Endangered Battlefields

Harper's Ferry National Historical Park and Gettysburg National Military Park have been named two of the ten most endangered Civil War battlefields by the Civil War Preservation Trust, a 70,000-member strong battlefield preservation group.
The ten battlefields cited by the group face a range of threats, from development pressures and neglect to mining and damage from hurricanes.
Gettscenic_copy "The Civil War was the most tragic conflict in American history," says James Lighthizer, president of the trust. "For four long years, North and South clashed in hundreds of battles and skirmishes that sounded the death knell of slavery."
Despite that toll and moment in U.S. history, "nearly 20 percent of America's Civil War battlefields have already been destroyed -- denied forever to future generations," he adds.
Joining Harper's Ferry and Gettysburg on the list are battlefields at Spring Hill, Tennessee; Cedar Creek, Virginia; Fort Morgan, Alabama; Iuka, Mississippi; Marietta, Georgia; New Orleans Forts, Louisiana; Northern Piedmont, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and; Petersburg, Virginia.

The Harper's Ferry battlefield is threatened by a variety of issues, the most serious of which is a development that encroaches on the battlefield. Last August a developer bulldozed two 1,900-foot-long trenches across the park's landscape to extend utility lines to a proposed subdivision.
"Now, thanks to this illegal construction, the same developers are proposing a massive development along the ridge line," the Civil War Trust says.
At the National Parks Conservation Association, Senior Regional Director Joy Oakes says too much history is at stake for the development to be allowed to infringe on the park.
"For decades, leaders from West Virginia and across the country have worked together to protect America's Civil War, civil rights, and industrial history at Harper's Ferry," she says. "As a result, nearly 3,745 acres of land is protected in a landscape of remarkable beauty. But, Harper's Ferry NHP is threatened today by an ill-advised proposal to develop approximately 640 acres of private land virtually surrounded by the park.
"A proposed annexation and rezoning under review by Charles Town, West Virginia, would allow incompatible, intensive development on high-value historic lands, undermining the millions of dollars in federal, state, and private investments made to preserve the park for this and future generations," adds Oakes.
At Gettysburg, while a proposed 5,000-slot gambling establishment proposed to be built just a mile from the battlefield was halted, subdivisions are slowly closing in on the battlefield. According to the Gettysburg Times, an estimated 1,100 homes are either already under construction near the battlefield or soon will be, and there's the prospect of another 20,000 homes to be built in the not-too-distant future.
For a rundown on threats facing the other battlefields, here's a link to the Civil War Trust's report.


I don't know if this is related to the development at Gettysburg. I went there a few years ago when I was teaching at Mt. St. Mary's (very close by just inside Maryland) and saw a number of trees slated to be chopped down not far from the battlefield. I had actually seen where some people were trying to take the ribbons down that were slated for removal in an attempt to protect them. I have no real interest in preserving battlefields; there are enough memorials as there are, but places like Gettysburg and Harper's Ferry are very pretty places (Harper's Ferry is gorgeous and Gettysburg is very pretty in a subtle kind of way). As a student of history, it is interesting to go to a place and empathize with the dead. At the same time, I don't think there are some dead more worth remembering than others. I wish we loved the land instead of needing to justify its existence based on the human propensity to slaughter each other. I guess that's my usual convoluted way of saying that I hope that development is pushed back but perhaps not for the reasons that most others would have.
It is absolutely vital to save these spaces for the battlefields. Why? Because believe it or not, its not so easy to visualize a battle's movements when your imagination is competing with a row of houses or a nearby fast food restaurants. Case in point, Fredericksburg. Only really the heights are preserved there, the rest, where during the battle Union troops crossed a river and marched over clear ground, is completely developed. No memorial stone can be substituted for land and more land. Thanks for posting on the topic.
Ross, I have a degree in history and outside of my passion for philosophy, my passion for history is still my favorite intellectual past-time. I want to preface that before you make assumptions about the question I'm going to ask you. Why is it so important out of all the things people might do in a particular place that we "visualize a battle's movements"? I don't understand why that's a value that trumps all others. I support the preservation here mostly because I hate the development, but please explain to me your value judgment. Every day, I go by numerous memorials to war dead; they build more all the time. Memorial Day in my childhood used to be about all the dead; now it's just Veteran's Day part I (though it may have been that before; it's not how we considered it). Sometimes, it feels like this city is cemetary; maybe that's how we should think of it, but I still would like to know why. I traveled the Oregon coast one summer and went to a lighthouse. The lighthouse in history was operational for only a couple years because they built it in the wrong place. It fell apart, and then one day, people decided that it was "historical" and needed to be preserved (I find the history of what people find to be "historical" to be of more interest than the history of the historical object or place often enough). I asked why, and the only response was an indignant, "It's historical!" A battlefield seems "more" historical, especially Civil War battlefields, and there's no doubt the war deeply penetrated and continues to penetrate all of our lives in more ways than we can imagine. But, the battlefield is not the end all and be all of that history, even at Gettysburg, which I've been to several times. It is spooky, there, which I kind of like as someone who wants to mourn for 50,000 dead. There are monuments even in the woods. I can see the battle. That all has its place, but is it THE value? Maybe, the grass and trees don't always have to bring up "Pickett's Charge" in order to be valuable to us; maybe they can be able to speak to us in their own way, not tied to our bloodshed.
