Battlefield Interpretation

I haven’t had a full blown rant in a few weeks, so here goes….

After some twenty plus years of tramping about various battlefields ranging from the French and Indian Wars up to even the Gulf War (wait there was that Alexander the Great battlefield in Afghanistan…), I’ve gotten fairly accustomed to drawing out a mental picture of the battlespace against the present day terrain.  At the same time, given my hobby of documenting…. or lets just say “collecting”… historical markers, I’ve become somewhat of a connoisseur of the interpretation presented by way of those metal, plastic, or wood signs.  So I feel confident in suggesting some points to any organization planning to plant a few of these markers. Here is a short list of  “do’s and don’ts” I’ve developed over the years: 

  • DO provide a map reinforcing the description of the action.  This should actually go without saying, but then again, all too often the visitor is left to their imagination. Of course indicating the marker location is good.  As are cardinal points of the compass.  Modern landmarks are OK, but label them as such. 
  • DO include directional references in the text to key the visitor to what they are seeing.  Phrases like “in front of you to the left…” or “behind you near the intersection…” are good queues to the visitor.
  • DO post the date or dates the battle was fought somewhere prominently on the marker.  Preferably in the header somewhere.  Again, should go without saying, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen markers that do not indicate any date for the action.  Not pointing fingers, but there is a family out there somewhere who probably still believes Nathan Bedford Forrest raided Fort Pillow in 1964 as part of the Civil Rights movement.  (Younger days when mischief got the best of me…. It was wrong, and I have already paid my penance for that, trust me!)
  • DO mention the larger campaign the battle was a component of.  Not that many novices will key on that, but those with moderate subject familiarity often find the reference handy.  Linking a single interpretive marker into a larger context is often helpful.
  • DO provide some background or sidebar information about the respective commanders or other notables.  “Who the heck is this Kilpatrick guy?”  I heard at one stop in Georgia.  (I was older and less mischievous.  Otherwise those “Yankees” may have been left thinking that James Kilpatrick guy took time out from 60 Minutes to burn half of Georgia.)
  • DO reduce the amount of text required by use of illustrations, photos, or other depictions.  However, just because a picture is worth a thousand words, doesn’t mean you can skip the captions.
  • DO list or mention the units involved.  This is particularly true if providing a first hand account from a member of those units.  It is nice to know which side the 148th Rocket Pack Battalion was on when reading the first hand account of Private Jones….
  • DON’T try to interpret the history of the site from the cooling of the earth to the present epoch all upon the tiny space allocated for the marker text. 
  • DON’T try to avoid offending anyone by neglecting to mention the less politically correct points of warfare in general.  But at the same time, we probably don’t need to know that General Lowenstien was later the head of the Knights of the White Carmelia during Reconstruction.  Unless of course it has a context which is relevant. 
  • DON’T try to display national flags or symbols in some garish arrangement.  Flags and symbols take up valuable space on the marker.  Simple is best.  A respectful 2 to 2 1/2 inch size national flag is sufficient. 
  • DON’T provide text interpretation that is so far out on the fringe it requires footnotes.  I may need to explain this a bit more, to avoid angering the Gods at the college of the minds.  Here’s the deal, the marker should provide interpretation that is short and to the point.  It should also present the generally accepted course of events.  If the text ends up presenting a point of view that a majority of readers call into question, then maybe you need more than an historical marker there in the first place!  Markers are temporary objects anyway.  If you really think the Confederate Rocket Corps was in place on Seminary Ridge, then write your book and make your case.  If vindicated, then we’ll put up a new marker, and I’ll be happy to document the dedication!  Keep it simple and keep it factual.
  • DON’T seek out the most inaccessible and busiest intersection in town to place the marker.  It is OK to tell me General Lee parked Traveler somewhere over near Interstate 81.  I don’t have to stand in the exact spot to get the “feel” for the site.  But at the same time….
  • DON’T put the marker on the far side of the world from the event location.  “Six miles to the west….”  Great now I have to find a back road and avoid a dozen “No Trespassing” signs just to figure out what the marker is talking about!  Often just hunting down the marker is a chore by itself, tracking down the site is often enough to drive off even the most ardent enthusiast.  And more to the point…..
  • DO provide more than one paltry marker where a series or set is required.  Good example, one of the least known and least documented battles in the Eastern Theater – Mine Run.  About 115,000 men from the same two armies which fought at Gettysburg, face off for nearly a week in the late fall of 1863.  Yet all we have to interpret the field are a handful of simple markers.  If there ever was a place for a nice tour loop…  But on the other hand, things can get out of control….
  • DON’T create a cluster of markers that practically detach the battlefield from the visitor.  Case and point – Crampton’s Gap.  In this one field of view there are 14 markers and two memorials (the War Correspondent’s Arch counted).  Why do we need a “mini-Gettysburg” here on South Mountain? I’m all about markers, but there comes a time when too much is tacky.
  • DO use “big words” to better relate the event.  Nothing I hate more than dumbing down history to a sixth grade reading level.  Hit the nail on the head and use the ten cent words!  If I don’t know it, I’ll be curious to learn it.  Maybe I’ll take away more than just an appreciation for history at the end of the day, like my vocabulary extended.  I’d love to see something like, “The Federals enfiladed the Confederates behind the ambuscades after advancing onto the escarpment to your left front which afforded them better fields of fire.”  That didn’t hurt, did it?
  • DO leave the reader with a sense there is a whole lot more to learn and discover. 

Overall, I’d have to rate the Civil War Trails markers closet to the idea level.  There are some ones and twos that disappoint.  But overall for such a wide ranging set, these are well done.  The CWPT does an outstanding job with the maps, and also tends to be of higher quality.   Unfortunately the National Park Service quality varies from park to park.  Some of the 1970s vintage markers do not offer good maps.  Yet some from the 1990s, with good maps, are watered down too much to convey the message.  In general the NPS markers tend to offer less text and more imagery, however. 

Of all the sites I’ve visited in the last two years, the best interpreted in my opinion is the CWPT’s Third Winchester Battlefield.  Great maps.  Great illustration.  And most of all, a text summary of the events that prompts the visitor to walk the fields and see for themselves. 

I would be interested to hear from any readers as to their views or examples of good and bad battlefield interpretation.

One thought on “Battlefield Interpretation

  1. As far as battlefield markers I prefer ones that are small and unobtrusive. While I do agree Third Winchester is about as thorough and comprehensive as could be imagined I think they went overboard. My personal favorite is the type of markers on the Gordon Flank Attack Trail at the Wilderness. The markers are small, somewhat camouflaged and blend into the environment. But they do include portraits, drawings, and maps and do orient the visitor without a lot of flash (e.g.

    I had to laugh at your “Six miles to the west….” comment – perhaps you referring to: ? I drive by this one frequently and I still wonder why it’s there..

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