Public Iconography, Museum Education, and Reconstruction Era History by Nick Sacco

Today, correspondent Nick Sacco shares his first Field Dispatch. Nick is a public historian working for the National Park Service as a Park Guide at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in history with a concentration in public history from IUPUI. The views expressed in this essay and future essays are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.


In a recent essay about public monuments, statues, and other iconography dedicated to the American Civil War, historian Sarah Handley-Cousins argues that such icons generally sanitize the war’s causes, context, and consequences with a large dose of artistic romanticism. For many Americans, “we love the Civil War so much that when we are presented with the truth of what those monuments mean, we refuse to accept that what we love was actually a violent struggle in which the [humanity] of Black Americans was at the center.”[1] Rather than fostering a deeper understanding of the conflict, many monuments dedicated to people and events on both sides instead portray a war shorn of meaning beyond honoring military service in a time of war. Meanwhile questions over slavery, citizenship, westward expansion, and the very meaning of the concept of “Union” often go unasked within such spaces.

I find myself in strong agreement with such sentiments, which is why I am skeptical of calls to erect more public monuments dedicated to the Reconstruction era as a way of improving popular understandings of a greatly misunderstood period in American history. For example, political scientist Richard Valelly argues that creating monuments to “the heroes of Reconstruction” can possibly establish a “new politics of historical memory” within America’s commemorative landscape.[2] Valelly’s assertion, however, ignores numerous public memorials to Reconstruction that already exist and have failed to accomplish this goal. Additionally, his thesis hinges on the definition of who constitutes a “hero” of Reconstruction. The existing public memorials throughout the U.S. often celebrate “heroes,” but they celebrate the ones who actively worked to end Reconstruction through deadly, racialized mass violence against Black Americans.

The entire article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.