The speech was a critical moment in what has been called “The Third Battle of Manassas,” an effort by preservationists, historians and Civil War enthusiasts to keep Manassas from becoming an isle of memory in a sea of big-box retail. In the end, Congress acted to save a large tract of private land — important to history but not part of the park — from the fate Bumpers imagined, and more than 500 acres were added to the park. But it was an all-too-rare victory in a war that, like the Civil War itself, is full of thousands of small and mostly forgotten battles, with only a few contentious enough to rise to public attention.
Despite 150 years of preservation efforts, with major victories in the 1890s that saved five of the most important battle sites, the challenge of Civil War heritage is that we are still connected by the same roads and rivers that connected Civil War America, and in many ways, we are still divided by the same cultural lines that helped precipitate the war. Interstate 95 is the fastest way to get from Washington to Richmond, Interstate 66 is the fastest way to get from Washington to the Shenandoah Valley, and both highways have spurred development along the same strategic corridors that witnessed so many bloody confrontations.
Culturally, we are still divided by basic disagreements about the meaning of the war, a division that often parallels, in uncanny ways, debates between private property rights and a federal interest in preservation. And even the look and layout of our Civil War battlefields track some of our most bitter political and cultural divisions. Study the way the war’s history is taught at almost any National Park Service site today and you see two different wars. One was fought between brothers, full of blood and heroism, with desperate charges, wily feints and daring flanking actions. The battlefield, with its landscape of fences, roads, barns and old stone houses, serves to clarify this war like an illustration in a book. The other was a war of politics and economics, ideas and cultural heritage, playing out on a more abstract, national landscape. The battlefield relates to this war as a mere locus for salient tales of slavery, identity and personal sacrifice.
To understand how we got to this point, there’s no better place to study than Gettysburg, the most famous and yet strangest of all our battlefields. Today, it seems almost surreal: a landscape of gently rolling fields cluttered with ornate marble interventions, as if some frugal farmer had decided to open an outdoor market for high-end funerary architecture. Perhaps more than any other battle site, Gettysburg preserves not just the field of battle but the history of how that field of battle has been memorialized. It is the quintessence of what John Hennessy, an author of the Park Service’s plan for the current sesquicentennial celebrations, calls a “museum of commemorative expression.”