It’s More Than Just A Historically Inaccurate Wall

If you are not reading Mysteries and Conundrums than you are missing one of the most interesting new Civil War blogs to come down the pike in some time.  The blog is maintained by the historical staff at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, which is led by John Hennessy.  The gang has been posting on a regular basis and the stories are absolutely fascinating. Much of it has focused on the analysis of images of the town and battlefield and the high-resolution photographs will leave you staring for quite some time.

The most recent post by Eric Mink addresses the history of the famous Stone Wall at Marye’s Heights and its construction by a segregated group of African American Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s.  The post goes on to address the concerns within the NPS and local white community surrounding the presence of these men as well as the steps taken to segregate park facilities, including picnic areas and bathrooms.  I encourage you to read the entire post.

Anyone who has studied the battle in detail knows that the stone wall is not an accurate representation of the original wall, though recent archaeological work has shown that it does sit on the original foundation.  This raises the interesting question of its status given the NPS’s recent work to return their battlefields to as close to their appearance at the time of the war as possible.  We’ve seen this with the return of viewsheds at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg as well as a recent decision to dismantle a New Deal bathroom between Little Round Top and Devil’s Den.

I don’t believe that there is a general rule to be applied at every battlefield; rather, I tend to think that these decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis and in a way that will enhance the interpretation of the actual site.  While I’ve walked the area around Marye’s Heights multiple times with students, family, and friends, I find it very difficult to imagine the fighting that took place there in December 1862 and May 1863.  The development of the town from the area along the river up to the very foot of the battlefield makes it very difficult for me to understand the tactical ebb and flow of the battle as well as the area’s topographical significance.   What I do understand is that the Confederate position there was pretty damn good.  I get that.

As far as I am concerned the stone wall constructed by the CCC ought to be preserved and properly interpreted.  While it would be interesting to see a historically accurate stone wall at Marye’s Heights, it’s added benefit would not outweigh the importance of the CCC wall.  Actually, I could probably make the argument that if the returning of the site to its “original” look is our goal than we should either dismantle or remove the Richard Kirkland monument.  Now, before you go off the deep end keep in mind that I am not suggesting that we do so, only that it does function as an obstacle in that regard.  When I bring students to the monument we talk very little about the actual battle as opposed to the culture of the Civil War Centennial, which goes much further in explaining the monument’s presence than anything Kirkland did or didn’t do.

A new wall would not drastically change the stories that I share with my students when we visit.  On the other hand Eric Mink’s post now allows me to share a significant story of the battlefield that will dramatically expand their understanding of the battle and its legacies.  As I discussed in a talk that I gave at Fredericksburg on the anniversary of the battle in 2009 I strive to give my students a broad understanding of the significance and legacy of our Civil War battlefields.  Here we have a major battle that took place on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Roughly seventy years later that very same spot is being maintained by a segregated group of black CCC workers for the enjoyment and education of a predominantly white audience.  Some of these men may have been the children and grandchildren of slaves.

The men who fought at Fredericksburg created their own meaning, but we should not lose sight of the fact that subsequent management of a landscape continues its history and infuses it with additional significance and meaning.  Think of the monuments that were erected at the turn of the twentieth century.  These objects over time attain their own unique historical significance.  With this wall we are presented with another object of historical significance and an interpretive opportunity that ought not to be passed over.

[Photograph from Mysteries and Conundrums/FSNMP]

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18 comments… add one

  • Matt McKeon Apr 17, 2010

    How to interpret sites, especially in busy and built up areas is an interesting challenge. The NPS’s urge to choose a period to recreate and erase the subsequent development can lead in some unfortunate directions.

    I think the experience of battle is difficult to recreate. In these solemn, quiet places, mowed as neatly as cemeteries, how can we understand chaos, dangers, noise, death? Can the experience really be learned to anyone who hasn’t lived through it?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 17, 2010

      Matt,

      I tend to agree with you. While I rarely leave my battlefield guide behind, my visits are usually more about taking a nice stroll on historically significant land. We’ve attached to many layers of meaning for me to seriously believe that I can imagine the chaos and destructiveness of battle.

    • Raffi Apr 17, 2010

      Matt,

      I don’t really see your point here, because even if the NPS doesn’t choose a period to portray, even if it chooses to actively portray multiple periods on the same piece of land, we STILL would not have any way to understand the “chaos, dangers, noise, [and] death.” And, in regard to your second question, we still won’t have lived through it ourselves.

