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 - pgs
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Later Evolution of the National Military Park Idea





Battlefields as National Possessions

The idea of the Nation acquiring an entire battlefield and preserving it for historical purposes was new in 1890. It is therefore not surprising that it soon engendered a serious controversy, which arose, fittingly enough, at Gettysburg. The controversy involved two questions of fundamental importance to the future of historic preservation by the Federal Government. Is preserving and marking the site of an historic battlefield a public purpose and use? If so, is it a purpose for which Congress may authorize acquisition of the necessary land by power of eminent domain? The circumstances of this dispute, which had to be settled by the Supreme Court of the United States, are of unusual interest and provide an appropriate introduction to our story.

The first electric street railway in the United States began operating in Richmond, Virginia in 1888. [16] It was a prompt success, and a desire to enter this new era of advanced technology in transportation spread rapidly to cities and towns all over the United States. One of these towns was Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. By 1893, the Gettysburg Electric Railway Company had been formed and was busily engaged in constructing a trolley to penetrate deep into Gettysburg Battlefield to one of its important features, the rocky outcrop heavily defended by Union soldiers called Devil's Den. The intrusion of this railway on a key portion of the battlefield and the real estate developments that were expected to accompany its completion aroused deep concern among members of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association and the newly appointed Gettysburg National Park Commission. "Upon organization" on May 31, 1893, as Chairman John B. Nicholson reported later, "the commission found important lines of battle occupied by an electric railway, the construction of which had begun early in April 1893." [17] President Grover Cleveland's Secretary of War, Daniel S. Lamont, demonstrated a keen interest in battlefield preservation during his four years in office and visited Gettysburg in person on November 3, 1893, accompanied by Mrs. Lamont, to inspect the situation He gave his full support to the Commission's efforts "to remove the electric road from the occupation of the prominent parts of the battlefield." [18] To erase any possible doubt about the national intent in the matter, Congress adopted a Joint Resolution on June 6, 1894, which stated there was "imminent danger that portions of said battlefield may be irreparably defaced by the construction of a railway over same" and asserted the authority of the Secretary of War to acquire such land either by purchase or by condemnation. [19]

The Gettysburg Electric Railway Company remained undaunted. Although finally agreeing to halt construction of the tracks, the company refused to negotiate the sale of the land involved. On June 8, 1894, upon recommendation of the Commission and with the approval of the Secretary of War, the Attorney General of the United States instituted condemnation proceedings. [20] When the court eventually handed down an award of $30,000, attorneys for the company rejected the finding and filed exceptions, claiming that establishment of Gettysburg National Park was not a public purpose within the meaning of earlier legislation and that "preserving lines of battle" and "properly marking with tablets the positions occupied" were not public uses which permitted the condemnation of private property by the United States. [21]The case finally went before the highest court in the Nation.

On January 27, 1896, Justice Rufus Wheeler Peckham of the United States Supreme Court handed down the court's unanimous decision. His language was eloquent and reflects the spirit of the time:

The end to be attained, by this proposed use, as provided for by the act of Congress, is legitimate, and lies within the scope of the constitution. The battle of Gettysburg was one of the great battles of the world. The numbers contained in the opposing armies were great; the sacrifices of life was dreadful; while the bravery, and, indeed, heroism displayed by both contending forces, rank with the highest exhibition of these qualities ever made by man. The importance of the issue involved in the contest of which this great battle was a part cannot be overestimated. The existence of the government itself, and the perpetuity of our institutions depended upon the result... .Can it be that the government is without power to preserve the land, and properly mark out the various sites upon which this struggle took place? Can it not erect the monuments provided for by these acts of Congress, or even take possession of the field of battle, in the name and for the benefit of all the citizens of the country, for the present and for the future? Such a use seems necessarily not only a public use, but one so closely connected with the welfare of the republic itself as to be within the powers granted Congress by the constitution for the purpose of protecting and preserving the whole country. [22]

By this resounding decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of acquiring private property by right of eminent domain for Gettysburg National Park and established the principle that the preservation of nationally important historic sites and buildings is a legitimate purpose of the Government of the United States.

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The First Battlefield Parks - pgs
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