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In Search of a Context....

Perry Cuskey


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.



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Fuel on the fire about the "battle-context" versus "wider-context" deal. Just talking here, and the "you" I refer to is a hypothetical person. Would you want to go to Normandy and get slammed with information on the Holocaust? Would you want to go to Horseshoe Bend National Military Park and get slammed with information on the Trail of Tears? Everything has its place. But the problem with financially restricted historical venues is that to teach the public about one thing money must be, in most cases, taken away from something else.

The area in the Shiloh visitor center with the relics belonging to Gladden and Prentiss? Sorry, they have been removed to put up these posters talking about states rights and slavery. Wider context. The federal government is not going to enlarge the visitor center at any battlefield to be able to put in a new display on wider context issues. No, something battle specific will be cut. It will happen. It has happened. It does happen. There is one battlefield, again I will not state the name of it here. I have seen that very thing happen. On one visit, boom, stuff on the battle has been replaced by stuff on slavery, etc.

Like I said, do you want to go to Normandy and be force fed information on the Holocaust? Pretty soon, if wider context is the norm, you won't have to go to the battlefield, or at least not to the visitor center/museum. The museums at Shiloh, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, etc., will all be teaching the exact same thing as if from a cookie cutter. Again, going back to context and who won the war---if each battlefield has a "wider-context" theme, then SOMETHING from the battle will not be taught, period. If you physically take space in a museum to put in materials to teach wider-context, then that means battle-specific stuff must be thrown out and not used. And, being a modern day soldier, the wider-context crowd, well, they seem to be the PC police to the detriment of the common soldier who fought the battle.

Teach the causes of the war elsewhere, and leave the bloody battlefields to the memory of the common soldier that fought, bled, and often died there.

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You make some good points, Stan. It can darn well be a contentious issue. But let me play devil's advocate a bit, since I seem to be contrary by nature.

A difference I see between a display on slavery and/or states rights and say, your example of something at Normandy on the Holocaust, would be that the Holocaust was not a cause of World War II. Yes, it certainly would be part of a wider context to include such a thing, and the Nazis would probably have eventually undertaken it even without a war. It would be a wider context where learning about Nazi Germany would be concerned.

But the wider context I'm thinking about where the Civil War is concerned would be adding something about what caused it. To coin a phrase, that leads to a whole nother debate. But for now I'm just referring to the idea of including something to show why all those battles were fought to begin with.

Again, I do think the whole 'wider context' thing has to have a limit - you have to draw the line somewhere or you can get badly sidetracked. But I do think there is a place for something on "The Cause."

Your point about making room for a display on slavery/states rights at the expense of information on the battle though, is pretty strong. And you're probably right about not expanding the various visitors centers to accommodate such a change, for practical financial reasons if for nothing else.

On the other hand (my contrary side again), I don't know that such a display would need to be all that big - you really just need an overview of some sort to do the job rather than tell the whole detailed story. Plus, there's the fact that we already don't get the whole story of a battle, even at that battlefield's visitors center. They hit the highlights, or at least what someone at one time decided were the highlights.

It's the same when going on a park's main tour. They show you what are thought to be the highlights of the battle, and not much else. At Shiloh, for instance, the western side of the battlefield was excluded from the main tour route for decades. Visiting the stop that includes Everett Peabody's mortuary monument, you learn that he died there. That's it. Nothing about his crucial role leading up to the opening shots. Spain Field - Spain Field - isn't even on the tour. Even after re-doing the tour route. Something I have a hard time understanding.

We're already excluding information on the battle, even at the battlefield park itself. I understand that this has to be done, but it doesn't mean I have to agree with some of what gets left out.

Now, it doesn't automatically follow that we should take it to an extreme and exclude more and more, just to add information on what caused the war. But, would it really be so bad to take out one display of rusted bullets in favor of one brief overview of what is thought to have brought the war about?

I'm not saying I don't have mixed emotions about the whole thing, because I do. And I'm not a card-carrying member of the PC crowd, even though my initials are, well, PC. :) The whole PC thing gets taken way too far a lot of times, but it's also done some good, in my opinion. But I do think where the war is concerned, it can't hurt to include something at the parks, or at least some of them, on why the whole thing started in the first place.

But like I said, I'm contrary. ;)


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