The War that Shaped America

Nearly 150 years after the Civil War, Bill Gwaltney explains why its lessons are still relevant today.


By Amy Leinbach Marquis


This April marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s first battle, at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. For the next four years, national park units across the country will host special events to commemorate the war that shaped America.

And no one on Earth is more excited about it than Bill Gwaltney.

As assistant regional director for workforce enhancement for the Park Service’s Intermountain Region, Gwaltney’s the guy responsible for building relationships with new partners and diverse communities, helping parks recruit and retain Park Service staff, and diversifying the workforce in park sites from Montana to the Mexican border. In nearly 30 years with the Park Service, he’s done an impressive job of making those connections—and the Civil War plays a key part: “I can’t think of anyone in the United States who doesn’t have some connection to the American Civil War,” he says.

Gwaltney’s foray into wartime history didn’t truly begin until the late 1980s, when he was working at Frederick Douglass 
National Historic Site in Washington, D.C. It was around that time that he helped found Company “B” of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a group of African-American Civil War re-enactors, interpreters, and amateur historians from the region.

Gwaltney also helped create “Old Stories, New Voices,” a multicultural youth camp sponsored in part by the Park Service. And in 2008, he began working with the staff at Fort Union National Monument in New Mexico to help form a living-history volunteer group to depict the thousands of Hispanic soldiers from New Mexico who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War.

This winter, National Parks’ associate editor Amy Leinbach Marquis talked with Gwaltney about the upcoming sesquicentennial and its relevance to Americans today.

Q: Why is the role of minorities so significant to interpreting the Civil War?
A: Minorities hoped that their participation in this conflict would help people see them as Americans first, not as “hyphenated” Americans. No one could have said it better than Frederick Douglass, when he stated: “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, ‘U.S.,’ let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on Earth or under the Earth that can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.” There are very few things I’ve committed to memory quite like that.

There is nothing more American than the Civil War. This was a conflict that involved everyone, and everyone had a stake in it, and I think everyone has a stake in its remembrance today. There were Hispanics and American Indians fighting both for the North and South. And today, when the First New Mexico Volunteer Infantry interprets those battles at Fort Union National Historic Site in New Mexico, they communicate all their commands and maneuvers in Spanish while the interpreter talks to the public in English. You get to see Union troops operating completely in Spanish, which is something that most people haven’t seen since 1865.

Q: How do Civil War sites help to engage more diverse audiences in the national parks?
A: The Park Service has had 25 years to think more deeply about the Civil War since the 125th anniversary observances began back in 1986, so it’s only natural that they’ve begun to tell more diverse stories to an increasingly diverse set of audiences. The great thing is, they didn’t have to make them up. Those stories were there all along.

Civil War history is so wide and long and deep that it has the potential to engage everyone, regardless of how long their family has been in this country, or what their connection is to the battles or those outcomes—because we’re all affected by the outcomes of the war. Even today, many important political issues involve civil rights and states’ rights, and the ability to define oneself on personal, regional, and national levels, so this isn’t just about black-powder muskets and wool uniforms—we’re talking about issues that still resonate strongly with people.

One of the interesting lessons from my work with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry is illustrated by the first meeting the fledgling group held at the Frederick Douglass house on a balmy summer evening in D.C. in 1988. Civil War historian Brian Pohanka and I joined with veteran Civil War re-enactor Jack Thompson to recruit men to portray the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the motion picture, Glory, and for interpretive programs for the National Park Service.

We were worried that nobody was going to show up, but suddenly there was one car, then another car, then another—and pretty soon the parking lot was full and we had at least 50 guys in the auditorium. We had planned a full program where we’d talk about the history of the war, then re-enactments, and then I would talk about the history of black soldiers in the Civil War. But as the meeting progressed, the noise level kept rising, and I had to ask people to quiet down because we had so much to cover. Then it got loud again, and I had to say it again. Finally, the third time, I said, “Okay, what’s going on here?” None of these people had even known each other before the meeting. Then one of them said, “For so many years we’ve loved the history of the Civil War, but we never felt welcome in museums and national parks. Now we’ve found each other and we just can’t shut up.”

The National Park Service has to face the challenge of letting everyone know that they’re welcome, that these are their national parks, and this is their history, and they need to feel good about connecting with the upcoming anniversary events and exploring these sites not just a couple times during the next four years, but for the rest of their lives.

Q: How does this history speak to you today?
A: Every one of those soldiers, from the North and South, was committed to a vision of a country that reflected their interests and passions. And we’re still dealing with that today: Who are we now? Who are we going to become? And how can we learn to get along together? There are tremendous lessons not only about sacrifice and heroism on both sides of the war, but there are lessons about forgiveness, about patriotism, and about what to keep and what to let go. There are so many lessons to be learned, that I don’t think there’s any one-size-fits-all message to them. There are so many threads that weave this tapestry we call the history of the Civil War, and there is something for everyone—but you have to look closely at the cloth.

Q: Every American has a connection to the Civil War, but not everyone has found it yet. How can more people start to realize that?
A: It doesn’t take much—perhaps a little reading, a visit to a battlefield, some online genealogy, or one of the 150th Civil War observances. But be careful, once you’re hooked, there’s no going back!

