Keeping History Honest When It Comes to Sight Lines In Civil War-era National Parks Is Not Without Controversy

General Lee's artillery would have a hard time hitting Union forces in Fredericksburg these days, due to dense vegetation that has reclaimed the Civil War sight-lines. Kurt Repanshek photo.

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?

Comments

In July of 2006 my wife and I were vacationing in Colorado and Utah.
We went to visit Dinosaur National Monument and found the building that covers the quary had been closed 2 weeks before we arrived. We were not happy but understood why after seeing the huge cracks in the foundation. Has there been any progress on reparing or replacing this building?
This was our first venture into that part of our great country and we would be disappointed if this is not addressed.
We did tour what we could in the rest of this area and the scenery is no less than breath taking.

Don, I'm afraid construction on a new visitor center isn't expected to begin before 2011. You can read more about Dinosaur in this post.

The battlefields have been preserved to educate us, the people who were not there. The park services try to make battlefields as authentic as they can. I can understand removing trees to accomplish the task. My family and I have gone to Gettysburg a few times, and I still get disoriented because I am not able to see the whole battlefield from every angle. I am not blaming the trees, just stating my experience. I guess that was why they had/have observation towers. They allowed me to oversee the battlefield, but that does not give the view the soldiers had during the battle.

On the other hand. Some battlefields are known for their dense vegatation. I would not want that cleared to make the view better, but less authentic.

I think some clearing is ok and that only some areas of the battlefields should be cleared of non-historic plants if the area has limited other non-historic improvements or removed as well.

In addition, not all of the trees have to be removed.

Many sites in Virginia share the same quandry, as I believe others in the country must as well. After almost 150 years, the trees have returned with a vengeance!

One in particular here in Richmond is the "Chickahominy Bluffs NBP" on the Mechanicsville Tnpk., (US Rt. 360), which was instrumental in the "Seven Days" battles, AKA the "Peninsula Campaign".

This particular site gave the Confederates an excellent view of the Army of the Potomac troop movements on the far side of the Chickahominy River, which more closely resembles as massive swamp at this location. The hilltops this site is constructed on are along the lines of one hundred feet+ above the surface of the river.

However, to stand at the site provided as a lookout by the NPS, one is presented with nothing more than a view into the trees, and a few sets of earthworks also covered with forest.

The view could be restored via cutting a relatively narrow swath through the primarily Oak forest, and thinning other adjacent trees. The high topography of this site would require very little downslope trees to be cut.

This site has seen years of neglect and only recently was repaved and had new signage added. Frankly, I know of state and even private parks in the area that are better maintained.

I don't really get it. What is the purpose of preserving battlefields at all? And more specific, why should they be preserved in the state of the time of the slaughter? Do people visit those places to remember the victims of the carnage? Why would anyone then want to preserve the sight lines of the artillery that ripped all those bodies to pieces? Or do they visit to learn about tactic and strategy? To teach yourself and your kids how to kill efficiently with 19th century technology?

If "War is merely a continuation of politics", then internal and external conflicts should be remembered as conflicts about issues and power. The different positions and interests matter, the methods tried to resolve them, the failure to resolve them peacefully. Then left flank, right flank or lines of sight are irrelevant and only arbitrary details.

I think MRC brings up an interesting point? What IS the point of battlefield preservation? I was brought up near a number of them and as a child was told that they were set aside to honor the dead and fallen soldiers who gave their "last full measure" for an important cause.

As an adult I know better and have the good sense to understand that wars have no honor, that dying for politicians is a fools game and that very rarely are wars fought to defend anything that remotely resembles a worthy or noble cause. I was indoctrinated in the glorious fable that the North slaughtered thousands, burned cities to the ground and ruthlessly destroyed millions of dollars worth of infrastructure for the grand and noble purpose of "preserving the Union". When I asked my teachers why that was so important they would just give me a quizzical look and trot out that old canard about strength in unity; and one teacher even admonished me to take a moment and remember the pledge I had taken earlier in the morning about how America was "under God and indivisible". Powerful propaganda for a 4th grade lad.

