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

Editor's note: During his National Park Service career, historian Richard West Sellars examined in-depth many facets of the National Park System and National Park Service. One of those projects focused on Civil War battlefields and how they've been preserved over the years. The Traveler presents this work, Pilgrim Places: Civil War Battlefields, Historic Preservation, and America’s First National Military Parks, 1863-1900, in a series of articles. 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

Today, well over a century after the Civil War ended in 1865, it is difficult to imagine the battlefields of Antietam, Vicksburg, Shiloh, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga and Chattanooga had they been neglected, instead of preserved as military parks. As compelling historic landscapes of great natural beauty and public interest, these early military parks (established by Congress in the 1890s and transferred from the United States War Department to the National Park Service in 1933) have been familiar to generations of Americans. Their status as preserved parks is far different from what would have ensued had they been left to the whims and fluctuations of local economics and developmental sprawl, with only a military cemetery and perhaps one or two monuments nearby.

Certainly, had these battlefields not been protected, the battles themselves would still have been intensively remembered, analyzed, and debated in countless history books, classrooms, living rooms, barrooms, and other venues. But there would have been little, if any, protected land or contemplative space in which to tell the public that these are the fields upon which horrific combat occurred—battles that bore directly on the perpetuation of the nation as a whole, and on the very nature of human rights in America.

Yet in the final decade of the 19th century, Congress mandated that these battlefields be set aside as military parks to be preserved for the American public. The sites became major icons of the nation’s historic past, to which millions of people have traveled, many as pilgrims, and many making repeated
visits—ritualistic treks to hallowed shrines. How, then, did these battlefields, among the most important of the Civil War, become the nation’s first national military parks?

Gettysburg and the Stratigraphy of History

For the first three days of July 1863, more than 170,000 soldiers of the United States Army (the Union army) and the Confederacy fought a bloody and decisive battle around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, ending with a Union victory and with more than 51,000 killed, wounded, and missing. Later that month, less than three weeks after the battle, David McConaughy, a local attorney, began efforts to buy small segments of the battlefield, where grim evidence of combat still lay on the devastated landscape, and the stench of death from both soldiers and horses remained in the air. A long-time resident and civic leader in Gettysburg, McConaughy was seeking to preserve the sites and protect them from possible desecration and land speculation prompted by the intense interest in the battle. He also acquired a small segment of the battleground that seemed appropriate as a burial site for those soldiers of the Union army whose bodies would not be carried back to their home towns or buried elsewhere.

The plan to establish a military cemetery simultaneously gained support from other influential individuals and would soon meet with success. But it was McConaughy who took the initial step that would ultimately lead to preserving extensive portions of the battlefield specifically for their historical significance.

McConaughy later recalled that this idea had come to him “immediately after the battle.” And as early as July 25, he wrote to Pennsylvania governor Andrew Curtin, declaring his intentions. He recommended entrusting the battlefield to the public: that the citizens of Pennsylvania should purchase it so that “they
may participate in the tenure of the sacred grounds of the Battlefield, by contributing to its actual cost.” By then, McConaughy had secured agreements to buy portions of renowned combat sites such as Little Round Top and Culp’s Hill. In August, he led in the creation of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial
Association
to oversee the acquisition and protection of the battleground. (He would later sell the lands he had purchased to the cemetery and to the Memorial Association, at no personal profit.)

Also in August, he reiterated what he had told Governor Curtin, that there could be “no more fitting and expressive memorial of the heroic valor and signal triumphs of our army...than the battlefield itself, with its natural and artificial defen[s]es, preserved and perpetuated in the exact form and condition they presented during the battle.” David McConaughy’s decisive response to the battle was pivotal: It marked the pioneer effort in the long and complex history of the preservation of America’s Civil War battlefields that has continued through the many decades since July 1863.

With the support of the State of Pennsylvania, the Memorial Association’s purchase of battlefield lands got under way, albeit slowly. Acquisition of land specifically intended for the military cemetery continued as well, beyond what McConaughy had originally purchased for that purpose. At Gettysburg, despite the carnage and chaotic disarray on the battlefield after the fighting ended, care for the dead and wounded could be handled with relatively moderate disruption and delay, given the Confederate army’s retreat south. Re-burial of Union soldiers’ bodies lying in scattered, temporary graves began by late October in the military cemetery. And on November 19, President Abraham Lincoln gave his dedication speech for the new cemetery.

Surely the most famous public address in American history, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address became the symbolic touchstone for the remarkable succession of commemorative activities that would follow at the battlefield. In his brief comments, Lincoln stated what he believed to be an “altogether fitting and proper” response of the living: to dedicate a portion of the battlefield as a burying ground for the soldiers who sacrificed their lives at Gettysburg to preserve the nation. Lincoln then added, “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” Yet in attending the dedication and giving his address, Lincoln himself participated in—and helped initiate—a new era of history at the battlefield, one in which both his and future generations would perpetuate the dedication, consecration, and hallowedness of the site.

