(U.S.) Civil War historic sites in the South without revisionism?
June 2, 2018 1:55 PM   Subscribe

I'm headed down south for a road trip with my dad next week. Our itinerary is extremely loose, but we're likely to hit Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and possibly the north/east of Georgia. My dad has an interest in seeing some Civil War historic sites. I haven't been to any, so I don't know what to expect. I'm wary of the possibility of whitewashed/revisionist history. Looking for recommendations for southern Civil War sites/memorials that are (a) interesting, and (b) do history honestly and well.
posted by duffell to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I've never visited it so I don't really know how well things are handled but maybe Camp Nelson in Jessamine County, KY? It was eventually a place where former slaves went into the Union Army.
posted by dilettante at 2:22 PM on June 2, 2018

It doesn't look like you're getting to Louisiana, which is a shame, because they have exactly what you're looking for.

In Montgomery, AL there is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, aka the Lynching Museum.

I grew up in the middle of a couple Civil War sites/museums/displays/battlefields (not on your route) and your worries are incredibly founded. Most Civil War era stuff is just chock full of "and ~this~ head of household was VERY nice to his workers, even teaching them to read!!"
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 3:29 PM on June 2, 2018 [5 favorites]

NPS runs a lot of battlesites and memorials, and are thought of highly for their interpretation programming.
posted by arnicae at 3:36 PM on June 2, 2018 [7 favorites]

Generally you'll be better off with battlefields over plantation houses. I recommend Fortress Monroe (where the famous "contrabands of war" argument was made in refusing to remand ex-slaves back to those claiming ownership) and Petersburg in the greater Richmond area.
posted by TwoStride at 3:53 PM on June 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

Yes, you're tilting at a big windmill. The racist legacy in the South hasn't included much night riding (outside the police) for a long time -- Dylan Roof ≠ resurgence of Jim Crow terror. But there's a strong inertia vs writing honest history. The gentle museum at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, for example, didn't mention slavery a few years ago.

But ................

The Atlanta History Center features the Cyclorama, a huge painting of the Battle of Atlanta. It doesn't venture upon politics, just military scenes, so it's honest enough. Anyway, it was commissioned by a Union general.

The AHC also has a standing Civil War exhibit. I recommend it, but the less you understand about the war's foundation, the less you'll spot its tendentiousness. For example, it informs us that Lincoln didn't receive ONE SINGLE VOTE in the South in 1860 -- but not that slave-power manipulations kept him off every ballot.

See the Charleston museums -- the port of entry for the ancestors of a huge part of the US population, equal to Ellis Island in the formation of this country.

Sometimes a small attraction speaks volumes. Anybody with a bit of underdog will appreciate the events at Harpers Ferry. And the ironies, like Robt E Lee arresting John Brown for treason.

North GA offers some good takes on white Southern Unionists. (All Blacks were Unionists.) Marietta National Cemetery hosts 9 such heroes at the top of the hill.

Birmingham museum. Don't miss the dog sculpture across the street -- if you want a scare, close your eyes and open them there.

There's much more. I'll try to shoot you some as they come to mind.
posted by LonnieK at 3:55 PM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I honestly can't tell you what this place is like because I haven't yet been, but I've wanted for some years to go to the site of the Andersonville Prison site in Georgia. It's run by NPS and it includes the National Prisoner of War Museum.
posted by BlueJae at 4:48 PM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

An example of a National Park Service location: Booker T. Washington National Monument in Virginia
From Slave Cabin to the Hall of Fame

Booker T. Washington was born a slave in April 1856 on the 207-acre farm of James Burroughs. After the Civil War, Washington became the first principal of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School. Later as an adviser, author and orator, his past would influence his philosophies as the most influential African American of his era. Come explore his birthplace.
I found this through a customized search in Virginia on the NPS.gov website.

