The Connection Between History and Land

What connection does land and history have? The National Park Service had its beginnings in 1872 with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park. Since then the land protected by the National Park Service has grown to 84.6 million acres. The NPS originally managed lands that had been chosen for its natural beauty and for the enjoyment of the public. Soon afterward they started to acquire land with historic value as well. It was until 1931 that the National Park Service hired its first chief historian, Verne Chatelain.

“Chatelain envisioned turning the haphazard collection of NPS historic properties into an integrated national program that presented a coherent, thematic, narrative of American history.” From that point on, the NPS began the precarious act of balancing the preservation of historic sites and the desire to offer an interpretation of these sites to visitors by establishing “a vital relationship between visitors and the memorialized people and events.” At the time it was presumed that a well-informed historian could create a perfectly accurate interpretation. No thought was given to the idea of shared-authority, and it was expected that the historians creating the interpretation would come to “noncontroversial” conclusions that would “spare NPS from criticism.”

Some people don’t seem to care how controversial they are, especially when it comes to the topic of the Civil War in the South. Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz is a compelling combination of entertaining, ridiculous, and horrifying material. Horwitz embarks on a journey across the South intent on discovering why so many people still hold so tightly to the Civil War and Confederacy. He is met by the completely obsessed, well-intentioned farbs, downright racists, and some people who are simply dreaming of a simpler 19th century style life. Horwitz found that those in favor of reenactments viewed it as an “escapism” for those that “want to get back to a simpler time.” (16) On the other side of the spectrum, the author of Imperiled Promise fears that “these battlefields become memorial and commemorative sites, rather than places that prompted historical reflection.”

As The Presence of the Past pointed out, people interact with history in a wide variety of ways. One of the ways that was particularly discussed in Confederates in the Attic was reenactments, especially of the Civil War. Reenactments take place on a regular basis nation-wide, but are especially prominent in the South. Another popular history hobby for many is tracing your family genealogy. In the South, many people pride themselves on tracing ancestry back to Civil War soldiers, and even join societies like Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy. Organizations like these have sparked many controversies. Should people be paying homage to the Confederacy? Many people, especially blacks, take great offense at the flying of the Confederate flag. It is easy to see why the hoisting of the Confederate banner is offensive, yet many Sothern’s refuse to let their proud Confederate past die. As Horwitz touched on, the flying of the Confederate flag has even ignited senseless killings in recent years.

Many Southerners feel very connected to their Confederate past, and one reason is that the war was fought in their backyards. They have battlefields and cemeteries filled with soldiers pervading their modern lives. In a way they are still immersed in the landscape of the past, and perhaps that is one of the reasons many Southerners have trouble letting go of the Civil War. There is certainly a strong connection between history and the land that it happened on.

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