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

Editor's note: In part six 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 explains how the first military parks were created. (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

Park VI: Creating the First Military Parks

With the exception of Grover Cleveland, every United States president from Ulysses S. Grant through William McKinley was a veteran of the Union army, as were many congressmen. Following Reconstruction, the sectional reconciliation paved the way for ex-Confederates and their political spokesmen in Washington to join Northern leaders in supporting battlefield commemoration. Moreover, each of the major battles was very much national in scope. The involvement of troops from many states, plus the impact of each battle on the outcome of the war, made battlefield preservation a matter of importance to the nation as a whole, and ultimately to the national government itself. Support also resulted from efforts by veterans’ societies representing the different armies (for instance, the Union armies of the Ohio and the Potomac, and the Confederate armies of Tennessee and Mississippi) to ensure that they would be honored at battlefields where they had gained special distinction. The aging veterans from both sides sought to create permanent tributes to their wartime valor.

Cooperation between Northern and Southern veterans played a direct role in the Federal Government’s formal preservation of the battlegrounds at Chickamauga and Chattanooga. By an act of Congress signed on August 19, 1890, these two battlefields were combined to form the first federal military park in the United States. Earlier, the Grand Army of the Republic had sponsored reunions at Chattanooga; and during the September 1889 gathering (which included Confederate veterans and a huge barbecue held near Chickamauga that hosted 12,000 people), an agreement was reached to form a “Joint Chickamauga Memorial Association.” This association included veterans from both sides, who recognized that Chickamauga Battlefield had no formal protection, and that its farms, fields, and woods had been steadily losing their 1863 appearance.

The veterans were also aware that, at Gettysburg, the Memorial Association had not yet acquired the battle lines of the Southern armies. At Chickamauga and Chattanooga, with Northerners and Southerners participating, the opportunity existed from the very beginning to commemorate both sides at each of the two battlefields. Benefiting from the support of politicians in the nation’s capital who were veterans of the war, including President Benjamin Harrison, the legislative effort succeeded quickly. A bill to combine both battlefields into a single military park was introduced in Congress in May 1890 and enacted the following August, with actual deliberation taking less than 30 minutes in each house.

The law called for acquiring extensive land areas, up to 7,600 acres just for Chickamauga, almost all privately owned, for the purpose of preservation. Moreover, it also authorized the use, when necessary, of the government’s power of eminent domain to acquire privately owned lands for historic preservation purposes. The fact that the park was to include so much acreage, and that land condemnation powers were specifically authorized, demonstrated the strength of the commitment to protect the battlefield. And, indeed, the eminent domain authority would be used extensively in acquiring private lands for the park.

With the backing of both the South (victorious at Chickamauga in September 1863) and the North (victorious at nearby Chattanooga the following November), the legislation was clearly in keeping with the ongoing reconciliation between the two sections. In this regard, it called for the marking of battle lines of “all troops,” and by “any State having troops engaged” in either battle [emphasis added].

On August 30, 1890, only 11 days after the Chickamauga and Chattanooga legislation, Congress authorized very limited acquisition of Antietam battleground in northern Maryland near the Potomac River. Veterans’ reunions at the site had gained popularity by the late 1880s, and the Antietam Battlefield Memorial Association was being organized when the legislation passed. However, of the military parks established during the 1890s, Antietam garnered the least political support—a factor that would greatly affect its size, as well as its subsequent preservation and development. Reasons for this lack of support seem to have included the already strong commitment to the preservation of Gettysburg by veterans of the North’s Society of the Army of the Potomac, with increased support from ex-Confederates who had served there with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Thus, veterans of the very armies that had fought one another at Antietam were focused elsewhere.

