Friday, September 24, 2010

Dwight Pitcaithley - Addressing the Causes of the Civil War in Public History

Dwight T. Pitcaithley received his doctorate from Texas Tech University in 1976. He is a Professor at New Mexico State University, and has published in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, New Mexico Historical Review, The History Teacher, The Public Historian, Perspectives, Legacy, CRM, New Mexico Humanities, North & South, and The George Wright Forum. He wrote Let the River Be: A History of the Ozark's Buffalo River, National Park Service (1987); and has contributed chapters to Becoming Historians, University of Chicago Press (2009), Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, The New Press (2006), Preserving Western History, University of New Mexico Press, (2005), Public History and the Environment, Krieger Publishing Company (2004); Myth, Memory, and the Making of the American Landscape, University Press of Florida (2001); Seeing and Being Seen: Tourism in the American West, University Press of Kansas (2001); Past Meets Present, Smithsonian Institution Press (1987).

Pitcaithley began by comparing and contrasting academic views on the causes of the Civil War with the public perspective – perspectives which are very much out of sync. He then relayed a story that most us of can relate to about an encounter he had with an individual who told him he ought to teach the “real” history of the war (i.e. it wasn’t about slavery because most Southerners did not own slaves, blah blah, whatever).

This is in part because of the work of the children of Confederate veterans (UDC, SCV, etc.) and the permanence of the Lost Cause narrative.

Pitcaithley also talked about a controversial meeting held by the NPS in 1998 in which the unspoken moratorium on discussing the causes of the American Civil War in National Parks was lifted. This sparked anger from very vocal groups who despised this “Yankee” interpretation of history. Even though Pitcaithley was able to muster a mountain of evidence that secession was indeed caused by slavery (including the minutes of the secession conventions in which the delegates made it very plain that they were leaving the Union because Lincoln was an abolitionist and the peculiar institution was threatened by his election) these cranks were unmoved.

Pitcaithley ended by stating that this issue will certainly come to a head as we delve into the Sesquicentennial.

Recommended Reading:

Edward L. Ayers. What Caused The Civil War?: Reflections on the South and Southern History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Kenneth M. Stampp, ed. The Causes of the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

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