There are so many things that have changed American life and culture as a direct result of the Civil War. The national income tax was established to help pay for the war. Thanksgiving was established as a national holiday during the Civil War. The Civil War preceded our first presidential assassination. We made so many technological military advancements as a result of the Civil War, from aerial photography to hand grenades.

You have to know a little something in order to become more connected. And that’s the trick—to get people to take that first step and visit a national park or go the Park Service website. It applies to everyone, no matter their age or interests.

Let’s say, for example, that your interests aren’t in military maneuvers or combat, but food. Well there are plenty of parks that can talk about the food of the Civil War, and the hardships created by things like the blockade in the South. Southern soldiers could rarely get coffee and had to make bread out of pea flour. Of course in the end, the most interesting stories are about the people. But you have to go to the parks to hear those stories. People could also take another look at Ken Burns’s Civil War series, because there were some really smart things done in that film to help Americans connect with the Civil War.

Q: Can you talk about the idea of interpretation evolving beyond just battlefield tactics, and focusing more on the causes and consequences in all their complexities?
A: Absolutely. As critical as tactics are to understanding the military aspect of the war, in the end it’s all about the people and their interests, motives, anxieties, fears, and hopes. What happened in the Civil War, in the end, happened not to regiments, companies, or brigades, so much as they happened to people, families, and communities.

As we talk about different groups of people who fought in this war, consider the soldiers in New Mexico who had only been part of the U.S. since 1847—not that many years before. And here they were, embroiled in this national contest between North and South. Then there were African-American soldiers, some of whom had been enslaved persons only weeks before but ran away to fight for their own freedom.

So you have these people whose expectations for citizenship and connection with the larger country is very much improved—and in many respects, those are dialogues that are still taking place: What can I expect in terms of being a citizen? I know that here in the West, people involved in the immigration debate often forget that many Hispanic Americans living in the United States have ancestors who arrived here 400 years ago. These people didn’t just cross the border last week. So it’s important to let everybody know that there is this connection—some of which is personal, some of which is physical, some of which is psychological.

Q: How important is it to protect the land in and around these historic places?
A: These are places where hundreds, thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of people died, so it’s important to preserve the memory of the sacrifices they made. At the same time, the more science and technology and tools we have, the more these places reveal. Once you plow over a place, the information that seems to be constant fodder for Discovery Channel shows like Civil War Chronicles is lost. So we need to protect them not only as historic sites and places to honor those who died, but as places where information can still be retrieved.

I’m reminded of a story about an older couple that happened to be in a Civil War site when then-NPS chief historian Ed Bearss was leading an interpretive walk. When the walk was over, the couple asked where the wife’s great-grandfather, a First Sergeant who was in such-and-such a regiment during such-and-such a company at this time, might have stood in the battle. Ed Bearss—with the kind of assuredness that only a Civil War history buff could muster—said, “If you walk with me, I’ll show you. That regiment would have been right here, and your great-grandfather would have stood right here.” The woman cried.

The Park Service, because of its attention to detail and focus on this kind of history, could actually show this woman where her ancestor stood during this particular battle. It’s almost like a magic trick. But it’s only because these places are protected that that’s possible.

Q: What excites you personally about the upcoming anniversary?
A: I participated in interpretive programs focusing on the 125th anniversary of the Civil War in state and national parks across the country, so I’m very excited that—knock on wood—I am still young and healthy enough to be able to participate in interpretation that will shed light on the 150th anniversary as well.

In the last 25 years of my life, I’ve connected with so many Civil War historians, enthusiasts, authors, and interpreters, both in the Park Service and outside of it. Some of them have passed on, but most of them are still with us. It has become a large part of my personal life and has made me look back at my own family history: Turns out I had family serving both in the army and the navy during the 19th century. So it’s been exciting to me on an amateur genealogical level. I’ve found myself in the National Archives, and the Library of Congress, and of course on the field as a re-enactor. My son’s high school recently asked me to do a presentation about black troops in the Civil War. So it has become not just an interest, but a passion. It’s something you just can’t put down.

We’re blessed to have a tremendous array of brilliant Civil War scholars—people who have made a life’s work of studying the Civil War. So many of these people are living today, and it’s a tremendous blessing to be able to talk to them about what they’ve learned and how they’ve learned it. And many of those people are connected—officially or unofficially—with the national parks. I think it’s important to broaden the opportunity and encourage more people of all walks of life to step up and make American history part of their own path.

This anniversary isn’t just a single opportunity—events are happening over the next four years. This is going to be a series of observations and interpretive opportunities that will be conducted largely by the Park Service itself. They’ll be fun, but they’ll also make you think: Much of the business of the war is unfinished.

So I encourage people to go to the Park Service website, get the Park Service handbook of events, and do what folks used to do years ago: plan their year, their vacations, and their summers to connect themselves, their kids, and their grandkids to this history that is so much a part of who we are today.

For more information about upcoming events, visit www.nps.gov/civilwar.

Amy Leinbach Marquis is National Parks’ associate editor.

This article appears in the Spring 2011 issue.

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