Do Civil War Re-enactors Not Order Domino’s Pizza?

I missed having the opportunity to comment on this story last week.  First, let me say that I couldn’t be more pleased that developers will be prevented from building a casino at Gettysburg.  That said, I’ve always thought that the battlefield preservation debate is best understood as a negotiation between legitimate competing interests rather than a moral crusade.  Gregg Segal’s photography project in which he situates re-enactors in various scenes of urban sprawl is perhaps the most extreme example of this tendency to offer a mutually exclusive choice between preservation and commercial development.

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Public History at North Carolina State University

Those of you interested in issues at the intersection of Civil War history, public history, and memory may be interested in an upcoming symposium hosted by North Carolina State University’s history department on March 26.  It’s a one day event, but the panels look to be quite interesting.  The website for the event can be found here and includes a list of panels and participants.  My panel focuses on the challenges of interpreting race at various historic sites and includes Ashley Whitehead (Doctoral Student at West Virginia University, Brian Jordan (Doctoral Student at Yale) and John Hennessy, who will offer his usual words of wisdom following the three presentations.  Here is the title and abstract for my presentation:

“When You’re Black, the Great Battlefield Holds Mixed Messages”: Discussing Race at the Petersburg National Battlefield:

Tremendous changes have taken place within the historical community, both public and academic, since the 1960s.  Nowhere have these changes been more dramatic than on Civil War battlefields maintained by the National Park Service.  At the center of these interpretive shifts is a renewed focus on the role of race and slavery, which has led to more inclusive programs meant to enrich the public’s understanding of the Civil War and attract a wider segment of the general public.  While this agenda has made some inroads in the black community, some NPS frontline staff remain bewildered and confused by the lack of a black reaction to this interpretive shift.  This is complicated by the resistance on the part of some to question why so many African Americans are reluctant to embrace their Civil War past when there are so few impediments in their way as had been the case prior to 1970.  This talk examines the recent history of the Petersburg National Battlefield and the challenges associated with interpreting the Crater battlefield in a predominantly black community. The battle of the Crater is best remembered for the failed Union assault following the detonation of 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient that included an entire division of United States Colored Troops.  Over the past few decades the NPS in Petersburg has worked closely with local government officials and other private groups to bridge a racial divide that prevented African Americans from visiting the battlefield throughout much of the twentieth century and all but guaranteed that black involvement in the battle would be minimized, if not ignored entirely.  A close look at the recent efforts made by the NPS to reach out to the local black community in Petersburg offers a number of strategies for historical institutions to implement which may help to challenge and even overcome deeply entrenched racial boundaries on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

Hope to see you there.

Developing Historic Land To Save It in Petersburg

I enjoyed reading John Hennessy’s most recent post on our perceptions of what it means to live on battlefield land.  He’s right that it is no longer acceptable for real estate developers to advertise the development of Civil War battlefields, which implicitly implies its destruction.  I admit that on occasion I’ve fantasized about living in a Civil War era home nestled on hallowed ground.  At the same time I rarely worry about whether those who currently occupy historical homes hold similar beliefs.  I tend to think that the caretaker perspective is the exception to the rule and the one that needs to be explained.  Perhaps this explains my resistance to taking a firm stand in the continued drama unfolding in Gettysburg between preservationists and commercial developers.

John notes that our tendency to resist the commercial development of historic land was not always so and he cites the sale of the McCoull House on the Spotsylvania battlefield.  It would be interesting to know at what point a community arrives at a preservationist mentality.  I find it difficult to imagine a farmer in Sharpsburg or some other remote site worrying about the preservation of his land; rather, I assume that what was most on his mind was economic recovery.  At some point, however, the community did come to see preservation as a worthy goal – with the help of the federal government, of course.

Commercial developers in Petersburg, Virginia continued to exploit the proximity to Civil War battlefields well into the twentieth century.  In the case of the developers of Pine Gardens Estate the sale of land was to be used to preserve significant Civil War sites in and around Petersburg.  The ads also reveal an attachment to well-worn themes of national reunion and reconciliation by the twentieth century. As many of you know the Crater battlefield itself was turned into a golf course before it was brought under the management of the National Park Service in 1936.  Ironically, it may have been the development of this land that helped to save it at a time when city managers pushed commercial development.

Some of you have been asking about the status of my Crater manuscript since the revised version was sent to the publisher back in August.  I haven’t heard anything yet, but I am hoping to hear something soon.

Gettysburg and Battlefield Preservation: Another Perspective

The following is a guest post by Professor Mark Snell of Shepherd University.  Professor Snell is the director of The George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War

I will not attempt to debate Professor Cebula, nor try to address most of his points. This debate actually can be traced back to 1863—how much of the battlefield should be set aside to honor the men who fought, bled and died there—and it has been going on ever since. For anyone interested in that history, they should read Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine (Princeton Univ. Press, 2003), by the late Jim Weeks.

Let’s get right to the crux of the matter: Is the site of the proposed casino—the Eisenhower Inn and Conference Center, its adjacent sports complex and Devonshire Village condominiums—a place where Union and Confederate soldiers met in combat? The answer is no. We do know, however, that it was a staging area for Wesley Merritt’s cavalry brigade prior to its fight against the right flank of the Army of Northern Virginia on the afternoon of July 3, 1863. Is that, in itself, worth saving? The question and its answer are irrelevant, since the area has been developed for more than four decades.

