Why Do We Preserve So Much Civil War Battlefield Land?

In a couple of days I head out with thirteen students to follow the 20th Massachusetts Infantry from Antietam to Gettysburg. It’s going to be an incredible experience for my kids. We have a great deal of ground to cover both literally and figuratively. I want my students to grapple with the central questions that frame our civil war, including why men fought and endured, the importance of Union and the unraveling of slavery.

My trip also has a “social action” component. As we travel from site to site I am going to ask my students to think about why and whether we should preserve Civil War battlefields. Garry Adelman of the Civil War Trust is going to help us with this when he accompanies the group at Antietam.

This past weekend I caught John Hennessy’s presentation at Longwood College’s annual Civil War symposium on C-SPAN. It’s a wonderful talk and I encourage you to listen to it in its entirety. At the 16:00 minute mark John shares what I find to be a fascinating observation. The United States likely preserves more Civil War battlefield land than all other nations combined and “covering all wars ever fought.”

John goes on to explain the role that the veterans themselves played in establishing the first Civil War parks, but we can also inquire as to why we continue to maintain these sites after all these years. Why so much battlefield land? More specifically, why do we push to have existing parks expanded and even establish new parks? I am going to push my students hard to think hard about what this tells us about our national identity.

What do you think?

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59 comments… add one
  • Johnny Appleseed Sep 17, 2020 @ 7:17

    I think history is important but I think the idea of needing to preserve battlefields is dumb. What is there to gain from seeing a bunch of fields? I understand that we can trace a couple of acres back a hundred of years but we can do the same thing with a couple of photographs or even Google Maps. I think there is greater utility in actually using the land rather than just keeping it fallow in the name of “conservation” or history. I think a better monument to the causes that actually started the war would be a land redistribution program to actually target the disparities created by the war, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the centuries of policies designed to keep POC under the boot. But that’s just my opinion.

  • Tsinina G Burgan Jul 20, 2020 @ 8:35

    I’m a complete green horn that is trying to educate myself on many things from our past because of the BLM movement going on today. We have lots of areas that need to be improved still yet in equality but in trying to discern my own role in that movement forward, I have been asking lots of questions myself and trying to learn more historically. My question of ‘why do we preserve battlefields’ was what brought me to this thread of conversation. I have read nearly all of the comments and learned so much from the civil conversation and appreciate that from each of you. I live in the south, married a military man, raised three kids to join the service and can completely understand that reason for preservation. In terms of the BLM and how the two are tied together, I think I have come to realize that we need this preservation not to rub our ideas or opinions of why we think one side is better than others but to remember what we’ve been through and how we can learn from it to better the UNITED States overall. I know this is not necessarily the subject of what ya’ll were discussing but I think it does help if we go back to the root of the cause and our attempt to bring equality. Thank you again for your insight!

  • Doug didier Mar 28, 2015 @ 13:54

    Article in smithsonian ..

    Today, 150 years after the fighting ended, the Civil War remains central in the American imagination. Some of the landscapes are changing, but the stories prevail—tales of courage and foolishness and the very human outcomes that resulted. For the last four years, Americans have been marking anniversaries, from Fort Sumter onward. What we offer now, as a last 150th-year look back, is a tour of less-visited sites that reflect more intimately how the Civil War changed the nation.


  • Dudley Bokoski Mar 24, 2015 @ 2:33

    Battlefield preservation originally was limited and consisted often of just connecting roadways which allowed visitors to get to key spots. The assumption was that farm land would continue perpetually as farm land and the view sheds wouldn’t change much in years to come. With the coming of suburbia that all changed and the only way to protect the historical integrity of the interpretive experience was to take in enough land to create buffers around the key sections. More growth meant the need for greater buffers.

    An interesting byproduct of this growth is that we ended up not just doing historical preservation, but also environmental preservation. If you live in the Frederick, Maryland area for example you can escape the row on row of houses that look all the same (there’s a Monkees song in here somewhere) and get to a place where you can see what nature looked like before all the sprawl.

    The default assumption in preservation is we do it because people fought and died on these lands, but given how the parks developed I wonder if that was always the point of view or if that is a more modern construction. Perhaps the two world wars influenced our thinking, in that preservationists in the first big expansionary era may have thought about their own brother’s and son’s battlefields in Europe and how their sacrifice invested the fields with meaning which should be respected.

    The other aspect of preservation is simply that as a society many people found the Civil War interesting and wanted to see what they were reading about. A question to ask with, and about, younger groups is whether since their learning is less book reliant will they still feel the need to go there or do they have so much media at their hands to investigate that the experience is less necessary. My guess is once they visit a battlefield they will be as hooked as the rest of us. And, at least in my case, you can never stop at just seeing one.

  • Pat Young Mar 21, 2015 @ 9:06

    I was listening to David Blight’s presentation at the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center last month. In it he says that one-in-three Americans can trace back to someone who served in the Civil War. That is a big number, but it means that the overwhelming majority of Americans have no such ancestral connection.

  • Christian McWhirter Mar 21, 2015 @ 6:19

    The other historical contingency here is the Manassas/Disney fiasco of the early 90s, which sparked a real revival in battlefield preservation. Isn’t that where thr Trust actuslly came from? So, while battlefield preservation has been constant since the Civil War generation, it’s perpetuation has been, at least in part, spurrex on by external events.

  • Pat Young Mar 21, 2015 @ 4:37

    While I agree with much of what has been said, I just want to add one other point. Social movements, such as Civil War battlefield preservation, generally only become successful when they are institutionalized. The fact that Civil War battlefield preservation was a major focus of the agendas of both the GAR and the SCV and of the “Sons” and “Daughters” organizations played a major role in the development and preservation off the parks. It was not just the veterans, it was the veterans organizations, that “saved” the battlefields. We now have several organizations with professional staffs devoted to telling us which acre of “sacred” land is in danger of being developed for 21st Century uses.