The history of the Battle of Gettysburg differs from the history of Gettysburg Battlefield. The first is military history—the cataclysmic battle itself, when Union forces thwarted the Southern invasion of Northern territory in south-central Pennsylvania. The second—the complex array of activities that have taken place on the battlefield in the long aftermath of the fighting—is largely commemorative history: this country’s efforts to perpetuate and strengthen the national remembrance of Gettysburg, including McConaughy’s preservation endeavors, the cemetery dedication, and Lincoln’s address. After dedication of the cemetery, the nation’s response to the battle continued, through such efforts as acquiring greater portions of the field of battle, holding veterans’ reunions and encampments, erecting monuments, and preserving and interpreting the battlefield for the American people. Most of these activities have continued into the 21st century.

In the deep “stratigraphy” of history at Gettysburg Battlefield—decade after decade, layer after layer, of commemorative activity recurring at this renowned place—no other single event holds greater significance than Lincoln’s address contemplating the meaning of the Battle of Gettysburg and of the Civil War. And in April 1864—well before the war ended—commemoration at the battlefield was further sanctioned when the State of Pennsylvania granted a charter to the already established Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association to oversee and care for the field of battle.

The charter’s declaration “to hold and preserve the battle-grounds of Gettysburg...with the natural and artificial defenses, as they were at the time of said battle,” and to perpetuate remembrance of the battle through “such memorial structures as a generous and patriotic people may aid to erect” very much reflected McConaughy’s own convictions, as stated the previous summer. The act chartering the nonprofit Memorial Association and authorizing its acquisition, preservation, and memorialization of the battlefield was passed in a remarkably short period of time—about 10 months after the battle itself. It set a course toward common, nonprofit ownership of the battlefield for patriotic inspiration and education.

Moreover, as battlefield commemoration evolved, the town of Gettysburg prospered economically from the public’s increasing desire to visit the site. Almost immediately after the fighting ended, the hundreds of people who poured into the area to seek missing relatives or assist with the wounded and dead created further chaos in and around the town. But many who came were simply curious about the suddenly famous battlefield, and their visits initiated a rudimentary tourism that would evolve and greatly increase over the years.

As soon as they could, entrepreneurs from Gettysburg and elsewhere began to profit from the crowds, marketing such necessities as room and board, in addition to selling guided tours, battlefield relics, and other souvenirs. Gettysburg’s tourism would expand in the years after the war, secured by the fame of the battlefield, but also re-enforced by such added attractions as new hotels, a spa, and a large amusement area known as Round Top Park.

African-American tourists joined the crowds at Gettysburg beginning in the 1880s. And improved rail service to Gettysburg in 1884 greatly enhanced access from both the North and South, further increasing tourism. One guidebook estimated that 150,000 visitors came in the first two years after the new rail service began. Located in Pennsylvania, far from the main theaters of war, and the site of a critical and dramatic Union victory that repulsed the invasion of the North by the Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee, the battlefield at Gettysburg clearly had the potential to inspire creation of a shrine to the valor and sacrifices of Union troops. The conditions were just right: Gettysburg quickly emerged as a hallowed landscape for the North, as it ultimately would for the nation as a whole.

In the beginning, the commemoration at Gettysburg was strictly limited to recognizing the Northern victory by preserving only Union battle lines and key positions. It was of course unthinkable to preserve battle positions of the Rebel army, with whom war was still raging.

The Memorial Association’s many commemorative activities would provide a singularly important example for other Civil War battlefields, as thousands of veterans backed by their national, state, and local organizations would, especially in the 1890s, initiate similar efforts to preserve sites of other major
engagements. By that time, the North and South were gradually reconciling their differences in the aftermath of a bitter and bloody war that took the lives of more than 600,000 combatants. This growing sectional harmony brought about greater injustice against former slaves. But with reconciliation underway, the South would join in the battlefield commemoration.

The Civil War remains perhaps the most compelling episode in American history, but especially during the latter decades of the 19th century it was an overwhelmingly dominant historical presence that deeply impacted the lives and thoughts of millions of Americans.

In the century’s last decade, Congress responded to pressure from veterans and their many supporters, both North and South, by establishing five military parks and placing them under War Department administration for preservation and memorialization—actions intended to serve the greater public interest. Known also as battlefield parks, these areas included Chickamauga and Chattanooga (administratively combined by the congressional legislation), in Georgia and Tennessee, in 1890; Antietam, near the village of Sharpsburg, Maryland, also in 1890; Shiloh, in southwestern Tennessee, in 1894; Gettysburg, transferred from the Memorial Association to the Federal Government in 1895; and Vicksburg, in Mississippi, in 1899. Of these battlefields set aside for commemorative preservation, the South had won only at Chickamauga.

Beginning at Gettysburg even during the war and rapidly accelerating in the 1890s, the efforts to preserve the first five Civil War military parks constituted by far the most intensive and widespread historic preservation activity in the United States through the 19th century. The battlefield parks substantially broadened the scope of preservation.

Next Week: Pre-Civil War Preservation Endeavors