The fact that thousands of men perished on the site of the battlefields is THE value. Seeing the field of battle as it was is THE value. For history lovers, it means being able to picture the movements of the troops on the site and get that sort of understanding in a way that reading a book never can. For others, for whom troop movements aren't so important, the actual site undisturbed is also powerful. I'll never forget seeing the Bloody Lane at Antietim. I could picture the lane filled with the bodies of so many young men, it made me cry. Marble monuments don't have the same effect. A national battlefield needs to be a quiet place, far from traffic noises and congestion. It needs to be a place to contemplate the meaning of freedom, sacrfice and our national identity.
I'm unsure of the value of deciding which is more important: the land or the history. Both are so intrinsically linked that separating their values is, I believe, an artificial exercise. Americans are such amnesiacs, historically and culturally. We need these places preserved in order to interrupt the busy, commercial lives we lead, quiet our hearts and minds and remind ourselves where we came from and what makes us who we are today. A strong democracy requires a strong cultural memory. National battlefields and historic sites, preserved to capture a moment in time, helps us do just that. The point of preservation of these historic sites is to not forget. To encroach on these sacred lands with condos and casinos is the highest affront to our culture I can imagine.
If one can remember Ken Burn's famous historical documentary of the "Civil War", which was very well put together...I can deeply respect Kath's and Glenn's sentiments. Just envisioning Ken Burn's saga, I've learned to treasure these famous National Park battle fields and it's historical significance, and how it impacts our nation as a whole...and Kath explains this respectfully well.
Thanks, Snowbird. Lincoln said it best: "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot's grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet again swell the chorus of Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
Well, I'm unconvinced or at least don't understand the principle. I am thankful, for instance, that someone has saved certain books from the past that might otherwise be lost. I am thankful for anything that can trigger my memory. And, memory does need something tangible, even if a scrap or a word. I just don't know what makes something more worth remembering than something else. Perhaps, it is artificial to split values apart, but I think I'm saying it's just as artificial to put them together in the first place (and the amnesia argument cuts both ways). Why did someone save a lighthouse that was never very useful? Why do we decide to throw some things out as trash and keep others as keepsakes, chop one tree down in the same of preserving something else? Why are roads built in one place and not others? Why are the lives some gave in war more worth remembering than others, or those who didn't die, and to what extent should we go to preserve memory? I have a natural aversion to war, which is in part why I like to go to battlefields...to remember why that's the case. But, if someone were to tell me that this was the greatest, most profound thing we could do, I wouldn't at all be sure. I'm not at all sure the best argument against development is that "history is more important" or in a less historical place "that the view is more important." I just know that "development" also isn't more important. I keep letters, I keep everything I can; so I understand the impulse to remember. What I think, though, is that we are perhaps too rigid about these values in ways that we cannot possibly defend. Again, when do we choose to throw something out, and why? All the memorials all around remembering ghastly battles don't really seem to be working, if our aim is memory. Perhaps, we should separate the value and see that maybe there's something else we are missing of great value in places like Harper's Ferry that the development would destroy.
What makes one thing worth preserving over another is our collective value of it. To those people on the Oregon coast, that lighthouse held a significance culturally to the group. To them, it is worth preserving. I believe that Americans hold these places to be culturally valuable as places of remembrance and reflection. If others find it more valuable as real estate, that's up to them (it's unfortunate, but I think the majority of Americans value these lands as sacred rather than as commercially valuable). I think your implication that preservationists value one set of lives (those lost in war) over others is simply untrue. There are historic sites of all kinds, not just battlefields, which we preserve to remember our American past (triumphs and mistakes, alike). You seem to be saying that battlefield preservationists value these places because they are sites of violence. This is also not true. Some of the most peace-loving people I know are those who value these lands and fight for their preservation. I am myself a peace activist and it is this reason that I value the battlefields of the Civil War, Indian Wars and other places we've preserved across the country... to remind us of where we've been. We who love the parks love these places (whether it's Yosemite or Gettysburg) because they are valuable to our collective culture. Everyone must find for themselves the reason they value them.
