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Why Bother Preserving Civil War Battlefields?

The Civil War Trust is busy trying to spread an alarm: “According to a study done by the U.S. Congress, fully 20 percent of the hallowed ground of the Civil War has already been destroyed forever, covered by roads, housing developments and other inappropriate development. Battlefields such as Chantilly and Salem Church in Virginia are just two examples of battlegrounds all but destroyed.”

I’m trying to gather some sympathy for the plight of these old battlefields, but I’m having some trouble.

Just what is so important about keeping old battlefields in the same condition they were in 150 years ago? What do we gain from having these fields?

The Civil War Trust calls these fields “hallowed ground”, meaning that the earth has been made holy in some way, and must be held apart, sacrosanct. The publication of the Trust carries the title Hallowed Ground.

To me, the idea that ground becomes sacred whenever people fight and kill each other there seems unwise. Worshipping battlefields seems to honor the act of violence, to encourage people to fight. It’s a way of celebrating Americans going to war against each other, as if war is necessary to give our nation meaning.

What do we lose when people are allowed to move on, and allow old battlefields to grow over to forest, or to be developed for other human use? The Civil War Trust bemoans the fact that the Chantilly battlefield and Salem Church battlefield have been almost completely changed since the end of the Civil war, but so what? Who has suffered because the Chantilly battlefield isn’t a field any more? What negative impact has resulted from the transformation of the Salem Church battlefield into something else?

What if there were no preserved battlefields left in the United States of America at all? What would be the loss? Do we need to have big open fields in order to remember our nation’s history?

We have other means of preserving history. We have books. We can make video documentaries. We can concentrate the display of historical artifacts and information into museum.

What’s so special about having rusting cannons stand out in fields?

4 comments to Why Bother Preserving Civil War Battlefields?

  • Jack McCully

    We should stop glamorising wars of the past and concentrate on preventing wars in the future.

  • Dave

    Peregrin, battlefields are generally understood to have been soaked with blood. They are a fanfare for the common man, proof of the lore of the nation, evidence by their preservation that the thing fought for had value. It is a place where a trade has been made, blood for (name it here).

    With one large exception, the battlefields of the Civil War are virtually all located in the South. I know I share a country with folks who may value WalMart parking lots and rows of cute starter homes above plots of ground set aside as memorials, but to me that’s just a failure of imagination.

    To your point of battlefield preservation as “honoring the act of violence,” I know some of your thoughts on war and in the past possessed those thoughts myself, but I don’t think we use the word “violence” correctly, or as it has been understood before our time. Violence assumes a violation, therefore it is a bad thing. When millions of Americans are enslaved, for example, that is violence, a violation of something. When 600,000 people die in a fight against enslavement of their fellow creatures, that is not violence. Call it rectitude, retribution, a sorting out of things, but it is not a violation; it’s an undoing of a violation. Un-violence. Remember where it happened. Take your kids there, point out things. Tell the story. It’s their story. These are their places.

  • Personally 0- the only sites, I believe, should be held as “hallowed ground” are those sites that were used to create peace…Bloody battlefields should be tilled and food grown for all …Peace sites should be honored as the place where those who disagreed violently came together to create a peace accord.

    • Dave

      Actually Surf, many battlefields are under cultivation, and many more serve as wildlife refuges, both peaceful uses. One here in Florida is now a pine-covered national forest. With few exceptions, they serve as green spaces protected hopefully indefinitely from the questionable designs of real estate developers.

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