Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage and the Civil War Centennial

Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage and the Civil War Centennial

On March 30, 2019, a group of public historians will convene at the National Council on Public History’s Annual Meeting to discuss the interpreter Freeman Tilden’s 1957 publication, Interpreting Our Heritage. My fellow NPS colleague Allison Horrocks and I created this conference panel to discuss Tilden’s ideas in historical context and contemplate the state of interpretation moving forward. We also built a website where readers can learn more by visiting In the meantime, I’ve been re-reading Tilden and thinking about the influence of Interpreting Our Heritage within the context of the National Park Service’s efforts to commemorate the Civil War Centennial from 1961 to 1965.

An NPS Park Ranger gives a tour of Spotsylvania Courthouse Battlefield. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Interpreting Our Heritage came at an important moment for both the NPS and those interested in commemorating the Centennial. The book was published only four years after the NPS undertook a major reorganizational plan that saw the creation of an Interpretation division within the agency. Likewise, plans to commemorate the Centennial at major Civil War battlefields under the NPS’s management were starting to take shape at this time.[1] Interpreting Our Heritage was the first full-length study to examine the theoretical aspects of interpreting natural and cultural resources. The book became mandatory reading for NPS interpretive staff in the 1960s, and it remains an important resource for public historians today. While Tilden was not an expert on the history of the American Civil War, he cited examples from the war numerous times in Interpreting Our Heritage. Examining these references offers slight clues into how interpreters might have approached the task of telling stories about the Civil War to their audiences.

Tilden passionately argued that “information” was not the same as “interpretation.” He criticized previous programming at Civil War battlefields for being too detail-oriented and factual. “In the fifty years following the end of that fratricidal war, there was much emphasis, when the veterans and their children were visiting the scenes of each bloody combat, upon information. It was then a thrill to know, to recall, just where papa’s regiment had stood, by what road an advance or retreat was made,” according to Tilden. Now the time had come for a telling of the “great human story” that went beyond tedious military details. “The battlefield of our great fratricidal American war is not merely a place of strategy and tactics; not a place where regiments moved this way and that like checkers on the board; not merely a spot where something was decided that would lead to another decision.” Tilden preached, in other words, the importance of placing the human experiences of warfare front and center. It made little sense to present interpretations best suited for “a group of Civil War Roundtable enthusiasts” to a general audience experiencing the war’s history for perhaps the first time.[2]

When it came to interpreting historical content, Tilden presented what scholars today would describe as a “reconciliationist” view of the Civil War.[3] The conflict was, in his view, a battle of patriotic Americans fighting for equally valid causes. The meaning of these battles came from the fact that they were “made famous and treasurable by the acts of men and women, where the story is told of courage and self-sacrifice, of dauntless patriotism, of statesmanship and inventive genius.” The Civil War, argued Tilden, had been a tragic conflict between “armed men following their ideals to the valley of the shadow.” Learning stories of courage and patriotism would inspire contemporary Americans to have a stronger pride in their country.[4]

A Commemorative postage stamp from the Civil War Centennial, 1964. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tilden also sought to build historical understanding through connections between the past and the personal experiences of everyday people, what scholars today might describe as building a sense of empathy. He asked his readers to put themselves in Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s shoes: “[Arlington] was the scene of the great tragic moment when a man who loved the Union, and the United States army he had served, had to make a decision. Virginia was his mother. What should he do?” Tilden asked. “What, given all those circumstances, would the visitor have done?” He portrayed the Civil War elsewhere as a brothers’ war of divided loyalties. In discussing the Battle of Vicksburg, Tilden recommended using the story of the 11th Missouri Regiment (U.S.) fighting the 3rd Missouri Regiment (CSA) on the battlefield. He flippantly asked, “what difference does it make now, except to the researcher, who commanded these regiments?” The importance was that “some of these Missouri boys, now striving to kill each other, were once fed gingerbread and doughnuts from the same Aunt Nellie’s jar.” The role of NPS interpreters, then, was to make connections through the stories of heroic Confederate and Union soldiers.[5]

