Interpretation vs Stewardship: A Conundrum at the Jackson Shrine

Roses left at the ShrineDeath Day at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine—May 10—always brings out some colorful characters, which is one of the reasons I enjoy working there so much on the anniversary of Jackson’s death. This year it was no different. A fellow showed up with a Deep South accent and declared, “The blacks are ruining all this Civil War stuff for me, trying to make it all about civil rights.”

On the spot, I found myself caught between the inherently contradictory charges that we, as interpreters, are faced with at sites like the Jackson Shrine.

On one hand, my job is to educate and interpret. This happens to be right in line with what I do as a college professor. I love to provoke thought and challenge assumptions and misconceptions. It’s what I do in the classroom every day.

On the other hand, my job is to serve as a caretaker of the resource. As stewards of the resource, “we work for all of them,” a colleague once reminded me, referring to visitors as taxpayers.

In instances like the one I suddenly found myself in, it’s usually best to remember we are stewards. Some old dogs don’t want to learn new tricks, so just smile and nod. The genius of the smile-and-nod trick is that polite acknowledgement can be interpreted as tacit agreement, which defuses people, who are then apt to leave you alone because you also aren’t really engaging them.

But it’s for that exact reason I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.

“What did you think the war was about?” I asked the visitor.

“The government telling states what to do,” he replied.

“What was the specific issue in question?”

He pulled his chin in and squinted at me. “You don’t think the war was about slavery, do you?” he asked, suspicious.

I offered him a quote I have heard attributed to James McPherson: “The war was about many things, and all of them were slavery.”

My visitor did not like the sound of that one—yet I could see all over his face that his wheels were turning.

“It’s certainly very complicated,” I conceded, trying to find some common ground. “But if you look at some of the Articles of Secession from some of the states, you’ll see that they clearly mention slavery.” (For more on that, check out a previous post, “The Fourth of July and the Death of Independence,” where a different experience at the Jackson Shrine offered me a chance to delve into the slavery issue in more detail.)

“Well…” my visitor from the Deep South finally said, a little less sure of himself, “I just think they were trying to get rid of a way of life.”

A way of life built upon free labor provided by slaves, I wanted to tell him, but I could see he couldn’t see that. So I left it there. I had pushed him enough; I did not want to push my luck.

Smile and nod.

Unfortunately, some people only want to hear the stories as they know them. Just the other day, for instance, a reader wrote to us at Emerging Civil War, saying he no longer enjoyed the blog and “will no longer read the stuff within it.” His explanation: “The site seems to be getting PC, or worse.”

I have a mug on my bookshelf that says, “I’d rather be historically accurate than politically correct.” I can’t even imagine what might be worse. But I have an idea of what he thought was worse. He said he wanted the old stories by the old guard—in other words, stories that did not challenge his status quo. Old dog and new tricks, indeed.

To the credit of the man from the Deep South, he chewed over the piece I gave him, although I could tell he didn’t like the taste of it. Still we had plenty of amicable conversation before he left, and just before he departed, he slipped a five-dollar bill into the donation box.

“I know, I know,” I said to my colleague after the visitor had left. “I should have just kept my mouth shut.”

But maybe not. I don’t know if I changed the fellow’s mind, but I at least gave him something to think about. And he gave me something to think about, too. That seems like a pretty good trade.

15 Responses to Interpretation vs Stewardship: A Conundrum at the Jackson Shrine

  1. Yes, it was all about slavery, that motivated the South to want to depart from the United States. Call it “state’s rights”, but it was still all about keeping that system of free labor intact and everyone knew it. What I’ve never understood is why Lincoln and the North wanted to keep hold of the South. They could have still had trade with the CSA and probably continue to dominate them economically. Seems it would have made more sense rather than killing so many people and destroying a significant area of the continent.

    1. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it articulated exactly that way, but I think it’s a great question: Why DID the North want to keep hold of the South?

      1. Lincoln eloquently stated why in the Gettysburg Address. It was an effort to keep the form of government we had from being ruined. If a minority can simply walk away from the government after a fair and free election, what good is a fair and free election?

      2. It comes down to economics in that regard. North=military might (factories, etc.) South=agriculture (food). The North needed the South to feed the workers in the factories. The South needed the money to produce more supply. Supply and demand. When the South seceded, there went the farms and plentiful food that the North needed. Lincoln wanted to keep the South in production. However, when Sherman apparently never understood economics, as he went through burning everything. Lincoln was going to keep money flowing to the South and help them rebuild.
        If – that’s a big if – the South actually had workers on the plantations and not slaves, then the Civil War may not have happened. It’s really sad that blacks in the Revolution era were treated like citizens much better than those in the Civil War. And, yes, all roads lead to slavery.

  2. The USA could still have had the agricultural products from the CSA, plus a market for their manufactured goods. Seems like it would have been a win-win for everyone… except the slaves, of course.

