Book Cover "The Origin & Evolution of the National Military Park Idea" by Ronald F. Lee 1973




General Observations

Monuments for
American Revolution Battlefields

The First Battlefield Parks

Later Evolution of the National Military Park Idea





Gettysburg National Military Park
Gettysburg National Military Park.

In the late twentieth century, under the shadow of nuclear weapon proliferation, the historic battlefields of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries seem to many to have little direct connection with modern life. And to present-day historic preservationists, who are concentrating their attention on saving America's irreplaceable architectural heritage including many early domestic dwellings clustered together in historic districts, the preservation and marking of battlefields may sometimes seem to be an almost irrelevant undertaking. It was not always so. Serious Federal involvement in the historic preservation movement first began, almost a century ago, with the erection of monuments at Saratoga, Bennington, Yorktown, and other Revolutionary battlefields. This national involvement deepened during the 1890s with establishment of a carefully thought-out system of national parks, later called national military parks, to preserve major battlefields of the Civil War. As we turn back to try to recapture the preservation spirit of those days, it may be worthwhile to reconstruct some of the circumstances, even though they may seem obvious.

During the lifetimes of most Americans now living, our Nation's wars -- World Wars I and II, the Korean Conflict, and the War in Vietnam -- have been fought on foreign soil. But during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, until 1898, our wars were fought largely on our own soil. The War for Independence, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars, and the Civil War were all fought principally at home. When the Army War College surveyed the far-flung engagements of those wars for Congress in 1925, it estimated that the locations of over 3,400 encounters, skirmishes, and battles could still be identified in the towns and countryside of the United States. [1] When the movement began, in the 1870s, to preserve and commemorate a selection of these battlefields through Federal participation, many citizens were still living whose grandfathers and even fathers had fought during the Revolution, and tens of millions were living who had experienced, directly or indirectly, the tragic fighting of the Civil War. The great issues of those wars were part of their lives and to them preserving and marking the major battlefields was a national obligation.

The manner in which this obligation was at first discharged also deserves comment. Like any other period, the twentieth century has its prejudices. One of our prejudices seems to be against monuments on battlefields. But let us recall some of the circumstances three generations and more ago when many of these monuments were placed. For one thing, several important Revolutionary battles, like Saratoga, Bennington, and King's Mountain, were fought in remote places, where pioneer farms were surrounded by wooded areas, often wild. In the nineteenth century it seemed entirely possible that with the passage of time the very identity of some important locations would become overgrown and lost even if the events themselves were not forgotten. One purpose of those who placed monuments on battlefields was to provide permanent identification for those historic locations as well as to commemorate the participants. In their view, to achieve this purpose monuments should be solid, enduring, and accurately located.

Gettysburg National Military Park
Gettysburg National Military Park

During the 1890s and early 1900s when the Civil War battlefields were acquired, marked, and monumented, great emphasis was being given in the United States to scientific accuracy in historical work, following the example of the German school of historians. It was considered highly desirable to study, document, map, and mark every troop position in unmistakable detail on the ground itself. By doing this well, the historian served not only the needs of fellow historians but also those of the professional soldier, the scientific student of war, to whom it was vital to study the strategy and tactics of the great campaigns and battles in detail on the ground. To the professional soldier, the American Civil War was the first modern war.

Almost all this occurred before the advent of the automobile as a familiar family vehicle. Veterans of North and South traveling to Shiloh for reunions in the 1890s had to travel many miles from the closest railway station to the battlefield by horse-drawn farm wagons. And so it was in many other places. The pace was different in those days, and once arrived, veterans walked over the terrain where once they had fought. A field they might have leisurely studied on foot for three days, we will cover by automobile in half an hour. Monuments and markers were peculiarly appropriate for the day in which they were placed.

Significantly, too, during the period between the Civil War and World War I when many of the battlefields were preserved and marked, a new and deeper feeling of nationality was rising in the United States. There was, says Merle Curti in The Roots of American Loyalty, "a marked shift in emphasis away from the older legalistic concept of the Union to the organic theory of the nation." [2] In the last quarter of the nineteenth century over half a hundred new patriotic societies were launched, including the American Flag Association in 1897. At the same time, new professional organizations were being formed, among them the American Historical Association in 1884. The spirit of the times was conducive to a new search for the roots of loyalty and nationality. It was part of such a time to search out, mark, and preserve important historic sites of the Revolution and the Civil War, and to involve the national Government directly in the task.

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