Tilden also reinforced a mythic view of westward expansion that eliminated the presence of indigenous people from the historical narrative. He celebrated “the heritage from our fathers” in highlighting the Oregon Trail, a symbol of national expansion that “gives us the thrill that we belong.” Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin—itself a mythic creation—represented “the heroism of western pioneers.” Moreover, Tilden argued that “the fullest appreciation of unspoiled nature is found by those [visitors] who are willing to imitate in some degree the experiences of the pioneers,” a particularly ironic statement since forced Indian removal played a central role in the creation of some of the country’s most popular National Park sites.[6]

Finally, Tilden stressed the importance of finding happiness and beauty at natural and cultural sites, including Civil War battlefields. Interpreters at these sites were “middlemen of happiness” who highlighted the stories of “great men” at battlefields that in his mind were “shrines” to heroism, patriotism, and beauty. Their primary duties in this sense were “first, to create the best possible vantage points from which beauty may be seen and comprehended; and second, to do all that discreetly may be done to establish a mood, or sympathetic atmosphere.” For Tilden, visitors to these sites were, in a somewhat condescending tone, “wonderfully well-mannered and pathetically eager for guidance toward the larger aspects of things that lead toward wisdom.” They came to these sites with personal experiences but were, to a large extent, empty vessels waiting to be filled by knowledgeable interpreters.[7]

Interpreters looking at Tilden’s ideas sixty years later will most likely find them simultaneously insightful and debatable. Tilden’s calls for a better focus on the human side of war and programming that went beyond the mere conveyance of “information” still resonate today. While Tilden probably aimed to keep these stories focused on the (white, male) participants engaged in battle, interpreters today have expanded their narratives to include the stories of women, enslaved African Americans, and Native Americans during the war, both on and off the battlefield.[8] Promoting multiple perspectives in historical narratives has become a centerpiece of good interpretive practice today, and meaningful dialogues between visitors and interpreters are more highly valued today than in Tilden’s time. In any case, it is no longer enough to ask visitors to simply consider General Lee’s perspective, but also the perspectives of those who considered the entire Union their “mother.” It is no longer enough to highlight the divided loyalties of white residents in the border slave states but also the enslaved people whose loyalties were undivided as the Civil War increasingly became a conflict over slavery’s future. The mythic narrative of westward expansion to a vast, empty frontier that Tilden celebrated also seems out of place and inaccurate today.

Likewise, Tilden’s emphasis and on happiness and beauty—outgrowths of his desire for themes of sectional reconciliation and patriotism during the Cold War—is questionable. As NPS historian Edward Roach argues, “many resources that are significant and worthy of commemoration are not beautiful. There was no beauty in the battle of Gettysburg, a noisy, destructive, smelly, bloody mess. The Sand Creek massacre was just that . . . [Visitors] do not have to be in love with the story being told. They merely need to find it worthy of telling, worthy of being understood by more and more people.”[9] Perhaps now more than ever, interpreters at Civil War historic sites need to emphasize the harsh realities of warfare, as viewed from the multiple perspectives of the people who experienced the brutality of the Civil War firsthand. Ultimately Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage is an important resource for interpreters looking to hone their skills, but it is a product of its time. Its ideas must not be held to the status of dogma for those working at Civil War historic sites.


[1] Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 3rd ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), 35; Robert J. Cook, Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011).

[2] Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 24, 69.

[3] The term “reconciliationist” was coined by David Blight in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 2-5.

[4] Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 69.

[5] Ibid., 13, 15, 42-43.

[6] Ibid., 68, 77; Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of National Parks (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[7] Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 12, 85.

[8] See discussions in James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, eds., Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Kevin M. Levin, ed., Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

[9] Edward Roach, “Edward Roach Case Statement,” Interpreting Our Heritage, 2019, accessed February 22, 2019,

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

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