Friday, October 12, 2012

No bullets? Then it must not be a Civil War Site.

Melrose served as the "suburban villa" for the
plantation owner, who owned four working
plantations. (Courtesy Library of Congress)
On my way up from Louisiana, I spent the night in Natchez, Mississippi. Knowing of a nearby National Park Service site that I had yet to visit, I decided to stop by Natchez National Historical Park. Specifically, I stopped in at "Melrose," the antebellum estate managed by the park. Initially, I had planned on staying just long enough to see what was there and get my stamp (knowing I had another ten hours left in my sojourn back to Tennessee). Yes, I am one of those park visitors. I ended up landing myself an engaging conversation with the park ranger and a brief tour of the house.

The tour was outstanding; the park ranger did an amazing job at fueling the stories with his passion, making connections with his audience. I actually enjoyed the house tour because of his program (I've mentioned my dislike of historic home tours before). He discussed nuances associated with the site's history while relating many of the historic ideas to today. I love to see the green and grey shine like that.

What struck me the most, however, happened during a conversation I had with the park ranger before the tour. I saw that the park had some of the new "Civil War to Civil Rights" trading cards available and I asked if I could have some. I mentioned something along the lines of how parks like Natchez are often forgotten when people think "Civil War to Civil Rights" and he responded "well, this isn't really a Civil War park."

The reason Melrose existed: cotton  and slaves.
(Courtesy Library of Congress)

What defines a "Civil War" or "Civil Rights" park? His argument was that since the minor skirmish that happened was small and didn't affect the sites of the park, it wasn't really a "Civil War" park. I suppose that is one way to define a "Civil War" site: fighting had to take place or damage had to be caused by fighting. But that is how we have always tried to define these sites and as it turns out, it isn't always the most accurate. The estate's antebellum existence represents what the war was fought over. The estate's struggles reflect war's impact on even the "distant" places from battlefields. The estate's post-war existence represents devastation after war. The people associated with the estate echo the theme "From Civil War to Civil Rights" perfectly. Oh, but no shots were fired at the estate, so it must not be a "Civil War" park.

The story of the American Civil War existed well outside of the boundaries of battlefields. The story of the American Civil War impacted more than soldiers. The story of the American Civil War lasted beyond the four years assigned in text books. The National Park Service is trying and slowly moving in the direction of telling a broader story of the American Civil War. The park ranger who stated that Natchez was "not a Civil War park" clearly was read on the subject and familiar with the site, so I don't want to take away from his assessment. But at the same time, how do we define a "Civil War" site? Even better, how do we define "Civil Rights" site?


  1. Great post. I couldn't agree more with your assessment of "Civil War" parks.

    And, I'm always a sucker for *good* historic house tours (there's more than just the furniture!) Adding Natchez to the list of parks to visit!

    1. Thanks, Jacob! Natchez is definitely worth the visit (it's now on my list of places to re-visit!).