Category Archives: Preservation

Sesquicentennial Observation: The last great surge for Civil War battlefield preservation… why?

During the last four years, as I “walked and talked” the Civil War sesquicentennial, there were many observations which I rolled about at the pace of my footsteps.  A post-sesquicentennial objective of mine is to fill some of those out and share here as blog posts.  One of those is already up.  Today I’ll continue that thread with another observation “from the field,” if you will – we are experiencing the last great opportunity for Civil War battlefield preservation.

Yes, we are witnessing the last great chance for preservation of Civil War battlefields… any additional battlefields.   I say that within the context of a comment from NPS historian John Hennessy:

For the moment, let’s focus on the 2/2 part of that tweet conversation (we’ll circle back to the first part later).  Americans have preserved MORE acres Civil War battlefield than any other nation has preserved for any other war in all of history.  An impressive statistic.  Civil War Trust lists 40,000 acres of battlefield among their accomplishments – preserved in whole or in part by that organization.  Add to that federal (small “f” as in national, not the opposite of Confederate!), state, and local parks on battlefields.  And also mention lands preserved by other means, to include the initiative of the land owners.  More land than for any other war in human history.  Let that simmer at the fore.

Why is that?

Let me offer my answer to that in “Craig Swain” fashion… as in starting with the “nuts and bolts.”  The first part to consider is how – legally and administratively – all that land went onto the “preserved” side of the sheet.  Preservation didn’t happen all at once.  It took time and came in waves.  The first great wave of preservation was by the generation which witnessed the Civil War, and driven by those veterans in the population.  Timothy B. Smith called this the “Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation.”  Very apt title, coming at the later half of the Gilded Age and conducted by veterans reaching their “golden years.”  This period produced five battlefield parks, under government management (Chickamauga-Chattanooga, Shiloh, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Vicksburg).  More important, this period provided the blueprints for additional preservation.  We talk of the “Gettysburg plan” vs. “Antietam plan” because of methods used.  And beyond that, the blueprint incorporated plans for public use.  The practical, surface use was interpretation of the battle (notably, justified as an open air classroom for military officers).  Less practical, but very much at the fore, was public use for commemoration.

The blueprint established – for both the means and uses – the next big period of preservation was also pushed from the federal level.  And it resembled that “golden age”… except for less participation of the veterans, who were passing away by that time.  Parks established from 1915 to 1938 included Richmond, Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania, Petersburg, Stones River, and Brices Cross Roads.  Also in the list of fields preserved during that period are Revolutionary War sites such as Cowpens, Moore’s Creek, and Kings Mountain.  Such indicates “federal directed” preservation had moved beyond the urgings of Civil War veterans to a broader goal embracing the wider context of American history.   Sort of a function of the period, if I may.  Though I want to steer clear of the obvious rabbit hole there, for the sake of brevity.

The preservation of these major battlefields setup the Centennial of the Civil War.  There were places for those observances to occur.  But – and let me be clear that I cannot say this from the stance of a participant – those observances seemed confined.  The Centennial period, from the perspective of preservation, comes across as entrenchment.  The focus was more toward interpretation of what was in place – those wonderful, dated guidebooks and orientation movies that have only recently been updated.   In terms of land, bookend achievements at Manassas and Monocacy epitomize the efforts of that era – small, timid efforts that appear, in hindsight, fraught with missed opportunities.

But some of those missed opportunities setup the next period of Civil War battlefield preservation.  For the first 100 years after the Civil War, major development threats to battlefields were few and far between.  Remoteness insulated many fields from disruption.  That changed in the 1970s as the vectors producing “sprawl” brought direct and indirect changes to these battlefields.  And the “uncovered” battlefield lands were often thrown into the middle of a public discussion which pitted perceived “progress” against preservation.  Typical of these episodes, Manassas battlefield faced major developments on ground which arguably should have been included in the original park’s boundaries.  Another example came from Brandy Station, where preservationists contested major development projects which would have obliterated an otherwise pristine battlefield.  While both of those sites may be listed as “successful,” other places, such as Chantilly and so many of the Atlanta Campaign sites, were not so.  This was a contentious period for preservation, to say the least.  This “contentious” period saw private individuals and advocacy groups at the fore of the dialog.  In many places, the advocates for preservation came to terms with “preserve what you can” compromises. While federal and state officials were there, it was the preservation advocates doing most of the push.  Instead of “top down” driven goals, what emerged were “grass roots” preservation advocates.

