James McPherson: Battle Over the Battlefields

Source: Newsweek, 1-13-11

One hundred and fifty years after the start of the Civil War, we’re still fighting. This time it’s development vs. preservation—and development’s winning.

Richard T. Nowitz / CorbisGallery: The Battle to Preserve History. Click to view our photos of battlefields that are under the gun—or have already seen acreage eaten up.

The Battle to Preserve History

A casino could soon sit near the Gettysburg battlefield, the bloodiest encounter on American soil. A Walmart supercenter may shadow the Wilderness battlefield in Virginia where Gen. U. S. Grant kept his headquarters when he first fought Gen. Robert E. Lee. And Washington, D.C.’s suburban sprawl is slowly strangling the rural lands where the Civil War’s first crucial battles were fought. It’s an ironic situation: as battlefield sites across the country prepare for an expected onslaught of visitors connected to the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, many of them are shrinking away, acre by acre.

April 12 will mark the sesquicentennial of the start of the war, and governments and citizens across the country are gearing up to commemorate it. Visitation at Civil War–related national parks has already been on the rise, increasing 6.4 percent between 2008 and 2009 after mostly flat numbers in prior years. The National Park Service has reworked its approach to teaching the war’s history to make it more focused on causes and effects. In anticipation of the anniversary, PBS plans to re-air Ken Burns’s landmark documentary on the war, and The New York Times and The Washington Post have already launched special commemorative blogs and news coverage. All the while, however, development at sites around the country is destroying Civil War battlefields at a frantic rate—30 acres a day, according to the Civil War Trust (CWT), a leading heritage conservation group—fast enough to eat up what’s left of the Gettysburg battlefield park in just seven months. “[Battlefield visitors] don’t want to see the parking lot where their ancestors once fought that’s now a shopping center,” says Jim Campi, policy director of CWT. “They want to walk through the woods and see the cannon and the fence lines.”

This month, two high-profile conflicts over further development on the sites of major battles will come to a head. Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board officials are expected to decide whether to allow a casino several miles southwest of the Gettysburg battlefield.. The Mason-Dixon Resort and Casino has become a cause célèbre for Civil War buffs, who have held it up as the best example of crass commercialism making inroads into the “hallowed ground” where more than 51,000 soldiers died. And in Virginia, a judge will hear arguments in a suit that aims to prevent the planned Walmart that is—depending on whom you ask—either adjacent to or on the Wilderness battlefield. These two standoffs are part of a larger debate that raises many of the same questions as the mosque controversy in lower Manhattan: What constitutes hallowed ground, what can you build near or on it, and how soon is too soon?

“There has to be a reasonable balance,” says James McPherson, the foremost living Civil War historian and professor emeritus of history at Princeton. “If you preserved every square foot of battlefield in Virginia, there wouldn’t be much land left. There’s a tendency among preservationists to want to save everything, but realistically there have to be compromises.”

One place McPherson isn’t willing to compromise, however, is the Virginia Walmart, a 140,000-square-foot supercenter the company wants to build in Orange County on a parcel that’s been zoned for commercial use for 37 years. The bloody May 1864 encounter fought there was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. In Grant’s first battle since becoming chief of the U.S. Army, he pounded Lee and began driving him south toward Richmond. Historians say his army’s “nerve center,” including his own headquarters, was located on and near the Walmart site, which is also across the street from the entrance to the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park….READ MORE

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