obviously, you have to draw the context line somewhere and say this is as far as we go, or you end up placing things in the context of the entire history of the known universe. We'd have categories for The Big Bang Theory on a discussion board about Shiloh. Probably not a good idea. So I had to draw the line somewhere, and even though I was tempted, sorely so, to draw it back around the summer of 1861, I finally decided on Fort Henry. You can make an incredibly strong case that this is where the Shiloh Campaign - or Corinth Campaign if you prefer - really began. And you can make an equally strong case that the fall of Corinth is where it ended. Even though there's that whole wider context thing again, and the impact of the battle was felt long after Corinth fell. But, again, you have to draw that line.
So how does all of that make me a hypocrite? Well, because I don't allow discussions about "The Cause." No Big C stuff on our Shiloh board. The wider context of why the war that included Shiloh came about isn't open for discussion. So, I'm a hypocrite. But it didn't start out that way.
I actually did allow such discussions for the first few years of the board. But what I was afraid might happen finally did, and that's why things changed. What happened was - and if you were there, you well remember it - a discussion about The Big C quickly turned into a discussion about The Big S - Slavery. And when you discuss slavery, folks get worked up about it. Big time. It's still an emotionally charged issue. That's just the way it is.
I've been on a lot of discussion boards centered on the war, and this is the way it always works: Slavery discussions, once they fire up, always dominate everything else. Always. It's like a flash-fire in dry grass. Once it starts, it's going to burn everything else to the absolute ground. And you simply cannot have a discussion about "The Cause" of the war without slavery entering into the conversation. You can't avoid it. Just. Doesn't. Happen.
So when the same thing started to happen on our Shiloh board, I was faced with a choice. I could let the discussions go, and watch them do what those kind of discussions always do - push every other discussion on the board into the deep dark corner of the room, seen only by the occasionally curious - or ban them altogether. The problem for me is that I did not want folks coming to a board they thought was about Shiloh, and find out instead that it's just one giant hollering match about slavery, states rights, and what caused the war. Shiloh? What's that, a battle? To heck with that, we're arguing about The Cause!
The thing is, I hate banning discussions. As in, Hate. It. But I just didn't see that I had a real choice. Not if I wanted to keep the board focused on what it was meant to focus on. So ban them I did. Nothing more about The Big C or The Big S do we have on the board, from that day to this.
And rather smug about it all did I feel, until the other day at that traffic light. I'm sitting there thinking about the new visitors center at Gettysburg, the controversy about it, and how I think they've done the right thing however difficult and controversial it may have been.
And then I suddenly think about what I did on the board. The decision I made about the board was the complete opposite of the decision they made in Gettysburg, which I supported. Suddenly realizing this, smug so much I no longer felt.
I briefly considered lifting the ban on such discussions because of that, but decided against it for the same reasons I originally had. Nothing's changed there. The board is centered on Shiloh, and anything that takes away from that has to go. Yes, I do allow non-Shiloh related discussions to take place, in the Campfire forum, but you'll notice that they don't take over the planet the way slavery discussions do. If they did, off they'd go as well.
So what does all this prove? Maybe it simply proves that sometimes things aren't always as straight-forward as they may seem. Sometimes they are, but sometimes not. I'm a big believer in the whole wider-context thing, and yet here I've deliberately gone against that belief on a discussion board that I run. I think I have good reasons for doing so, just as I think there are good reasons for not doing so at Gettysburg with their new visitors center. The two situations are not identical. Still, it bothers me a bit. Maybe it shouldn't. Maybe each decision was made for solid reasons.
Or maybe, I'm just a hypocrite. Such a thing is possible. But if so, I can live with it.