Into the 21st Century and approaching the Sesquicentennial, preservation efforts continued along the lines of the last quarter of the previous century.  Opportunities came (and still come) with the alert, “targeted ares need protection NOW before something happens.”  And these are not “the sky is falling” pleas.  The nature of the sprawling development, indicative of this age, leaves no quarter.  Such renders the old Antietam plans obsolete.  Missed opportunities from the 1960s have translated to obliterated fields.  Though at some quarters, such as at Franklin, preservationists have turned to options rehabilitating portions of the battlefield – an extreme of “preserve what you can.” The preservationists through the Sesquicentennial are faced with the question “if not now, when?”

So we see through these five periods, preservation of all that battlefield land was not governed by a single guiding strategy or movement.  Rather the preservation efforts were a function of each generation’s initiative.  However, at the same time we can say through all the periods, the efforts focused on the land for those two core reasons – interpretation and commemoration.  Interpretation, through these periods, remained somewhat rigid for its application (in terms of how we process information, the signage of the 1890s is not far removed from the smart-phone app geo-tag of today) even while the content of the message remained fluid.  On the other hand, commemoration has defied any fixed characterization over the decades, ranging from celebration to reflection to introspection.  While we all approach the battlefields from the context of history, gaining perspective from the interpretation, what we carry away from them – the commemorative aspect – varies by individual.

And there in lies the answer to the question.  The reason we have so much Civil War battlefield space preserved is because that war was a broad, almost limitless, subject from which so much defies concrete definition.  We might start the discussion around “facts” or “sources” or such. But in the end, all devolves into “opinions” based on our own perspectives.  And the best place to reach any authoritative perspective is standing with both feet planted firmly on the ground.

We have not, as a nation, come to terms with the Civil War after 150 years.  So we should not be surprised that we have such an attachment to the ground over which it was fought.  Perhaps, the country needs those acres to serve as an unhealed wound.

Now is the time for a Culpeper Battlefields Park – Brandy Station, Cedar Mountain, and others

Back in the 1990s, I would often transit Northern Georgia on weekends.  During those trips, I would make every effort to seek out the battlefields of 1863 and 1864.  At that time, the only waymarks one could work from were a handful of state and WPA markers located along the I-75 corridor.  So one had to “work” to get any feel for the battlefields and the flow of the major campaigns that played out across those hills and streams.  One example is this marker on the Resaca battlefield:

(Photo courtesy HMDB and David Seibert.)

Located on US 41, the marker references action that took place almost, not quite, a mile ( a MILE!) west of the reader… on the other side of Camp Creek AND on the other side of I-75. At that time in the 1990s, the location referenced was simply inaccessible to all but the most persistent visitor – willing to wait for one of the rare on-site activities or coordinate with a landowner for access.

Fast forward to 2015.  If you pick up the latest copy of Blue & Gray Magazine, you’ll see a teaser line on the cover – “New Georgia Battlefield Park!”  Under David Roth’s response is the announcement that the Resaca Battlefield Park, which had faced several “roadblocks” last fall, is soon to open.  This is long in coming.  The Friends of Resaca Battlefield started the effort in 1994.  With the help of Civil War Trust and others, there are some 1,100 acres of the battlefield preserved.  Soon, we will be able to just drive over to Camp Creek and SEE the area which that marker… a mile to the east… speaks of.  (Sorta makes the marker obsolete, doesn’t it?)

We like to hear those sort of success stories.  Preservation coming to full maturity, where visitors are able to walk the field, appreciate the primary resource that the terrain is, and thus gain better understanding of the events.

With the success (and hopeful of the tentative July grand opening) at Resaca, let me turn your attention to a location here in Virginia that I’ve written about often – the battlefields and sites of Culpeper County.  Starting in the 1990s, tracks of land around Brandy Station were purchased by preservation organizations. Likewise, the Friends of Cedar Mountain, and others, have brought substantial tracts of that battlefield into the “preserved” category.  Counting those two battlefields and Kelly’s Ford, the Civil War Trust tallies over 3000 acres preserved in Culpeper County.  Though much of that acreage is in preservation easement, a sizable amount is owned by the Trust or other preservation organizations.  And beyond those three, there are a substantial number of sites where activity occurred during the war – minor battles, skirmishes, troop movements, and… yes, I mentioned it the other day… encampments.

However, there is no central point of orientation in Culpeper County for visitors.  Furthermore, the preservation organizations which currently hold title to some of those lands are charged with the maintenance and upkeep – a detraction from other preservation efforts.  But the biggest problem I see is the lack of a “center of mass” which the local community views as “the battlefield” … and from which better recognition of the historical resource would emanate.

