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 - pgs
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Proposal for a Central National Military Park Commission

The hearing on April 14 dealt with the growing number of national military park commissions. This problem had been brought to a sharp focus on March 4, 1902, when Representative Frederick Clement Stevens of Minnesota, a member of the Committee, introduced H.R. 12092 to repeal existing laws and provide for a new central "national park commission" of five members to be placed in charge of the "restoration, preservation, and suitable marking, for historical and professional military study, of such battlefields of the war of the rebellion as are now or may hereafter be acquired by the United States." [85] This significant general bill, along with the numerous special bills for special projects, was also before the committee for consideration at both the hearings. In the testimony that followed, major questions regarding the proper Federal organization to carry out historic preservation work were explored.

The first question that interested Chairman Parker was whether responsibility for future work of preservation and marking, which all agreed ought to be done on an economical pattern, should be assigned directly to the Secretary of War, or whether it should be assigned to a single central commission acting under his supervision. On this delicate matter of organization, several interesting points developed during the interchanges between the committee and General Davis. There were already four park commissions actively at work. Because their members had been respected participants in the battles, as well as students of military history, their contributions would continue to be important for some years. However, the time was not far off when the physical effort of their work would become more and more difficult for them. Therefore a transition plan was needed. This plan should be (1) to establish a new central commission of five members, including one member from each of the four local commissions; (2) let the local commissions complete their work, but fill no vacancies; (3) allow the central commission gradually to absorb the duties of the local commission and meanwhile take full responsibility for all new projects authorized by Congress; and (4) last of all, look forward to the time, about ten years hence, when the central commission would in its turn be gradually replaced by the Secretary of War and his staff. [86]

The responsibilities of the proposed commission were also discussed at length. It was soon clear that the proposal in H.R. 12092 was not broad enough, for it was confined solely to Civil War battlefields and left out all the other projects that members of Congress had pending before the committee. At one point occurred this exchange:

The Chairman. "General, ought not this commission to have charge likewise of dealing with matters not connected with the civil war, -- of the Revolutionary war, or Indian Wars?"

General Davis. "The whole class of subjects with which the government has to deal might well be vested in them." [87]

Chairman Parker then listed the numerous special bills pending before the committee and asked for the views of General Davis. He replied, "All those could only be intelligently handled by a commission that treated the whole subject." [88]

And again:

The Chairman. "Do I understand that meanwhile you would advise that full discretion in all these matters be given to this central commission and that no further special acts be passed as to special battlefields?"

General Davis. "Yes sir: I do, decidedly." [89]

This was the crux of the problem before the Committee on Military Affairs. It felt obliged to choose between recommending to the House a general solution to the continuing problem of battlefield preservation and marking, or presenting reports on an assortment of uncoordinated and largely unstudied special projects. The Committee chose the former course, and on May 14, 1902, Chairman Parker submitted its report to the House. Accompanying the report was a new bill, H.R. 14351, which had been drafted by the committee with the assistance of General Davis on behalf of the War Department.

The broad purpose of the committee's bill was succinctly described to the House by Chairman Parker:

This is a bill to provide for a national military park commission with general power to restore, preserve, mark and maintain, in commemoration, of the valor of American arms and for historical, professional, and military study, such battlefields, forts, cemeteries, or parts thereof, of the colonial, Revolutionary, Indian or civil wars, or of any other wars of the United States, as may hereafter be acquired by the United States, and to establish military parks thereon. [90]

This statement of purpose went far beyond any legislation of this kind previously introduced into Congress, in respect to both its comprehensive coverage of all periods of American military history and its inclusion of forts and cemeteries as well as battlefields among the objects of preservation.

The bill provided that the National Military Park Commission should consist of five members, appointed by the President for five year terms and confirmed by the Senate, with the first membership to include one member from each of the existing commissions. An appropriation of $200,000 was authorized for the work of the commission. This work would include discretionary power to acquire tracts of land containing points of historic interest or importance and to ascertain and mark lines of battle, provided no more than $5000 was expended in the purchase of any single tract. Other sections provided for protection of historic property; cooperation with States, municipalities and military societies; and lease-back of lands to former owners on historic preservation conditions. Lastly, and perhaps most interesting, the commission was empowered, in effect, to make surveys and investigations and "report to Congress as to places and sites or additions...suitable and proper to be acquired and restored, preserved or marked," with an estimate of the cost. If the cost exceeded the commission's available funds no further action was to be taken until authorized by Congress. [91] As Chairman Parker stated in his report to the House, "The provisions of this bill will finally take care of all the battlefields of the Union." [92]