      So your two questions are not at all solved by changing the approach of many NPS Civil War battlefields right now (though not all). In fact, I would say, your questions are impossible to solve by any approach taken by the NPS or anyone else. You are grasping for something that nobody alive today can achieve, since nobody has lived through the fighting on any one of the Civil War battlefields preserved today.

      Therefore, I think it is unfair to use those questions as points of criticism on the NPS’s approach to preserving the cultural resources it has on Civil War sites.

  • Raffi Apr 17, 2010

    Kevin,

    Does this mean you are opposed to the removal of the Cyclorama Building at Gettysburg, since it represents a major era in the management and interpretation approach throughout the National Park Service via Mission 66 funding?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 17, 2010

      Hi Raffi,

      I did say that these decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis, but since you asked, I am opposed to tearing down Richard Neutra’s building. At the same time I understand the many issues surrounding its continued maintenance and function. I’ve always liked that building.

      • Raffi Apr 17, 2010

        Kevin, that’s because you never worked in that building! :-p

        The thing hasn’t worked properly since its early years, from what I am told. And since I have been there, it has had many issues too, including a bad design for the climate of PA (thus causing things such as leaks as well as sinking into the ground).

        But on a more historical note…
        I think your argument here trips up on itself a little bit. Consider this: since you do care about subsequent memory of the battle, keep in mind that monuments were moved for the sake of putting up the Cyclorama Building. In this case, therefore, you are putting the initiative of the NPS above the memory of the battle by the veterans who fought at that key point in the battle.

        Moreover, going to my own opinion, while I understand the significance of the building, I point out that keep in mind the higher significance of that area of the battlefield — the very reason the Cyclorama Building was put there in the first place. I say that this higher significance (i.e. the very spark for putting the building there) takes precedence over the significance of the building.

        Plus, there is only one Cemetery Ridge, but there are other Neutra buildings we can focus on preserving elsewhere.

        What’s more, what message does this send to the developers who wait for excuses to chew up battlefield land? That it’s ok to eat up battlefield land as long as they build something we deem to be an interesting design? Doesn’t that undermine our arguments of significance of battlefield ground that we employ to stop such development?

        Finally, people gave their lives in sacrifice on that ground. I don’t think it is for us to decide that their sacrifice is secondary to the importance of a poorly designed building (for its setting) by Richard Neutra. As someone who is earning a degree in Historic Preservation, I love historic architecture, but in this case I don’t believe architecture should be placed above the lives sacrificed by those soldiers and then the subsequent memorializing by the survivors of the fighting we just said above is so hard to imagine ourselves.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 17, 2010

          Raffi,

          All excellent points, which is no surprise given your connection to the place. The practical problems alone that you describe would probably be alone sufficient for me to change my view. But once you stray to battlefield interpretation you begin to lose me. Many of the farmers who owned land on which battles were fought did not necessarily think of the sacrifice of Union and Confederate soldiers; they were trying to put their lives back together and make a living. Perhaps we can say that financial pursuits trumped honoring the sacrifice of the men who fought there. My point is that your concern about Cemetery Ridge must be understood in time and place. Clearly, the generation that put up the Cyclorama viewed things differently. If we decide today to return Cemetery Ridge or Marye’s Heights back to what we believe it looked like at the time of a battle than we are imposing our own values on the landscape. We are not somehow getting closer to a correct way of interpreting the landscape, we’re just changing it. In the case of Marye’s Heights I believe that altering or destroying that wall would erase a valuable piece of history that does have significance in the context of our understand of the Civil War and its legacy.

          • Raffi Apr 17, 2010

            I see your point, Kevin, but I point out that in the case of Cemetery Ridge you mention, though, the NPS did not have control over what the farmers did to the land. What I meant to say with my point of putting historic architecture over the historic sacrifice was that the NPS does have control over which one it chooses there, and so I hope it sends what I think is the right message, now that the NPS does have the capacity to make decisions (unlike, of course, for example, in the 1870s).

            I acknowledge that we are merely changing the interpretation of the site, say from the generation who put the Cyclorama Building up. But, query this, if that generation can put its mark on it, why can’t this generation also do the same? Are we not just another generation of caretakers of that site, rather than somehow timeless ourselves?

            Moreover, deciding to keep Cemetery Ridge as you suggest is also “imposing our own values on the landscape.” There is no way to escape that. Therefore, we should accept that we cannot escape it and make a clear decision on what direction we choose (with a clear rationale), rather than fooling ourselves into thinking that we are somehow not imposing values by letting things be.

            And what better choice to make than to use the one and only Gettysburg battlefield to help visitors understand the battle better? Had we not imposed such a value at GNMP, then the south part of the battlefield would still be covered with trees, with people still not understanding anything that happened there. Even the rangers who had worked there for years and year said they began to understand that part of the battle much better once the clearing took place a few years ago.

