Pilgrim Places: Civil War Battlefields, Historic Preservation, and America’s First National Military Parks, 1863-1900, Part II

Editor's note: In part two of his look at the history and preservation of America's Civil War battlefields, as captured in Pilgrim Places: Civil War Battlefields, Historic Preservation, and America’s First National Military Parks, 1863-1900, historian Richard West Sellars takes a look at efforts in the United States to preserve places of history prior to the Civil War. (You can purchase the entire article, complete with footnotes and photographs, from Eastern National).

Pilgrim Places: Civil War Battlefields, Historic Preservation, and America’s First National Military Parks, 1863-1900

By Richard West Sellars


Part II: Background: Pre-Civil War Preservation Endeavors

The event in American history prior to the Civil War that had the most potential to inspire the preservation of historic places was the American Revolution. Yet, between the Revolution and the Civil War, historic site preservation in America was limited and sporadic. The efforts that were made focused principally on the Revolution and its heroes, but also on the early national period. Even with a growing railway system, poor highways and roads still hindered travel; thus, for most Americans, commemoration of historic sites was mainly a local activity.

Celebrations of historic events and persons (especially at the countless gatherings held on the Fourth of July) included parades, patriotic speeches, and, at times, the dedication of monuments in cities and towns. It is significant also that the Federal Government—which was far less powerful than it would become during and after the Civil War—was uncertain about the need for, and the constitutionality of, preserving historic sites or erecting monuments in the new republic at government expense. It therefore restricted its involvement, leaving most proposals to state or local entities, whether public or private. The State of Pennsylvania, for example, had plans to demolish Independence Hall—where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and drawn up—to make way for new construction. But the City of Philadelphia (the local, not the national government) interceded in 1818 and purchased the building and its grounds out of patriotic concern.

During the 19th century, George Washington, revered hero of the Revolution and first president of the United States, received extraordinary public acclaim, which resulted in the preservation of sites associated with his life and career. In 1850, following extended negotiations, the State of New York established as a historic-house museum the Hasbrouck House in the lower Hudson Valley—General Washington’s headquarters during the latter part of the war.

Mount Vernon, Washington’s home along the Potomac River and the most famous site associated with his personal life, became the property of a private organization, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union. Ann Pamela Cunningham, a determined Charlestonian, founded the Association in 1853 to gain nationwide support to purchase this site, which was accomplished in 1858. The Ladies’ Association’s success with Mount Vernon ranks as the nation’s most notable historic preservation effort in the antebellum era.

Among the efforts of pre-Civil War Americans to commemorate their history, erecting monuments to honor and preserve the memory of important events and persons was at times viewed as being a more suitable alternative than acquiring and maintaining a historic building and its surrounding lands. Only a few days after the defeat of the British army at Yorktown in October 1781, the Continental Congress passed a motion calling for a monument to be built on the Yorktown battle site to commemorate the French alliance with the colonies and the American victory over the British. The Congress, however, being very short of funds and focusing on the post-Revolutionary War situation, did not appropriate monies for the monument.

Interest eventually waned, and construction did not get under way until a century later, with the laying of the cornerstone for the Yorktown Victory Monument during the centennial celebration in 1881. The tall, ornate granite monument was completed three years later. The effort to erect a monument to commemorate the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, in the Boston area, was not begun until shortly before the 50th anniversary of the battle, but unlike Yorktown it did not have to wait a century for completion. Only two years after the 1823 founding of the Bunker Hill Monument Association to spearhead the project, the cornerstone was laid by the aging Marquis de Lafayette, esteemed French hero of the American Revolution.

Delayed by funding shortages and other factors, completion of the monument came in 1843. Construction of the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital also encountered lengthy delays, including the Civil War. Begun in 1848, the giant obelisk was not completed until 1885. These and other commemorative activities did not reflect any intense interest on the part of 19th-century Americans in the physical preservation and commemoration of historic sites. Only after extended delays were the efforts with the Yorktown and Washington monuments successful. The lengthy struggle in Boston to preserve the home of John Hancock, the revered patriot and signer of the Declaration of Independence, failed, and the building was demolished.

Even the State of Tennessee’s acquisition in the 1850s of The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home near Nashville, did not guarantee preservation. The State considered selling the house and grounds long before the property finally gained secure preservation status by about the early 20th century. Partly because of cost considerations, Congress had rejected petitions to purchase Mount Vernon before the Ladies’ Association was formed. And despite national adoration of George Washington, numerous obstacles (including inadequate funding) delayed the Association’s purchase of the property for about half of a decade. Overall, during much of the century, a lack of funding and commitment undercut many preservation efforts, indicating a general indifference toward historic sites.

Nevertheless, during the 19th century, an important concept gradually gained acceptance: That, in order to protect historic sites deemed especially significant, it might be necessary to resort to a special type of ownership (a public, or some other kind of shared, or group, ownership, such as a society or association) specifically dedicated to preservation. Such broad-based, cooperative arrangements could serve as a means of preventing a site from being subject to, and perhaps destroyed as a result of, the whims of individuals and the fluctuations of the open market. Private, individually owned and preserved historic sites, some exhibited to the public (but vast numbers of them preserved because of personal or family interest alone), would become a widespread, enduring, and critically important aspect of American historic preservation.

Still, the State of New York’s preservation of the Hasbrouck House, and especially the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association’s successful endeavors, exemplified the potential of group ownership, both public and private, in helping to secure enduring preservation commitments.

As one supporter stated during the effort to preserve Mount Vernon, the revered home and nearby grave of the Revolutionary War hero and first president should not be “subject to the uncertainties and transfers of individual fortune.”

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, as a remarkably enterprising and broad-based organization determined to preserve Washington’s home and grave site, held the promise of a dedication to its cause that could remain steadfast well beyond one or two generations. Living up to this promise meant that the Ladies’ Association would become an acclaimed archetype of a successful, cooperative preservation organization.

Furthermore, the Ladies’ Association’s goals focused squarely on serving the greater public good: it would make the home and grounds accessible to the public, in the belief that generations of people might visit the site and draw inspiration from Washington’s life that would foster virtuous citizenship, benefiting the entire nation. Explicitly revealing the concern for a guarantee of public access, a collection of correspondence relating to the Ladies’ Association’s effort to acquire Mount Vernon was entitled, “Documents Relating to the Proposed Purchase of Mount Vernon by the Citizens of the United States, in Order that They May at All Times Have a Legal and Indisputable Right to Visit the Grounds, Mansion and Tomb of Washington.”

Similarly, concerns for public access and benefit, ensured by dedicated common ownership, would become key factors underlying the Civil War battlefield preservation movement in the latter decades of the century. The Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, the first organizational effort to preserve and commemorate a Civil War battlefield, clearly intended to render the battleground accessible to the people and thereby serve the public good through patriotic inspiration and education. Moreover, battlefield preservation came to involve local and state governments, and ultimately the Federal
Government, as representatives of the collective citizenry in the direct ownership and administration of selected historic places.

Next week: Civil War Battlefield Monuments and Cemeteries