The shifting strategy of battlefield preservation

Preservationists try to keep Civil War sites from becoming fragments in seas of strip malls

by Philip Kennicott

The Washington Post

In 1988, Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas pleaded with his colleagues to pass legislation that would prevent a new shopping mall on land integral to the Second Battle of Manassas. He imagined a future in which ever more commercial development encroached on land in Virginia preserved by the National Park Service, eating up the fragile buffer between the modern world and the carefully preserved 19th-century landscape that memorializes two bloody battles.

“I can see a big granite monument inside the mall’s hallway right now: ‘Gen. Lee stood on this spot,’ ” the Democrat said.

The speech was a crucial moment in what has been called “The Third Battle of Manassas,” an effort by preservationists, historians and Civil War enthusiasts to keep Manassas from becoming an isle of memory in a sea of big-box retail. In the end, Congress acted to save a large tract of private land — important to history but not part of the park — from the fate Bumpers imagined, and more than 200 hectares of land was added to the park. But it was a rare victory in a war that, like the Civil War itself, is full of thousands of small battles.

Despite 150 years of preservation efforts, with major victories in the 1890s that saved five of the most important battle sites, the dilemma of Civil War heritage is that we are still connected by the same roads and rivers that connected Civil War America, and in many ways, we are still divided by the same cultural lines that helped precipitate the war. Interstate 95 is the fastest way to get from Washington to Richmond, Interstate 66 is the fastest way to get from Washington to the Shenandoah Valley, and both highways have spurred development along the same strategic corridors that witnessed so many bloody confrontations.

Culturally, we are still divided by basic disagreements about the meaning of the war, a division that often parallels, in uncanny ways, debates between private property rights and a federal interest in preservation. And even the look and layout of our Civil War battlefields track some of our most bitter political and cultural divisions. Study the way the war’s history is taught at almost any National Park Service site today, and you see two different wars. One was fought between brothers, full of blood and heroism, with desperate charges, wily feints and daring flanking actions. The battlefield, with its landscape of fences, roads, barns and old stone houses, serves to clarify this war like an illustration in a book. The other was a war of politics and economics, ideas and cultural heritage, playing out on a more abstract, national landscape. The battlefield relates to this war as a mere locus for salient tales of slavery, identity and personal sacrifice.

‘Commemorative expression’

To understand how we got to this point, there is no better place to study than Gettysburg, the most famous and yet strangest of all our battlefields. Today it seems almost surreal: a landscape of gently rolling fields cluttered with ornate marble interventions, as if some frugal farmer had decided to open an outdoor market for high-end funerary architecture. Perhaps more than any other battle site, Gettysburg preserves not just the field of battle but the history of how that field of battle has been memorialized. It is the quintessence of what John Hennessy, an author of the Park Service’s plan for the current sesquicentennial celebrations, calls a “museum of commemorative expression.”

In the beginning, however, there was just death, fields of human wreckage and an urgent need to put bodies under ground. Like the battlefield parks at Antietam, Shiloh and Vicksburg, preservation at Gettysburg began with the creation of a cemetery. Lincoln spoke at its opening, in November 1863, saying that it was “far above our poor power to add or detract” from how the dead had already consecrated the ground. And yet history paid no heed, and Gettysburg has seen 150 years of adding and detracting from the fields where so many thousands of men died.

The cemetery proved insufficient to carry the full burden of memory. Cemeteries were neat and orderly, geometric and rational, and as grass and trees took root, they became parklike and peaceful, an ideal city for the dead. They were necessary to do honor to the dead, but they were also discordant with how veterans of the battle remembered the bloody back-and-forth. As interest turned toward preserving more of the land where the fighting took place, a different aesthetic emerged. A battlefield, said one veteran, should not be “a park for health-seekers, for esthetics or pleasure-seekers, with fine drives and shady walks.” Those who most intimately possessed the trauma of battle were laying claim to intimate control over the landscape of death, which they argued shouldn’t be prettified and improved, but preserved just as it was during the war.

Except for the monuments, which arrived piecemeal, honoring individuals, military units and the contributions of different states. The bulk of them were built in the late 1880s and ’90s as the nation put the ideals and rancor of Reconstruction in the rearview mirror and embraced a grand reconciliation that reunited North and South, with blacks mostly shut out of the American dream for another century of segregation and second-class citizenship. By 1922 there were more than 800 monuments, plaques and markers at Gettysburg, with glorious follies erected by Pennsylvania in 1910 and Virginia in 1917.

This might seem a wanton violation of the pervasive belief that battlefields should be preserved with immaculate fidelity to the original fields, groves, fences, stone walls and trenches. But as Timothy B. Smith writes in “The Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation,” the monuments weren’t so much accretions to the landscape as stand-ins for the soldiers who fought there. “To the veterans, these monuments, tablets and artillery pieces represented the soldiers that had fought those battles, and thus were an inherent part of returning the battlefields to their war-time look and feel.”

