One morning in March I read some disquieting news in AAA World magazine. With the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry coming up this October, the Civil War Sesquicentennial lumbers onto the runway for its official takeoff two years hence. It’s always inspiring to watch a useful word rise from the dead—sesquicentennial hasn’t seen much use since celebrations of the American Revolution in the 1920s and early 1930s—but I wonder whether this relatively unpublicized commemoration is really a good idea. The long-anticipated Civil War Centennial, as those old enough to remember may have forgotten by now, had a strong beginning about the time President Kennedy was elected but gradually petered out, eclipsed by, among other things, dramatic events in the struggle for civil rights across the South. By the time the 100th anniversary of Appomattox rolled around, the nation was preoccupied with what soon became the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (not to mention Vietnam).
The style and substance of commemoration have changed so much since the early 1960s that studying it has become a thriving field of neohistory. One conspicuous innovation is that armies of meticulously garbed reenactors now overwhelm each major Civil War battlefield near the anniversary of the battle itself. The National Park Service seems to be driven by some of the same impulses toward what can only be described as pseudo-authenticity. With the Sesquicentennial approaching, its campaign to restore the major national military parks as nearly as possible to their preconflict condition has gone into high gear.
As John Summers observed recently in The New Republic, trying to return Gettysburg and other battlefields that have been saturated with monuments and tourism since the 19th century to something like their platonic state is not only impractical and questionable on other grounds, but horribly expensive. Hence the multiplying signs of corporate involvement—for example the Gettysburg Park’s grandiose new visitor center. The day may not be far off when visitors can enjoy the Utz Foods Accessible Bloody Angle or even, for smaller sites, the M&T Bank Monocacy National Battlefield and ATM. If venerable sporting events and stadiums can do it, why not historical locations? For a vision of the future of the past, look at the gleaming ghost town the Park Service and its partners have made of John Brown’s own Harpers Ferry.
Of course, our controversies about such matters are as nothing compared with those in, say, Poland, where the authorities must decide whether and how to preserve Nazi death camps. Still, newly restored Civil War sites, with their “costumed interpreters” on the model of Colonial Williamsburg, are infinitely less evocative than the humbler versions that preceded them, where a century of monuments and reforestation was not seen as an obstacle to understanding. We might even suspect that for once Lincoln was wrong when he implied so eloquently (“we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow”) that nothing done in commemoration of the dead would affect the significance of the place where they died. If nothing else, the creation of national cemeteries like the one at whose dedication he was speaking irrevocably changed both the landscapes and their meaning.
Even where the after-effects of a historical event itself altered the venue out of recognition, reconstruction may be a bad solution. When I was a high school student, Ford’s Theater in Washington was a rundown government building, as it had been since its confiscation soon after Lincoln’s assassination, with a small, amateurish museum. You could walk behind the gutted building through a pattern of alleys little changed since 1865 and trace John Wilkes Booth’s escape route toward the Anacostia River. The whole experience was far more stimulating to the historical imagination than viewing today’s spruce replica, surrounded by urban redevelopment, which could just as easily be in Orlando or Las Vegas.
In the new round of Sesquicentennial advertising, Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, is billed as the “pristine,” unspoiled battlefield. Within recent memory, the Miller family was still growing corn in the Miller Cornfield, one of America’s most horrific sites of slaughter, and most of the surrounding land was still under cultivation. Then development threatened—the area is all too close to the Washington commuter belt. The Park Service wisely found allies and preserved more land. Now it’s trying, as at Gettysburg but with more malleable material, to restore the enlarged park to its 1862 appearance. Most of the farmhouses on the property are empty. Some buildings will be torn down or altered; others that have vanished will be re-created. Field and forest boundaries will likewise be changed.
In a few years even natives may find the place hard to recognize. Instead of a rural landscape in which the main sites of a complicated battle were easily visible but had evolved naturally over all the years since, they will experience a new and largely artificial creation. The only discordant feature will be the monuments (fewer and less conspicuous than at Gettysburg) that were erected before anyone thought the park should look like a movie set or a playground where reenactors can live out their fantasies.
In addition to statues commemorating units, generals, or high points in the action, each of the 29 Northern and Southern states whose troops fought at Gettysburg has a battlefield monument of its own there, some more pretentious than others. The last of these state memorials, that of nearby Maryland, was dedicated as recently as 1994. It took almost the entire century and a half for the only state with regiments on both sides in the battle to decide that its best monument would be a life-size statue of two wounded brothers, one in a Union uniform, the other in a Confederate, supporting each other on the hard road home. Trying to make a landscape consecrated by so much grief and bitterly earned wisdom convey the illusion that “it hasn’t happened yet” (in William Faulkner’s famous words from Intruder in the Dust) seems not only futile but deeply misguided.
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