Category Archives: Battlefield Preservation

A Different Perspective on Battlefield Preservation

Let me be clear that I don’t want to see a casino built near the Gettysburg battlefield, but we’ve got to do better when it comes to making our case.  Enough with the sappy videos and the all-star cast of Hollywood movie stars and historians that no one has heard of.  And enough with the preserving the legacy of the men who fought here argument.  No one alive knows how the men who fought at Gettysburg might feel about a casino.  Finally, we need to move from a position that automatically assumes the moral high ground. We’ve hit a dead end.

Harry Smeltzer “thinks that there is no better lesson on how much of the general public views Civil War preservationists than how Civil War preservationists view those trying to save the Gettysburg Cyclorama building. It all comes down to priorities. This is a learning opportunity, if we treat it as such.” – Facebook update, 09/08 (blogger and battlefield preservation advocate)

Larry Cebula “This whole controversy boils down to some people’s moral objections to gambling. There are dozens of businesses equally close to the battlefield (thought the video makes it sound like they are going to bull doze Little Round Top for the facility). The Casino will be within an existing hotel.  This is a lot like (here I go!) the controversy over the mosque near ground zero. People are misusing history to cover their moral objections to legal activity.” -  Comment left at Civil War Memory


Will the Real Weary Clyburn Please Stand Up

I finally got my hands on a copy of Weary Clyburn’s pension application from the North Carolina Department of Archives and History in Raleigh.  You may remember that over the summer I did a series of posts on this Confederate slave who was to be honored by a local SCV chapter for his “service” to the Confederacy.  The posts generated a great deal of discussion surrounding my assertion that the SCV was distorting the past in order to ignore Clyburn’s status as a slave.  The SCV held a ceremony in which they invited descendants of Clyburn and also received quite a bit of media attention.

Now that I’ve had a chance to peruse the pension file it is clear to me that the SCV did nothing less than butcher the history of the war and distort the complex relationship between master and slave.  The certification letter from the pension board describes Clyburn as a “body guard” rather than a servant or slave.  Later Clyburn is cited for carrying  “his master out of the field of fire on his shoulder” and for “personal services for Robert E. Lee”, though the nature of that assistance is not discussed.  The board also mentions his age and that he “has a wife and foolish boy to support[.]”  I wonder if someone can explain that latter reference for me, though my wife just suggested that it must have something to do with his mental health.

On the actual application there is a very telling reference: “that his services were meritorious and faithful toward his master, and the cause of the Confederacy.”  The fundamental problem with all of this is that Clyburn’s voice never appears.  The documents provide us with an example of how a white-dominated government bureau handled a black man during the height of Jim Crow.  Ultimately, these documents are not about Clyburn.  Clyburn’s pension was issued owing to the assumption that he was a faithful assistant, which helped to reinforce a system of white supremacy.

Not once is Clyburn referenced for what he was – a slave.  We are playing a dangerous game when we begin to treat the past in a way that serves our own narrow interests.


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.


A Great Day For The Residents Of Gettysburg

Now that I have your attention — Given the news out of Gettysburg surrounding the casino vote I thought it might be worth resurrecting part of an old post. I understand that many people are concerned about the possible fallout surrounding a casino so close to the battlefield. Many of the arguments are legitimate. What bothers me, however, is the self-righteousness that accompanies many of these arguments. We are to believe that somehow this casino represents some drastic new step down the road of economic exploitation of a sacred site. Absolute Garbage!!!! The battlefield was never simply a sacred site to Americans. The It was exploited by various groups from the beginning. Let’s at least get our history right.

The late Jim Weeks examines the marketing of the Gettysburg within days following the battle and into the twentieth century. This is important because it suggests that the current debate between the polar positions of preservation v. economic development is overly simplistic. Is a casino really inappropriate in Gettysburg given its history as a tourist destination? Consider Weeks on Gettysburg:

Gettysburg has been part of a cultural marketplace ever since the shooting stopped, and its memory has spread with the growth of consumer culture. In other words, the cultural context in which Gettysburg earned its niche as a national icon and sustains that status has been neglected. Seen from a larger cultural perspective, Gettysburg takes on new significance—not just as a site of a pivotal Civil War battle, but as a shrine shaped by an evolving consumer culture. Its story sheds light on the nature of modern pilgrimage, including trends in leisure activities, commemoration, public behavior, mass culture, and merchandizing of the past. (p. 6)

Gettysburg was never a purely sacred site cut off from the broader market forces. As I understand Weeks, the very idea of Gettysburg is wrapped up in these broader economic as well as other secular trends and values. A casino may create traffic congestion and other practical problems, but perhaps it compliments the landscape more than we would like to admit.

