Battlefield Restoration Questioned

Let me start out by saying that I’m a supporter of the NPS’s efforts at restoring Civil War battlefield terrain to its appearance just prior to the battle.  Yes, I know it won’t be precisely right: there are monuments that should remain, and there are times when I think some restoration efforts may privilege restoration, strictly defined, over other values (for example, sometimes removing a treeline doesn’t enhance the appearance of anything, and may in some cases expose an eyesore or another modern intrusion that was once concealed). Moreover, some challenges seem to defy such efforts: for example, we know that in some places, wooded areas were in fact more open then they are now (think Herbst Woods at Gettysburg) because the undergrowth was not there (walk Herbst Woods and you’ll see what I mean).

Not everyone agrees.  Recently I came across this article by John Summers of Boston College. Rather than summarize his argument, I invite you to read and respond to it.

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24 thoughts on “Battlefield Restoration Questioned

  1. As an amateur Civil War historian and student of history, I am greatly in favor of battlefield restoration. I remember my first visit to Gettysburg in the late ’60s – LRT was covered with trees, as was Devil’s Den. There was no way you could understand the battle. Now, each new restored area has brought new understanding and perspective.

    The writer sounds like the local couple I met at Manassas after the tree removals at Deep Cut. They didn’t like it: they enjoyed their walks in the woods.But as the Ranger reminded later: It is a battlefield park.

  2. I think Mr. Summers misses the main point of Gettysburg National Military Park and the attached Eisenhower Presidential Site. It is a Military Park. It is not a nature park, a national forest, an arboretum, or a recreational park. It is a Military Park.

    Essentially, its first service as such is to the American military that it may study the events that occurred here before, during and after the battle, and make that a part of their military knowledge.

    After Waterloo, it is perhaps the most studied and most written about battle in Western Culture. Its effect on American culture is almost immeasurable.

    Indeed, as Mr. Summers asked, “If a battlefield is not a locus of authentic experience, then what is it? A shrine? A classroom?”

    Actually, you can have it both ways. And that is what the effort strives to do.

    Former Superintendent Latschar affected an amazing metamorphosis with his bold and well researched plan to transform the Battlefield to its 1863 condition with the addition of the monuments and markers, and the roads and private holdings that he could not have any control over.

    You see the beneficiaries of this work almost every day of the year when the chartered buses and white unmarked US Government licensed vans full of visitors with military haircuts are seen stopping at various locations around the Battlefield.

    Those visitors leave the Battlefield with a clearer understanding of what occurred here and why, and the most accurate version of the terrain this piece of ground has seen since the 4th of July, 1863.

    This is what a ‘Military Park’ means. The historical context supplants the natural context when that natural context has changed since the events that made the site famous occurred. Indeed, as anyone who has visited Gettysburg can tell you, the natural context that was extant at the time of the Battle is extremely important, from the shape of the terrain to the presence of the many orchards in which the men sheltered, to the many fences that impeded their progress across the fields, to the wood lots from which they launched those attacks.

    What happened at Gettysburg is still relevant to today’s military. It is as relevant as what Alexander the Great did at Issus, and Gaugamela, and Hydaspes, as what Caesar did in Gaul, and what Sir Arthur Wellesley and Napoleon Bonaparte did at Waterloo. And in that relevance it is studied today nearly as much as Waterloo.

    And there is still an abundance of trees on the Battlefield.

    Many years ago on a bright summer Sunday morning, I had the honor and privilege to have the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens almost entirely to myself. At one point I bent down and picked up a pebble. I was immediately confronted by two guards armed with submachine guns slung around their necks. Fortunately they spoke English. They made the point that it was illegal to even take a pebble from the Parthenon. I asked how a pebble can be so important. Their reply was that I was one person, but they had millions of visitors every year…and if each one took a pebble, and they gestured around them…see, they asked, this is where much of the Parthenon has gone.

    On spring days at Gettysburg we see dozens of school buses, and when they stop in the Devil’s Den area, the younger girls pile off those buses and start harvesting the forsythia, and the pussy willow. Within the first few days it is all gone.

    On Little Round Top the Park Service is faced with troubling amounts of erosion caused by foot traffic. They have tried different ways to minimize the problem all without success. They periodically contemplate barring visitors from the crest. Fortunately that is dismissed as a solution…for now.

    At the South End Picnic area, evenings can be entertaining when one sees the raccoons scuttling off into the woods after raiding the trash cans. They can be tracked by the white KFC bags seen moving through the brush. As a result, the raccoons no longer eat the crayfish in Plum Run and there is now an overabundance of them. Additionally at least one small mountain lion has been seen in the South End picnic area, apparently feeding on the raccoons.

    These anecdotal incidents are a far more serious threat to Gettysburg Battlefield than the good land management and Battlefield Restoration practiced by the National Park Service.

  3. Dang, he’s even more pedantic than I am. ;)

    He’s really hung up on “almost feel the bullets.” In addition to doing a better job organizing his essay, I think he should consider that maybe that phrase isn’t meant to be taken literally. It seems to me he should look at the story of Superintendent Latcher and the former Marine’s tour, because I’m not sure he got it.

  4. Restoring parks to their Historical appearance is great – in theory. And I’m all for it – in theory. As a practical matter any change in the landscape to restore it to its Civil war appearance should be weighed against the harm it would cause. For example, on some battlefields having trees instead of an open field doesn’t really make much difference. Gettysburg is a little different since its the Big Kahuna of CW battlefields. It’d be nice to see a “Peach orchard” and a “Wheat Field” when visiting.

