A Statistical Analysis of Visitation to National Park Service Civil War Sites During the Sesquicentennial

A Statistical Analysis of Visitation to National Park Service Civil War Sites During the Sesquicentennial

In early 2017, the National Park Service released an official report on its efforts to educate visitors about the American Civil War during its sesquicentennial anniversary (2011-2015). Plans to organize educational programming for the sesquicentennial started as early as 1998, when a group of Superintendents at NPS Civil War sites met to discuss ways to incorporate discussions about Civil War causation into their site interpretations. Seeking to “define a vision statement for the commemoration,” NPS leadership in 2009 explicitly called upon these sites to study and interpret the role of slavery in the coming of the Civil War. The agency’s theme for the initiative, “Civil War to Civil Rights,” embodied an expansive message that made a direct connection between the experiences of the country’s four million enslaved people during the war and the gains made during the Civil Rights movement 100 years later.[1]

“Civil War to Civil Rights” had its critics, particularly among some Civil War military enthusiasts who decried the entrance of “political” topics into interpretive programs at historical battlefield sites. The shift in focus towards discussions of slavery and emancipation during the Civil War era was certainly a marked change from the dominant narrative of the Civil War Centennial (1961-1965), where the shared valor of white Union and Confederate soldiers and their causes were placed on center stage.[2] Nevertheless, many academic historians, NPS interpretive staff, and site visitors welcomed the opportunity to contemplate a more holistic understanding of the Civil War. Indeed, the urgency of incorporating a distinctly “political” interpretation of the Civil War era was demonstrated when perhaps the most consequential event of the entire sesquicentennial occurred not at an official public history site, but at the Charleston AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylan Roof—himself a visitor to Civil War public history sites during the sesquicentennial—horrifically massacred nine African American parishioners in June 2015. Since that tragic event, discussions about the American Civil War—not just its history but also how that history is represented in flags, monuments, and at public history sites—have only expanded and intensified.

Cover of the NPS Civil War to Civil Rights Summary Report.

The Civil War to Civil Rights Commemoration Summary Report outlines a wide range of initiatives the NPS undertook at more than sixty units that interpreted the Civil War in some fashion. Many sites upgraded their museum exhibits, orientation films, and visitor centers. Some held commemorative ceremonies to honor those who died in the war, hosted battle reenactments, and featured speakers who discussed all facets of the war—military, political, religious, economic, cultural, and social—to interested audiences.[3]

The skepticism in some quarters that accompanied the sesquicentennial’s planning phase continued into the actual commemoration. A Wall Street Journal article reported in 2014 that “promoters of Civil War memorabilia, tourism, and reenactments across the country are fighting a losing battle against apathy for one of the most important periods in U.S. history.” The article cited lack of government funding and “public unease over the divisive racial issues that the war represents” as leading causes for this apathy.[4] Likewise, noted Civil War historian Gary Gallagher lamented in a 2013 interview with the Civil War Trust that the sesquicentennial at that point had been “anemic.” He complained about a lack of initiative on the part of individual states to commemorate the war and suggested that more discussions about slavery and emancipation could have played a role in driving some audiences away, since “you can’t talk about [the war] without talking about race,” an uneasy topic for some visitors.[5]

Measuring the true success of the sesquicentennial’s ability to raise awareness of Civil War history and promote further study of the topic is a near impossible task. This is especially the case since so much of the discussion about the war’s history and memory took place away from actual historic sites and instead occurred on the internet. One useful data point for measuring the sesquicentennial’s success can be found in NPS visitation statistics, however. While these stats cannot tell us what visitors did at NPS Civil War sites or what they took away from their visit, they offer insights on whether or not there was a notable increase in visitation to these sites during the sesquicentennial.

To see if the sesquicentennial was truly “anemic,” as Gallagher suggests, I compiled visitation data for fifty-two NPS units that participated in the Civil War to Civil Rights Commemoration, which readers can view on my Google Drive. With this data I calculated average visitation to these sites during the Civil War centennial (for those that existed at the time), from the period 2006 to 2010, and during the Civil War sesquicentennial. I then analyzed percentage changes in site visitation over these three time periods to find some sort of trend in the data.[6] Overall, the numbers indicate that the majority of NPS units that participated in the sesquicentennial saw increased visitation during that time, and in that sense it was a success. Here were some of the major takeaways I gleaned from the data:

–  Of the 52 NPS units that participated in some way in the Civil War sesquicentennial, 33 experienced an increased average visitation in the period between 2011 and 2015 compared to their average visitation in 2006-2010 (63%).

–  Of the 34 NPS units that existed during the Civil War centennial (1961-1965) and that also participated in the sesquicentennial, 20 saw increased average visitation during the sesquicentennial as compared to their centennial numbers (59%).

