The highest value a ranger can deliver is to site actual events on the battlefield; map events to each piece of ground, then explain the connection between ground and event. This is not something we can do adequately for ourselves. The ranger, so familiar with the landscape, familiar with the conflicting accounts of an action, and familiar with the changes time has made to the field, has something very special to offer.

Years before visiting my first ACW park, I got a taste of this expertise in a battle book called The Wilderness Campaign by Edward Steere. It was a book into which the late author had poured years of findings as a park historian and it sparkles brilliantly with the ranger's perspective. Not just where the men traveled and the ground they covered to get to the enemy and the speed they made; but also the formation they were in, its intended effects, and so on. These were not the billiard balls tossed on a felt table by a pop history storyteller, these were men in ever changing tactical formations that the author charted for each phase of the battle, each stretch of ground, with continual reference to the larger picture of the unfolding action. Steere's was a unique contribution and a very special display of what the park historian can do. I have not seen a battle account like it.

The least value a ranger can convey is a high-level, synthesized interpretation of "context," of events above and beyond the battle whose field is being visited. These tend to be consensus opinions patched together from "standard sources" or developed by highly credentialed consultants. We can read these anywhere, and in fact, they are almost inescapable. Who needs them to understand a battlefield? Why are they given? And how much off-site history do we want from a park ranger, anyway?

After a hundred years' embargo on presenting the "causes of the war," national park historians are now regaling visitors with the "why" of the war. And they are not even the rangers' own considered views, they are scripted by a federal government office in charge of Civil War interpretations.

As obnoxious as this is, it is the logical extension of what has been happening already: having park historians pontificate on the purposes and motives of commanders, on the success or failure of the underlying battle or campaign, and on the personal qualities of participants in a battle without reference to varying evidence. Rangers have been broadcasting historical editorials written in some park headquarters for some time; and if the editorial writers are getting more ambitious in their intentions, they certainly have the means, the men, the voices, for disseminating a government-sanctioned, interpretation of everything and anything connected with the War of the Rebellion.

The question is what we are going to do about it. Perhaps the park visitor now needs to issue a firm but kindly "shut up." It's been overdue, anyway.

This recent article describes the problem. (Note that the headline completely inverts the meaning of the story!)