Also, antipathy had increased toward General George B. McClellan, the Union commander at Antietam, stemming partly from the general’s off-putting demeanor, but also from the fact that he had run against Lincoln in the president’s re-election bid of November 1864—a particularly critical setback for McClellan’s popularity once Lincoln’s martyrdom occurred the following April. Additionally, Antietam’s chief congressional sponsor was not a Civil War veteran, and therefore could not muster sufficient influence with veterans’ associations. Without strong backing, the park got its start through no more than a one-sentence clause added to a congressional “sundry appropriations” bill.

This was in stark contrast to the much more fully articulated legislation enacted for Chickamauga and Chattanooga and subsequent military parks of the 1890s. Of the two military parks created by Congress in August 1890, the Chickamauga and Chattanooga park established the most expansive legislative precedent: It marked the Federal Government’s first statutory commitment to preserving a historic site, including acquisition of a very large tract of land for that purpose. Except for Antietam, the other military parks created before the end of the century were also large. When Shiloh became a military park in late 1894, its authorized size of about 6,000 acres resulted not only from the veterans’ intent to preserve large portions of the battleground, but also from the intent to include the still-unfound mass graves.

Coming shortly after Shiloh, Gettysburg’s legislation was passed in early 1895, having been delayed by disagreements among the veterans. Beyond acquisition of lands that the Memorial Association controlled, Congress authorized expansion at Gettysburg on a somewhat open-ended basis: not to exceed the tracts shown on a specially prepared map of the battle areas, except for “other adjacent lands...necessary to preserve the important topographical features of the battlefield.” The 1899 legislation for Vicksburg National Military Park authorized up to 1,200 acres that were important in the siege and defense of the Mississippi River town.

The 1890 Chickamauga and Chattanooga legislation established other important precedents by mandating an array of actions that would not only be reflected in subsequent military park legislation, but would also, in time, become familiar aspects of historic preservation endeavors across the country. In this law, Congress was remarkably inclusive: It called for broad-based landscape preservation on the battlefields, for instance, to keep intact the “outlines of field and forest,” even specifically mentioning the protection of trees, bushes, and shrubbery. Also to be preserved were earthworks and other defensive or shelter sites “constructed by the armies formerly engaged in the battles.”

Farmsteads were to be protected through use-and-occupancy arrangements, whereby current occupants could continue farming and living on the land, “upon condition that they will preserve the present buildings,” as well as the roadways. The law authorized fines for the vandalism of both natural and historic features, including damaging fences and stealing “battle relics.” And Congress clearly intended that monuments and markers were to be an integral part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga battlefield landscapes, with participation by both the North and South. (Indeed, especially during the late 1890s and the next decade, Southerners would erect a number of monuments and markers—the first sustained effort to honor the Confederacy on a Civil War battlefield.)

To oversee all aspects of managing the new military park, Congress authorized a three-man commission (to be comprised of one Confederate and two Union veterans of either of the battles), which was to report to the War Department.

The Chickamauga and Chattanooga legislation authorized historical research on the battle to ensure accuracy in developing the park, and it declared that this preserved battleground would also serve the purpose of “historical and professional military study.” A critical factor in securing political support for creating the park, the authorization for military study (for instance, the analysis of strategy and tactics) would be expanded by Congress in 1896 to allow training maneuvers and related activities at all federal military parks. This would result in extensive military use of the parks—most particularly at Gettysburg and at Chickamauga and Chattanooga, where military posts would be established, and remain active for a number of years.

The 1896 act also brought about educational visits by military personnel and other interested professionals repeatedly through the decades. Even today, special park tours (known as staff rides) are regularly provided to the military. It is significant, however, that most of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga legislative precedents were reflections of what had already taken place at Gettysburg under the guidance of its Memorial Association, backed by the Grand Army of the Republic. Starting with the Association’s efforts in 1863, Gettysburg had set the basic standard for the ways in which the early military parks, as well as the battlefield cemeteries, would be developed, commemorated, and presented to the public. To begin with, of those cemeteries associated with battlefields that were destined to become the first military parks, Gettysburg’s cemetery was both the earliest and the most noteworthy.