–  The most dramatic visitation increases from the 2006-2010 period to the sesquicentennial occurred at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park (81%), Monocacy National Battlefield (73%), Clara Barton National Historic Site (58%), Frederick Douglass National Historic Site (53%), and Women’s Rights National Historical Park (52%). Other significant increases occurred at Pea Ridge National Battlefield (45%), Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (43%), and Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park (40%).

–  Of the five major Civil War battlefields that were originally saved by the federal government in the 1890s and placed under the NPS in 1934 (Antietam, Chickamauga & Chattanooga, Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Vicksburg), only one had an increased visitation average during the sesquicentennial when compared to the centennial (Antietam, with a 77% increase). Chickamauga & Chattanooga’s average declined by 5%, Gettysburg’s by 45%, Shiloh’s by 32%, and Vicksburg’s by 36%. These numbers suggest that visitation to some of the most important Civil War battlefields in the country dipped significantly in average attendance compared to the centennial.

–  Although four of the five major Civil War battlefields saw significantly decreased visitation when comparing to the centennial, three did experience an increase in average visitation from the 2006-2010 period to the sesquicentennial: Antietam (11%), Chickamauga & Chattanooga (2%), and Shiloh (28%). Gettysburg declined by 18% and Vicksburg declined by 2%.

–  Despite several of the major Civil War battlefields experiencing average visitation decreases during the sesquicentennial, visitation to all NPS sites connected to the sesquicentennial was still strong. Moreover, the variety of sites open for visitation compared to the centennial was important, with sites dedicated to Clara Barton, Frederick Douglass, Maggie L. Walker, African Americans in Boston, the Sand Creek Massacre, and women’s rights presenting new interpretations and perspectives to the sesquicentennial’s educational programming. All of these aforementioned sites experienced increased visitation compared to 2006-2010.

What else do you see in the data? Leave a comment and let’s discuss further.



[1] National Park Service, “NPS Civil War to Civil Rights Commemoration Summary Report,” National Park Service, 2017, accessed December 14, 2017, https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/upload/CIVIL-WAR-TO-CIVIL-RIGHTS-SUMMARY-REPORT-1-v2.pdf. See also John Rudy, “From Tokenism to True Partnership: The National Park Service’s Shifting Interpretation at the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial” in Kevin M. Levin, ed., Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017), 61-76.

[2] Robert J. Cook, Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007).

[3] See appendices starting on page 90 of “NPS Civil War to Civil Rights Commemoration Summary Report” for a list of each participating NPS unit’s educational initiatives undertaken during the sesquicentennial.

[4] The Wall Street Journal has since removed the original article from its website. The cited quote can be found on my personal website. Nick Sacco, “The Civil War Sesquicentennial and the Challenge of Measuring ‘Success’ in Free-Choice Learning Environments,” Exploring the Past, April 27, 2014, accessed December 12, 2017, https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/2014/04/27/the-civil-war-sesquicentennial-and-the-challenge-of-measuring-success-in-free-choice-learning-environments/.

[5] “An Interview with Historian Gary Gallagher,” Civil War Trust, 2013, accessed December 14, 2017, https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/understanding-our-past.

[6] To view visitation data for all NPS units, see National Park Service, “National Park Service Visitor Use Stats,” National Park Service, accessed December 17, 2017, https://irma.nps.gov/Stats/.

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at PastExplore@gmail.com.

6 Replies to “A Statistical Analysis of Visitation to National Park Service Civil War Sites During the Sesquicentennial”

  1. Nic, a very fascinating read. But are analyzing numbers of visitors enough for comparing the centennial and 150th? Should you also take into account that the population is higher today than 1960, and thus while the raw numbers are higher perhaps an even smaller percentage of Americans visited the sites during the 150th? Wouldn’t that fit with what we know about the overall decline in NPS visits relative to visitation in the past as percentage of the whole population?

    1. I agree with Will. The change in visitor numbers between the centennial and 150th is a valuable first step in this analysis. For next steps, it would be great to understand how that delta compares to NPS units that didn’t participate in the centennial (especially any Civil War-related ones). That would allow us to control for variables related to overall population growth or general increased visitation. It would also be helpful to perform significant tests and report p values or confidence intervals to indicate whether the reported differences are significant.

    2. Hi William,

      I wrote a comment the day you wrote yours that apparently has not gone through and I’m just now noticing. I think your point about the difference in total overall population between now and the Centennial is completely valid. But I do think the variety of Civil War-related sited for the Sesquicentennial is a positive thing and would argue that visitation was still strong. Visitation to historic sites in general seems to have lagged in recent years.

  2. I think it matters more to get the history right, than to make everyone feel good. And if that means historic sites need to appear/present less like Disneyland, and attendance suffers accordingly, so be it!

  3. Nice article Nick. I wonder how the CW150 compares to the WWI 100, the War of 1812 200 and other recent numbered anniversaries.

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