    By contrast, few organizations exist to do the same for routes used by the Underground Railroad or debarkation points for immigrants, both of which are of great historical importance. No organizations insist that Brooklyn be reconfigured so that we have the same “viewshed” as George Washington at the Battle of Long Island. The role of the organizations from the SCV to the CWT in framing how we look at battlefields as sacred spaces helps explain the focus on land. It also helps explain some of the resistance, like that of Jerry Russell, to the introduction of complexity into interpretation. If visitors are not inspired by what could be seen as simple carnage will they contribute money to preserve more land?

  • Dan Weinfeld Mar 20, 2015 @ 8:39

    I’ll also dispute that other countries do less: I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Belgium and I think any CW battlefield visitor would find the Ypres salient area (wonderful museum, preserved landscape with open farm land, cemeteries, monuments, well-marked driving tours, even tourist buses) impressive and quite familiar.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 20, 2015 @ 13:18

      John Hennessy’s original point was not that other countries do less at any given moment, but that over time we have far outstripped the amount of land preserved.

      • Rob Baker Mar 21, 2015 @ 5:35

        I think we also have to take into account that the Progressive movement came on the heels of the Civil War. Land preservation and environmentalism was one of the major tenets of that particular movement. In some cases as well, the movements to preserve Civil War Battlefields were reactionary. Many though the way in which Revolutionary War Battlefields were not enough. If I’m not mistaken, Congress decided to dedicate the York battlefield by erecting a monument.

        I feel like the question you posed, “Why do we…” has evolved to encompass “Why did we…” on the thread.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 20, 2015 @ 6:49

    Quick question for everyone.

    Do we have enough acres of Civil War battlefields preserved to properly interpret the war for the vast majority of Americans who have some level of interest in it?

    • Christian McWhirter Mar 20, 2015 @ 7:02

      The answer to this is in the broad sense is obviously “yes,” but I think what’s missing from this question and some of the discussion here is specificity. You were right earlier that we really don’t need much more land around Gettysburg but some recent battlefield purchases have been extremely valuable interpretively. Glenn can speak to this better than I can, but large enough chunks around Richmond are now in NPS hands that entire engagements of the Seven Days Battles (like Savages Station, if I’m not mistaken) can now be interpreted and toured, while all we had previously was a sign and an old Freemen marker next to a privately-owned farm. This, to me, is preservation at its best and has a tangible, clearly positive outcome.

      • Glenn B Mar 20, 2015 @ 9:03

        Agree with Christian about specificity, as my comments above attests.

        Savage’s Station is still one that you have to view from a distance and rely on Freeman markers and state roadside markers for. But, the land preserved from Gaines’s Mill, Malvern Hill, and Glendale have all recently seen an enormous expansion. Equally, if not more exciting, is what is going on in Franklin, Tn. The Seven Days sites were largely still intact on private farms, but in Franklin that site was essentially impossible to interpret. Now it is slowly but surely being saved and restored from the suburban strip malls and etc. that had long swallowed it.

      • Kevin Levin Mar 20, 2015 @ 11:23

        Good point re: the battlefields around Richmond. Do you think we have to be able to interpret say all the sites in Seven Days Campaign to get a sense of how the campaign unfolded?

        • Glenn B Mar 20, 2015 @ 11:41

          I don’t think Savage’s Station is very crucial to understanding how it developed (or even Beaver Dam Creek, some of which is preserved), but I do think Gaines’s Mill, Glendale (and even White Oak Swamp, which is largely intact though not yet preserved) and Malvern Hill are. But to go back to my earlier point, all these places are preserved now because of the work done by Douglas Southall Freeman (he formed an organization which first set about to buy land that became the core of what the NPS has since added to) and he did so largely in his efforts to immortalize Lee & the Army of Northern Virginia and advance the Lost Cause.

        • Christian McWhirter Mar 20, 2015 @ 11:42

          No, but I can say from having toured them with Glenn that it certainly helps. My understanding of Gaine’s Mill and Malvern Hill is much clearer than the other days precisely because I’ve walked large portions of them with a (former) ranger.

    • Patrick Jennings Mar 20, 2015 @ 7:34

      I think the problem you have here is that you are asking on a meta-level, that being national.Interpretation is typically focused inward to the local level and then outward to the regional, national and even international level. With this in mind, “enough” is in the eye of the beholder. Gettysburg and Chickamauga are vast, but to people in New Mexico they are hardly enough to interpret their view of the war.

    • Ian Michael W. Rogers Mar 20, 2015 @ 9:57

      Some places, yes. But in others, preservation will never be possible. So how do we properly interpret the war where preservation is impossible? Atlanta, where I live, poses one of the biggest preservation and interpretation problems. Unlike areas of Resaca, New Hope, and even Kennesaw in Georgia, which are threatened but not completely absorbed by development, Atlanta’s battlefields have been completely obliterated by urban development.

      My question is: for battlefields like Atlanta and Nashville, that now sit within major American cities, how do we teach/interpret the stories here, when in all likelihood preservation is not possible? For example, Peachtree Creek is now surrounded by restaurants, million dollar homes, Piedmont Hospital, a golf course, and dissected by a 6 lane Peachtree road. How do we tell this story or the Battle of Atlanta/Bald Hill two days later, when the battlefield upon which it was fought now sits underneath I-20 and various East Atlanta neighborhoods?