I don't know these states at all, but from my experience elsewhere in the south, you can seek out African American museums and monuments for an expanded view of the region's history (for example, the Little Rock, Arkansas former state capitol building is a great museum, but it's heavily focused on old white men, with very little about slavery, and nothing that I recall about the native people who first lived there, but there's a really interesting Mosaic Templars Center that expands the town's history significantly).
posted by filthy light thief at 5:00 PM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I haven't visited any battlefields where you're going, but I would expect that anything administered by the NPS is going to be balanced, neutral, fair, etc. I have never seen anything by the NPS be anything else.
posted by Fukiyama at 5:03 PM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Chiming in with others to nth that National Park Service-run battlefields will have non-revisionist interpretation. NPS interp staff try hard to incorporate diverse points of view and even if there isn't much direct evidence, will be sure to provide the wider context (i.e. that the Civil War was precipitated by the South to preserve the institution of slavery). Antietam National Battlefield uses the battle as a starting point to discuss the Emancipation Proclamation as the Northern victory there gave Lincoln a good political opportunity to issue the final EP.

I haven't been to Kennesaw Mountain NBP but their website at least carries some interp on women and African Americans.
posted by Preserver at 5:10 PM on June 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

Check out the American Civil War Museum here in Richmond, Virginia. I’ve always found it pretty solid.
posted by 4ster at 5:39 PM on June 2, 2018

If you do make it to Georgia, I would recommend the Chickamauga battlefield, just outside of Chattanooga, TN, and Kennesaw Mountain battlefield, in the NE suburbs of Atlanta. Both of these are run by the NPS. I think both qualify under "(a) interesting" because of the connection with Sherman's March to the Sea and the Atlanta Campaign. If you aren't familiar with this part of Civil War history, I'd suggest reading up on it a little so you'll understand the personalities and actions related to these battlefields.
posted by kovacs at 5:52 PM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seconding Andersonville. Before you go, read the classic first-hand account.
posted by LonnieK at 5:57 PM on June 2, 2018

I can recommend any of the battlefields in Fredericksburg VA.
posted by COD at 6:00 PM on June 2, 2018

I've been to Shiloh and Stones River in Tn. I believe both are nps run, (+1 more to factual and unbiased) and both are well worth seeing. Shiloh, however, was absolutely incredible... The history, the anguish of the fight, and the beautiful condition of the park is almost heartbreaking.
posted by Jacen at 8:17 PM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you are going through Nashville, I thought Fort Negley was beautiful and also interesting!
posted by ChuraChura at 9:03 PM on June 2, 2018

Birmingham museum. Don't miss the dog sculpture across the street -

Seconding this, and adding some notes. The sculpture is in Kelly Ingram Park, an NPS-run site that retells Birmingham (and national) civil rights history through sculpture - especially that of the Children's Crusade. Signs in the park direct you to a cellphone audio tour, which is well, well worth it. It describes the events depicted in detail in the words of those who were present, and includes some historic audio. THe audio accompanying the dogs is horrifying. The park is within close walking distance to the 16th street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute museum, which has sections on the Civil War.

You might find other good sites on the NPS site Civil Rights Trail.
posted by Miko at 7:58 AM on June 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

NPS runs Fort Sumter, which is a quick trip by ferry from Charleston, SC. No revisionism there.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 8:10 AM on June 3, 2018

NPS runs Fort Sumter, which is a quick trip by ferry from Charleston, SC. No revisionism there.

But you still might have the ranger make an irksome joke about how he's "sorry to tell you that you're standing on Northern soil" (because it was shored up with New Hampshire granite).
posted by TwoStride at 2:06 PM on June 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Professional word of clarification: A lot of people are using the term "revisionism" and I just want to speak up because it's a little confusing. All history is revisionist (the historical process is one of revising earlier narratives; it is "the lifeblood of historical scholarship"). As the Wikipedia page points out, revisionism is basically non-controversial except where the moral argument changes. There are people that would call the more evidence-based, comprehensive and inclusive narratives now being practiced by the NPS "revisionist," and they would not be incorrect in applying that term. So to avoid confusion it may be best to speak not of whether or not there's "revisionism" in an interpretation, but what the specific perspective or point of view of that interpretation is.
posted by Miko at 3:18 PM on June 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Repeating what arnicae said above about NPS sites, and specifically adding that Appomattox Court House is really well done and worth a visit (to many people's surprise, it's a town, not a court house). If you end up there, Baine's Books and Coffee is also a worthwhile visit. It's one of the coolest bookstores I've been to.
posted by General Malaise at 5:19 PM on June 3, 2018

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