Sunday, July 8, 2012

One Man's Victory is Another Man's Narrowly Avoided Victory

The clearly-labeled visitor center
at Parker's Crossroads. If the cannon
didn't give a big enough sign, there is
an actual sign to help visitors find
their way.
On my way out of Tennessee last week, I decided to stop off at the Parker's Crossroads new visitor center. The visitor center opened in June of 2011. I had been to the old visitor center in October of 2010 and was less than impressed with the old interpretation (it was everything one might expect at a privately-run, small Civil War center, complete with dioramas). I appreciate many of the changes, but should disclose that Civil War interpretation is near-and-dear to my heart. If I come across a little fierce, it is only because I expect nothing less than the best out of these places.

The new center was clean and cool and felt "new." Meeting the needs of wary travelers is one of the most important things a historic site can do. Consider it the Maslow's hierarchy for interpreters. The staff greeted and welcomed me. Quality customer service is another extremely important thing for historic sites to maintain. When staff show they are open and friendly early, visitors feel more at ease about engaging. Even if the staff doesn't know all the "right answers," they still allow for visitors to interact in a positive manner. As it turns out, Eastern National houses a store within the visitor center.
While most of the Forrest memorabilia
had been removed, not all was gone.

I knew I was not going to do the driving tour, but wanted to see what they had changed in their presentation of the battle. I was especially interested in seeing how they interpreted one Nathan Bedford Forrest, the leader of that there Confederate outfit. After working at a Civil War site of the western theater, I encountered my fair share of the Nathan Bedford Forrest hero-worship. I'll be danged if Shelby Foote did not help any by calling Forrest one of two "geniuses" of the American Civil War. I have even met people who have tattooed his face to their arm. [*shudder*] I understand that I need to remain as objective as possible when interpreting the past, but how history has remembered this man still impacts how the Civil War is interpreted (even at sites where he played a major role, like at Fort Pillow... just wait until I get myself on over to that site). Forrest led 1,800 cavalry men against Union troops at the battle of Parker's Crossroads... and lost. Or, according to the general interpretation of the battle, "withdrew." Here is the thing: lose your ground, lose the battle. It is simple. But, since ol' Forrest evolved into this larger-than-life Confederate icon, his historians treat his loses quietly (or just ignore them). Indeed, if you were not entirely familiar with this battle, its players, the battlefield, or anything about Civil War tactics, a visit to this site will probably just confuse you. Who won?
"Parker's Crossroads: Narrowly Avoided Defeat"
This sign was moved from the old visitor center to the
new site. Considering the age of the trails program,
the sign can't be more than a few years old.

It turns out, even reading about the battle might just confuse you, too. Wikipedia calls the battle a Confederate victory. I quote Wikipedia, because let's face it: the public uses it as a source of information. (In the "Aftermath" section, the author acknowledges that both sides claim victory but that the Confederates "appear to have more credence."). Sillies. When 300 of your men are captured and you are forced into a retreat, you are defeated. You are defeated, even if you damaged all but two bridges in west Tennessee. You are defeated, even if your name is Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Tennessee Civil War Trails sign posted outside of the center calls it a "Narrowly Avoided Defeat." Lost Cause much?

I am a fan of Civil War battle sites including context. Specifically, I prefer contextualizing the war (causes or effects), but for Parker's Crossroads, even contextualizing this battle as small as it was would help push their interpretation to the next level. There is no clear victor or loser presented. Okay, fine, be that way. But neither is there discussion of why there is no clear victor. Who writes these histories? Who has been telling these stories? That is a story within itself. There is no mention of who lived through this area nor how Forrest's raids impacted their lives. Raiding was a tactic to destroy or capture supplies, transportation modes, and communication methods. How would that have impacted any of the local population (besides being devastating)? And who was the local population? The majority of west Tennessee favored secession because of their crops and the value of maintaining slavery (not as much of an issue in the mountainous eastern portion of the state). So who exactly lived here at that time?

While the majority of the hero-worship I remember from the first visitor center is gone, there are still traces, begging the question: who visits this place? Probably self-proclaimed "Civil War buffs." But there have to be more visitors, too. Considering it is off of an interstate exit, I would bet they receive many incidental visitors just looking for restrooms. If those folks did not know much about the Civil War and just wanted to stretch their legs while reading some of the panels, they probably won't walk away with many more connections to history than before they left. Historian me found it interesting that Eastern National did a good job carrying a variety of books; indeed, I saw the National Park Service publication The Civil War Remembered. The "Official National Park Service Handbook" compiled essays from a variety of scholars on a variety of topics, including addressing the "Lost Cause."

The history is there, the interpretation is not. The battle was small, but the site preserves a place for a richer story to be told. The new visitor center has improved many things about its presentation of the battle. The new visitor center has many things about its presentation of the battle that can be improved, too.

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