I read most of the other Civil War blogs quite frequently, and I will admit that Kevin Levin’s makes me think more than most. Usually I either staunchly agree or disagree with opinions expressed in his thoughtful posts.
A recent one, however, has motivated me to respond. Kevin posted about a proposal to build a Wal-Mart near Appomattox on land that witnessed one of the final cavalry scraps of the war. Now, mind you, it really doesn’t matter to me that the land in question is cavalry-related – my opinion on Kevin’s view would be the same no matter who or what fought on that piece of land.
Kevin quotes Robert Lee Hodge, who wrote an editorial piece about the threatened land – here’s a quote from Hodge’s article:
As I toured Appomattox last year, I saw that development in historic areas has increased more in the last five years than in the past 142 years since the surrender. Wal-Mart announced this month that it will build on the ground that was fought over primarily by a Federal cavalry brigade under Gen. Henry Davies and Confederate troopers under Gen. Thomas Munford — including the 2nd Virginia Cavalry in which Company H was the Appomattox Rangers.
This is where Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fired its last shots and suffered its last casualties. The Confederate dead are buried on the ground slated for development. The Robertson house that once stood there was used as a Federal headquarters and probably a hospital. This is of interest to reverent people throughout the country.
Kevin then posted the following:
Now make no mistake I have a great deal of respect for battlefield preservationists and I’ve been known to give money to at least one organization. That said, I cringe at these sappy and vague references to the importance of our Civil War past:
(And he concludes with this from Hodge:)
Whether you are a Southerner or a Northerner; Democrat or Republican; domestic or imported; black, white, yellow, red, blue or gray — these places tell us more about who we are than any other single historical period in our brief existence. It is our road map to tell us who we are, where we are, where we have been, and where we may go.
Kevin then offers his thoughts:
I for one can’t stand the sight of Wal-Marts and I resist shopping there whenever possible. I am even willing to pay more for an item rather than walk into these cookie cutter – fake hospitality asylums. However, I honestly don’t know why I should resist plans to build one of these monstrosities on land that was fought over by Federal cavalry. More importantly, Wal-Marts provide people with jobs and even with all of the controversy surrounding benefits packages that has to have some value – definitely more value than preserving land because Federal cavalry fought over it.
I am going to go out on a limb here and it will probably upset some, but I actually doubt that most battlefield enthusiasts/preservationists really agree with Hodge’s assessment these sites constitute some kind of road map of national identity. Most people’s interest in the Civil War extends no further than the battlefields themselves. Just consider the opposition over the past few years to the NPS’s efforts to broaden our understanding of Civil War battlefields in a way that would connect them to broader issues that go very far in addressing our national identity.
My guess is that in the end most people desire to save Civil War battlefields so they can walk the ground and imagine for themselves the movements of troops and the fighting that took place there. We’re not talking about serious reflection about issues of national identity, we’re talking about entertainment. How can Hodge claim that saving land that was fought over by a Federal cavalry brigade translate into anything other than saving a small piece of a larger military campaign puzzle? In short, it’s a chance to play soldier in the “Mind’s I.” The problem is that the people who enjoy walking battlefields constitute a very small interest group.
If you want to save the battlefields than raise the money and purchase the land. Hell, I will even help, but don’t preach to me that this issue somehow transcends region, race, and politics.
I’m not so sure that you’re correct, Kevin, and I’ll postulate that the thoughts of many, if not most, “battlefield stompers” goes beyond just looking at the grass, trees, and the pertinent action. Maybe I’m being idealistic here, just as I think you’re being radically un-idealistic regarding this issue, but my experience with fellow stompers is that they indeed look at the “larger picture” far beyond just the action that took place on a piece of ground. And I’ve dealt with thousands of them – I’ve given and participated in tours of both preserved and unpreserved lands more than I can count. The land and the action indeed drive the initial interest, as well as the preservation efforts, but ultimately folks cherish such lands for its true value – that “road map” to an identity. I doubt anyone can tell me the opposite is true for places such as Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, Appomattox, you name it. Do not the “minor” surrounding conflicts that took place on nearby lands not also come under the blanket of their larger battles? For instance, if the battlefield proper at Gettysburg is worth saving because of the ideal of it (not just the particular actions that took place on it), what makes nearby Hunterstown (also the scene of a side-show cavalry battle) any less significant? It provides “less of a road map” to a larger ideal? Is not a battle or campaign the sum of its parts?
I think if you looked deeper, Kevin, you’d find much more of that “serious reflection” in battlefield walkers than you imagine. Much more.
Also check out the comments to Kevin’s post. I guess there are, and probably always will be, very divergent opinions on this matter. But for me, when I no longer see that deeper meaning of the land – the meaning that far transcends just the action that took place on it – I’ll quit stomping. And I get that same feeling on battlefield land, in historic homes, you name it. If we didn’t, well, why not just create digital 3-D images of all the battlefields and then plow them all under? If battlefield land has no meaning beyond a study of their actions, we’d lose nothing by doing so, no?