Directly across the Emmitsburg Road (US Business Route 15) from the proposed casino are the relic remains of a failed commercial venture known as “Slippy Slide,” a water park which incorporated a blockhouse from “Fort Defiance,” another extinct tourist trap that formerly sat on the Taneytown Road near “Fantasyland,” itself a 1950s-era theme park where the current USNPS visitors’ center now sits. All of these commercial enterprises, and many more, were built in Cumberland Township with the explicit approval of the township’s supervisors, the political predecessors of the ones who recently approved the proposed casino.

For the record, I am not morally offended by a casino that could be located about 1 ½ miles from my farm. My libertarian views tell me that if people want to gamble their money away, so be it. But again, part of me wants to say, “Hey Atlantic City! How are those casinos working out for you now!”

The real issue here is not the casino itself, but the ancillary commercial development that, based on the Cumberland Township supervisors’ past record, is sure to blossom along the Emmitsburg Road. Many years ago, I was a member of the Cumberland Township Planning Commission. I eventually resigned because I believed that the supervisors seemed all too eager to yield to development pressure at the expense of historic preservation, the historic landscape and the historic viewshed.

The area in the immediate vicinity of the proposed casino is zoned “mixed use,” which, according to the Cumberland Township Zoning Ordinance, would include motels (a few older ones and two star establishments already exist there), restaurants/bars, gas stations, convenience stores, automobile/motorcycle dealers and the like. Any number of national and regional franchises could easily install a ready-made business in a very short period of time in order to take advantage of the casino’s clientele. Based on past trends of commercial development that had been approved by the township supervisors, I am deeply concerned that this tendency will continue, this time within a half mile of the South Cavalry battlefield, part of Gettysburg National Military Park. Will the presumed tax revenues—at the expense of the historic viewshed so close to the battlefield—offset the longer-term costs to local government? Ask the good people of Atlantic City, New Jersey, how it has worked out for them. And don’t forget to factor the increased bus and car traffic along the already congested Emmitsburg Road. Will that require widening of the road and perhaps traffic lights?

My main worry, as a taxpayer within Cumberland Township and Adams County, is not with rising taxes. I have witnessed rapid commercial development in the past twenty years, yet my property and school taxes have continued to rise, despite promises that business development would lower my taxes. My greatest concern—the reason that I chose to move to Gettysburg after retiring from the US Army—is the maintenance of the rural and historical environment of the area. Anyone who has visited Harpers Ferry National Historical Park can attest to the burgeoning commercial development between there and Charles Town after a casino was added to Charles Town Races. The landscape along US Route 340 between those two towns only recently—in the past two decades—had been pastoral and rural, too. It no longer looks that way.

To Americans who understand the battle, Gettysburg also is defined by the roads leading there—the military “avenues of approach” that are as much a part of the battlefield landscape as the area currently protected by Gettysburg National Military Park. But those roads, laid out in the 18th and 19th centuries, are fast losing their rural character, as anyone traveling along US Route 30 East or West of the town will see. Can we afford to continue that trend?

One last thing needs to be addressed, which was the starting point for Professor Cebula’s guest blog-posting. It’s obvious that he did not like the CWPT film. I found the film, for the most part, moving and heartfelt, but it is understandable why Dr. Cebula would question the use of “talking heads” such as Stephen Lang, Ken Burns, Matthew Broderick, Sam Waterston and Susan Eisenhower. They are not historians. They do, however, have a passionate interest in the Civil War and Gettysburg, either because they portrayed a Civil War personality on film, or produced an award-winning documentary on the subject or, in one case, spent her childhood weekends in Gettysburg. All donated their services to the Trust. All are recognizable by the American public. If CWPT just filmed egg-headed historians like Cebula and me—or even David Blight—who would want to watch it, and what impact would it have?

Will Gettysburg’s legacy be a landscape littered with crass development, or will we try to restore it to a place of national historic significance, including the areas that buffer the park? President Dwight David Eisenhower (grandfather of Susan) loved this area so much that he bought a historic farm adjacent to the battlefield and retired there. Thinking about his own “Gettysburg address,” he wrote, “When I die, I want to leave a piece of earth better than I found it.” That’s my goal, too.

Teaching Battlefield Preservation

Perhaps the best way to pass on the value of historic preservation among the younger generation is to bring them to these places.  Every year I bring my Civil War classes to at least one battlefield as well as other important sites.  Although we don’t explicitly discuss issues of preservation I know for a fact that many of my students take away important lessons that can only be shared at the actual site.  I have very little sense of whether an inclination to see these landscapes preserved is instilled as a result.  To be completely honest, I’ve never seen it as my responsibility as a teacher to steer them to this position, but I am now wondering how I might go about teaching the history of Civil War battlefield preservation as a form of historical memory.  I am not even sure what it would mean to teach battlefield preservation.

What would a reading list look like for such a course unit?  Joan Zenzen’s study of Manassas comes to mind, but what else?  Remember, I am teaching high school students.  In the end I am much more interested in producing thoughtful students, who can appreciate the bigger picture than I am in a class of preservation advocates.