Formulation and introduction of this general bill marked a significant step forward in congressional awareness of the need for a national historic preservation policy. But the determined opposition of the battlefield commissions, which had tremendous influence, caused the House to reject the recommendations of its Committee on Military Affairs in 1902. Representative Parker reintroduced the measure, slightly amended in detail but not in purpose, in 1903, 1904, 1905, 1906, and 1910. The Committee on Military Affairs continued to support the bill with strongly favorable reports in 1904 and again in 1906. It is interesting to note that during the latter year the House Public Lands Committee finally succeeded, after several years of rather parallel effort, in securing passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906 to preserve historic landmarks and historic structures on lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States. Growing numbers of members of Congress on both committees were becoming aware that historic preservation by the Nation required consideration of broad legislative action. The proposal for a single, central National Military Park Commission was, however, never to reach this successful result. After 1906, the Committee on Military Affairs stopped making reports on the proposal, and Congressman Parker left Congress on March 3, 1911.

Nevertheless, the proposal for a central commission to guide preservation of battlefields, forts and cemeteries of all periods of American military history had several significant consequences. First, it resulted, together with the interruptions caused by World War I, in suspending action on special acts to establish special battlefields for many years, with only minor exceptions. For a quarter of a century, from 1900 to 1925, only five bills among many introduced appear to have been enacted into law, and those were on a very limited basis. Thus in 1906 Congress authorized a monument at King's Mountain battlefield in South Carolina; and in 1907, funds were appropriated to complete a monument on the battlefield of New Orleans; but both were to be locally maintained. In 1917, Congress authorized the War Department to accept a small tract of land on the Kennesaw Mountain battlefield, with a monument on it, from an association. And lastly, in two steps, one in 1911 and the other in 1917, Congress authorized a small national military park of 125 acres at Guilford Court House, North Carolina. [93] This was small fruit, and as a further consequence of this quarter century of congressional inaction, an accumulation of preservation projects was stored up which descended on Congress in a small flood during the 1920s.

Secondly, the idea of gradually terminating the four separate park commissions for Chickamauga, Shiloh, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg was finally adopted by Congress in 1912. However, instead of establishing a central commission to take over their duties, provision was made for the gradual transfer of their functions directly to the Secretary of War. The Sundry Civil bill of 1912 provided that as vacancies occurred by death or resignation in the membership of the several commissions in charge of national military parks, they should not be filled. Instead, the Secretary of War designated an ex-officio member with full authority to act with the remaining commissioners. And when all offices of commissioner became vacated, the duties of the commission were thereafter to be performed under the direction of the Secretary of War. It was these comparatively modest duties of the four existing national military park commissions, inherited by the Secretary of War in 1912, which were among those subsequently transferred from him to the Secretary of Interior in 1933 and thereafter delegated to the Director of the National Park Service, where they reside today.

Last of all, it was during this very period, when so little was being approved by Congress to provide overall direction in the War Department for a growing national historic preservation program, that legislation was first introduced to create a Bureau of National Parks in the Department of the Interior and referred to the Public Lands Committees of the House and Senate for consideration. This legislation, of course, was primarily concerned with providing overall direction for the national parks and for most of the national monuments. Nevertheless, it is intriguing to note that one of the earliest bills placed before Congress to authorize a Bureau of National Parks, S. 3463 introduced by Senator Reed Smoot of Utah on December 7, 1911, specifically referred to federally owned historical property. Here is the language:

Sec. 2. That the director shall, under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior, have the supervision, management, and control of the several national parks, the national monuments, the Hot Springs Reservation in the State of Arkansas, lands reserved or acquired by the United States because of their historical associations ; and such other national parks, national monuments, or reservations of like character as may hereafter be created or authorized by Congress [emphasis supplied]. [94]

It is not clear whether this language intentionally or inadvertently covered the national military parks. Since this language reappears in several other similar bills introduced into both the Senate and the House during the next five years, through 1915, it appears to have been intentional. In the end, however, as we will note in a later part of this study, this language was modified, and the enabling act of 1916 as signed by the President provides that the Director of the National Park Service shall have responsibility for "the several national parks and monuments now under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, and of such other national parks and reservations of like character as may be here after created by the Congress...." [95] The national military parks were not mentioned. Although it was apparent to few persons at the time, the seeds of the future were nevertheless present in this legislation. And in due course, in 1933, they were to bear substantial fruit when the national military parks were finally added to the National Park System. But before this happened there was much other study and consideration of the battlefields, forts and cemeteries in the Congress of the United States and in the Executive Branch of the Federal Government between 1923 and 1933. To this story we now turn.

Next The 1926 Act for the Study and Investigation of Battlefields

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