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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.


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"!

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.

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.

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 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

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.

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

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.

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.

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