Fortunately I'm over its spell.

I say let the trees grow thick and dense. I agree with MRC. Who needs to learn about 19th century slaughter? We've got plenty of blood on our hands here in the 21st.

I wonder if there will be a predator drone national park in the 22nd century?

Historically, the Park Service's role has been to be thoughtful when it comes to tinkering with the environment.

Debatable. Think fire suppression, quarries, roads blasted out of glacially polished domes, predator reduction programs, cutting down sequoias to save cabins, blasting waterfalls so the flow is more aesthetically appealing, digging a trench with a backhoe right next to the Grant Tree, and so on and so forth ad infinitum.

I'm not saying these things to be a Negative Nancy; certainly things could have been worse in the hands of different loggers and different miners; but let us remove our rose-colored glasses when examining the effects of the NPS management, which amounts to significantly more than mere "tinkering with the environment".

MRC makes some good points; this type of "preservation" is very morbid indeed. Perhaps a better memorial to those so cavalierly sacrificed would be to let nature retake the battlefields so that their spirits may finally rest in peace.

Beamis is also correct, and to quote Ben Franklin: "There never was a good war or a bad peace."

Perspective I think is necessary, both in what the NPS historically endeavored to do, and what one expects the role of today's military parks and battlefields to play.

Historically, at least when it came to penning their thoughts, the fathers of the NPS seemingly had good intentions. Were they as environmentally sensitive as one might be today? More than likely not. But then, that can be said of the evolution of many agencies, businesses and societies. Hindsight, after all is 20-20. Looking forward is the more difficult task, and I think the initial highlighted passage in the post above shows Sec. Lane, and Messieurs Mather and Albright were fairly well-intentioned for their day.

I also don't think one can remove political interference from some of the agency's decisions. The Yellowstone snowmobile case is just the latest example.

As for sight lines in military parks and battlefields, should these hallowed grounds simply be allowed to grow over and be forgotten, or should they be taken care of both to depict the historical nature of the conflict and to do honor to the fallen, as well as to help portray the damnable nature of war?

Should the Holocaust Museum in Washington be abandoned and the site converted into a 7-11, or is there something far more valuable and far more lasting that society can learn from a visit, something you can't as easily come away with by reading a history book?

I think that battlefield preservation is important and worthy. Standing on the site of a battlefield creates a a different kind of connection with those who fought and gave their lives in that place. To that end, I think that it is important to preserve some sense of the original place as possible.

Obviously, those who went before us made much different decisions about how to mark a battlefield than would be made today, and I think that it would be inappropriate to try and undo those decisions. The clutter of monuments and even the battlefield tour roads are now in a sense part of the historical landscape at places like Gettysburg and Shiloh. But the mistakes of the past should not keep us from making sensible preservation decisions about what things are left.

MRC,

I fully understand your position, and at one time in my life shared it. The passage of years and much recent study have caused me to change my mind on this matter. I still think the Civil War to be not much more than government sanctioned fratricide, but that does not mean that we cannot learn from it, or that these battlefields should not be preserved.

Sabattis is correct that you simpy cannot get the physical connection to these sites through any form of media. One must stand on the same ground and view the environs that while now peaceful, where once the scenes of great carnage. It does bring a better perspective to the individual soldier's point of view, which in my opinion is who these battlefields and monuments seek to honor.

To the main thrust of the thread, prudent tree removal and delimbing would probably suffice in most cases to restore some form of authenticity to the views of the era, and not total deforestation.

