Keeping History Honest When It Comes to Sight Lines In Civil War-era National Parks Is Not Without Controversy
When General Robert E. Lee's troops were battling the Union forces at Fredericksburg, Virginia, on December 13, 1862, his cannons atop Lee's Hill and nearby Howison Hill had clear lines of fire.
Those views were made possible by "pioneers," special troop detachments whose jobs entailed building breastworks and clearing trees to provide open lines of fire for the artillery. So good were they at their tasks, and so brutally effective was the cannonry, that the general was heard to mutter, "It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it."
Today, quite a few of those sightlines at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park are heavily overgrown, making it impossible for visitors to clearly visualize the battlefield that once sprawled before General Lee. Park Superintendent Russ Smith realizes the problem, and has plans to clear some of the vegetation to recreate some of the views General Lee and his cannons had.
"Our tree clean-up and trimming contract is finally in place. Opening up the vista from Lee Hill is part of that project," says Superintendent Smith. "We found it will be a bit of a challenge to make much headway since the trees are so large. We'll see what we can do. We'd hate to have to take mature trees down completely."
Indeed, National Park Service managers are pretty careful when it comes to dealing with troublesome trees. Historically, the Park Service's role has been to be thoughtful when it comes to tinkering with the environment. Here's the mandate Interior Secretary Franklin Lane gave the fledgling Park Service in 1918:
You should not permit the cutting of trees except where timber is needed in the construction of buildings or other improvements within the park and can be removed without injury to the forests or disfigurement of the landscape, where the thinning of forests or cutting of vistas will improve the scenic features of the parks, or where their destruction is necessary to eliminate insect infestations or diseases common to forests and shrubs.
In the construction of roads, trails, buildings, and other improvements, particular attention must be devoted always to the harmonizing of these improvements with the landscape. This is a most important item in our programs of development and requires the employment of trained engineers who either possess a knowledge of landscape architecture or have a proper appreciation of the esthetic value of park lands. All improvements will be carried out in accordance with a preconceived plan developed in special reference to the preservation of the landscape, and comprehensive plans for future development of the national parks on an adequate scale will be prepared as funds are available for this purpose.
Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania isn't the only Civil War park troubled by trees. At Gettysburg National Military Park, for instance, there often is talk about removing trees that encroach on the Civil War battlefield.
Some, however, think the Park Service is going a bit too far with its tree-clearing motivations. John J. Summers teaches at Boston College. In a recent column in Times Higher Education, Mr. Summers said the Park Service was wasting its money trying to clear 345 acres of trees at Gettysburg.
The logic appears glaringly cracked: if the goal is to make the battlefield look as it appeared when 165,000 soldiers met in the Gettysburg epic, then why uproot the "non-historic" trees while leaving in place the non-historic roads? And what about the 1,300 monuments?