You are here

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 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.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments