No Cellular Tower at Antietam or Why Gettysburg is not Sacred Ground

The Civil War Preservation Trust has recently released their top 10 most endangered list and it includes Antietam, in part, because of a proposed cellular phone tower that may go up just south of the battlefield.  I sincerely hope that this does not happen, although I have no ill-feelings towards the company responsible for such an eye sore.  After all the residents of Sharpsburg weren’t engaged in battlefield preservation following the war.  I love visiting Antietam.  It was where I was introduced to the Civil War in 1994 and it is one of the few battlefields where I can walk and actually contemplate the bravery of the men who fought there as well as the broader meanings of the war.  This spring I will have the opportunity to bring around 15 students to the battlefield as part of a 2-day bike tour.  In short, for me Antietam is the closest thing to “sacred ground.”

I have never felt the same about Gettysburg.  Although I was against the push to bring a casino to Gettysburg I never viewed it as a moral question, and when the observation tower came down I never thought of it as bringing us a step closer to some notion of battlefield purity.  And I am probably one of the few who would hate to see the Cyclorama Center torn down.  Whenever I travel to Gettysburg (it’s not that often) I find it close to impossible to think about the battle itself apart from the distractions of the town and the ways in which the battlefield was utilized following the war.  I guess too much has happened to simply see it as a battlefield where men fought and died.  Yes, you can find a battle at Gettysburg and much to contemplate, but you can just as easily find overweight white male reenactors, white tourists, ghosts [I assume most of them are white.], cheap hotels, and trinkets galore.  Please don’t blame me for holding such a view as Americans made the decision to commercialize and sell it long ago.

Rally on the High Ground and keep the cell phone tower away from Antietam.

13 thoughts on “No Cellular Tower at Antietam or Why Gettysburg is not Sacred Ground

  1. Mannie Gentile

    Kevin,

    Here’s a link to a blog post I did a couple of years ago when I made a final photo visit to the Cyclorama Center.

    http://volunteersinparks.blogspot.com/2006_07_01_archive.html

    I ended up editing the post considerably after a preservationist group reprinted it in their newsletter. That was my first lesson in the professional embarrassment that Blogging can afford the glib blogger.

    Similarly, a recent (since removed) post of mine caused me to get seriously flamed to the point of feeling threatened. The brouhaha was over my anecdote about revealing that Washington was a slave-owner to a fourth grader.

    The ensuing s__t storm was pretty unpleasant.

    There’s some mighty unpleasant folks out there among our regular readers.

    From now on its all pretty pictures and upbeat commentary for this lad.

    My hat’s off to fearless guys like you, Dimitri, and Eric.

    Mannie

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  2. matthew mckeon

    Jesus, you have got to lighten up.

    Gettysburg is a fascinating battlefield, both for the battle and how it has been memorialized as “the battle of the Civil War.” I’m sure you’re read “Honored Dead.”
    As someone who has written so insightfully about the Civil War and how people have chosen to remember it, Gettysburg in all its tacky glory and real sadness, should be a natural subject for you.

    The horror of fat white people and souvenirs, you sound, and I can write this because I respect you, like Missy Frothingale getting the vapors. I am going as soon as possible, and making a beeline, not for the clump of trees in the center of Cemetary Ridge, but for the crappiest tourist trap of a souvenir shop I can find. Then I will pass over some US currency for the a plastic figurine of:
    Robert E. Lee on a white horse
    Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
    George Pickett on a white horse,
    James Longstreet on a white horse, with his face looking as much like Tom Berenger’s as Chinese child labor can make it. I hope to God they haven’t run out of them.

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  3. Brooks Simpson

    Here I disagree. Moving the visitor park center helps us to see things as they were; so does the reworking of the foliage. That plan disrupts my cherished memories of the park, but offers a more accurate assessment of the terrain. As for “feeling the battlefield,” depends on where you stand and at what time. Antietam’s a purer experience in some ways, except for the West Woods, which has been fairly corrupted by modern roadways. But if you go out to East Cavalry Field, or get out of the car and walk Little Round Top or Culp’s Hill, well, it’s the same thing as Antietam. The town is … the town.

    My eerie feeling has been at Cold Harbor.

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  4. Kevin Levin

    Mannie, — I learned awhile back that I wouldn’t satisfy everyone. There are plenty of people who would love to have my head on a platter. I still don’t understand why as it is just a blog. That I can live with and by the way your post on the 4th grade experience was first-rate.

    Matthew, — You are probably right that I should lighten up. I guess I was trying to draw a sharp contrast to my responses to the maintenance of Gettysburg as opposed to Sharpsburg — the latter I am much more sympathetic with. By the way, who is Missy Frothingale? I feel so stupid right now.

    Brooks. — You make a good point, though the Antietam staff has done a pretty good job of replanting the West Woods and returning the area to its wartime look. And of course I agree with you re: certain sections of Gettysburg. I guess I was thinking of the town as part of the battlefield, which is probably not fair.

    Thanks for the comments guys.

