Category Archives: Preservation

Lessons for the learning at Rutherford’s Farm

Yesterday I attended the Rutherford’s Farm 150th tour, one of the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park’s “150 Years Ago… On This Day” programs highlighting the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaigns.  This was, as with the Cool Spring tour on Friday, a convenient early evening two-hour tour.  After all, the battle was not that large – though it was significant in the scope of the campaign which followed.

The 150th tour was fairly well attended.  Not a large gathering, as seen at some other events.  But considering the subject, a few dozen attendees is about what one would expect.  Those of us attending were treated to a detailed discussion of the battle and a hands-on, in the ranks demonstration of tactical movements.  And this was an important aspect of the battle, as the Federal troops had to move from column to battle line at a critical juncture of the engagement.  Good for us to understand why “column of fours” was the march order and what it took to transform from that into a line of battle.

We were also treated to an object lesson in battlefield preservation… though probably not the type we preservationists would like to see.  The heart of the battlefield at Rutherford’s Farm is gone.  Well to be accurate, it is still there, but not in the sense of being an interpretable battlefield.  It’s a parking lot.

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There is a pull off beside the old turnpike (now US Highway 11, and a divided highway at that point).  There are some waysides and state markers.  But there’s just nothing that visitors might point to with respect to the battlefield.

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I tweeted, half-joking, that the 14th West Virginia rolled up the Confederate flanks, fighting through the woods where Target now stands.

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I thought about taking a photo from inside the store. But thought better of it.   (And I do wonder why all of the ghosts which allegedly haunt so many Civil War battlefields are at peace with a store selling everything from lingerie to alcoholic beverages.   Then again, maybe that’s proof contrary to the paranormal activity premise….)

What little “green” appears in the photos is not long to remain green.

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As the curb suggests, plans call for another store in this area.  Construction is ongoing to the south side of the road, which will completely blot out the heart of this battlefield.

Honestly, we must rate Rutherford’s Farm as a lost battlefield… a preservation failure.  It was just not to be.  The development potential of that ground, being so close to an interstate and bisected by a major highway, was too great for any idea of preservation to hold back the bulldozers.  And this happened in recent memory, as this photo I took in 2007 documents:

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I think, as related several times before, that we are the last generation which will even have the option to preserve Civil War (and other war’s) battlefields here in the United States.  The pace of development and practices of land use are simply forces too great for these sites to remain fallow if unprotected.  My son’s generation will be far more engaged over “view sheds” and defining complementary activity near battlefields.  They won’t have battlefields left to preserve.

We here at the 150ths of these events might look back at earlier times when the battlefields were intact.  That’s because we can, in many cases, actually remember what the fields looked like.  Fifty years from now, Civil War Bicentennialists will look back with envy upon us sesquicentennialists who walked some of these sites.  And they won’t have a memory of Rutherford’s Ford … or Rappahannock Station … or Chantilly… before the development.

“You can’t save it all” will be the response. But should that deter us from, fighting the good fight, saving all that we can?

 

Rappahannock Station – a significant part of the battlefield… GONE

Back last November, just a couple days after the 150th anniversary of the battle, I walked the ground, as part of a tour group, over the battlefield of Rappahannock Station.  The tour covered the Confederate defensive position, held on November 7, 1863, and  assailed by Federal troops that day.  Roughly one third of the Confederate line lays within protected lands – managed by Fauquier County’s Parks and Recreation, with support from community organizations such as the Remington Community Partnership, Piedmont Environmental Council, and, of course, Civil War Trust.

But a significant part of the Confederate line – and thus a significant part of the battlefield – lay within private property… worse yet, property targeted for development.  For years the developer teetered back and forth on the project.  The down economy being a factor.  There were several times when it seemed a large portion would be preserved.  And we had high hopes on November 9, 2013, when we walked that ground considering advance of the 6th Maine and 5th Wisconsin Infantry made up the rise of ground in the photo below:

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I’m glad we were able to walk that slope and appreciate the terrain.  Because, just a few months later, that ground is forever changed … altered.

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Soon to disappear under 71 new homes.

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A significant portion of the battlefield lost.

We will, unfortunately, have to log this as a “lost opportunity.”  I won’t name names at this point, but will say – figuratively and literally – a phone call went unanswered.  I’m not saying that’s all it would have taken.  But at least an attempt should have been made.  Better to have gone down swinging with a last minute effort, than to simply let a battlefield to go under the bulldozers without a word.

I know there are folks who will say we have enough preserved already.  Maybe this battlefield – being such a small action – was not worthy of setting aside.  That be the case, what have we gained with that sacrifice?  And how does that stack with the sacrifices given on November 7, 1863?  As my friend Mike Block is quick to point out, two Medals of Honor were awarded for action ON THAT GROUND.