It is no big secret that many of us have advocated for a proper battlefield park to cover Brandy Station.  The acquisition of Fleetwood Hill in 2013 served to bring those ideas to a center of mass.  Now I hear there are efforts afoot to create a state park in Culpeper County which would encompass these Civil War sites.  Such would go a long way to accomplish the goals set forward in the 1980s – made in the face of hideous development projects.  This is not to say there are not “roadblocks,” but I am confident there will be a Culpeper Battlefields State Park in our future.  Let’s hope so.

Virginians, join me in calling upon our elected representatives to make this so!

Campaign 1776: Towards preservation of battlefields from other wars

Yesterday the Civil War Trust made a major change with their organizational focus.  Though the name does not change, the Trust’s efforts extend to preservation of Revolutionary War battlefields.  In the web announcement (on the Campaign 1776 web site), the Trust said:

Nearly 240 years after the “shot heard ‘round the world” signaled the beginning of the journey toward American independence, historians and preservationists gathered in Princeton, N.J., to launch the first-ever national initiative to protect and interpret the battlefields of the Revolutionary War. The new effort, titled ‘Campaign 1776,’ is a project of the Civil War Trust, the nation’s most successful battlefield preservation advocate. Campaign 1776 will employ the same proven strategy of harnessing public-private partnerships to permanently protect hallowed ground that has made the Civil War Trust one of the country’s top charitable land conservation organizations.

The efforts will soon extend to War of 1812 battlefields.

The first preservation target for Campaign 1776 is 4.6 acres at Princeton, New Jersey.  The Trust is calling for $25,000 in donations.  That’s a low jump for an organization which has preserved thousands of acres and routinely calls for millions of dollars for Civil War sites.  You will see from the campaign page, the Trust is taking its familiar and very successful format from Civil War projects and applying that to these new targets… with a little adaptation, of course.

Adaptation?  Yes, let me offer examples.  A one page summary of the American Revolution… but before you give me the rolling eyes treatment, thing about it.  We all know about the dearth of knowledge about history among the general American population.  I don’t need to play back some “in the street” interviews or a compilation of political gaffes to demonstrate that.  And lets face it, if one mentions “the war” in conversation here in the U.S., very likely that is one of two – the Civil War or World War II.  Those have gotten the most print and film play.  So in most cases, convincing someone that Revolutionary War battlefields are important enough to put money on, the discussion has to start with “what was that war about?”  How many out there will understand “Southern Campaign” outside of the context of Richard Nixon?  So, I’d not give the eye-roll to what you might think a “introductory-level” opening.

Adaptation?  Yes, for new allies.  The Trust has long worked with the National Park Service (through the American Battlefield Protection Program) and with other organizations in the ranks, such as National Trust for Historic Preservation and Journey Through Hallowed Ground at the national level. Likewise the Trust has partnered with local organizations, too many to list here, to bring the “small” preservation efforts to the fore.  There are some local organizations already focused on Revolutionary War and War of 1812 preservation.  Crossroads of the American Revolution (Revolutionary New Jersey) is one highlighted with the Princeton effort.  At the national level, while many of the “Civil War” allies apply, there are other organizations to bring into the conversation, such as the Society of the Cincinnati.  These new alliances will only add to and strengthen the conversation about preservation.

I see the Trust’s additions as a natural evolution towards a broader discussion of battlefield preservation. But I’m sure there are some out there who will voice concern that these battlefields from other wars will detract from the core mission focused on the Civil War … or maybe just be a token effort suffering in the shadows of those established preservation efforts.  If I may offer a counterpoint to that, consider this:

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That Civil War Trails marker is located on the Yorktown Battlefield.  While everyone (we hope) would identify Yorktown as a Revolutionary War battle of great importance, few would pause for the Civil War events at the same location.  Certainly the same things that brought the colonists to the Peninsula, brought soldiers to Yorktown… again and again.  And that is just a handy example, as I could well cover several pages here on the blog with sites with some Revolutionary War and Civil War connections. It’s a common theme with history.  Our physical world has layers upon layers of history.  We just have to know how best to view that.  And it helps that, in the case of the site above, different organizations have preserved and interpreted.

At the same time, we in the Civil War-centered discussions need to recognize that “our” great chapter of the history book is but one chapter.  It is a part of this great story arc that is the American experience.  Unfortunately, in our progress driven existence, a lot of things get recycled.  Particularly places where history happened.  I think of it this way:  If some of my preservation budget goes to help a Revolutionary War site, then it is not just the “matching” donation I’m banking on, but rather in the longer sense the “matching” interest that such encourages.  The more people that are sensitive in the interest of historic preservation, the healthier our knowledge of history becomes.