      Another question, since the battlefield was not preserved, how do we engage, not just those who have some level of interest, but all citizens in this battle’s story and its larger impact on the war and election of 1864? How do we “properly interpret the war” for an urban battlefield in Atlanta, with none of the battlefield left and when none of the participants fighting were African American, and yet a large percentage of the population today is composed of African Americans?

      • Kevin Levin Mar 20, 2015 @ 11:16

        Certainly in some of these cases technology can play a crucial role. We have the technology, which will no doubt continue to be developed, to create immersive (virtual) experiences. It’s unfortunate that some of these battlefields have been lost, but it’s inevitable even in such a large country as the United States. European countries simply don’t have the opportunity to preserve nearly as much ground given its relative size.

  • Patrick Jennings Mar 20, 2015 @ 5:26

    In order to give some context, I must preface my remarks with the fact that I not only work for the National Park Service, I am the historian for the very office dedicated to battlefield preservation, the American Battlefield Protection Program. There are several excellent comments above and some noteworthy errors. To start with, there are several efforts overseas to preserve historic battlefields and many of those efforts match the US if not in scale or size then in determination.

    The United Kingdom is deep into a long-term research effort to identify and save several battlefields in their own “civil wars” while France is working to snap up farm land on WWI battlefields. Japan has launched extensive efforts to preserve areas in Hiroshima and even have an Air Raid Memorial in Tokyo called Yokoamichi Park with a jarringly tragic statue of children that appear to be playing but on closer inspection are running to an air raid shelter that is part of the memorial. Nearby a museum displays what looks like modern art but is actually melted blobs of cars and machinery from the fire bombing raids of 1945. Even Vietnam is working to preserve sites like Dien Bien Phu and even the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

    Among the very first efforts to preserve a battlefield in the US was in 1823 when a Boston lawyer realized how few veterans of the American Revolution were left alive and that their memories would soon be lost forever. This man, William Ticknor, organized a group of like-minded citizens and soon bought up 15 acres in Charlestown with the idea of building a monument to the men who fought there. The timing was right, 1825 was the 50th anniversary of the war and a very popular and much older Marquis de Lafayette was touring the nation in celebration. That monument took almost 20 years to complete and in the end all that was left of the 15 acre purchase was the single acre that is there today. Indeed, landscape preservation in the US has an extensive history. Another simple example is the 1858 purchase of Mount Vernon by the “Ladies Association” and, interestingly enough, was considered a kind of neutral ground during the Civil War with neither side occupying the land.

    Even given this long history of preservation in the US still ask that great question…”Why?” There is, of course, the ever present draw and cynical of tourist dollars as others have noted. Equally we have the concept of preserving “open space” although that is really a new age after thought to the entire landscape preservation effort. There is, however, something more pressing here, collective human memory, and I don’t mean the type of deeply misunderstood and oft misquoted type people imagine when they toss George Santayana into a conversation. As a whole, humans are diminished when we abandon a collective memory like those of combat – even those we would rather forget.

    I am a combat veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq. I personally have a difficult time imagining my battlefields as preserved sites for other to wander and contemplate. In my mind it is impossible to imagine that anyone would want to see that, yet I am personally and professionally wedded to the idea of preserving historic places – it literally break my heart to see an historic marker telling me something once happened here and all I see is a store, a housing development or the like. And therein is the other true half of battlefield preservation – the desire to reframe (since we can’t forget) our collective memories. One writer above mentioned the boring stories of brave boys in blue versus brave boys in gray – I encourage him to visit Sand Creek and come away with the same narrative. I believe we use battlefield preservation to ease ourselves into understanding the darkest memories that haunt our collective history. Lady Macbeth (Shakespeare) opined the idea that things would be better if we could just forget when she said,

    Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d,
    Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
    Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
    And with some sweet oblivious antidote
    Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
    Which weighs upon the heart?

    The simple fact is we cannot pluck from our minds the history we have made. At a certain primitive level we are destined to remember and deal with it. Preservation of an actual site of history is our conduit to an event we can never be part of but is always out there as a constant reminder – and not just of war. We have preserved everything from cattle ranches to tenement buildings. At some level I think we all feel this.
    I have always though that James Jones said it best in his war novel “The Thin red Line” where he wrote, “If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack…” We preserve land so we do not, as others have noted, “feel the lack.”

    Patrick R Jennings, Ph.D.

  • Glenn B Mar 19, 2015 @ 16:57

    Great discussion going on, so let me add my two cents late in the game (I’ve been watching basketball all day!). Lots of comments here have not really touched on John’s main line of questioning, and that is why do Americans do this differently than anyone else? What he is asking is not “what is the point of preserving battlefields?” (Which many posts here have answered well.) He is asking “what makes Americans feel differently about the need to preserve battlefields than apparently everyone else?” The answer he proposes is that it was a product of reconciliation. The veterans themselves are the ones that got the ball rolling, and thus John theorizes that in their need to find “common ground” with each other, they did so by finding and preserving the literal common ground. Perhaps he is on to something, although I am one of those that is prone to arguing that we stress this post-war reconciliation way too much, and Janney has definitely shown us the “limits” of that reconciliation. So I am not sure the answer lies there. Instead, let me play the cynic and go in another way with it. The first battlefield to have flocks of visitors to it was mostly Gettysburg, and this was a wartime phenomenon born mostly of morbid curiosity and/or people looking for loved ones (it was safe to do so, unlike most other battlefields that still remained in dangerous war zones). At that point, hucksters and opportunists saw the money-making possibilities of catering to those travelers, and a park began to be born. Then good ol’ American capitalism/entrepreneurism and advertising kept it growing. Then came the veterans, desiring to make sure that their story was being told there correctly. From that point, instead of the desire for reconciliation, I propose that southern veterans got involved in memorializing the battlefields (the vast majority of which are on southern soil) in order to make sure that the “Lost Cause” properly countered what was going on at Gettysburg. Moving into the 20th century, local pride took over the movement. “Hey! There were battles right here too! Come see what was in our backyard! You don’t have to go to Gettysburg or Chickamuaga!” And again, because most of the battlefields are in the South, that local pride was also driven by the lost cause (Douglas Southall Freeman comes to mind, the man largely responsible for the first efforts to mark and preserve lands in northern and central Virginia). So that brings us to today, and brings up the main question Kevin is asking, “why do we still do it? Why are we still adding new lands?” I think it is because all the land that has already been set aside (for the reasons I have theorized about above) has created our sense that there is something important about it. Further, because of those lands and our experiences there, we have learned how important they are to our learning more about and understanding those battles, and to getting a “period rush.” So now we do it for bigger reasons that just morbid curiosity, money-making, local pride and Lost Cause promotion. Yet I would argue those reasons still play a role. Lastly, I think we still do it because, lets face it, we have the wealth/disposable income to raise the funds to buy the land, (and a federal budget to maintain them) that many other parts of the world do not have.