Sadly, I believe we are, as we proceed through the last year of the sesquicentennial, the last generation which will have an opportunity to preserve these battlefields.  What started with five “military parks” in the late 19th century and grew to include hundreds of sites – federal, state, and local – is running out of time.  During the 150ths, we have been able to walk much of the ground over which the armies traveled and fought.  For the bicentennials, fifty years from now, the participants won’t be as lucky.  They won’t have all the same opportunities to “walk the ground.”  One of which – they won’t have the opportunity I, and my fellow visitors, had at Rappahannock Station.

Interpretive opportunities and challenges: Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial

I will admit, despite traversing Indiana on numerous occasions, only having visited the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial just once.  That was many years ago, and my impression was low.  I figured it was just a step or two above a living history farm exhibit.  My grasp of interpretive subtleties was somewhat challenged at that time, what with me focused on martial endeavors, and I longed for a “cannonball park.”  Just seemed the park’s displays came across flat.

A two part article on National Park Traveler website (part 1 and part 2), now has me thinking… maybe it wasn’t just me!  In the first part, Richard Sellers traces the history and background of the park.  Early on, the site began as a memorial to Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks.  By the time it became the state’s Nancy Hanks Lincoln State Memorial, religious symbolism dominated the site.  As Sellers points out, the religious tone was not out of order, given the time:

Historian David Donald, in looking back nearly a century after Lincoln’s death, observed that “the Lincoln of folklore is more significant than the Lincoln of actuality” because the Lincoln of folklore “has become the central symbol in American democratic thought; he embodies what ordinary, inarticulate Americans have cherished as ideals.” Indeed, Abraham Lincoln’s pathway from backwoods obscurity to the White House is marked by an array of preserved and protected historic places that attest to his veneration and his stature as the mythical personification of the nation’s democratic ideal—the reigning figure in American civil religion.

So to some degree, the park was as much about the public memory of Lincoln as about Lincoln himself.

Another point to keep in mind about the Lincoln Boyhood NM is the timing of its entry into the park system – just fifty years ago or so.  It was a “centennial era” Civil War site.  And, as Sellers notes, when the Park Service took over the site, there was a shift in focus:

Arrival of the first National Park Service superintendent in 1963 marked a major turning point in the memorial’s history, as the new management quickly shifted emphasis to a more pedestrian memory of Abraham Lincoln and to attracting, entertaining, and educating the public. A striking example of the Service’s priorities came very soon, when the park created a “living-history” farmstead to depict daily activities on the Lincoln family farm. The living-history project included transporting to the park an old log cabin—a stand-in for any long-disappeared Lincoln family dwelling (and probably the cabin that Senator Kennedy visited in 1968). But next, park managers decided that a portion of the Trail of Twelve Stones intruded on their newly developed living-history farm scene, and removed a number of the stones to storage, thereby reducing the trail’s symbolic value.

Similarly, showing little concern for the huge landscaped cross, the new managers neglected maintenance of the trees and other plants, allowing the original design to become indistinct.

Only in the 1980s, were the trail and landscaped cross restored… though not well interpreted according to Sellers.

Concluding his article, Sellers offers this critique of the park’s interpretation:

For more than a half-century the National Park Service has ignored the opportunity to engage the public with the deified, mythical Abraham Lincoln through addressing such matters as how the park’s Christian symbols are, in effect, an attempt to come to terms with the loss of Lincoln, sanctify the meaning of his life, and assert his salvation, even his deification—in essence, to interpret how the symbols reflect the Great Emancipator’s enduring status in American civil religion.

The obscured religious features are much more than mere ghosts from a deeply patriotic past, as Lincoln’s veneration is truly an ongoing phenomenon, particularly strong today during the Civil War sesquicentennial. And there is no end in sight. It seems altogether fitting and proper to restore into clear focus the memorial’s Christian symbols: They connect directly to the mythical, folkloric Father Abraham, who once labored hard, educated himself, and grew into maturity on this Indiana farmland. Why obscure the park’s very symbols that collectively tell us Lincoln belongs to the ages?

For the most part, our “cannon ball” Civil War parks have a distinct, apparent purpose.  The parks were created to preserve sites of great conflict, so as to offer places of reflection as we try to understand our country’s past.  Can’t say that religious tones reach the “Lincoln-level” on those battlefields.  At the same time, when I think about the long tried argument  – “what about the monuments which were not there during the battle?” – there is some resonance.  And at the same time, I could well use that same canard with the same resonance to argue against promoting new monuments on the battlefields.  There’s a lot to be said for the context of those historical resources, particularly names on a memorial.

A good set of articles.  Food for thought.