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Op-Ed | Confederate Memorials Serve A Role In National Parks

Editor's note: The following op-ed is from Harry Butowsky, who spent more than three decades working for the National Park Service as a historian. He's worked for a handful of directors and seen much change in the agency. Understandably, he has an interesting perspective on the current state of history in the National Park Service. 

The question of what to do with the many Confederate Memorials has come to the attention of the public recently. These memorials were originally established in National Military Parks. The War Department  designated four Civil War battlefields —Shiloh, Vicksburg, Gettysburg and Chickamauga and Chattanooga—as National Military Parks after 1890. These battles were considered by the War Department to be of exceptional political and military importance and interest, that had far-reaching effects, that were worthy of preservation for detailed military study, and that were suitable to serve as memorials to the armies engaged. They were marked and improved to indicate the lines of battle between the two armies. They were heavily monumented and served as lasting memorials to the men who fought there. They were designed for the student of military history and the historian who came to the park to study the battle. These parks have a strong educational value

If you knew nothing about the Battle of Gettysburg and visited the park, you would be exposed to the true history and meaning of one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War. The value of these parks derives not from the size or the number of statues present, but from the interpretation we place of the history of the event that is marked.

The history of the Civil War is perhaps the most dramatic and significant event in the history of the United States as an independent nation. It was the climax of a half-century of social, political, and economic rivalries growing out of an economy half-slave, half-free. In the race for territorial expansion in the West, in the evolution of the theories of centralized government, and in the conception of the rights of the individual, these rivalries became so intense as to find a solution only in the grim realities of civil strife.

It was on the great battlefields of this war, stretching from the Mexican border to Pennsylvania, that these differences were resolved in a new concept of national unity and an extension of freedom. In the scope of its operations, in the magnitude of its cost in human life and financial resources, the war had few, if any, parallels in the past. Its imprint upon the future was deep and lasting, its heroic sacrifice an inspiring tribute to the courage and valor of the American people.

The national attention of the issue of Confederate monuments is giving Americans the opportunity to debate the intricacies of history and historic preservation and decide what course to support for the future. Through telling the stories of the Civil War battles and individual preservation struggles at our parks, we examine the complexity of the idea of historic preservation as it has been practiced during the 150 years since the end of the war.

Read entire article at National Parks Traveler