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  5. John Hoptak

    Kevin~
    I’ve always felt the same as you about Antietam, and feel extremely fortunate and proud to be able to work there as an interp ranger. Let’s hope the cell phone tower does not materialize.
    When you make it to the park with your students, look me (and Mannie) up.

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  6. Tim Lacy

    This post reminds of something larger that’s loomed in the back of mind: It’s amazing how, as academics and researchers of history, we caught up in the places where our events took place. This will seem silly to everyone else, but I can’t go to the University of Chicago without seeing the ghosts of the 1930s and 1940s. That’s where major action took place in the history of the great books idea during the Robert Hutchins administation.

    But Kevin’s is a different case. Antietam, Gettysburg, etc., carry ghosts for ~all~ of us, academics or not. We’ve collectively recited those names since grade school. Ghosts ought to run around all the heads of all Americans who visit those places.

    So I disagree with Matthew in that you need to lighten up. Although I’ve never seen the tacky sights cited by him, it wouldn’t surprise me if they ~were not~ there. Cottage industries only pop up where people care about what they’re visiting.

    But maybe I’ve “drank the Kool-aid.” I’m a Catholic, so I’m used to people investing tacky materials objects and geographic places with sacred meaning. It seems natural to me.

    In sum, I empathize with Kevin. Let’s not subtract from the naturalness of the memory. It seems right to keep Antietam, Gettysburg, etc., as close to how the soldiers themselves might’ve encountered the place. At the very least it seems respectful to try and maintain something that approximates the place of their sacrifice. – TL

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  7. Robert Moore

    I’m curious to look into this cell tower issue, but considering the lay of the land at Antietam, just how much impact with the tower really have on the experience at Antietam?

    On another note, Antietam and Gettysburg rank as my two personal favorites as far as battlefields go (both ranking #1, but for different reasons). There are some obvious differences between the two but each holds a special place for those different reasons. I go to Antietam because I love the relatively unaltered landscape. That idea of replanting trees and trying to bring the landscape back to its 1862 appearance was great.

    The same goes with Gettysburg as far as efforts go with bringing the 1863 landscape back. I was stunned when I returned this past summer to Devil’s Den and noticed all the clearing going on there! However, those downtown attractions – I just don’t know what it is – but they are a part of the Gettysburg experience. As for me and the Gettysburg experience, there are some great vantage points on the battlefield that aren’t disturbed by the commercialism of downtown. I can even stand in the National Cemetery and appreciate the surroundings without feeling an intrusion from the nearby commercialism. Now, on the other hand, that General Pickett’s Buffet… well, that bothers me a little more because it is so close to the landscape where so many of Pickett’s men fell. If it had another name, it might not be so much of a distraction. At least that is my opinion.

    On the Cold Harbor note made by Brooks Simpson, I agree. Actually, both Cold Harbor and the lines at Spotsylvania Court House give me chills that are about on equal with each other. I really like to go back behind the Confederate lines, in the woods. It was a great thrill to find the gun emplacements for the Charlottesville Artillery. Not exactly like the sgt. major of the battery had indicated, but still a thrill to locate them all the same.

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  8. Kevin Levin

    Tim, — Thank for the thoughtful comment.

    Robert, — This may sound a bit odd, and I need to say up front that I have not seen the battlefield since the major changes to the landscape, but I wonder whether it is accurate to say that it is being returned to its wartime look as opposed to just another stage in how we have chosen to remember the battle. Perhaps this is just a matter of semantics, but given our interest in memory maybe there is something to it. If I remember correctly, Weeks suggested something along these lines in his study.

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  9. Robert Moore

    Kevin – You haven’t been to Antietam lately, or is it Gettysburg? My understanding about the landscaping efforts at Antietam (I was there this last in Spring 07) is that the changes are being made according to maps showing period landscape. Maybe I’m mistaken, but I’m also going on information provided on the Park website at http://home.nps.gov/anti/supportyourpark/partner.htm. I think that the SHAF (http://shaf.org/) is also involved in this effort.

    Likewise, at Gettysburg, I am aware of the efforts being made by the Gettysburg Foundation. I interviewed with the Friends of Gettysburg a couple of years ago (but didn’t get the job, darn it!) and they were active in replanting the peach orchard and so forth. I think the clearing of land around Devil’s Den is related to returning the landscape to its original state, but, again, I may be mistaken. I may look into this further now that you say that this effort may be according to how we remember the war.

    On a sidenote, seems to me, last time I saw the orchard at Gettysburg this past July, it wasn’t doing so well. Of course, the place was about as dry as I had ever seen it. It was difficult to find grass that was actually green, other than in the National Cemetery.

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  10. Kevin Levin

    Robert, — Sorry about that. I meant to say that I haven’t been to Gettysburg since the big changes. By the way your blog is the most promising recent addition to the landscape that is the Civil War blogosophere. Your post are well written and incredibly thought provoking.

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  11. Robert Moore

    Thanks for the positive comment about the blog. I sincerely hope that it continues to be thought provoking. Having been “up close and personal” to the Lost Cause mythology for over twenty years (and especially over the past ten years), I have a fair amount of material to mull over in postings.

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