Or perhaps better stated, my personal list of places that require some or better on site interpretation.
One of my Christmas gifts this year was a copy of The Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation, by Timothy B. Smith (which I heartily recommend). Smith details the establishment and evolution of the five original battlefield parks in the 1890s. One common stage I noticed for the early park incarnations was the placement of simple, often wooden, signs on the field to denote key locations in the battles. These of course later evolved into the metal tablets and markers generally attributed to the War Department, which stand even today as the primary on site interpretive resource for Antietam, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Vicksburg. I couldn’t help but make the inference that the “signs” or rudimentary markers helped frame and in some ways feed the preservation efforts.
That thought brought me back to a comment I often make about sites I visit – “There ought to be a marker here!” Looking back through my notes, here’s a handful of such sites I’ve visited over the last year:
- Potts “Old Burnt” Mill, Hillsboro, VA. Just outside of the Hillsboro historic district are the ruins of an old mill, destroyed shortly after Sheridan’s “burning” of the Shenandoah Valley. Before the war Loudoun County rivaled the counties of the great valley for its richness of agricultural products. Corn and wheat were common exports from the lush Loudoun Valley farms, with dozens of mills to process the grain for market. Mosby and other partisans used Loudoun’s resources every bit as those over the Blue Ridge. So when Sheridan was ordered to burn out the “breadbasket of the Confederacy,” it was only natural that Loudoun Valley would see some of the flames. Sheridan dispatched Merritt’s Division for the task in December, 1864 (conveniently after the elections). In the operation the Reserve Brigade alone destroyed 230 barns and 8 mills. In spite of all that, the “burning of Loudoun” receives only short mentions on a few markers in the area. I say these ruins outside Hillsboro would be a great place to tell that story.
- Monterey Pass, Pennsylvania. With so much activity related to the Gettysburg Campaign, it is hard to believe only one historical marker stands in the area (for The Battle of Fountain Dale). Despite dozens of roadside markers related to the Gettysburg campaign, the state of Pennsylvania somehow neglected this area. In lieu of on site interpretation, the Monterey Pass Battlefield Association offers information about the battle and touring the area. In the print world, the retreat from Gettysburg received due attention this year in One Continuous Fight, by Eric Wittenberg, J.D. Petruzzi, and Michael Nugent.
- Manassas Gap or Wapping Heights, Gettysburg Campaign. Another point along the Gettysburg Campaign that is just not interpreted well. Along Virginia Highway 55 in the gap one marker discusses a bivouac site on the road TO Gettysburg, another indicates the birthplace of Brig. Gen. Turner Ashby. None discuss the July 21-23, 1863 actions which were probably Meade’s last chance to catch Lee on the retreat. The cast of characters included Merritt’s cavalry brigade and the Excelsior Brigade on the Federal side, and portions of Pickett’s and Hood’s Division on the Confederate side.
- Castleman’s Ferry, Cool Springs, and Berry’s Ferry. A series of actions fought in the summer of 1864 along the Shenandoah River has gotten some marker attention. Still I think the greater story of this phase of Early’s Valley Campaign is untold. Much of the ground is preserved within the bounds of the Holy Cross Abbey in a rather tranquil site along the Shenandoah River (and and new interpretation on site should respect the Abbey’s privacy in my opinion). The action at Berry’s Ferry, several miles to the south of Castleman’s Ferry, is supposed to be marked, but I’ve yet to find the stone. And only fleeting mention is made of Gen. Rutherford Hays’ column which pressed down from Harpers Ferry. The actions would make a great study in the breakdown of communications among disjointed commands.
- Unison, Va. I’ve mentioned this site once before with regard to preservation efforts. Sadly, one single marker, well away from the main actions, summarizes McClellan’s (slow-motion) pursuit of Lee down Loudoun Valley.
- Mine Run Battlefield. I’ve mentioned this a couple of times before. Mine Run should be remembered as the other great battlefield within the “Wilderness” of Spotsylvania and Orange Counties (along with Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania). Yet it has only gotten a handful of interpretive markers. If you missed it, there was a detailed discussion on TOCWOC earlier this year on the campaign.
- Berryville, Virginia. I would advance that the actions around Berryville on September 3-4, 1864 should be considered round one of the Third Winchester. While the fighting was brief, the forces engaged were primarily those which would fight weeks later at Winchester and Fisher’s Hill. While the site of the heaviest fighting is developed, enough of the battle line locations are still rural farmland to allow some perspective. Presently a Veterans Stone and a Virginia State marker serve as reminders of the battle.
- Hunter Mill Road, Fairfax County, Virginia. As mentioned in an earlier post, the road saw a tremendous amount of activity during the war. I hesitated mentioning it as a “place needing markers” as, although none stand today, the Hunter Mill Defense League intends to place interpretive displays in the future. Still I’d like to mention the League’s plans and take the opportunity to push a link to their site again!
A slanted list, due more to my geographic wanderings than any slight to the Western Theater. For every site offered here, I could probably leaf through dusty trail notes and mention a dozen or more sites in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas, Mississippi, Missouri, and Arkansas that also need some on site interpretation. Most of these sites mentioned above already have been preserved or have some preservation efforts ongoing. But some, like Berryville, could easily be lost within a generation of development. I joke sometimes that I advocate placement of markers to allow more additions to my collection. However, as I think the veterans in the 1890s understood, simply securing the land does not complete the action. A preserved battlefield may be sacred to us today, but without any context or point of reference, becomes an ordinary, mundane, meaningless tract of land to the next generation. The placement of the markers and monuments reaches through the generations to provide that needed point of reference. Yes, there are cases where markers have been plowed over by development. But those are the exception thankfully. I would contend in most cases the “marker” serves as a lodgement against development.
My bottom line – If we can’t preserve them all, can we at least interpret these sites?