Kevin Levin and Battlefield Preservation

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?

Published in: on April 30, 2007 at 11:43 am  Comments (9)  

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. J.D., — First, thanks for the kind words re: my blog. It’s nice to hear from a fellow historian that is in fact thought-provoking. As your post implies our perceptions may in the end reduce down to our individual experiences. I obviously don’t claim to have any hard and fast facts to support my claims, and I may be making too much of the opposition to the NPS.

    My overall problem with Hodge’s editorial is the sharp distinction he draws between those concerned with the all-mighty dollar and the preservationists who have transcended greed altogether. My research on the Crater and memory shows that battlefield preservation has from the beginning been connected to local economic concerns. The late Jim Weeks clearly shows this in his study of Gettysburg as a tourist attraction. The goals of preservation must be seen as competing with other goals and not necessarily or simply as reflective of some national identity.

    No doubt many people do reflect on the deeper meanings beyond the fighting. That said, battlefield preservationists need to get off the moral high ground and compete with others who hold different values. Again, I have financially supported preservation organizations and I value these places as teaching tools. In the end, however, it comes down to money.

  2. Backatcha, Kevin, and I see your point. I just wanted to make sure that these thoughts of the average stomper (the majority, I feel) don’t get lost in the shuffle.

    I certainly agree with you that it all comes down to money – we’ve seen it time and time again, and that’s the way it will be with EVERY threat to anything historical in this country.

    And it makes me wonder what in this country ‘doesn’t’ come down to money in the end…


  3. That it comes down to money is also deeply rooted in our past. One way to interpret the Civil War is that it led directly to the Industrial Revolution, the Gilded Age, and everything that goes with it. The development and preservation of sites like Petersbur and Gettysburg falls neatly into this development – both used history as marketing tools and nobody thought anything of it. In other words, preservation and capitalism went hand in hand.

  4. Kevin writes that his research on the Crater and memory “shows that battlefield preservation has from the beginning been connected to local economic concerns,” that the “goals of preservation must be seen as competing with other goals and not necessarily or simply as reflective of some national identity,” and that, therefore,
    “battlefield preservationists need to get off the moral high ground and compete with others who hold different values.”

    I’d put forth that this is what the preservationists have been doing from day one with the work of CWPT being the most visible example. That they have had the success they’ve enjoyed, as well as the success of other, less well known groups, is indicative of the “moral high ground” often holding sway with the general public.

    We can easily say that it always comes down to money, but I’d like to think there are many, many people out there who want to believe that some parts of life, such as historic preservation, can sometimes transcend the mean green. Maybe that’s just a naive delusion on my part, but I’ve seen it in action on a small scale time and again.

    The moral high ground can in fact be an arrow in the preservationist’s quiver because it is certainly something that the developer cannot use. All’s fair in love and war…


  5. As I pointed out in response to Kevin’s post on his blog, I think there is a certain amount of irony here because I feel the reason that so many people want to develop things near battlefields is that the preservationists have been as successful as they have in keeping things as pristine as possible, which has led to large crowds coming in every year. No developer would have even considered putting a casino near Gettysburg if the town didn’t have millions of people visiting. This may very well be a case where their success in some way may work against their cause. That said, I would tend to err on the side of the preservationists because in the end the study of history needs to have all the original sources, and the battlefield is (to use a lawyer’s term) part of the “best evidence” as to what actually happened. But I also agree with Kevin that the “moral high ground” is used far too often as a weapon. Development in and of itself isn’t bad, and not all developers are greedily rubbing their hands trying to plow under statues or historical markers. Like most arguments, the truth lies somewhere near the center.

    By the way, if we truly wanted the battlefields to be as pristine and untouched as possible, wouldn’t we have to rip the paved roads out of each one and tear that tower down at Gettysburg?


  6. Paul,

    It’s indeed true, I think, that many folks on the side of preservation have their own reasons for it. And you’re quite correct that developers cannot appeal to the “high moral ground” of the public – that’s one arrow they can’t shoot, and an 8-ball they’ll forever be behind.

    In my experience talking with folks against the casino at Gettysburg (I was one of them) I heard the entire gamut of reasons. By far the most prevalent was ire against the idea of “having such a thing so close to the Hallowed Ground.” But many voiced such reasons as disdain (even hatred) for David LeVan and his ilk, anxiety over the atmosphere a casino would bring (regardless of the battlefield), higher crime, etc etc. Financial reasons proferred by the pro-casino crowd fell on deaf ears. Tell the citizens their property taxes would drop in half was ignored (history tells us that likely wouldn’t have happened anyway).

    Developers have only a few arrows, while preservationists have a quiver full, and the latter is just difficult to overcome when that appeal to the “higher ground” is made.


  7. Rob,

    That irony is not often pointed out, and it’s a Catch-22 that developers have to deal with.

    Your last comment is the 800 lb gorilla in the room 🙂 Indeed, there can only be so much about historical ground that can ever be pristine… take out the paved roads, rebuilt non-existent structures, replant all the crops as they were. Even the huge, laudable efforts at “restoring” Gettysburg presently going on can only go so far. Unless we could go back in time, it can only be as good as what we have.


  8. I am here a day late and a dollar short, but was happy to find this discussion. As a rank amateur who lately came charging in to battlefield preservation, I stopped to look around me and said “What is THIS?” As a battlefield stomper all my life, I thought this area would be straightforward–not fraught with confusion and conflict (like the profession from which I am retired, clinical psychology). Because I propose that we negotiate with developers for solutions that can commemorate history while serving the owners’ and community’s financial needs, I am labeled as a “radical groundhugger” by the developers and “sell out” by the “sacred ground worshippers”. But you guys are raising the right points. We can’t save everything and nothing is pristine–as soon as you put out a road or a porta-potty for the tourists, authenticity is lost. On the other hand, there is no better ground for learning the past and reflecting toward the future than walking the ground…Books are the map, but the map is not the countryside…Thanks for a thought-provoking look at the roots of the conflict–which may also be the roots of the solution.

    Best wishes

    Nancy R. Simpson, PhD

  9. I take pleasure in, lead to I found exactly what I used to be looking for.

    You’ve ended my four day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a
    nice day. Bye

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