            • Kevin Levin Apr 17, 2010

              Raffi,

              You are correct that the NPS did not control over the land after the war, but that they eventually did tells us something about how subsequent generations came to view the land. I agree that each generation should be able to make its mark. I never denied that. You asked me what I thought of the Cyclorama building and I responded and as I stated in the post changes to the interpretive landscape need to be made carefully. I guess the goal is to achieve a happy balance and enhance the understanding of the visitors. Gettysburg is a wonderful place to learn about the battle as well as the activities of those who came later in terms of the many monuments that were erected. I am arguing that the wall at Fredericksburg serves an important interpretive function that may help us come to terms with the outcome of the Civil War and its legacy.

              By the way, what would you do with the stone wall? As always thanks for pushing me with your comments.

              • Raffi Apr 17, 2010

                Kevin,

                I do see that your original point was on Marye’s Heights, but the reason I mentioned the Cylcorama Building, just to clarify myself, was because you said in the posting: “Actually, I could probably make the argument that if the returning of the site to its “original” look is our goal than we should either dismantle or remove the Richard Kirkland monument.” That is often precisely the same argument used by those who want to keep the Cyclorama Building, so it reminded me of it. Because using that same rationale, I think, can be used improperly too, to things I think both you and I would agree to preserving (beyond the wall and the building we are discussing). So my fear is more the broad rationale you used initially, which I found dangerous in how many others can use it. However, I do think you refined your point more in these comments. While I still disagree :-p , I think we have both better articulated our arguments, which I find useful for both of us!

                As for the stone wall at Fredericksburg, I do acknowledge that it’s a tougher question there, since the issues are much more closely related to the Civil War than Richard Neutra. I can think of a variety of ways to approach it, though I don’t feel particularly strongly in favor of one without doing more research and/or critical thinking about it. One option might be keeping a certain portion from it and using it as a starting point to interpret not only the wall but also a variety of other issues related to race that are layered on the site; one might consider moving the wall into the museum and interpreting there, thus ensuring that more visitors see it and understand it (and its issues/significance) as something beyond just a wall. These two options I can think of as a more complex approach beyond just keeping it or taking it down — and approaches that make sure its significance is understood by more people than just those who already know about it.

                It just depends on the general management plan of that particular park, and I would hope that it is consistent in its approach throughout the park, thus giving it a coherence.

                Whatever the choice, from what I gather now, I don’t agree with keeping it all. Even if considering on a case-by-case basis, I still haven’t seen a compelling reason why the wall should be preserved in its entirety. Apart from the general issues of remaking sites for each generation involved, nothing specific to the wall helps interpret segregation and the CCC. It seems to me that the NPS folks are doing about as much as they can in interpreting that wall with the blog. Why spend time and resources on the wall at Fredericksburg, instead of preserving a site more central to segregation and the federal government during the era of the Great Depression?

                The reason FSNMP exists is to commemorate the battle, something that site can do that no other site can — to slowly move away from that can cause what is called mission-drift. Many sites can have many significances, to the point where the mission and message of the site can become unclear — if everything becomes significant, then nothing is significant any longer.

                Marye’s Heights is unique, and that was the intent of preserving it here, and the focus of the site should remain on it. Not to deny that other concerns, such as segregation in the CCC can’t be addressed, but that the site isn’t the best opportunity for doing so. Hence the question I just asked: why spend time and resources on the wall at Fredericksburg, instead of preserving a site more central to segregation and the federal government during the era of the Great Depression?

                Perhaps it is time for a site dedicated to the CCC and the New Deal, maybe along Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway, that gives interpretation of the New Deal programs, the displaced poor whites in the area, and the segregated work crews that created the area.

                • Kevin Levin Apr 17, 2010

                  Raffi,

                  Thanks again for taking the time clarify and expand on your own views. You’ve certainly forced me to step back and rethink a few things. I agree that it is not necessary to preserve the entire wall; certainly part of it could be reconfigured based on solid research.

                  I also agree with you the focus of Marye’s Heights ought to be on the battle, but I am coming at this from a fairly broad (hopefully, not too broad) perspective. It seems to me that the CCC story is an ideal way of keeping the focus on the outcome and long-term consequences of the war through the actual landscape. This is why I believe both the time and resources are well spent here. I don’t see it as straightforward New Deal story.

                  Thanks again. Hopefully, we will have a chance to meet in person at some point soon.