    Having said all that, let me make two things clear: 1) I may have sounded cynical, but I am not cynical when it comes to my love and dedication to battlefield preservation. I do think it has become very important. And 2) I am just throwing some ideas out there and kind of “thinking out loud.” I don’t know how valid my points would remain after scrutiny. I think John has hit on a question here that someone out there could get a good public history dissertation and book out of.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 20, 2015 @ 5:12

      The veterans themselves are the ones that got the ball rolling, and thus John theorizes that in their need to find “common ground” with each other, they did so by finding and preserving the literal common ground. Perhaps he is on to something, although I am one of those that is prone to arguing that we stress this post-war reconciliation way too much, and Janney has definitely shown us the “limits” of that reconciliation. So I am not sure the answer lies there. Instead, let me play the cynic and go in another way with it.

      I tend to agree, but the establishment of the Chickamauga battlefield was clearly meant to foster ties of reconciliation. Janney argues that this fell short as well.

      I think it is because all the land that has already been set aside (for the reasons I have theorized about above) has created our sense that there is something important about it. Further, because of those lands and our experiences there, we have learned how important they are to our learning more about and understanding those battles, and to getting a “period rush.”

      This is a good point, but do you really believe that the addition of land really translates into an improved experience for the average visitor? Struggling with that part. For the sake of argument, would it make much of a difference if we ceased preserving land around Gettysburg? No doubt, it means a great deal to the relatively small number of people who worry about ever little detail of the battle, but does it matter for the average visitor?

      Admittedly, this is just one small example. No doubt at other places adding land may mean a great deal. Think about the May 1 fighting at Chancellorsville. John’s point also implies that there is a threshold for how much is enough. Perhaps we have already passed it.

      • M.D. Blough Mar 20, 2015 @ 6:03

        Kevin-Think about visits you have had to Civil War sites where there has been little or no preservation. I don’t know about anyone else, but getting off a bus to look at a marker that tells you what USED to be there gets old very fast. In addition, unlike Europe, the US has actually known very few wars on its soil. The Civil War was unique not only in the scope and scale of its devastation but because it didn’t represent a war against a foreign invader or colonial power. It represented whether

        In any event, this is what the US Supreme Court had to say about the issue of whether battlefield preservation was a public use for which the federal government could constitutionally use its powers of eminent domain in the Gettysburg Electric Railway case. It’s important to remember that this case was decided in 1896 when many Civil War veterans were not only still alive but in significant leadership positions. In fact, 1896 was the year in which William McKinley, a combat veteran of the Civil War (including the Battle of Antietam, was elected President of the United States. The Supreme Court stated:

        >>The end to be attained, by this proposed use, as provided for by the act of congress, is legitimate, and lies within the scope of the constitution. The battle of Gettysburg was one of the great battles of the world. The numbers contained in the opposing armies were great; the sacrifice of life was oreadful; while the bravery, and, indeed, heroism, displayed by both the contending forces, rank with the highest exhibition of those qualities ever made by man. The importance of the issue involved in the contest of which this great battle was a part cannot be overestimated. The existence of the government itself, and the perpetuity of our institutions, depended upon the result. Valuable lessons in the art of war can now be learned [160 U.S. 668, 682] from an examination of this great battlefield, in connection with the history of the events which there took place. Can it be that the government is without power to preserve the land, and properly mark out the various sites upon which this struggle took place? Can it not erect the monuments provided for by these acts of congress, or even take possession of the field of battle, in the name and for the benefit of all the citizens of the country, for the present and for the future? Such a use seems necessarily not only a public use, but one so closely connected with the welfare of the republic itself as to be within the powers granted congress by the constitution for the purpose of protecting and preserving the whole country. It would be a great object lesson to all who looked upon the land thus cared for, and it would show a proper recognition of the great things that were done there on those momentous days. By this use the government manifests for the benefit of all its citizens the value put upon the services and exertions of the citizen soldiers of that period. Their successful effort to preserve the integrity and solidarity of the great republic of modern times is forcibly impressed upon every one who looks over the field. The value of the sacrifices then freely made is rendered plainer and more durable by the fact that the government of the United States, through its representatives in congress assembled, appreciates and endeavors to perpetuate it by this most suitable recognition. Such action on the part of congress touches the heart, and comes home to the imagination of every citizen, and greatly tends to enhance his love and respect for those institutions for which these heroic sacrifices were made. The greater the love of the citizen for the institutions of his country, the greater is the dependence properly to be placed upon him for their defense in time of necessity, and it is to such men that the country must look for its safety. The institutions of our country, which were saved at this enormous expenditure of life and property, ought to and will be regarded with proportionate affection. Here upon this battlefield is one of the proofs of that expenditure, and the sacrifices are rendered more obvious and more easily appreciated when such a battlefield is preserved by the government [160 U.S. 668, 683] at the public expense. The right to take land for cemeteries for the burial of the deceased soldiers of the country rests on the same footing, and is connected with, and springs from, the same powers of the constitution. It seems very clear that the government has the right to bury its own soldiers, and to see to it that their graves shall not remain unknown or unhonored.<<