I believe that the preservationists are ultimately on the losing end of the stick. Please understand that I say this as someone who enjoys walking the fields and using them for teaching purposes. This is not to say that we should sit back and do nothing, just that a solution will have to be found within a broader culture that simply does not share the preservationist’s agenda. This is a nation that has little patience for its past and would much rather walk through another GAP than through the Devil’s Den. Ultimately we must acknowledge that the genie was let out of the bottle long ago.

I am learning through my own research on postwar commemorations of the Crater that the residents of Petersburg used the battlefield to attract people and businesses to the area at the turn of the 20th century. What is even more important to acknowledge is that many of the veterans of the battle, including Carter R. Bishop took the lead in marketing the battlefield for economic reasons. Bishop hoped to attract federal funds for the construction of a new military base that would bring both jobs and people to the Petersburg area. In doing so, he connected the practical benefits of locating the base in Petersburg with the necessity of preserving the areas battlefields: “If the military students of Europe think it worth while to come here to collect material for the text-books, is it not true wisdom on the part of the country to hand down intact to her soldiers . . . the most impressive volume on the Art of War?” His work culminated in the completion of Fort Lee in 1917 which is situated just up the road from the entrance to the Petersburg National Battlefield Park.


It Must Have Been One Hell Of A Sand Trap

Hat Tip to Dimitri for the Golf Digest article on “swinging” through the Civil War. While many no doubt read this article as another example of Civil War exploitation I see it as falling neatly in line with the history of the marketing of battlefields. I commented on this in a previous post. Some of you may know that the Crater battlefield was once the site of a golf course.

In 1918 the Crater site passed from the Griffith family – which had owned the land on which the battle took place and operated a small museum – and in 1925 was acquired by the Crater Battlefield Association, Inc., a commercial enterprise which erected a club house near the crater and an 18-hole golf course. In addition to the golf course, the Association continued to maintain the small building housing a museum, allowing visitors to tour what remained of the mine for a small fee. It is difficult to imagine golfers not being constantly reminded that their course was at one point a terrible bloodletting or that the largest sand trap once contained the mangled bodies of young men. “The golf links extend up to the site of the old fort,” reported one visitor and on an adjacent ridge “a visitor to the battlefield may observe the storms and changes of more than sixty years.” Owners of the golf course did acknowledge the importance of the site to Petersburg’s Civil War heritage and gave the federal government right of way to the Crater.

The Association provided visitors with a short brochure of the battle written by its President, Arthur W. James. His account highlighted themes that had become standard in histories of the battle, including the role Mahone and his Virginia brigade played in saving Lee’s army; not surprisingly, the presence of African-American soldiers was minimized. School teachers and others could write for information which was promptly mailed for a small fee. The last few paragraphs were reserved to promote relations between the corporation and the surrounding community, which may have been strained owing to the popular belief that the Crater should have been incorporated into the National Park. James described his “corporation as composed of Virginia people interested in its preservation and restoration . . . . As a labor of love and at large personal expense, the members of the corporation cleared the battlefield opened the Pleasant’s galleries, finding the greater part intact, built a road to the site, and opened the sacred spot to visitors.” The president hoped to convince visitors that the golf course was an appropriate addition to the battlefield and the result of cooperation with local, state, and national organizations. James closed with what he probably thought to be a moving tribute to those who had made the ultimate sacrifice on July 30, 1864:

The Crater, covered by giant pines and cedars, immortalizing the soldiers with whose bodies they have been enriched, perfumed with honeysuckle now spread over the reddened trenches, marked by numerous monuments placed by comrades and descendents, surrounded by green fairways and tees bearing the name of its heroes, is a beautiful shrine to the boys of the Blue and Gray who there made the supreme sacrifice.

It is difficult to imagine that James’s appeal to his company’s good intentions convinced interested parties that their preservation worries were misplaced. With little financial success the CBA folded in 1934 and the land was sold at auction in 1936 and bought by the federal government. The National Park Service promptly returned the landscape to as close to its original shape as possible and planned for an elaborate reenactment and celebration in 1937.