                  • Raffi Apr 17, 2010

                    Thanks Kevin, I’m sure we’ll meet soon!

  • John Hennessy Apr 17, 2010

    Kevin: Thanks for your kind words about the blog. Our original purpose was simply to encourage the sharing ideas among staff, and to let the public share as well, but the response has been well beyond what I had expected.

    As for the Sunken Road, the work we did on the road in 2004-2005 included elements of reconstruction (the walls) and restoration (the road). Our purpose there–and I think most everywhere the NPS does work on a historic landscape of that source–was to provide a setting that was supportive of interpretation and understanding. We are not trying to restore the look of the area as it appeared in 1862–else we WOULD dispense with the Kirkland Memorial and dozens of other post-war additions to the landscape (and that has not entered our minds). Rather, our dominant goal was to create an environment that did not require constant negative interpretation–that is, the constant explaining away of modern intrusions. In my experience, it is the presence of things that have to be interpretive negatively, and not the absence of an wholly authentic landscape (which none of us has), that is the greatest barrier to visitors understanding the site and, more importantly, appreciating what happened and why it mattered.

    Efforts at scene restoration on battlefield landscapes are frequently dismissed as silly, vain attempts to “re-create” the battlefield as it existed on a given day, at a given moment. Those who see them as such don’t really understand the purpose. I think it’s far more accurate and useful to see work on these landscapes dominantly as an attempt to create an environment that supports rather than diminishes public learning and understanding of the site. I would offer, based on the feedback of visitors and staff, that the Sunken Road is a terrific example of a project that accomplished just that.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 17, 2010

      Hi John,

      Nice to hear from you. I wouldn’t be surprised by the response. The blog has a tight focus and the people who write are authorities on the subject.

      Thanks for filling in the details here.

  • Matt McKeon Apr 17, 2010

    Dear Raffi,
    I think a battle is not an understanding accessible to a visitor to an historical battlefield. Or probably to anyone who hasn’t been in a battle personally. The mood in most of these places are somber and dignified, like a cemetery. They can be educational(the restoration of the “views” at Gettysburg is an good example), but while the visitor can be moved, saddened, inspired, informed, they can’t understand. This isn’t a slam on the NPS. I don’t think its possible.

    • Matt McKeon Apr 17, 2010

      The Minuteman Park in Lexington is not a successful effort. Knocking down post revolutionary houses and creating a heavily wooded 18th century zone in a heavily travelled and settled suburban community doesn’t give a sense of the actual farming landscape of the period, or even successfully screen out the roar of traffic or overflights from the neighboring airbase.

      The Lowell National Park invested millions in a museum retracing the development of this industrial city. The exhibt space includes a recreation of a failed factory; artifical dust and cobwebs, in a city that must have a half a million feet in actual failed factory space.

      The consistently high level of interpretation make these parks a valuable experience, and many of the exhibits are wonderful.

      • Raffi Apr 17, 2010

        Matt,

        I didn’t take your comments as a slam on the NPS. My point was that I didn’t see the connection between the issue you presented:
        “The NPS’s urge to choose a period to recreate and erase the subsequent development can lead in some unfortunate directions.”

        and the questions you asked:
        “I think the experience of battle is difficult to recreate. In these solemn, quiet places, mowed as neatly as cemeteries, how can we understand chaos, dangers, noise, death? Can the experience really be learned to anyone who hasn’t lived through it?”

        Even you just said that those particular questions are impossible to understand, so I guess I don’t see how those are related to your comment about the pro/con of portraying one particular period.

        How does a question with no answer help provide direction to the issue of portraying one period versus portraying more than one period?

      • Raffi Apr 17, 2010

        Matt,

        And while I agree that we can’t understand the “chaos, dangers, noise, [and] death,” as well as other parts of the Civil War battle experience (or other experiences you point out), consider that in other ways we can understand more than any one historical actor himself/herself by visiting a particular battlefield.

        For example, unlike any of the soldiers on the battlefield at Gettysburg, a visitor has the ability to travel to any and all parts of the battlefield to see the terrain first hand and gather information on what happened in that area. The visitor has the ability to see the big picture. And the visitor has the ability to understand a more comprehensive picture of the battle through the availability of the aggregate of a century-and-half of research tying together private and public letters, correspondence, orders, accounts, etc. In some ways, a visitor can know more about what happened at the battle than any soldier did — even if the soldier knows more about the “experience” in that battle than any visitor does.

        So understanding the “experience” can never fully be replicated compared to that of the soldiers, but understanding what happened can be exceeded compared to that of the soldiers. Otherwise, why do we even study history at all?

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