        I attended many of the meetings that led to the current General Management Plan at Gettysburg National Military Park. A lot of the bitter fight, nationally, came from those who bitterly opposed expanding public history at the Civil War battlefields from who shot who and where (with everyone being noble and fighting for what they believed in) to include WHY there was a war in the first place. The narrow interpretation is safe and comfortable. Expanded interpretation gets into much more emotionally charged areas.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 20, 2015 @ 6:11

          Hi Margaret,

          Thanks for the comment.

          Think about visits you have had to Civil War sites where there has been little or no preservation. I don’t know about anyone else, but getting off a bus to look at a marker that tells you what USED to be there gets old very fast.

          It is disappointing, but I am also not operating under that assumption that every acre of land can or should be preserved. Once again, I have to wonder who we are concerned about. The more you explore Civil War military history the sooner you run into this problem, but again I assume we are talking about a relatively small community.

          I am confident that my students will have an incredible time traveling with me to the battlefields of Fredericksburg, Antietam and Gettysburg. Hopefully they will make a personal connection with the history from being on the landscape itself and I suspect that we will walk away with an understanding of the relevant history that few tourists can match. However, this experience will not turn on whether we can add another acre of land to one of these battlefields. There is plenty for my students to experience.

          Let me be clear I am not arguing against preservation. I am trying to make sense of John Hennessy’s observation.

          • M.D. Blough Mar 20, 2015 @ 6:38

            Kevin-I’m not sure how comparable the US is with Europe or the UK. For starters, they have a lot longer and more complex history than we do. Even so, we run up against having to make choices about what priorities to set when dealing with a site with significance in multiple periods such as when archaeological studies of Williamsburg, VA’s colonial period meant sacrificing Civil War earthworks in pristine condition. Also, while the total acreage may be larger what about the percentage of total saved to total territory?

            It’s relatively rare for the government to use eminent domain for battlefield preservation. The mandates on the NPS is to make every effort to make a friendly deal. That quite frequently includes the acquisition of historical easements instead of outright purchase which keeps the property on the tax roles but protects it from uncontrolled development. In many cases, the owners WANT to protect the historical character of the property. Also, trying to provide a buffer is an important goal. Manassas is a prime example of a site that, while protected, is facing enormous pressure from development around it.

      • Glenn B Mar 20, 2015 @ 8:24

        In many places like Gettysburg, or Antietam, or Shiloh, or Vicksburg, we probably have enough to be able to adequately tell the story to the average visitor at those specific sites. And i would argue that just the small slices we have around Fredericksburg and Richmond might be enough (though we definitely want/hope for more). But in places like Franklin TN, and Williamsburg, VA, the answer is certainly no. What we have there is not enough to give the average visitor any real sense/understanding of the events. And you might as well forget about Atlanta (Kennesaw Mtn being the exception). Of course I think your question isn’t rooted in whether we have what we need to tell the story of specific battles, but rather do we have enough now to overall interpret the Civil War more broadly. Perhaps, although not enough to tell the wartime experiences of slaves (which I think is the importance of getting more land at Williamsburg) and the USCT’s (New Market Heights needs the NPS treatment, for example). Plus, I think we all agree that these places are the perfect classrooms, so shouldn’t we try to increase the number of them so that a larger amount of people have readily and locally available “classrooms?” Not everyone can afford or has the desire to haul students off to Gettysburg (or wants to deal with the headaches). Further, when most people travel, historic sites are not on their list (what’s wrong with these people??).

      • Stuart W. Sanders Mar 20, 2015 @ 9:44

        In terms of your question “do you really believe that the addition of land really translates into an improved experience for the average visitor,” I would say yes. However, my caveat is that it depends on the site. For example, it makes a bigger impact adding property to a site like Perryville or Mill Springs than it does at Gettysburg. Every increase from Perryville’s initial size of 98 acres made a huge difference to visitors and our ability to interpret the field (going from 98 to 700 acres made a HUGE difference). It also adds layers to the interpretation. For example, the acquisition of a postwar African American township site (that, in 1862, was battlefield land) certainly added another great dimension to the site’s interpretation.

        So (surprise, surprise) I say yes.

        • Ken Noe Mar 20, 2015 @ 11:20

          Stuart, isn’t it true to say that adding and interpreting Sleettown also brought new visitors to the park, as well as broadening interpretation after 1862?

        • Kevin Levin Mar 20, 2015 @ 11:21

          Thanks for the response, Stuart. Can you give me an example of how it makes a difference? What do you have in mind?

  • Rob Baker Mar 19, 2015 @ 13:16

    I wonder as well how much of this is tied into environmentalism. The more battlefields preserved, the more American forest land preserved.

  • wkerrigan Mar 19, 2015 @ 8:51

    I think Stuart makes an important point about preservation and what these “preserved” landscapes look like today. If the objective is to keep the lands looking as much like they did at the time of the battle, then keeping them as working farms might make sense in some cases. Gettysburg and many other sites have actively worked to restore orchards. A more challenging task is to maintain wheat and cornfields (Antietam does a pretty good job with the cornfield.) Kevin points out in Remembering the Crater how startlingly different Petersburg NBP looks today than it did during the siege, when much of it was mud and disturbed earth. Today it looks like a golf course. I recall my first visit to Fort Monroe after reading Megan’s book, and how difficult it is to imagine what the landscape around the Fort must have looked like in 1862.