I don't believe that you are correct that we preserve things for "our collective value"; I think we protect things based on the collective value of those in power, or the private value of those who have the money, which is exactly why we oppose development - because it's not a collective decision. What I'm suggesting is that the same goes for our parks and "public lands" as well, as uncomfortable a conclusion as that is. Maybe, the lighthouse in Oregon was at one point a collective decisions by a small group of residents going through hard times during the Depression, but that's hardly applicable now, and I would guess that a collective decision to tear it down wouldn't go very far. I think I have said that I like to go to battlefields in part because they are creepy and morbid - I am a pacifist myself. What I question is our entitlement to hold up those values as absolute. You have suggested that there is a collective value - I hope so, but I don't see it or know how in this society we could determine it. I think those collective values would be great if we actually had empowered collectives and collective values that shift as collectives shift. But, we don't. I am saying this not from an antagonistic standpoint. I think we have to understand why it is we cannot stop development; one reason we have trouble is that the developers really aren't practicing an ethics that's really that different than the process that preserved many of these places in the first place. There was no collective that set up the national park service for instance. There was no collective that set up the individual parks. The same non-collective process has been at work based on enforcing the same arbitrary values. If we want Gettysburg, want to remember dead, want memorials, what do we want them for? Who gets to decide, and by what process? I think these are critical questions. Yes, I feel some angst when I go to Gettysburg and see all the people dressed up in costumes (and though they tell me they don't get off on it; I have trouble believing it when I see it in action - I felt that way in the anti-war movement about all the grotesque mock torture displays), but that's not my larger point. Certainly, there are all kinds of aesthetic tastes (we see this in the hiker v. mountain biker controversy), but what is the collective process? I don't wager, but if I did, I would bet everything that that process does not actually exist when it comes to the parks (historical and otherwise), never existed, but had better start existing if we are going to stand against the forces of privatization and rampant development. I don't think we are going to get anywhere talking about the value of one use for Gettysburg over another. It won't stop the most powerful force from getting its way. We aren't really that far apart; all I'm doing is ask that we recognize what the value is here. What I hear you say is that the value is a "collective" one; I like that answer very much. I just don't agree with you that that is in fact what it is. But, if we work at it, maybe we can promote truly collective values tied to the experiences and voices of the beings who make up that collective. Jim
The eloquent George Santayana said it best: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." With that in mind, I would submit that preserving tangible remains of historic events is crucial to preserving their memory; there are things that cannot be taught in books or on a monitor screen. I have never had a better appreciation of the ultimate futility of war than when I visited the scene of the Battle of Verdun, one of the ghastliest episodes of World War I. I wrote about the visit on my own blog (link below) but even if I had the descriptive powers of a Hemingway, words would only provide the merest glimpse of the emotion the site evoked. As far as "valuing one set of lives over another," I don't buy that premise for a minute. The strongest thrust in the historical profession these days is seeking out the stories of those whose voices were ignored in the past: common soldiers instead of generals, factory workers instead of financiers, women, slaves, the poor and dispossessed, and so on. I'm glad that my colleagues in the battlefield parks are making sure those stories are never forgotten, just like I am now deeply involved in preserving the heritage of some small communities of pioneer farmers and fishers who struggled to make lives for themselves and their families on remote islands in the world's largest and most fearsome lake. These are all stories that should never be forgotten.
Retreadranger, great input...something else, that might touch the heart and soul of most Americans...our architectural heritage! Some of those old and beautiful structures in are National Parks should always be preserved, and those gracious looking buildings in Yellowstone National Park, may they always be standing from one generation to the next.
