Rehabilitating Damaged Battlefields

Almost as if on queue, dovetailing on the news about the Franklin battlefield, Gettysburg Daily provided an update of the work done at the old Country Club.

The National Park Service acquired the Gettysburg Country Club earlier this year.  The club came on the market a few years ago, after going bankrupt.  Last March, in one of several preservation wins of the year, the park purchased the club.  Since then, the park has started what is sure to be a slow, deliberate process to rehabilitate the site and incorporate the ground into the larger battlefield.

The idea of rehabilitating battlefields is not new.  It’s bounced around often enough in preservation circles.  As I said a few years ago however, the best one might hope for is a “close to what it was” appearance.  Yes, great things can be done with the right goals, focus, and drive.  But there’s no way to return, 100%, to “the way it was.”  Regardless of how great it looks, rehabilitation does not restore the archeological context.  What’s gone is gone.  (And nowhere is that more apparent than with Fleetwood Hill at Brandy Station, by the way.)

Don’t get me wrong.  I support any realistic effort, such as at Gettysburg or Franklin, to rehabilitate (restore, or what other verb you want to use) battlefield lands.  Realistic is the key.  As I’ve jibbed in jest many times, there is no way to rehabilitate the Atlanta battlefield (arguably the most important “lost” battlefield of the war).  Nor is there any hope now for Chantilly, other than the few acres set aside in a small park.   But there are opportunities to make the best of what is left at places like Gettysburg or Franklin.

But rehabilitation is a two edged sword for preservationists when considering the price tag and public perception.  How much will it cost, at Franklin?  From purchase of two pizza places, tearing down structures, establishing Cleburne Park (that exists today), extending the park, building replica structures, providing interpretation….  You get the idea.

What makes the battlefield look good?  Funding.  Getting donations to replant trees is not as easy to pitch as the purchase of acreage of the same battlefield.  Often matching fund programs come with strings attached, particularly to facilitate multipurpose use and promote tourism.  Not to say those are bad, but simply to say such is a consideration.  And all the while, donation dollars that could be spent on further land purchases go towards things like demolishing buildings.

At the same time, how does this appear to the broader public?  Many sympathetic to preservation goals will applaud the addition of green spaces.  But what if they start equating “rehabilitated” with “preserved”?   I’ve already seen that notion advanced from some sectors as a reason to stand idle while damage is done to battlefields.  “We can always restore it…” is not much of an argument for preservation.

Reality is that preservationists must work with what they have.  Rehabilitation is an option where the current generation inherits a “lost” battlefield.  And rehabilitation is probably only viable in a minority of situations.  Perhaps rehabilitation works at Gettysburg and Franklin (I think those are level-set, realistic projects).  But I cannot say the same for repairs to Fleetwood Hill at Brandy Station.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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