Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Mississippi State University
One of the most successful historical projects in American history has been the preservation of Civil War battlefields. Begun in the late nineteenth century, under the auspices of the federal government, first within the War Department and then the National Park Service, huge tracts of land have been preserved. States have also set aside land, and a host of cities in the North and South are graced with monuments to the soldiers and sailors of that era. Groups that raise money for preservation and lobby for more of it abound, utilizing sophisticated advertising techniques to get it done.
Disagreements have erupted over infringement on what increasingly is being called “hallowed ground.” The establishment of a store or a mall or a business near a preserved battle field is sure to result in picketing and legal action. Even in the twenty first century when groups of citizens bemoan the growth of the power of the federal government, the desire for that government to include ever more acres within existing parks, or to establish new sites, remains unabated. It is considered sacrilege to do otherwise. Growing the size of the National Park Service is acceptable when other federal programs are under attack.
Normally, arguments in support of ever more preservation of Civil War battlefields concentrate on the commemoration of what happened there in the 1860s. More recently, environmentalists have come to regard these acres of now lush land and a variety of plant and animal life as crucial to the nation’s ecology. They want the sites to remain as they are and resist any efforts to return them to their Civil War appearance because this would mean the chopping down of trees, the clearing of vegetation and the resulting elimination of a natural habitat.
Clearly, not every acre which felt the footstep of a Civil War soldier can be preserved. Yet there is general agreement on the necessity to do as much as is possible, whether for historical or ecological reasons, as a buffer against the encroachment of an increasingly synthetic world. Perhaps what is needed is a national symposium of historians, preservationists and ecologists to decide what future preservation should entail.
The question is not whether to continue but how to do it, for the nation’s good.