  • Stuart W. Sanders Mar 19, 2015 @ 8:30

    I was fortunate to serve as the executive director of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association for nearly a decade. In addition to the reasons given above (preservation of recreational areas/green space, educational purposes, etc.), I always viewed the battlefield as a vast cemetery. As there are purportedly unmarked mass graves on private property surrounding the preserved land, there was a cemetery preservation angle to our efforts.

    Preservation work does, of course, involve many partners, and each partner comes to the table with a different reason for wanting to preserve battlefield land. For tourism agencies and local governments, battlefield preservation is also viewed as a driver of heritage tourism and, therefore, economic development. More saved land means expanded interpretation, which leads to additional and repeat visitation.

    In the end, the preservation of battlefield land hinges upon the individual land owner who is willing to sell. At Perryville, much of the land is working farmland. As younger generations move off of the family farm, we found that landowners wanted their farms (green space) preserved so that their great-great grandchildren could have the opportunity to visit their ancestor’s undeveloped farm. While the history was important to them, these landowners’ children had moved away as economic opportunities beckoned elsewhere. Therefore, in order to keep their family farms preserved, they sold them to local preservation efforts so that future generations could visit and enjoy the same unspoiled landscapes.

    In the mid-1990s, only 98 acres of battlefield land were preserved at Perryville. Now, thanks to the work of the aforementioned partners, there are nearly 1,300 acres of preserved battlefield land there (including easements). While some key parcels remain unprotected (there’s currently a Civil War Trust effort to preserve additional land at Perryville and at Mill Springs), I’m proud to have played a small part in preserving that field. It’s a great place to visit.

    Stuart W. Sanders
    author, “Perryville Under Fire: The Aftermath of Kentucky’s Largest Civil War Battle”

    • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2015 @ 8:37

      Hi Stuart,

      Thanks so much for your comment.

      More saved land means expanded interpretation, which leads to additional and repeat visitation.

      I am curious. Is this a fact?

      That’s an interesting twist as to why farm owners sell their land. Never thought about that before. I am still curious not so much by the fact that we preserve battlefields, but by the length we go to preserve as much as possible relative to other nations. Again, I am back to Hennessy’s initial question.

      • Stuart W. Sanders Mar 19, 2015 @ 9:54

        Yes, I think there is a correlation between expanded preservation efforts and an uptick in visitation.

        First, preservation definitely leads to repeat visitation. Visitors (notably Civil War enthusiasts) will come back to the site just to have the chance to walk on newly-preserved land for the first time, or to see new interpretive signs. By walking “new” parts of the field, they get an expanded perspective on the fight.

        I also think that preservation efforts generate new visitation. Part of the reason may be caused by increased press coverage. As more land is preserved, additional media attention is generated about the site. When people learn more about it thanks to this attention, they want to visit to see what’s happening there. Plus, parents realize that there are expanded educational opportunities and “more to see,” so visitation rises.

        Also, preservation efforts lead to greater visitation because the “use” of the site is expanded beyond historical interpretation. I know of one person who started running the expanded trail system at the site. Although he initially visited for recreational purposes, he started stopping and reading the interpretive signs. And, he got hooked on the history. I also knew some life-long residents who started walking the expanded trail system and, for the first time, realized the full size of the battle, which is much easier to comprehend when you have access to 1,000 acres rather than 98. So, expanded property leads to more varied uses, which leads to greater visitation, etc. And, I think, a greater appreciation of the site in general.

        All of this, of course, is based on my own observations, but I’m sure that sites have done surveys to prove that preservation is an economic driver. Certainly, before the economic downturn, there were more visitors to the reenactment thanks to an expanded site. The recession has certainly hurt historic sites, but I have seen firsthand how preservation and an expansion of heritage tourism go hand in glove.

  • larrycebula Mar 19, 2015 @ 7:31

    I think it is a clever observation that a lot of what is going on with battlefield preservation is not historic commemoration but preservation of green spaces. I wonder if we shouldn’t consider the phenomena as related to the “garden” or “rural” cemetery movement, which was already underway by the end of the war?

    That said, battlefields seem to generate some of the worst public historical interpretation in the country. The brave brave men in blue faced the brave brave men in gray at this site, made sacred by the red red blood they spilled that day, each man fighting for what he thought was right… Oh sorry, I fell asleep there for a second. What are we talking about again?

    • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2015 @ 7:34

      That said, battlefields seem to generate some of the worst public historical interpretation in the country.

      I couldn’t disagree more with this statement. Some of the best public history and education is happening at Civil War battlefields.

  • Jerry McKenzie Mar 19, 2015 @ 7:18

    The Civil War was the defining moment of the USA. The blood of our ancestors and relations and their neighbors flowed here. These same men walked among our grandparents and parents. That we have the space to preserve these field is great and the money to expand the parks is great too (full disclosure: I’m a member of the Civil War Trust) for they are important spaces for quiet and nature next to major cities (Washington, Chattanooga, Gettysburg, etc.) in addition to the history. I am all for explaining what political/moral issues brought the armies to these fields as war is the result of the failure of politics and culture. Sometimes tho, I think the CWT is paying a premium for land not that historically important. As an aside, Antietam is one of my favorite parks because other than the monuments and park building it has probably changed the least of any major battlefield.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2015 @ 7:22

      The Civil War was the defining moment of the USA. The blood of our ancestors and relations and their neighbors flowed here. These same men walked among our grandparents and parents.