The goal, made explicit in the congressional language that created the original Civil War military parks, was to mark the lines of battle where the North faced the South and where each military unit stood when the fight was engaged. This focus on the choreography of battle also explains why ugly observation towers — by 1896 there were several of them — also grew on the site. As the federal government expanded its interest from cemeteries to whole battlefields, the sites were generally maintained by the army as national military parks. The battlefields weren’t just sacred ground to veterans but living laboratories for the study of military history. Even Gettysburg was in use as a place for encampment and training well into the 20th century. Capt. Dwight D. Eisenhower commanded a camp there in 1918.

Limits on preservation

The emphasis on the lines of battle led to a philosophy of preservation that plagues Civil War sites to this day: the “Antietam plan,” which was proposed as a pragmatic way to balance the needs of preservation with the cost and complexity of managing large tracts of ground. As Civil War veterans grew older, they argued for more and more battlefield parks, and with more than 10,000 battles in the war, it became obvious that there would have to be limits on what was preserved. Battlefields such as Vicksburg and Chickamauga and Chattanooga were preserved on a grand scale. But others, especially Antietam, were initially preserved mainly along the lines of battle. So long as the landscape nearby was still rural and agricultural, Antietam still looked like Antietam even if the land all around was privately owned.

This became the governing philosophy of many other battlefield parks, including Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, which often feels like a ribbon of National Park Service road threading through a quiet exurban neighborhood.

“That was a great assumption in 1894 or 1927,” Hennessy, who also serves as chief historian at Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania, says of the Antietam approach. “But it didn’t work out so well.”

The perils of a minimalist, laissez-faire preservation policy were already apparent at Gettysburg by the mid-1890s, when a plan to run a private rail line through the battlefield led to a Supreme Court decision that established the government’s right to acquire and condemn land in the interest of historic preservation. Again and again, including during the Third Battle of Manassas in the late 1980s, and the debate over a proposed Disney theme park in Haymarket in the 1990s, it has taken egregious threats to the landscape to spark popular outrage. Most of the time, say Park Service officials, the threats are small but cumulative, so they must remain vigilant and engaged with the local community.

Although the Antietam plan was popular and pervasive, the Park Service over the years has moved away from a focus on battle lines, which is clear if one studies the sesquicentennial observance plan. The document divides the last 150 years of history into four main periods: Commemoration (in the decades just after the war), Reconciliation (as veterans aged out of old animosities and stressed an apolitical, heroic vision of the war), Patriotism (in the middle of the last century, when the military parks passed into National Park Service control and became places for celebrating American values) and the Modern Era, which is where we are now.

“We did and continue to do a very good job talking about the military history,” says Robert Sutton, chief historian of the Park Service. “Where we didn’t do as good a job was in talking about the broader story of the Civil War era. Clearly there was a reason why they were shooting each other. That was a major emphasis, to try to expand the interpretation, to talk about what caused the war, the aftermath of the war, the impact on families.”

At Gettysburg, the battle lines still stand, but the visitors center — which once sat on Cemetery Ridge, some of the most contested land of the entire three-day battle — was moved in 2008 to a more remote site. Power lines along one of the main historic roads have been buried underground, and a particularly noxious tourist trap, an observation tower, was removed in 2000. The 1962 Cyclorama building, designed by Richard Neutra, was also demolished in March, after a protracted and rancorous debate about its architectural value. But moving the visitors center wasn’t just about returning the land to its 1863 look; it was an opportunity to stress a new, thematic, more socially contextual approach in presenting the battle.

When it comes to the battlefield itself, the emphasis today is on what is often called “a sense of place.” It is an amorphous term, but it seems to mean something like a landscape that is so detached from the ordinary hodgepodge of suburbia that it has an almost mystical power to inspire emotion and curiosity. But to create a “sense of place,” you need to make the modern world disappear for a bit, and that is almost impossible to do. On a sunny afternoon at Manassas not so long ago, you could stand in a thicket near the bloody ground of Henry Hill and almost believe that you were seeing what the soldiers saw there when the First Battle of Manassas was fought. And then a young man in brightly colored spandex and orange running shoes came jogging by, an intruder from the present.

Despite the fear of Civil War veterans that hallowed ground might become simply another pleasure park, many sites are exactly that: refreshing landscapes with an optional history lesson. The danger, as some critics of the Park Service have suggested, is that the fantasy 19th-century landscape becomes the main attraction and history takes a back seat.

The custodians of our battlefields might well take advice from people who run traditional museums, where the challenge is to engage visitors with the history of objects. The best museums assume that visitors want to see details, understand interrelations and dig into history.

As the nation continues to mature, as it continues to digest the larger context of the Civil War, it seems likely that there is yet another era to come in the way we relate to these sites. The old veterans, long gone but having left an indelible mark on the landscape, will be heard again as Civil War cultural stewardship incorporates the best of all that has gone before, including the passion to know exactly where men were standing, how they moved, why they fought and where they died.