  3. Thank you, very much, for this wonderful post. I am a docent and hospitality employee at Washington National Cathedral, and our experiences are, apparently, very similar. The smile and nod… challenging people’s preconceptions… surrendering to the reality of an old dog, etc. Of course, among many other challenging conversation starters at Washington National Cathedral is a memorial to Lee and Jackson, given by the Daughters of the Confederacy, but we also have a world of other challenging conversation starters, like a female bishop, or gay marriage. It can get complicated. Talk about status quo! Imagine the preconceived notions that arrive at our church every day. One of my techniques, when someone says they’ll pray for me, but really mean they think I’m wrong and I’m doomed, I just thank them. I can always use more people praying for me,

  4. You can read Lincoln’s thoughts on the subject in fluid, clear language within his many letters to friends during the war. To boil it down, he basically assumed an absolute duty to maintain the government he was sworn-in to administer, and turn it over completely intact to whichever president came immediately after him. The southern states seceding over slavery, or western states seceding over the gold standard, or Vermont seceding cause they liked Canada better — would have made no difference to him. The union was perpetual, and he had a duty to use force to maintain it. To think otherwise would ultimately lead to the whole thing falling apart. To bring to modern terms, think about how much New Yorkers and Bostonians hate each other. How much longer would everyone have stuck together once it was established we could all just go our separate ways peacefully if we just got pissed off enough about this or that issue? That was his mindset.

  5. AS a representative of the NPS – I am surprised you engaged the visitor in that manner. All opinions and viewpoints should be respected. The issue is not as simple as “if its sunny or not” – it is complicated. His point of view is partially correct and so is yours. Without slavery, would the different factions of the nation had such huge differences to go to war over? Maybe…maybe not. John Hennessy put it well yesterday, the reasons the soldier fights are not always the same as why the “nation” fights. What motivates a soldier is not always the same as what motivates politicians to lead their people to war. Something to think about…

    1. Indeed, “soldier motivation for fighting” and “government motivation for going” to war are two separate things. John’s not the only one who’s talked about that, either. McPherson’s “Cause and Comrade” hits on it pretty good, and many of us on the front lines use variations of that same approach when dealing with visitors.

      When someone says “The war wasn’t about slavery,” that’s clearly in the realm of “causes,” and that’s clearly, demonstrably wrong; if someone says “Those fellows didn’t go to war over slavery,” that’s into the realm of motivation, and I would agree with them wholeheartedly.

      If I’m expected to educate someone on the difference between Andrew Jackson and Stonewall Jackson based on the premise that the person has their facts mixed up, then shouldn’t I try to educate someone who has other facts mixed up, too? Or should I shy away from facts that are “complicated”–made even moreso by a century and half of foggy “Lost Cause” misinterpretation?

      Sometimes, smile-and-nod is best. But I’m going to try and test the waters first and see what kind of conversation I can have before I give a person up as a lost cause. If we can have a talk, everyone comes out a winner because we’ve all been given something to think about, even if we don’t come out in agreement.

    2. Oh, I should also point out it’s, in part, BECAUSE I am a representative of the NPS that I engaged the visitor in that manner. The NPS as a whole, and my park in particular, has devoted a considerable amount of time and resources over the past four years discussing the centrality of slavery to the war. We can’t just preach that through publications and talk about it in highly controlled presentations to audiences who already agree with us; otherwise, if we don’t live it on the front lines, we’d be hypocritical and cowardly. Unless we engage in conversations with people who misunderstand the facts, then we ultimately fail in our responsibility as historians and stewards. We don’t have to go to the mat with visitors, but we should try to offer something for them to think about. They can always decline that offer–at which point, I can smile and nod.

      (BTW: Just an explicit statement that my views do not represent the NPS’s. This is just my attempt to make sense, within the discretion given to me by the NPS, of the conundrum we face on the front line. For an official articulation of the NPS’s view on slavery, click here:

  6. Chris,

    This is a brave piece and while your effort to make the encounter into a learning experience was a sound decision, you also knew from experience when and where to stop. Life long attitudes, especially those about race, are almost never altered by single discussion or even a series of discussions. I recall a coworker, who insisted that the 1860-61 rebellion had nothing to do with racial slavery. Realizing the inadequacy of my efforts to convince him otherwise, I asked him if he would be willing to read a slim volume on the subject, entitled _The Apostles of Disunion_. Knowing my coworker to be educated and intelligent, I had hopes he would find the primary sourced book persuasive.

    While I have no idea how closely my coworker read the book, it was apparent that he had confronted information that challenged his understanding of the coming of the war. That much he conceded, however reluctantly. “It didn’t change my mind, though,” I remember him saying before he walked away, never to raise the subject again. Racial ill will is deeply imbedded in the American psyche. It is as dominant as any of those that makeup the collective aversions of our culture. It is slowly changing, but, sadly, the mindset is likely to be with us for the remainder of the century.

    Tom Grace

  7. I thought the engagement with the visitor was skillfully handled. You did well. The Northern mills and their mill villages had plenty of farms and supplied their workers with more than adequate food supplies. The South did not send anything north but cotton, King Cotton. And it wasn’t about States Rights either, who sponsored and pushed the Fugitive Slave Act, a federal law meant to oversee & penalize states harboring of fugitives / freedom seekers – the Southern portion of the US Congress. The war was about slavery and it had to be fought to its bloody end – the two states could not have co-existed – one slave & one free, as Lincoln correctly noted. The oppressive laws and methods to enslave a people can not be dismissed. It is an ugly part of our history and we, as a people, need to confront its reality.
    Chuck Arning – Lunenburg, MA

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