Should Civil War Battlefields Be Preserved?

Should Civil War Battlefields Be Preserved?

The first time I ever got on an airplane, it was to fly across the country and see Civil War battlefields. The second time, same thing. This was the early ’90s, when I was a teenager and Ken Burns’s PBS series had just become the decade’s most unexpected must-see TV.

My dad and my uncle grew up as Civil War aficionados; in 1990 I was the same age my dad had been at the 100th anniversary of Fort Sumter. Dad and Uncle Bill took my cousins and me to Gettysburg and Antietam and Harper’s Ferry as a kind of initiation ritual. In preparation for the trips, I curled up in Dad’s study with the Glory soundtrack playing on his giant headphones and The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War weighing on my lap.

Though I never fell all the way in to the giant ocean of Civil War lore that has swallowed untold thousands of Americans, I certainly walked right up to the edge of it and took a good long look. I saw the incredibly complex battlefield diagrams, I learned about the eccentric officers, I absorbed several hundred memorable anecdotes. I even read the Civil War novel that was written, by the Watership Down guy, entirely from the perspective of Robert E. Lee’s horse.

I never questioned the amount of time I spent learning about the Civil War. In fact, I questioned why I hadn’t spent even more time learning about the Civil War. It was the crucial turning point of American history, I was told again and again. It made us who we are, I learned. It united us. It marked America’s transformation from an agrarian society into an industrialized one. So on, so forth.

Though my Civil War research dropped off precipitously once I’d graduated from high school (and I never called myself a “Civil War buff,” which seemed a wildly inappropriate thing to call oneself regarding any war, ever), I’ve retained a distinct interest in the Civil War era of American history—moreso than, say, the Revolutionary era or the WWII era or any given peacetime period.

For a while, I was even a dues-paying member of the Civil War Trust: the nonprofit organization that’s tasked itself with defending Civil War battlefields against the threat of real estate development. Words like Walmart and casinos and subdivisions are treated like obscenities in the missives from the organization’s president Jim Lighthizer, who urges members to help him honor the memory of our boys in blue and grey—to help save, in the words of his most recent note, “monuments to American courage, valor and sacrifice, sanctified by the blood of our ancestors.”

Supporting battlefield preservation, for a long time, didn’t seem to me remotely questionable. Preserving battlefield land serves an educational purpose. There’s a certain moral uprightness to it, and rolling green fields (ideally, preserved with or restored to precisely the topography and vegetation they had at the time of the battle) are more aesthetically pleasing and environmentally sound than the average Walmart, casino, or subdivision.

What’s more, I felt a debt to battlefield preservationists for the work they’ve done over the past 150 years that allowed me to have such a memorable and meaningful experience in my youth. Studying the Civil War connected me with something larger than myself. It helped me to understand American history in a new depth, and it peeled back some of the layers of the history that’s transpired on every acre of U.S. soil.

Even so, I eventually let my membership lapse. That was initially born more from laziness than by any conscious decision—but still, I was growing increasingly uncomfortable with battlefield preservation as a cause. That definitely had something to do with the Civil War Trust’s logo, which depicts a Union soldier and a Confederate soldier standing back-to-back, each holding their respective flags. I didn’t feel right about using the return address labels, bearing that logo, the organization sent as a thank-you gift.

Civil War battlefield presevation certificate

That was a few years ago, and a few events since have only added to the questions I have about the way the Civil War is being remembered.

First, I read Confederates in the Attic—Tony Horwitz’s important 1998 study of the ways Civil War history, and Confederate history in particular, is remembered across the south. In the book, Horwitz documents the ways that narratives (often spurious) about Confederate history are deployed to racist, reactionary ends. When I was a kid, peering at cycloramas and going on audio tours, somehow no one ever thought to explain to me that there’s a less savory, less sanitized way in which ideas and symbols from Civil War history are being deployed in America.

Then, I re-read and re-watched the book and film versions of Gone With the Wind, which I hadn’t spent any time with since my youth. My main takeaway was just how astonishing it is that both book and movie—especially book—continue to be venerated as American classics, with relatively little acknowledgement in popular culture of just how offensive they are. While the movie has become justifiably notorious for its portrayals of black characters, the book is even worse: there are extended interludes in which the author’s voice forthrightly defends the south’s slavery-based society. If even today Gone With the Wind takes less criticism than it rightly should, I can only imagine what more pernicious narratives have been promulgated as truth about the Civil War era over the past 150 years.

Then, of course, there was Charleston—the shooting, and the ensuing outcry over the persistence of the Confederate battle flags (technically, that would be the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and the second Confederate navy jack) as symbols of “southern pride.” Those flags originated as the symbols of men who fought on behalf of a cause that espoused and perpetuated human slavery, and for such a flag to be raised aloft isn’t just a reminder of historical atrocities, it lends legitimacy to men and women who perpetuate racially-motivated atrocities today.

Back to battlefield preservation, and this direct-mail appeal sitting on my table. To put it in context, this appeal is for funding to support the preservation of 95 acres of land adjacent to a swath preserved by the existing Gettysburg National Military Park—land on which troops battled for control of McPherson Ridge on the first day of the battle. To add further context, the Civil War Trust is just one of many sources of funds dedicated to battlefield preservation—and among the most important sources is Congress, which appropriates funds to match private donations. Of the $1.6 million required to save those 95 acres (part of a defunct golf course that could have potentially become a building site), the Civil War Trust contributed only $25,000, according to the organization.

Supporting Civil War battlefield preservation—even, yes, using those return address labels—is hardly tantamount to raising the Stars and Bars in your front yard. Even so, it’s hard to shake a sense that there’s a false equivalence being perpetuated by the way that some preservationists speak of “our brave boys in blue and grey.”

It’s important to preserve meaningful WWII sites as well, but you don’t see appeals for preservation that show two soldiers standing at ease, one holding an American flag and the other proudly waving a swastika. Mainstream European society has rightly rejected imagery or rhetoric that seems to even implicitly validate the Nazi cause. It’s way, way past time for America to take the same step with our Confederate past.

Historical preservation, in general, is a complicated issue. We can’t preserve everything, so we curate our past by choosing what is to be saved, and how it is to be presented. Battlefield preservation today means something very different than it meant in the 19th century, when battlefields became littered with monuments. Today, preservationists would generally prefer to see battlefields returned to a condition as close to their pre-Civil-War status as possible.

I’m not seriously arguing against the preservation of Civil War battlefields, or even against the extension of battlefield parks—at least by the relatively modest measures being espoused by organizations like the Civil War Trust.

Still, one reason I’m choosing not to renew my membership in the Civil War Trust is that I think we’ve focused on battlefields for long enough. It’s time to spend less time focusing on the musket-toting exploits of the men who did battle, and more time focusing on what, exactly, they were fighting for. Preserving a battlefield is one way to start that conversation. Is it the best way?

Jay Gabler