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The National Military Park line, including early battlefield monuments, has a long and little known history. Beginning in 1781 the form of battlefield commemoration evolved during a century and a half and culminated between 1890 and 1933 in development by the War Department of what was in effect a National Military Park System. In 1933, this system numbered twenty areas, of which eleven were National Military Parks and nine National Battlefield Sites. Scores more were under consideration in Congress just before these areas were transferred to the National Park System and the management of battlefields added to the duties of the National Park Service.

Yorktown Column (I)
Bunker Hill Monument, N.H.L. 1961, Mass.
Yorktown Column (II)
Chickamauga-Chattanooga N.M.P., Va.
Antietam N.B.S., Md.
Shiloh N.M.P., Tenn.
Gettysburg N.M.P., Pa.
Vicksburg N.M.P., Miss.
Chalmette Mon., La.
Kennesaw Battlefield Mon., Ga.
Guilford Courthouse N.M.P., N.C.
Fort McHenry N.P., Md.
Moores Creek N.M.P., N.C.
Petersburg N.M.P., Va.
Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania N.M.P., Va.
Stones River N.M.P., Tenn.
Fort Donelson N.M.P., Tenn.
Brices Cross Roads N.B.S., Miss.
Tupelo N.B.S., Miss.
Cowpens N.B.S., S.C.
Appomattox Court House Mon., Va.
Fort Necessity N.B.S., Pa.
Kings Mountain N.M.P., S.C.

Inspired by news of the victory at Yorktown, which ended the American Revolution, the Continental Congress on October 29, 1781 authorized the first official on-site battlefield monument in our nation's history. It resolved:

That the United States in Congress assembled, will cause to be erected at York, in Virginia, a marble column, adorned with emblems of the alliance between the United States and His Most Christian Majesty; and inscribed with a succint narrative of the surrender. . . .

Funds for the marble column were not immediately available in 1781, and Congress did not implement this resolution until very long afterward — the centennial of Yorktown in 1881. Then the Yorktown Column was raised, in exact conformance to the resolution of the Continental Congress, and is now an honored feature of Colonial National Historical Park.

The battlefield monument idea was given its greatest impetus, however, in Boston in 1823 when Daniel Webster, Edward Everett, and other prominent citizens formed the Bunker Hill Battle Monument Association to save part of the historic field and erect on it a great commemorative monument. The cornerstone was laid on June 17, 1825, Daniel Webster delivering a moving oration before a large audience. The Bunker Hill Monument showed the nation how to crystallize commemorative sentiment and became the prototype for a long series of battlefield monuments erected in the United States throughout the ensuing century. During the Revolutionary Centennial years, 1876-83, Congress appropriated federal funds to match local funds for Revolutionary battle monuments, and through this means imposing monuments were erected at Bennington Battlefield, Vermont; Saratoga, Newburgh, and Oriskany, New York; Cowpens, South Carolina; Monmouth, New Jersey; and Groton, Connecticut. Of these, Cowpens is now a unit in the National Park System, and Bunker Hill, Bennington, Oriskany, and Monmouth are National Historic Landmarks. Legislation is pending before Congress to add Bunker Hill Monument to the National Park System.

The Revolutionary tradition embodied in such monuments, shared in common by North and South, helped draw the two sections together after the Civil War. Troops from South Carolina and Virginia participated in the centennial observance of the Battle of Bunker Hill in Boston in 1875 — the first time Union and Confederate veterans publicly fraternized after the Civil War. It was a moving occasion, and the practice of reunions soon spread to Civil War battlefields, culminating in spectacular veteran's encampments at Gettysburg in 1888 and Chattanooga in 1895.

Meanwhile, on April 30, 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, Pennsylvania chartered the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association to commemorate "the great deeds of valor . . . and the signal events which render these battlegrounds illustrious." This association was among the earliest historic preservation organizations in the country. By 1890 it had acquired several hundred acres of land on the battlefield including areas in the vicinity of Spangler's Spring, the Wheatfield, Little Round Top, and the Peach Orchard as well as the small white frame house General Meade had used as headquarters.

By this time a preservation society had also begun work at Chickamauga and Chattanooga. In the summer of 1888 General H. V. Boynton of Ohio revisited these battlefields with his old commander, General Van Derveer. Riding over the fields near Chickamauga Creek the idea came to them that this battlefield should be "a Western Gettysburg—a Chickamauga memorial." In September 1889, Confederate veterans joined with Union veterans and local citizens, including Adolph S. Ochs, to form the Chickamauga Memorial Association.

With interest and support from both North and South Congress decided to go beyond the former battlefield monument concept to authorize the first four National Military Parks — Chickamauga-Chattanooga in 1890, Shiloh in 1894, Gettysburg in 1895, and Vicksburg in 1899. These areas were not selected at random but constituted, almost from the beginning, a rational system, designed to preserve major battlefields for historical and professional study and as lasting memorials to the great armies of both sides. The field of Gettysburg memorialized the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia; Chickamauga honored the Union Army of the Cumberland and the Confederate Army of Tennessee; and Shiloh and Vicksburg honored the Union Army of the Tennessee and the Confederate armies that opposed it. The National Military Park concept contemplated that the Federal Government would acquire the land with appropriated funds and preserve the cultural features of each battlefield while States and regiments would provide the monuments, thus combining preservation and memorialization in one undertaking.

Acquisition of land for Gettysburg National Military Park led to an important decision by the United States Supreme Court. The Gettysburg Electric Railway Company, formed early in the 1890's, soon acquired rights of way for one branch penetrating deep into the battlefield. Believing the railway would irreparably deface the area, the Gettysburg National Park Commission recommended condemnation proceedings which were brought by the Attorney General in 1894. The Company contested the court's award by claiming that preserving and marking lines of battle were not public uses justifying condemnation of private property by the United States. The case reached the Supreme Court. In 1896 Justice Rufus Wheeler Peckham handed down the court's unanimous decision which read in part as follows:

The battle of Gettysburg was one of the great battles of the world . . . . The existence of the government itself, and the perpetuity of our institutions depended on 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 monuments provided for by these acts of Congress, or even take possession of the field of battle, in the name of 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.

Although Antietam was marked, beginning in 1890, and Chalmette, Kennesaw Mountain, and Guilford Courthouse were added to Federal holdings before 1918, no other battlefield projects were authorized for a long time. But after the victorious conclusion of World War I, Congressional interest in establishing new National Military Parks and related projects revived sharply. In 1923 Congress established the American Battle Monuments Commission "to erect suitable memorials commemorating the services of the American soldier in Europe." Two years later Congress authorized restoration of Fort McHenry in Baltimore "as a national park and perpetual national memorial shrine as the birthplace of the immortal Star Spangled Banner." Finally, in 1926 Congress authorized the War Department to survey all the battlefields in the United States and prepare a preservation and commemoration plan. Largely as a result of this survey, some twelve National Military Parks and National Battlefield Sites were added to Federal holdings between 1926 and 1933, including Fort Necessity, opening battle of the French and Indian War; Cowpens, Moores Creek, and Kings Mountain, battlefields of the American Revolution; and Appomattox Court House, Brices Cross Roads, Fort Donelson, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County, Petersburg, Stones River, and Tupelo, battlefields of the Civil War. Numerous others were in the planning stage.

The National Military Park System was approaching maturity under the War Department in 1933 when all these battlefields were transferred to the National Park Service to become a significant and unique element in the National Park System. Since 1933 the Service has added seven more battlefields to its holdings, the most recent being Wilson's Creek, Missouri, in 1964. Battlefield commemoration is still a continuing Federal function.

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