The National Park Service is undertaking an effort to identify appropriate sites for commemorating and interpreting the history of Reconstruction. Two participants in the study note that, as of now, the NPS “has not a single site dedicated to that vital and controversial period.”
There’s no denying that Reconstruction is a critically important period that doesn’t get much public attention. The issues Americans grappled with during Reconstruction are both fundamental and timely. As the article notes, they include “debates over the meaning of equal protection of the law, over the right to vote, and over the limits of presidential and congressional authority, both in peacetime and in war.”
Over the years, especially during the sesquicentennial, I’ve heard a lot of people bemoan the fact that the Civil War gets a lot more attention than the messy, unglamorous period that followed it. The drama of the war years has a lot more inherent sex appeal than Reconstruction. And Appomattox provides a kind of narrative closure that you don’t get with the unfinished business of the 1870s.
But I submit that it’s not just the prejudices of popular memory that have given us so many Civil War parks without a single Reconstruction one. The thing about agencies that are charged with preserving and interpreting historic sites is that they’re inevitably going to devote most of their resources to those aspects of history linked to specific points on a map. This is not a shortcoming of such agencies; it’s just a by-product of what they’re set up to do.
Wars, after all, tend to turn ordinary pieces of ground into battlefields, and battlefields are the kinds of historic sites that are naturally suited to preservation, interpretation, and commemoration. There were plenty of Reconstruction-era developments that were as significant to American history as the Battle of Shiloh, but it’s harder to find sites associated with those developments that you can point to and be able to say, “This is where it happened.”
I can’t think of too many locations where you could tell the Reconstruction story in a holistic fashion, along the lines of the comprehensive approach to the Civil War you get at the new Gettysburg visitor center. One such site would be Andrew Johnson’s home in Greeneville, TN, which is already under NPS stewardship. The site of the Colfax Massacre might be another ideal location, but I don’t know how much is left there to preserve and interpret.
Ultimately, I think the fact that there’s been no Reconstruction national park until now has as much to do with these practical issues as it does with Americans’ predilection for forgetting the messy and discouraging chapters of their history. The NPS isn’t an all-purpose historical interpretation agency. Its historical activities are linked to places, and some events are just naturally more suited to this sort of location-specific interpretation than others.