Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Point of Preservation?

Apologies to our growing readership for our recent silence. I believe all of the authors here have recently been force-fed a healthy dose of real life obligations. But continuing...

The recent hullabaloo in the Civil War community (including some located directly below this post) about the threatened development near the Perryville battlefield has left me reflecting on exactly where I stand on battlefield preservation. That's right, I occasionally have second thoughts about the value of "preserving" Civil War battlefields. There, I said it, and it feels good to get off my chest. From my experience with the Civil War community (broadly defined here to include all with an interest in the war: popular, academic, and everything in between. though a discussion of exactly what that "community" is may be fodder for future posts), I assume that this is an opinion very seldom held and rarer still expressed by those who care to read Civil War blogs. This is not to say that I think battlefields unimportant. I do, however, feel hesitant to save battlefields for battlefields sake. I fear that we risk losing the higher importance of the Civil War battlefield if we begin to value its preservation as an end unto itself.

I honestly see no point in preserving the Civil War battlefield unless it can be used as a tool to discuss the war's broader political, social, economic, and especially racial causes and effects. All of the authors here including myself can testify that if used correctly by a willing, motivated, and well-read interpreter, the battlefield can touch on those issues that make many Civil War "buffs" -- many Americans -- squirm. Now, this is not to say that I feel this will be the fate of the Perryville battlefield. The park is equipped with a knowledgeable staff and connections to able professional historians who, I am confident, keep the war's broader picture in the minds of the visitor. It is the reaction to the Perryville news, the seeming groundswell of opposition, petitions to the city council, etc. from Civil War fora here on the web that most interests me. Does all this interest mean that the Civil War community recognizes the battlefield as a national classroom which can produce a dialog on issues so pertinent as to require a recent half-hour speech by a Presidential candidate? Or does it mean that the community sees those same acres as a place to immerse themselves in the military glories of both Blue and Gray and escape discussion of precisely those same issues? Of course, I expect reality to fall here, there, and somewhere in between.

The percentage of Americans who simply wish to honor the heroic actions men long dead is constantly shrinking. The only way the Civil War will retain its proper place in American culture and history is if we move beyond the battlefield and once again make the Civil War Emory Thomas' "usable past." If we can't at the very least examine and acknowledge why we want to preserve these places, are battlefields indeed better off as parking lots?

2 comments:

Brett S. said...

Patrick,

I agree to some extent that trying to preserve every single piece of land which witnessed some form of Civil War combat is probably going too far. I think we need to identify those patches of land most important to the war and concentrate solely on those. It is a shame that so many famous battlefields have been developed into residential housing or strip malls.

Patrick Lewis said...

Brett,

I have felt the same way for a good while now. There simply must come a time when we say "too late" on some of these places and focus on what we can can do to improve the ones we have, making them better places to teach and learn. A shame indeed, but a necessary realization in today's development-crazed world.