      Thanks for the comment. Hennessy’s comment reminds us that this statement is true for countless other countries and yet they don’t preserve nearly as much land as we do.

      • Jerry McKenzie Mar 19, 2015 @ 7:53

        There is a limit and a premium for land and the fact that the history is so much longer than ours, thus so many more battlefields, not to mention sieges (which is fairly uncommon in US history). There are some monuments and there is an effort to restore Hougoumont on the Waterloo field as a museum and interpretive sight, but there is no denying the lack of preservation. Maybe the difference is a sang froid and weariness with war and death? I think the closeness of the ACW is a great factor too — increasing our awareness, and our interacting with the USA’s struggle with race, national identity, and our future.

  • Pat Young Mar 19, 2015 @ 6:41

    I was watching a video Al Mackey posted last week of a 2002 forum at the Museum of the Confederacy which was identified as “Historians talked about the merits of a federal law requiring Civil War battlefields to incorporate exhibits and programs on the role of slavery in U.S. history.” The video illustrates the dark side of battlefield preservation. Robert Krick repeatedly said that efforts to incorporate the story of enslaved African Americans into the NPS presentations at battlefields takes resources away from purchasing more battlefield land. He also came out against the building of interpretive museums (which included discussions of slavery) at battlefields because they too take away resources.

    I support battlefield preservation, but I saw in the video how valuing the purchase of land over all activities could be a method of racial exclusion. Since most battlefields, particularly those with the highest visitations, had few or no black troops at them, land alone will leave out their story.

    The excellent renewed visitors’ center at Chancellorsville provides a great example of the importance of on-site interpretation and education.

    Here is the video:


    • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2015 @ 6:44

      Ta-Nahesi Coates touches on this racial element.

      I was in the audience for this event and sitting next to Pete Carmichael and his wife. It was certainly a lively discussion. Comments by Krick and Russell about whether we should talk about the cause of the war on battlefields was bizarre..

      • Bryan Cheeseboro Mar 19, 2015 @ 11:11

        Can you elaborate on this point? Which comments of theirs did you find bizarre?

        • Pat Young Mar 19, 2015 @ 12:04

          I can’t answer for Kevin, but I would start with Krick twice bringing up the specter of Communism (“dialectical materialism” and “workers paradise”) to disparage his apparently Red opponents.

          Here is what I wrote about Russell’s remarks over at Al’s blog: “Jerry Russell sounds crazed. Referring to a female authority at the NPS as the “Boss Lady”? Really? He calls those opposed to his viewpoint “the enemy”? Is this 1965? I realize that some people loved the guy, but at least in this context he appears irrational.”

          And Krick:

          “Krick’s speech was also fairly weird. Referring to communism twice (“workers’ paradise” “dialectical materialism”) when the subject was including slavery in interpretation of the Civil War reminded me of the folks back in my youth who implied that anyone interested in civil rights was a communist. It had no place in the discussion except to excite prejudice.

          His opposition to museums was also odd. Now that the museums will include slavery, he raises the issue that money spent on museums will take away from buying battlefield land for preservation. I note that he did not call for the closing of the museum which organized the panel that he spoke so that its assets could be sold and the proceeds used to purchase battlefield land. Perhaps it was because it was the Museum of the Confederacy.

          He also says that before slavery can be interpreted at the battlefields, the battlefields must be preserved. In other words, blacks have had to wait 140 years to get their story told and they will have to wait another 140 years when we get the last piece of land at Chancellorsville until we get around to mentioning slavery.

          For all of his anti-Communist rhetoric, a dog whistle on race I realize, Krick might want to recognize that the battlefields are not being lost to Communist reeducation camps. When I was at Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, and the Wilderness last year it was McMansion developments and buffets and motels catering to historical tourism that were on hallowed ground.”

          • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2015 @ 12:18

            That pretty much sums it up. Thanks Pat.

            • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2015 @ 15:19

              During one of my class trips I tried to explain this debate to my students as we were interpreting new way markers at the Chancellor House on the Chancellorsville battlefield. The signage provided information about the family that lived in the house. My students could not understand why this kind of information was controversial.

  • Christian McWhirter Mar 19, 2015 @ 4:57

    This might be an oversimplification, but I think North Americans tend to preserve battlefields simply because we can. Megan is right that the movement to preserve battlefields is rooted in the same push to preserve rural spaces and, in North America (as opposed to Europe), this was something that could actually be done expediently because so many of these spaces were relatively isolated. The veterans are important for providing the impetus but, once established, the idea carried its own momentum and spread beyond the Civil War, preserving sites from the Revolution, War of 1812, etc. We do it in Canada too, although only 1812 battlefields are really available.

    Concerning your “why battlefields?” question, again I lean toward the simplist answer: battlefield labdscapes best lend themselves to direct memorialization (monuments, cemeteries, etc.) and historical interpretation.

    I’m not denying that culture, memory, or politics didn’t influence which sites were preserved and how, but I do think this battlefield stuff is one of the areas in which North America is truly exceptional and the reason has as much to do with nature as culture.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2015 @ 5:27

      Hi Christian,

      I tend to agree. We should also not forget the push to preserve historic sites after WWII, which included a major NPS development plan called Mission 66.

  • megankatenelson Mar 19, 2015 @ 4:11

    I would say that we preserve so much battlefield land for two reasons:

    1. Americans believe that “being there” will transport them to the past, give them that “period rush” that Tony Horwitz talks about in *Confederates in the Attic.* And this is what most people interested in history seek: an intimate, material link to the past.