Not meaning to be my usual smart-assed self, but is there an overriding insinuation that each and every battlefield be "preserved", or is it just a select few sites of import that Secretary Lane was referring to in the initial mandate? And how is that selection process determined, and whom shall I bow down to in reverence of their ever-knowing sense of those "most important" sites of conflict in the course of American history? And in reality, shouldn't the greater concern not be the inevitable reclamation of the landscape by Nature, but the not so inevitable commercial development, by which these sites are indeed lost to time forever? Do we need to "reclaim" Culp's Hill and the Round Top duo to witness first-hand the fortifications and overview of the Union's right and left flanks respectively to gain a greater understanding of why, after repeatedly being turned back from these positions, the Confederacy mounted what is now universally considered the suicide march that was Pickett's Last Stand? What about the "other" July 3-4 super battle staged in Vicksburg, which along with Gettysburg simultaneously changed the fortunes of the Union and in no small way assisted in permanently shifting the momentum and eventually outcome of the war towards the Army of the Potomac? And what fate might be in store for Antietam? And Sharpsburg? And the many other lesser glorified but far from lesser important sites in South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi, etc? Does this mandate also apply equally to Revolutionary War and Indian War sites, the Mexican-American conflict, the War of 1812, the Spanish / American War, the French / Indian War.......?

It becomes difficult and ridiculous to justify each and every instance of conflict being a benchmark for preservation status, so if not all, then none. I believe it more important to place the emphasis on maintaining those hallowed grounds being utilized as the unfortunate final resting places for the thousands upon thousands of causalities from BOTH sides of EVERY conflict waged on our soil. Taking into account the scope of the history of mankind and then placing special significance on the sites of human conflict is tantamount to glorification of the deed, and by now we should have "civilized" ourselves to the point of not accepting this as the only manner capable of resolution of our societal differences. Yes, men and women fought and many paid the ultimate price for the preservation of various ideologies. But to cast the real estate itself into some sort of prominence is to me a display of the same lack of dignity exhibited by those who visit expecting (or at least hoping) to see or hear the echoes from the past; a bit too morbid for my particular tastes.

Lone Hiker,

I found myself agreeing for the most part with your first paragraph, especially in the context of battlefields of similar significance from other eras and areas of the country, but came to an abrupt halt in agreement when I came across certain statements, listed below.

While I know you generally care little for my many times as-equally smart-a$$ed, (Or Dumb-a$$ed, your choice…), comments, I’ll submit them just the same.

My home state of Virginia endured the hardships of the Civil War like no other state involved in the conflict. I say this in full acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by all states and peoples involved, but no other state saw the absolute decimation that Virginia did by war’s end.

That being said, it must be brought to light that of the 200+ battlefields in the state, only a few more than a dozen have been preserved as NPS sites, and most not even close to the entire original battlefield in size. These sites were only preserved through forward thinking and planning by those who thought it prudent to do so at the time. I will not second guess their intent, and applaud their foresight.

I agree in the most part with your statement:

“And in reality, shouldn't the greater concern not be the inevitable reclamation of the landscape by Nature, but the not so inevitable commercial development, by which these sites are indeed lost to time forever?”

I can show you what happens when said preservation is not planned for, and such losses occur. This is but one case in point:

The “Yellow Tavern” battlefield, where Sheridan’s cavalry forces won a little mentioned and mostly insignificant battle over JEB Stuart’s Cavalry forces, is now dominated by a huge shopping mall. The need for another Kohl’s has apparently taken precedence over the reverence of the site where Stuart received his mortal wound. The only monument to this man, said battlefield, and all other slain soldiers from both sides is nearly impossible to find, since it is now surrounded by homes within a subdivision.

I can also point out earthworks that reside as nothing more than long piles of dirt within other subdivisions, with no markings as to their significance. In short, urban/commercial development has in most cases won out over preservation of these sites.

I certainly agree with you and most other posters that war is deplorable, and my earlier reference to the Civil War in particular as “fratricide” should show my stance on the politics of the conflict. I still believe these sites were established in reverence to the common soldier, and not to the ideologies of the aptly named “Lost Cause” in this case. War is still a sad reality of the human species, and we show ourselves far from being “Civilized” enough to turn from it completely in the resolution of our differences. Hopefully, though, the lessons learned from the American Civil War will keep us from repeating that kind of history within our own country.

I take great exception to this statement:

“It becomes difficult and ridiculous to justify each and every instance of conflict being a benchmark for preservation status, so if not all, then none.”

For in this culture of greed that is part and parcel to humankind, if given this choice, we would surely end up with none.