Katie Couric’s Notebook and Battlefield Preservation

For the last few days I’ve mulled over one of Katie Couric’s Notebook entry from last week.  In her opinion spot, the CBS news anchor noted the changed position with regard to Wal Mart’s proposed store near the Wilderness.   “It’s been nearly 145 years since the end of the Civil War, and Walmart just surrendered.”

Now I wouldn’t put it that way myself.  When this preservation issue first broke, I felt that painting Wal-Mart as the enemy, or working the anti-Wal-Mart themes extant, might backfire.  Better that we demonstrate impracticalities to the plan.  Wal-Mart has actually done some good things for battlefield preservation – Pea Ridge – that tend to go unnoticed – Pea Ridge – that probably need to be mentioned – Pea Ridge.  I don’t want to spread speculation, but the entire Wilderness episode speaks of a “when it finally got to the top management…” or “when the full cost of the legal battle came up…” scenario.  Again, just speculation.  Likely we will never know the full story.

The battlefield preservation community will take some lessons away from the Wal-Mart/Wilderness, as it has from Manassas/Disney and Race Track/Brandy Station and Pizzeria/Franklin (!).   From where I sit, as more a foot-soldier in the preservation movement, there are two lessons I would mention.

First, preservation efforts start local and need to be visible in the local community.  Wal-Mart didn’t show up cold and say “here’s a nice place.”  There was some wooing done.  Now we can all point fingers and say dirty words about developers and those pushing economic growth.  Reality is we all know that is part of progress.  Generally progress is good. In the larger sense, that is.

Yet, we feint surprise when news items appear noting local apathy and disinterest at the demolition of some historic building or paving of some significant field.  I say feint surprise because we all know why that happens – lack of enlightenment about the history and heritage of the site.  (And I hate to say “heritage” because that word has been hijacked by some as an agenda driven code-word.  But consider it from the book definition of heritage.)  Preservationists must be one part educators, I guess.  And to do so properly, preservationists must offer a curriculum that reaches across the broad spectrum and not some subset of society.

That brings me to a second point.  During the dialog about the Wal-Mart/Wilderness, and even more during the ongoing Casino/Gettysburg debate, I’ve seen a lot of branding and labeling going on.  Last fall I took great exception (an understatement I know) with Larry Cebula’s post with regard to the anti-casino push by Civil War Trust.  Larry branded preservation efforts as some right-wing, religious-based, conservative movement advancing moral principles under the guise of preservation (a point which became more apparent in the comment threads that played out).  Yet, there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate such labeling of the preservationist community is justified. (On the other hand, did preservationists USE moral themes to get a point across?  Yes, and with good effects and in a respectful way compared to other cause-based groups I could mention….)

Indeed the Civil War Trust should be lauded for remaining above politics, partnering with leaders regardless of party lines, and avoiding stances which might polarize its membership.  I could make numerous observations as to the personal politics of folks in the preservation community, but I won’t.  I won’t because we don’t discuss them.  There is an unspoken rule – it’s about preservation, not our politics.  Even on a four-hour ride to visit some site. (YOU know who you are!  And yes I appreciated the discretion in our conversation.)

But the branding occurs.  And to some degree hinders preservationists.  Yes, part of it is self-inflicted.  And part of the problem is the heritage hijacking mentioned above.  Yet, I find it hard to ignore the scope of the topic, selecting only the “proper” parts, while championing to preserve the whole.  Perhaps the complexity of the topic, with those “proper” and “unsightly” parts, is what allows easy application of the branding.

That’s why I posted a link to the Couric notebook earlier on my Facebook wall with the sentiment, “think I’m going to cry.”  I think she got to the heart of the matter simply and succinctly, unlike my rambling here.  The quote from her late husband, who was a stanch advocate for battlefield preservation, sums it up better than I ever can:

“You can’t build a better future without preserving some of the hallowed ground and important lessons from the past.”

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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