Interpreting Sacred Ground
The Rhetoric of National Civil War Parks and Battlefields
Rhetoric, Culture, and Social Critique
208 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 x 0.70 in, 10 B&W figures
- Published: March 2021
- Published: February 2013
Interpreting Sacred Ground is a rhetorical analysis of Civil War battlefields and parks, and the ways various commemorative traditions—and their ideologies of race, reconciliation, emancipation, and masculinity—compete for dominance.
The National Park Service (NPS) is known for its role in the preservation of public sites deemed to have historic, cultural, and natural significance. In Interpreting Sacred Ground, J. Christian Spielvogel studies the NPS’s secondary role as an interpreter or creator of meaning at such sites, specifically Gettysburg National Military Park, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and Cold Harbor Visitor Center.
Spielvogel studies in detail the museums, films, publications, tours, signage, and other media at these sites, and he studies and analyzes how they shape the meanings that visitors are invited to construct. Though the NPS began developing interpretive exhibits in the 1990s that highlighted slavery and emancipation as central facets to understanding the war, Spielvogel argues that the NPS in some instances preserves outmoded narratives of white reconciliation and heroic masculinity, obscuring the race-related causes and consequences of the war as well as the war’s savagery.
The challenges the NPS faces in addressing these issues are many, from avoiding unbalanced criticism of either the Union or the Confederacy, to foregrounding race and violence as central issues, preserving clear and accurate renderingsof battlefield movements and strategies, and contending with the various public constituencies with their own interpretive stakes in the battle for public memory.
Spielvogel concludes by arguing for the National Park Service’s crucial role as a critical voice in shaping twentieth-first-century Civil War public memory and highlights the issues the agency faces as it strives to maintain historical integrity while contending with antiquated renderings of the past.
List of Illustrations
I. Race and Memory
1. "We Are Met on a Great Battle-Field": Race, Memory, and the Gettysburg Address
2. Reviving Emancipationist Memory at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
II. Violence and Memory
3. Savage and Heroic War Memories at Gettysburg National Military Park
4. The Symbolic Landscape: Visualizing Violence at Gettysburg National Military Park
5. "The Waters Ran Red": Savage Interpretations of War at Cold Harbor Visitor Center
"[ . . .] what I find to be most compelling about Interpreting Sacred Ground is how Spielvogel manages to contribute to the standing scholarship by maintaining a distinct rhetorical perspective in his account of the ongoing symbolic contestation over the Civil War’s legacy. This fine book could be used to complement graduate or undergraduate coursework on critical and interpretive methods, the rhetoric of public memory, public address, or the rhetoric of war."
—Rhetoric Public Affairs
“Always the teacher-scholar, Spielvogel expertly and authoritatively shows his readers how the National Park Service attempts to influence public memory, and thus historical understanding, of the Civil War. In contextualizing the struggle to memorialize Gettsyburg, Harpers Ferry, and Cold Harbor, Spielvogel reveals the politics of both the reconciliationists and emancipationists—and the rhetorical consequences of both memorializing traditions. At stake is nothing less than how we understand ourselves as Americans—then and now. Tomorrow, too.”
—Davis W. Houck, coeditor of Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954–1965
“One notable strength of Interpreting Sacred Ground is that it uncovers the vagaries of battlefield interpretation. Interpretative panels erected during the centennial of the war will of necessity present different messages from those developed during the sesquicentennial. In addition, both public and scholarly (not to mention political) interpretations of the Civil War will naturally influence how the war is presented.”
—Journal of the Civil War Era