Formally developed soon after the battle, the cemetery had quickly gained renown in the North, heightened by the special distinction of being the site of Lincoln’s address. Also, by the mid-1890s, each battlefield had hosted one or more veterans’ reunions and had become the focus of a memorial association. But here again, the standard had been set with the organization of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association in the summer of 1863; its charter by the State of Pennsylvania the following year; and its many commemorative activities, such as overseeing the placement of a truly impressive array of monuments and hosting successful reunions. The Memorial Association was itself a forerunner of the War Department’s commissions that were to oversee each of the early military parks. And at Gettysburg, indications of the North-South reconciliation came early, with the Blue-Gray reunions held there beginning in the 1880s, which were highlighted by the 1887 and 1888 gatherings, and by the two Southern monuments erected during that decade.

Overall, by 1890, when Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Antietam were authorized to become military parks, the Memorial Association had already purchased several hundred acres of land at Gettysburg; acquired the historically important house used as headquarters by the commander of the Union army, General George G. Meade; established almost 20 miles of roads; and overseen the erection of more than 300 monuments. Almost all of the Northern states had contributed to these efforts, with a combined total of close to $1 million. With its miles of avenues and increasing number of monuments, the ongoing development at Gettysburg was very much what the proponents of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga military park intended to emulate.

Indeed, as they moved toward the legislation of August 1890, they envisioned their park becoming a “Western Gettysburg.” Before the Civil War, Congress had harbored strong doubts that federal involvement in historic preservation had any constitutional basis; yet the century closed with the Federal Government having a substantial statutory commitment to preservation. Of special importance to the military parks—and, indeed, to the future of federal preservation of historic places in general— the United States Supreme Court, in a landmark decision of January 1896, confirmed the constitutional legitimacy of the government’s battlefield preservation endeavors.

Except for Vicksburg, by 1896 all of the early Civil War parks had been established; and the preservation actions of the federal legislative and executive branches were now validated by the judicial branch. The case before the Court involved the government’s use of its eminent domain authority to halt development by the Gettysburg Electric Railway Company that would intrude on Devil’s Den, Cemetery Ridge, and other famed combat sites at Gettysburg.

Unanimously, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the Federal Government, supporting government preservation of these sites, and making clear the connections between the military parks and the general public good. The Court declared that the importance of the Civil War, including Gettysburg, “cannot be overestimated,” in that, among other things, the “existence of the government itself...depended upon the result.” To the Court, erecting monuments and taking possession of the battlefield “in the name and for the benefit of all the citizens of the country for the present and for the future” is a “public use...closely connected with the welfare of the republic itself.” Moreover, the costs and sacrifices of the battle are rendered “more obvious and more easily appreciated when such a battlefield is preserved by the government at the public expense.”

The Supreme Court also held that taking land for military cemeteries “rests on the same footing” as does taking land for the battlefield, and is “connected with and springs from the same powers of the Constitution.” To the Court, it seemed “very clear that the government has the right to bury its own soldiers and to see to it that their graves shall not remain unknown or unhonored.” The Court declared that “No narrow view of the character of this proposed use [of the battlefield and the cemetery] should be taken. Its national character and importance...are plain.”

In the first case involving historic preservation to be decided by the Supreme Court (and for a long time the only decision specifically addressing this subject), the Court confirmed the constitutional foundation for federally sponsored preservation of historic sites and places. What had begun as a spontaneous commemorative effort by David McConaughy and other citizens of Gettysburg and the State of Pennsylvania, had evolved into a broad, popular movement backed by powerful organizations and by leading political figures of the times. The Civil War battlefields were becoming huge memorial landscapes—scenes of horrific warfare transformed into pastoral shrines.

They were, in effect, canonized by the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the Federal Government. Preservation of the military parks, the first federally managed historic sites, had been deemed to be closely tied to the “welfare of the republic.”

Next week: Beyond the 19th Century