Gettysburg’s Civil War Monuments “Merely Exist”

I love exploring the many monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield. While they were intended to commemorate the events that took place in July 1863, the monuments ultimately tell us much more about how the veterans and Americans decades later chose to remember their actions and the broader meaning of the war.

It is with this in mind that I was struck by this passage in Jen Murray’s new book, On a Great Battlefield: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933-2012. James R. McConaghie was the National Park Service’s first superintendent at Gettysburg.

Correspondingly, McConaghie’s tenure emphasized promoting, creating, and cultivating an aesthetic landscape. Creating a manicured landscape, however, stood at odds with the agency’s  mission of preserving the cultural resources associated with the battle and its memorialization. In his 1936-1937 annual report, the superintendent bemoaned the sheer number of monuments on the battlefield. Noting they had “particular meaning” to the men who erected them, he believed that to current visitors the monuments “merely exist.” Thus to reconcile the proliferation of granite memorials with a more attractive landscape, McConaghie advocated planting trees and shrubs to obscure their view. Specifically, he offered, “The task before the field is to carefully plant so that the numerous monuments will appear to fit and be screened so as not to unduly affect the landscape.” From McConaghie’s perspective as a landscape architect, the Park Service should create a landscap that would minimize or deliberately hide the monuments–monuments erected by the veterans themselves to forever honor the deeds of their comrades–in order to promote a site that did not “unduly affect the landscape.” (p. 31)

It would be interesting to know how McConaghie arrived at the conclusion that visitors failed to take much interest in the monuments. Even more interestingly is the striking contrast with more recent attitudes that place a great deal of evidence on monument interpretation. Finally, the passage reminds us that how we interact with battlefield landscapes has and will continue to evolve.

22 comments… add one
  • Keith Muchowski Jun 28, 2014 @ 11:26

    One sees the results of this 1930s philosophy still today on Culp’s Hill. One must walk a narrow path through a gauntlet of trees and shrubs to reach some of the memorials there. It is really quite tricky and dangerous. I wonder if the NPS is going to clear these shrubs out as part of the long range rehabilitation plan that has been ongoing for several years.

  • Dudley Bokoski Jun 27, 2014 @ 18:12

    I’ve always liked the monuments. Not just for what they say, but as art. On the practical side if it weren’t for the monuments I’d have an awfully large collection of photos of landscapes. The monuments really make photography on battlefields more interesting. The cannons, too, for that matter.

  • Phil Bradley Jun 27, 2014 @ 13:59

    Of all of the battlefields that I have visited, Gettysburg is far and away the most disappointing, primarily because of the multiplicity of statues obscuring the views. Other battlefields do not seem to be that cluttered, and while I appreciate the sentiment behind them, I don’t feel that they improve the experience of visiting the fields.

  • Jen Murray Jun 27, 2014 @ 13:00

    The Gettysburg book should arrive on Amazon for sale any day. It’s like Lee waiting for Stuart’s cavalry to arrive 🙂 And Kevin, thanks for these postings. Keep reading. It only gets better–more surprises to come in the history of the Gettysburg battlefield.

  • stampdxer Jun 27, 2014 @ 5:42

    50 years ago or so lived in Dayton Ohio. Discovered that A local business that published reprints of civil war books. To make a long story short, the owner, bob .. Forget his last name, when the subject of Gettysburg came up, he went ballistic .. A mess, blamed it all on dan sickles. His opinion the town, everything, should have been preserved.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 27, 2014 @ 6:09

      Bob should read Jen’s book. 🙂

      • Bob Huddleston Jun 27, 2014 @ 7:26

        The late Bob Younger of Morningside Books. A lot of wonderful reprints and original volumes on the Civil War appeared because of his enthusiasm1

    • London John Jun 28, 2014 @ 1:52

      “Blamed it all on Dan Sickles” – any more details? Gen. Sickles was chair of the NY state commission for erecting monuments to all the NY regiments that fought at Gettysburg, and in a speech called for the Federal Govt to take responsibility for the battlefield. How did Bob blame the whole thing on Sickles?
      Incidentally, in 1913 Gen. Sickles was accused of having embezzled about $30,000 from the memorial fund 10 years earlier – the lovable old rogue.

  • Phil LeDuc Jun 26, 2014 @ 20:46

    Thanks for the posting about this book, Kevin. I immediately went to (more precisely Amazon Smile to support the Civil War Trust) and all I saw there was one used copy available for sale – nothing else about the book’s availability. Do you have any idea of what’s going on here? Is distribution limited to the publisher – Univ. of Tenn. Press?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 27, 2014 @ 2:07

      Give it a few days. Despite the date on Amazon I think it is just about to be released.

      • Phil LeDuc Jun 27, 2014 @ 19:09

        Thanks! Yeah, that April 30 release date threw me.

        • Phil LeDuc Jun 27, 2014 @ 19:19

          And lo and behold…just after submitting the above reply I went to again and now the book is there with “Pre-order” status. Coincidence? Or the power of the Civil War Memory readers rushing to place orders? You’ve become a market mover!

          • Kevin Levin Jun 28, 2014 @ 2:37

            Always happy to exert my influence on the universe. 🙂

  • Andy Hall Jun 26, 2014 @ 11:50

    My understanding is that the current, long-range plan of NPS is to return the battlefield to its July 1863 appearance with vegetation and viewsheds as close to those at the time of the battle as possible. What I don’t understand is why the goal would ever have been anything else.

    • Michael Lynch Jun 26, 2014 @ 13:21

      Hear, hear.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 26, 2014 @ 13:34

      Hi Andy,

      As Jen Murray relates in her book, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Even in the 1930s under the direction of Superintendent McConaghie there was quite a bit of attention given to maintaining viewsheds and generally preserving the ground to its 1863 appearance. Where it moved much more slowly early on was in the area of interpretation.

    • Ken Noe Jun 26, 2014 @ 13:58

      By no means was that always the goal. As Jen Murray relates, a lot happened in the thirties with the simple goal of beautification; Gettysburg as Yellowstone. What happened to the cemetery will shock most readers. Later on there was a plan to revert to the first monumental period. That field has been put through the wringer for a century, which means it’s a lot less pristine than people imagine. This is a very significant book.

      • Kevin Levin Jun 26, 2014 @ 14:07

        Hi Ken,

        By no means was that always the goal.

        Absolutely. I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. Given recent efforts to return the battlefield to its 1863 look I was surprised that it was a concern at all in the 1930s. Indeed, I was quite surprised by the changes made to the cemetery markers. It’s a wonderful book. So glad I got to spend some time with Jen this past week to celebrate its release.

        • Ken Noe Jun 26, 2014 @ 14:41

          You didn’t, I was really just replying to Andy, and selling books for Jen 😉

          • Kevin Levin Jun 26, 2014 @ 15:02

            Sell away, Ken.

  • eclecticdog Jun 26, 2014 @ 10:10

    Thanks for the link, but I would like to stay on topic.

    Civil War Memory

  • Buck Buchanan Jun 26, 2014 @ 9:16

    While Gettysburg is not my favorite battlefield to visit (by far) I do love many of the monuments there.

    I believe my favorite is the 20th Mass VI

    The stone in question covers much of Dorchester, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain & Milton, MA. I am always moved that the men wanted to bring a piece of their home to the battlefield. I always make it the final stop before the Cemetary when leading a tour. It seems to lend a certain poignancy to the day.

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