Preserving What for Whom?

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The well known reenactor and battlefield preservationist Robert Lee Hodge has a short editorial in the Roanoke Times in which he warns residents living in the Lynchburg-Appomattox area to resist plans to build another Wal-Mart:

As I toured Appomattox last year, I saw that development in historic areas has increased more in the last five years than in the past 142 years since the surrender. Wal-Mart announced this month that it will build on the ground that was fought over primarily by a Federal cavalry brigade under Gen. Henry Davies and Confederate troopers under Gen. Thomas Munford — including the 2nd Virginia Cavalry in which Company H was the Appomattox Rangers.

This is where Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fired its last shots and suffered its last casualties. The Confederate dead are buried on the ground slated for development. The Robertson house that once stood there was used as a Federal headquarters and probably a hospital. This is of interest to reverent people throughout the country.

Now make no mistake I have a great deal of respect for battlefield preservationists and I’ve been known to give money to at least one organization.  That said, I cringe at these sappy and vague references to the importance of our Civil War past:

Whether you are a Southerner or a Northerner; Democrat or Republican; domestic or imported; black, white, yellow, red, blue or gray — these places tell us more about who we are than any other single historical period in our brief existence. It is our road map to tell us who we are, where we are, where we have been, and where we may go.

I for one can’t stand the sight of Wal-Marts and I resist shopping there whenever possible.  I am even willing to pay more for an item rather than walk into these cookie cutter – fake hospitality asylums.  However, I honestly don’t know why I should resist plans to build one of these monstrosities on land that was fought over by Federal cavalry.  More importantly, Wal-Marts provide people with jobs and even with all of the controversy surrounding benefits packages that has to have some value – definitely more value than preserving land because Federal cavalry fought over it. 

I am going to go out on a limb here and it will probably upset some, but I actually doubt that most battlefield enthusiasts/preservationists really agree with Hodge’s assessment these sites constitute some kind of road map of national identity.  Most people’s interest in the Civil War extends no further than the battlefields themselves.  Just consider the opposition over the past few years to the NPS’s efforts to broaden our understanding of Civil War battlefields in a way that would connect them to broader issues that go very far in addressing our national identity. 

My guess is that in the end most people desire to save Civil War battlefields so they can walk the ground and imagine for themselves the movements of troops and the fighting that took place there.  We’re not talking about serious reflection about issues of national identity, we’re talking about entertainment.  How can Hodge claim that saving land that was fought over by a Federal cavalry brigade translate into anything other than saving a small piece of a larger military campaign puzzle?  In short, it’s a chance to play soldier in the "Mind’s I."   The problem is that the people who enjoy walking battlefields constitute a very small interest group. 

If you want to save the battlefields than raise the money and purchase the land.  Hell, I will even help, but don’t preach to me that this issue somehow transcends region, race, and politics. 

4 comments… add one

  • Vince Apr 29, 2007

    I think an important thing to consider is a generational gap in the Civil War hobbyist community. In many cases, it seems the spike of enthusiasts, especially in reenacting, that came on the scene in the late 80s / early 90s have evolved into “good ol’ boys” clubs with a firm but aging grip on the mainstream of the hobby.

    So, faced with not having a voice in the mainstream, the next generation of enthusiasts–now in their 20s and 30s–have reacted by reaching further historically and splitting from the mainstream. This means increased attempts to interpret the war (and the era) through a variety of lenses, particular social and often racial. Specifically, this means a shift from an annual slate of mega-battle reenactments to small civilian-oriented events at local historical sites and places like Harper’s Ferry. Also, the movie Wicked Spring is a product of this new generation of hobbyists.

    Although Rob Hodge focuses strongly (if not exclusively) on preserving battlefields, I think you will see many other new generation hobbyists plotting many more social history points on the national identity roadmap…and taking the discussion seriously. The movement is still small and certainly isn’t perfect, but I think it represents some hope for bridging pop history and good history.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2007

    Vince, — Thanks for adding some perpsective to this post. I appreciate it.

  • Phil LeDuc Apr 29, 2007

    Kevin -

    I agree with the main points of your post, and would take it a couple of steps further. Like you, I avoid Wal-Marts. I’m fortunate in that saving a few bucks when shopping for the necessities isn’t the highest priorty for me. For many people though, it is a big factor in their shopping decision, and Wal-Mart provides the answer.

    More to the point though is the need to establish priorities when deciding where to devote resources to preservation. Like it or not, some pieces of “hallowed ground” are more hallowed than others. I bet that there are very few square miles of eastern and central Virginia that weren’t crossed by either Federal or Confederate units, or where shots weren’t fired. Just because foot or hoof met dirt or a few volleys were fired at a particular site doesn’t mean that place belongs on a most-endangered list. There are so many sites of real importance still to save – or at least try to.

    Does this mean I’m not a “reverent” person?

  • Rob Wick Apr 30, 2007

    Kevin,
    Thank you for saying much of what I’ve believed for years. There is another point I would like to bring up. Part of the reason for development here is the success that preservationists have had in keeping battlefields open. If you look at the millions who visit the major battlefields each year, it only stands to reason that someone will try to make money off of those who make pilgrimages to those sites. Even though I thought it was tasteless to name a restaurant “General Pickett’s All-You-Can-Eat Buffet” that didn’t stop me from eating there because of its convenience (and food that wasn’t too bad). While I’m glad that the casinos at Gettysburg were shot down (no pun intended) if I had money to invest in a project, I would want it to go where the crowds already are. There is only so much ground to go around, and as sorry as I feel about it personally, development will continue to encroach places where there is built-in traffic.

    Best
    Rob

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