On Recreating History

I read an insightful short article in the Summer 2009 issue of The American Scholar (pp. 6-7) by Christopher Clausen titled “Sesquicentennial Excess: Must we erase evidence of later commemorations at Civil War sites?” (You can buy the journal at most newsstands or read the article at your local library.) The essay helpfully placed in a national and philosophical perspective the recent announcement that 90 acres of trees will be removed at the Vicksburg Military Park to make the topography more apparent to visitors.

Clausen’s topic is the just-about-to-start sesquicentennial (for those of you who don’t know, well, whatever language that word “sesquicentennial” comes from, it means “150-year anniversary”) of the Civil War in America, and how the National Park Service is working its hardest (and expensivist) to “return” the battlefields in its care to their appearance during the Civil War. Clausen calls this effort “pseudo-authenticity” and states that

trying to return Gettysburg and other battlefields that have been saturated with monuments and tourism since the 19th century to something like their platonic state is not only impractical and questionable on other grounds, but horribly expensive. Hence, the multiplying signs of corporate involvements–for example the Gettysburg Park’s grandiose new visitor center.

Clausen also objects to the “gleaming” quality of the rehabilitated parks:

Newly restored Civil War sites, with their ‘costumed interpreters” on the model of Colonial Williamsburg, are infinitely less evocative than the humbler versions that preceded them, where a century of monuments and reforestation was not seen as an obstacle to understanding. We might even suspect that for once Lincoln was wrong when he implied so eloquently (‘we cannot consecrate–we cannot hallow’) that nothing done in commemoration of the dead would affect the significance of the place where they died. If nothing else, the creation of national cemeteries like the one at whose dedication he was speaking irrevocably changed both the landscapes and their meaning.

Clausen gives as a case in point the Antietam Battlefield where the Park Service has recently acquired the “Miller Cornfield” to save it from development. This farm has been in the Miller family and still in use as a farm until now, with barns and houses and such dotting the landscape, most dating from after the battle, but still showing the same agricultural use of the property. Clausen notes that these “non-historic” structures will be torn down, and even the historic buildings will no longer be used for farming as they historically have been and were during the war. In his opinion, the new park will be more of a “new and artificial creation” than it would have been if the farm had remained as a farm, along with the non-historic structures it needed to operate.

After examining the problem of the many commemorative monuments at the various parks, most especially at Gettysburg (and of course Vicksburg has hundreds too), Clausen concludes:

Trying to make a landscape consecrated by so much grief and bitterly earned wisdom convey the illusion that ‘it hasn’t happened yet’ (in William Faulkner’s famous words from Intruder in the Dust) seems not only futile but deeply misguided.

As I’ve said before, I’m ambivalent about this issue–on the one hand, I see the NPS viewpoint that these parks are supposed to be about educating the public about the battle; on the other hand, I believe the parks also have a mission of commemoration, and part of that commemoration is the markers and monuments and even the trees that have grown up to “heal” the land. I share Clausen’s dismay at finding a place so “over-restored” that it has lost interest as a historic place. Plus, of course, I love trees–big trees, small trees, evergreens, deciduous trees, magnolias, live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, longleaf pines, Japanese magnolias, cypress trees in swamps, cedars, dogwoods in Spring . . .

Where was I?

Oh, yes, ambivalent. I think this argument falls into the same old debate preservationists have been having for two centuries between (in Stewart Brand’s terms) “scrapers” and the “anti-scrapers.” And when it comes right down to it, philosophically I fall on the side of the anti-scrapers who, like Ruskin, believe that restoration almost always strips away so much of the history of a place that it is a “destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed’ (The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1848).

Since this is already a done-deal, I can only hope that the NPS scrapers don’t scrape so much away that the battlefields irrevocably lose their character. And I hope that this expensive and idealistic venture bears fruit in lots of new visitors who fall in love with history because of their experience at the “restored” battlefields. I have my doubts about that last, however.

In doing a little research on the topic, I followed a reference in Clausen’s essay to a longer article by John Summers in the March 18, 2009 issue of The New Republic, “Gettysburg Regress: How the government is ruining America’s most famous battlefield.I think you’ll find this article, and the many comments that follow, very interesting in that all the perspectives are aired and mostly in rational tones. And in following yet another link, I found that the author of the blog Infinity Ranch, in a post called “Bringing Back the Past” touches on the heart of the matter when he asks: is there such a thing as “authentic history” when dealing with a subject as large in scope as a Civil War battlefield? Who’s to say that today’s “authentic” won’t be tomorrow’s desecration? He sums it up with this thought about the messiness of history (something Mississippians of all people should be aware of):

History is messy. History is constantly in flux. History is subject to debate about exactly what happened, why, and what it means. Presenting people with a “definitive” account takes the event and seals it away from reconsideration, at least for the majority of folks. It would be better if people learned, early and often, about how history really worked. It’s much more interesting than most people think it is, to boot.

I know all this may seem like much ado about an arcane subject, but in fact, this issue gets to the very core of what it means to be a preservationist or a historian. The questions raised are broader than the changes at just a few battlefields–is this “scraper” view now the general view of NPS or is it just an abberation? Stewart Brand noted that the scrapers “won” the 19th century, but were soundly defeated in the 20th. Will they make a comeback in the 21st?

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Categories: Civil War, Historic Preservation, Museums, National Park Service, Preservation Education

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