    • With the exception of a two year period a few years back, the Peach Orchard and Wheatfield have both been here as long as I can remember.

      The trees of the Peach Orchard need to be renewed periodically as they do get old, but a few years back, the soil was loaded with pests, so they took the trees out and planted some crops that naturally got rid of the pests. Now the trees are back and doing fine, though after recent storms, some need propping up to straighten them out.

  5. It should be noted that out west at Chickamauga and Lookout Mountain these parks just aren’t CW battlefields their recreational areas for people who live near by. This needs to be protected.

    • Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park both enjoy the same status as Gettysburg, and other Civil War Battlefield sites, as Military Parks. As such they are NOT recreation parks.

      This from the Park website:

      “Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, under the guidance of the National Park Service, maintains the resource “for the purpose of preserving and suitably marking for historical and professional military study the fields of some of the most remarkable maneuvers and most brilliant fighting in the war of the rebellion. . . .”

      “The Moccasin Bend National Archeological District was established as a unit of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park by Public Law 108-7 enacted February 20, 2003. In accordance with the legislative intent, the archeological district was established “in order to preserve, protect, and interpret for the benefit of the public the nationally significant archeological and historic resources located on the peninsula known as Moccasin Bend, Tennessee.””

  6. I’m afraid that this is a large wagon of night soil. So much to say here – as only one example, you’d think that nothing can be gleaned from the numerous photos taken within days of the battle, especially of the LRT area near and distant. That terrain (unlike swaths of northern Virginia) was not altered by the armies. It’s been altered, instead, by “Smoky the Bear”-style practices. Frankly, I’d rather listen to somebody who simply thinks “it looks nicer with all the trees” than to this pseudo-metaphysical spewing. Kudos to the NPS for their ongoing efforts to make the battlefield more closely resemble the “hallowed ground”. You would think that somebody who actually worked there might “get it” This guy clearly doesn’t.

  7. Interesting that all the emphasis at Gettysburg is on “restoring” land when the UGRR site is being slowly destroyed by a local dump and few seem to care

    • I suppose the answer is that different jurisdictions are involved. The NPS controls what it controls, so the Borough’s decision to expand a landfill is out of NPS control. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be a separate or significant issue – just that it has nothing to with the NPS efforts at restoration of the landscape which it owns. For what it’s worth, I think the real problem for a lot of folks who object to restoration is that they like trees and vegetation – even if those weren’t there at the time and even if in many instances it’s a case of non-native species taking over. (And that reminds me of reactions to the great fires of 1988 at Yellowstone by folks who were outraged that in several instances the NPS allowed the fires to burn a good ways – forgetting that stupid “Smoky the Bear” practices over many decades caused the problem in the first place). Like it or not, one of the reasons to visit a battlefield is to understand the why and how of what happened there, which is directly influenced by the field’s appearance. Otherwise, one can get an equally meaningful experience by standing in some traffic circle or such and contemplating a plaque memorializing the fight at Chantilly.

      • Hi, I am not singling out the NPS. They are in a long line of institutions in the area who refuse to even give vocal support to preserving the site from the dump.

        • They are not permitted to make such expressions about property they do not own. A recent comment by a temporary Superintendent got him in a bit of hot water when he commented favorably on a local casino project.

          • Exactly. Moreover, they have to spend their energy fighting the battles they’re authorized to fight. A far more valid criticism would focus on the disgraceful transaction which allowed Gettysburg College to destroy the railroad cut c. 1991.

            • Hi, The RR Cut is gone. Why talk about it when the UGRR site soon will be. The borough owns the property right up to the mill site.

              Do you think they should stop dumping?

              • The RR Cut is gone because the NPS screwed up on an issue in which they had control. That’s why it’s relevant to this discussion.

          • Hi,

            Yet he spoke at the site. With the dump at his back. He may not have noticed.

            I get a lot of reasons why nobody is doing anything.

            And, so, nobody does.

    • Not so. There is work being done to restore the McAllister’s Mill site for a number of years, but the problem actually lies with the borough which uses the site to dump road debris from road construction projects. They simply refuse to stop. As it it within the Park Boundaries, but is not owned by the NPS, there is little the NPS can do until it does own it.

      It is not the only Underground Railroad site in the vicinity.

      • >>>>>>>>There is work being done to restore the McAllister’s Mill site for a number of years>>>>>

        What would this work be????? A local historic association is charging for a tour, but there is no work being done to restore or preserve.

        I do not question their good intentions, but they simply do not understand the fight that is needed to save this site.

  8. I remember reading Summers article when it came out and not grasping his point. It seems he doesn’t understand the mission of the parks.

    One can never “feel the bullets” (hence my deep antipathy for reenacting) but when visiting a battlefield one must be able to get a sense of the events that transpired there. To my mind, intelligent rehabilitation means reconfiguring a battlefield to its original condition to the largest extent possible and preserving the elements added in the following century and a half that are now part of the battlefield’s historical memory. The monuments are obviously part of that memory; so too are certain projects undertaken during the New Deal and Mission 66 programs, among other things. I don’t think the electric poles that once lined the Emmittsburg Road fall into any of those categories.

  9. Well, we have come a long way from the days when Camp Colt occupied “this Hallowed Ground” of Gettysburg. I call this enlightenment and I hope the NPS keeps up the good work.

    • They are. Most recently they began clearing Powers Hill after acquiring it from private ownership. It is a fascinating thing to see now that it is in the progress of being cleared.

      Additional work is underway at Culp’s Hill and up on Oak Hill.

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