An Argument For Battlefield Preservation

I’ve taken a great deal of heat for much of my commentary on how Civil War battlefield preservation is typically framed for public consumption.  The most recent example can be found here.  This morning I read John Hennessy’s description of a recent NPS event that marked the anniversary of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863.  Some background for the event:

The program had its genesis in an article that appeared in one of the Civil War magazines (I believe Blue and Gray, but could be wrong). The writer had earlier done celestial calculations showing how and why the tides at Tarawa had been so exceptionally and disastrously difficult during the amphibious landing there in November 1943. His latest calculations showed that the arrangement of celestial bodies on May 2, 1996 would match precisely those of May 2, 1863, the night of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville–same moonrise, same moon phase, etc. Though amazed that anyone had the time to figure such a thing out, the park staff–atuned to subtle connections like that–thought it was all pretty cool, and so we decided to do a program at the site of Jackson’s wounding that night, May 2, 1996.  We issued the standard press releases about the event and prepared for it like a hundred others.

Well, it turned out that roughly 400 people traveled from all over the country to take part.  One family drove from Vicksburg, Mississippi.  But why?:

The “Moonwalk,” as it has since become known, offered up a vivid lesson: people want to get close to history, they want to come as close as they can to touching it, feeling it. Nothing more substantial than the arrangement of celestial bodies transformed a tour done thousands of times for probably a million people into something absolutely unique in my experience (and I suspect the visitors’ too). The passage of time is an accumulating barrier to history, but once in a while those barriers can lower–and when they do, people will come. They are not nutty, but rather seek a human connection (be it imagined or real) with events and people they strive (or struggle) to understand.

It is a powerful hint why to some people the Sesquicentennial matters so much to so many (though far more could not care less about it): even a shared moment of time distanced by precisely 150 years is enough to lower those barriers just a bit, and heighten the connection–sometimes for a moment, sometimes for a lifetime.

I think this is a powerful an argument as to why these places ought to be saved.  It’s honest and it doesn’t play one generalization off of another.  Most importantly, it doesn’t play on fear and guilt.  Thanks, John.

 

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation if you are so inclined. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

2 comments… add one

  • Matt McKeon May 12, 2011

    Kevin,
    Last week I was at the Massachusetts Historical Society for a program. The curator brought out a series of objects from the 1850s-Civil War period, including John Brown’s revolver and an awful thing; a slave collar, a crudely fashioned iron ring with protruding spikes. She asked if we wanted to hold these items? Why yes, yes we did. The gun was lighter than you’d think, but the collar was heavier.

    The places, structures and objects of the past can be romanticized and misinterpreted certainly. But they have an value nothing else does.

    • Kevin Levin May 12, 2011

      I completely agree, Matt. I am going to join the MHS in the next few weeks.

Leave a Comment