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





Fort Pulaski National Monument
Fort Pulaski National Monument.

More than three-quarters of a century have now passed since the first national military park was authorized by Congress in 1890. Over this long period of time some twenty-nine battlefields of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars, and the Civil War, not counting numerous forts and national cemeteries, have been preserved or monumented as Federal holdings by the Government of the United States. In the case of the earliest of these battlefields, Congress for the first time authorized the acquisition of nationally significant historic property from private owners using Federal funds and, if necessary, the power of eminent domain, in order that such property could be preserved for the whole Nation for all time. The U.S. Supreme Court declared that such use was not only a public use, but one closely connected with the very welfare of the republic itself. During this period many battlefields not considered appropriate for Federal ownership were acquired by the States where they were situated and monuments erected or parks established. A rough check of battlefields preserved in State park systems in 1968 leads one to conclude that they exceed two score, not counting historic forts, which number three times as many. Commemoration of the historic battlefields of American fighting forces was extended overseas in 1923 through the work of the American Battle Monuments Commission, and now includes battle sites around the globe.

Vicksburg National Military Park
Vicksburg National Military Park

The movement to preserve historic American battlefields reached deep into the roots of loyalty and national unity in the United States. The men who sponsored this movement were eminent in government and the life of the country. Although it is sometimes said that the United States is a militaristic nation, this charge is firmly denied by the majority of the American people. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that we do have a strong martial tradition rooted deeply in our national history. We have honored that tradition, among other ways, in a substantial series of unusual battlefield parks and sites commemorating the achievements of our soldiers in all our wars. Along with other elements in the historic preservation movement in the United States, including historic house museums, monuments of architecture, historic districts, and prehistoric ruins, battlefields and forts must be recognized as a significant and continuing element in our total historical heritage.

But in 1933 it was already becoming evident that a truly national historic preservation policy and program plainly needed a much broader base than battlefields, important as they were. The vision of such a broader program was already beginning to be seen by far-sighted persons associated with the National Park Service as early as 1928. In that year, the Secretary of the Interior appointed a Committee on Study of Educational Problems in National Parks. The distinguished president of the Carnegie Institution, Dr. John C. Merriam, agreed to serve as chairman of the committee. Its five members, all of them eminent scholars, included Dr. Clark Wissler, Curator of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History. To Dr. Wissler was assigned the task of envisioning the future of the National Park System in the field of human history. Dr. Wissler gave much thought to this subject and in addition spent the summer of 1929 in field investigations in the Southwest, visiting, among other places, Aztec, Chaco Canyon, and Mesa Verde, as well as Santa Fe and the surrounding district. At a meeting of the committee held November 26-27, 1929, in Washington, D.C., Dr. Wissler presented his conclusions in the form of a report, which received extended discussion. The committee then adopted the following statement by Dr. Wissler:

In view of the importance and the great opportunity for appreciation of the nature and meaning of history as represented in our National Parks and Monuments, it is recommended that the National Parks and Monuments containing, primarily, archeological and historical material should be selected to serve as indices of periods in the historical sequence of human life in America. At each such monument the particular event represented should be viewed in its immediate historical perspective, thus not only developing a specific narrative but presenting the event in its historical background.

Further, a selection should be made of a number of existing monuments which in their totality may, as points of reference, define the general outline of man's career on this continent.

The realization of such a program will entail the serious investigation of the sites involved, a determination of the phases of history to be presented in each case, their presentation as historical data, and finally the coordination of the units in this series to the end that the whole will at least sketch the history of man in relation to his changing political, social, and natural environment. [105]

This statement was incorporated with other proposals in recommendations submitted by Dr. John C. Merriam to Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur on November 27, 1929. Secretary Wilbur received the entire report favorably and began to act upon its recommendations promptly during the following year.

The committee's statement on history, drafted by Dr. Wissler, became the germinal concept around which the historical segment of the National Park System was subsequently organized. The battlefields of successive American wars, transferred from the War Department to Interior in 1933, fitted naturally and effectively into this perceptive concept. Taking their place beside the ancient Indian ruins of the Southwest, the historic houses already Federal property, the national memorials, and the vignettes of primitive America con served in the national parks, these historic battlefields representing successive phases of American history and situated in diverse regions of the Nation, made a major contribution to the growing national heritage preserved in the National Park System for the benefit and inspiration of all the people of the United States.

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