    2. We have been setting aside green spaces for public use since the 1830s — and given that most major battles took place in rural areas (rural in the 1860s), the argument for preservation was an easy one in this context. There are two interesting developments in this light:
    a. As suburbs have grown (particularly between Washington, D.C. and Richmond) and development has replaced rural landscapes, it has become harder to distinguish historical landscapes, or to integrate them into larger parks (Richmond is a fascinating example of this, with preserved trenches running through peoples’ backyards).
    b. The emphasis on large engagements and rural landscapes means that battle and raid sites in towns and cities have gone unpreserved and unmarked, which leads many people to believe that the American Civil War did not occur in these places.

    Have fun on the trip! I look forward to reading about student responses to these sites, and your questions!

    • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2015 @ 4:30

      Thanks for the response, Meagan. I agree with the overall thrust of your comment, but I am still wondering why the continued emphasis on sites of military engagement. The setting aside of rural spaces would have continued in the nineteenth century with or without battlefield sites so it seems we are still left with John’s essential question. Again, it’s not simply that we preserve such land, but that we set aside and belief in the continued maintenance of so much.

      I will definitely post updates on the Civil War Memory Facebook page and on Twitter.

      • megankatenelson Mar 19, 2015 @ 9:03

        I think one way to answer the “why battlefields” question is to ask what it is about a landscape that makes it “historical,” in our collective cultural view. We tend to view “history” as a series of ideological developments, and events. The latter are much easier to pin to a place — just as battles are easy to “locate” because they are identifiable events with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s a bit harder to determine what landscape we might save to commemorate the home front experience, or emancipation. And this is one of the challenges for public history folks who want to commemorate Reconstruction — how can you access that history through a single place, or a group of places?

        • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2015 @ 9:51

          John Hennessy offered the suggestion that perhaps Americans are militaristic and then moved away from it, but might it be true? Could it be that we place a kind of value on soldiering that other nations do not?

          • Al Mackey Mar 19, 2015 @ 10:14

            I think John’s point was very good. The National Battlefields were established, after all, as outdoor classrooms to teach the lessons of military history. A significant number of visitors go there to understand the tactics used in the battles. Do you want to know what Lee saw when he looked across the field at Cemetery Ridge? Go to the Gettysburg battlefield and see for yourself. Do you want to know why it was so difficult for confederate soldiers to attack the west slope of Little Round Top? Go there and try to climb it yourself. You can do that because the land has been preserved.

            But I don’t know if we place more value on soldiering than other nations. European nations suffered far more casualties than we suffered in WWI and WWII. Perhaps that makes their memories of war more painful than our memories of war.

            • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2015 @ 11:05

              But I don’t know if we place more value on soldiering than other nations. European nations suffered far more casualties than we suffered in WWI and WWII. Perhaps that makes their memories of war more painful than our memories of war.

              Hi Al. Thanks for adding your voice to this thread. John’s point is a good one. I am not suggesting that we place more value on soldiering, but perhaps we look at military service differently. Perhaps the evolution of the idea of the citizen soldier has something to do with it.

              • Rob Baker Mar 19, 2015 @ 13:06

                When I visited England a few years ago I got the chance to visit the Imperial War museum. I noticed the narrative was a bit more morbid then what I was used to seeing in museums in the U.S. I’d agree that we focus on war differently in the U.S.

                In the original comment Megan referenced Confederates in the Attic and Tony Horwitz’s explanation of the “period rush” as dictated by Robert Lee Hodge. Both men are heavily involved in battlefield preservation. Hodge has been pretty influential in Franklin, TN in recent years. The group in Franklin recently secured an old golf course and are “restoring” the land back to its original features. It would be great to get their perspective on this matter – but – about that period rush. The NPS states that battlefield preservation is about:

                protecting sites where historic battles were fought on American soil during the armed conflicts that shaped the growth and development of the United States, in order that present and future generations may learn and gain inspiration from the ground where Americans made their ultimate sacrifice.

                So Megan wasn’t too far off about that “period rush.”

  • M.D. Blough Mar 19, 2015 @ 4:07

    Kevin-First and foremost, have your students read U S v. GETTYSBURG ELECTRIC R. CO., 160 U.S. 668 (1896) http://laws.findlaw.com/us/160/668.html. This is the landmark case in which the US Supreme Court held that preserving battlefield land was a public use for which the US Government could lawfully use its power of eminent domain. It’s well written and moving. Ask Garry about the Gettysburg Electric Railway, traces of which remain on the battlefield. My recollection is that he’s quite knowledgeable about it.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2015 @ 4:26

      Thanks for the link. Unfortunately, Garry is only accompanying us at Antietam, but I will make sure to ask. I have read about the electric railway, but thanks for reminding me. I need to find a way to integrate it into our Gettysburg trip.

  • wkerrigan Mar 19, 2015 @ 3:52

    Much of the driving force behind preservation, I think, is really about preserving space from the encroachments of sprawl. This seems particularly true in Virginia. The traffic-choked, strip mall-lined highway that runs between Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville is, in my opinion, one of the ugliest landscapes human societies have ever created. Touring Chancellorsville and Wilderness Battlefields is a headache because of the sprawl and development that penetrate into the heart of them. I nonetheless find it interesting that very high end housing developments ring, and are sometimes surrounded by battlefield park land. The owners of these homes are no doubt champions of preservation, as a McMansion bordering such peaceful open space is worth more than one next to a Wal-Mart. By acknowledging this I don’t mean to come across as cynical. I think battlefield preservationists are and should be allying with others who share their common interest in protecting land from development. Battlefields are for many users parks which provide opportunities for a peaceful walk, an invigorating run, or an opportunity to get in touch with nature. When battlefields engage local volunteers in activities like replanting historic orchards, they potentially win over new allies who are more interested in horticulture than artillery.

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