I once had the distinct experience reading George Santayana one night, reading "Scepticism and Animal Faith" of finding myself for a moment feeling as though I was stripped of all my beliefs. Then, I woke up the next day and thought the better of it. I'm not sure that those who remember the past aren't also doomed to repeat it or to pretend that someone else's past is not applicable to our own present. But, that aside, I have not argued against the value of remembering; I have not argued against preserving harsh memories; what I asked for first is why we hold one use of land as more valuable than another use? What makes some things historical and not other things? What makes something more valuable? If it's not that we are honoring great warriors, ok (I don't buy it - one doesn't need a battlefield to look at the history of all the other things, but that's really beside the point), but what makes the memory worth preserving on a scale of values? I'm thankful for Glenn's input because he's suggested something novel, not that one value is necessarily greater than another, but that there is some collective benefit or collective desire that makes something better. We could fight development because who are they to destroy what's there for everyone? We could say the same of snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton; we could talk about mountain bikes in some parts of the national parks and oppose them on the same grounds. Just because someone values something doesn't make it better; I'm not sure a "collective" value always does, either, but at least a collective value already acknowledges a community of responsibility. The problem is that I really doubt that we have anything like collective values in our society, and the process of preservation has only been elite, rather than collective. What are our collective values? And, who is and has been our collective? Who and what has been left out? And, perhaps, that's why I'm nonchalant about battlefields; they seem to derive their existence from our assumed and arbitrary values and seem to imply an ownership over the purpose of a land (a land that actually involves a lot more than just what people did or didn't do there.) Of course, that's not to say that memories aren't valuable, or remembering battles and horrors aren't worthwhile. It is to say that I for one cannot see why anyone gets that excited about it for those reasons. But, in the fight against those who would take all our participation in the process away, privatization, development, big capital, then I can easily get excited because not only are our memories at risk, but also the entire community's stake (however broadly community is defined) in experiencing the land in its many forms (including our memories) is at risk. That's why I think we should be worried about our parks, even those parks branded "historical" parks, not because they simply meet any one of our arbitrary distinctions about what is important but because we won't even be able to participate with our numerous value judgments if these people get their way. I, for one, won't miss one of a zillion battlefield sites biting the dust for that sake, but I will miss the sense experience I have had. Others of you will feel differently and even more moved by other values (and many like Glenn for both reasons at the same time), but none of it will matter if others will arbitrate those values for us. And, that's why I'd also urge we be careful about falling into the same trap. There is a critical value at stake here; I hope we don't lose sight of it as we necessarily push other values close to our hearts. Jim
Your point, Jim, finally comes down to activism. If we wish to preserve these places because they have a value to the collective culture (which seems in part a good summary of the NPS mission statement), the only way to do that is for individuals to gather and fight for it. In a way, the parks gather value through the same sort of representative democracy through which our laws "gather value". It's true, historically, that many of these places were set aside outside a purely democratic process (railroad interests, tourism industry, and other lobbies were more involved at times). But to point to that as an absence of the collective value of these places is to criticize our representative democracy and its ability to be bought and sold - it is not a criticism of these places' intrinsic collective value. The only way for Americans to place value culturally on these places is to actively take a part in their preservation. This way, the voice of the majority determines what places maintain value to us historically and for future generations.
Now, I hope we will meet together, work, and take action, Glenn. Of course, it's not likely to be with people we talk with online, but I wonder what we can do to facilitate people meeting together on these issues in a meaningful and constructive way. Not another meetup.com or anything like that, but perhaps something else... For those interested in this sort of project, please look me up. I'm in between locales right now, and this sort of work I think is important. It takes our dependence away from what Dirk and Mary decide and brings us back into the process. Thanks for what you've shared, Glenn. I don't think we entirely see eye-to-eye, but that's not really that important, as I think the discussion shows. Jim
I'm entering the fray late, but would like to make a some points. I, like Jim, have a history degree. Historians generally shun antiquarianism, which is the study of the past just for the sake of the past with little emphasis on context or the greater significance of items or events. History focuses more on the big picture, the forest instead of the trees. Preserving each little battle field just for the sake of preserving the battlefield often seems antiquarian to me. Civil War buffs are often antiquarian, focusing on re-enactments and the trivia of battles rather than on the big picture of the Civil War. Also to address Jim's comment about the Oregon lighthouse: I learned in public history class that just because something is old, that does not necessarily mean it's historical. I learned how to research and nominate buildings and places for the National Register of Historic Places. There are very stringent guidelines for what makes something historical. A 150-year-old buidling isn't necessarily historical; it must have significance to be considered historical. I think the same can be true for battlefields. I think preserving these places as open space is sometimes more important than preserving them because a battle was fought there. On the other hand, some battlefields can yield valuable scientific data as forensic science improves. A recent study on the distribution of shell casings at the Battle of Little Bighorn comes to mind.
I have a history degree also summa cum laude. I'd challenge you to name a respected Civil War historian who does not want to preserve Civil War battlefields. Many, many people want Civil War battlefields preserved, not just Civil War re-enactors.
Ranger X, Doesn't those precious and poetic letters written of the Civil War part of the "big picture"?...the devastation and emotional pain of losing family members...the human carnage and choas of this war is deeply engrained in those scarlet sacred letters. I'm not a historian but I believe Walt Whitman expresses this in his writings. Read his poem on "Drum Taps"!