Sunday, November 13, 2005

Changes for History

In my travels to the Eastern Theater Battlefields this past year, I was very pleasantly surprised at the many changes I encountered.

Consistent among the battlefields are the new interpretive markers whose existence we owe to the mandate to include slavery in National Park Service educational materials. Five years ago, National Park Service Battlefield Managers recommended that the Secretary of the Interior “…encourage Civil War battle sites to recognize and include in all of their public displays and multimedia educational presentations the unique role that the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War and its role, if any, at the individual battle sites.”

Along with the markers, several of the Eastern Theater Battlefields have made significant acquisitions and changes. Despite the asphyxiating development that continues to threaten the Chancellorsville Battlefield with strangulation, the National Park Service has added to the parks lands. Along McLaws Drive is a section of land where Confederate Lafayette McLaws’ men positioned themselves to help drive General Hooker’s troops from the field on May 3rd. Although part of the Wilderness in 1863, the ground now is clear of the younger trees that choked the ground and made maneuvering so difficult.

Chancellorsville McLaws TrailThe Park Service established a walking trail and offers free of charge interpretive materials to carry with you as you walk. Included in that material, a southern soldier describes an encounter with a Confederate icon.

"Artilleryman J. B. Minor remembered that on May 2, as Lee stood under a tree with McLaws, “a 10-pound shell cut the tree square off just about a yard above their heads. I could not see that [Lee] noticed it, although General McLaws ducked a little.” A few minutes later, Minor recalled, “a shell burst immediately in front of old Traveler, who reared up and stood as straight as ever I saw a man. Captain [Edward S.] McCarthy then ran to General Lee, and I heard him say: ‘General, we can’t spare you, go back under the hill.’ He rode away, and in a few minutes there was a lull just in front of us; but there was heavy fighting some three hundred yards to our right…and whom did we see sitting on his horse calmly watching the fight but General Lee!”

A newly acquired tract of land west of the Wilderness Church allows the visitor to walk the ground of Jackson’s flank attack. Previously, the only avenue to do likewise involved carefully and courteously walking through the headstones of a private cemetery to view Jackson’s starting point. This parcel of ground renders that tactic thankfully unnecessary.

Nearby on the grounds of the Wilderness Battlefield, NPS staff continue to oversee the complete renovation of the Lacy House. A short walk from the home which served as headquarters to Major General Gouverneur K. Warren during the fighting in early May 1864, the Reverend Beverly Tucker Lacy buried the amputated arm of Lieutenant General Thomas Jackson in the family cemetery.

Antietam Final Attack TrailTo the Northwest, Antietam National Battlefield has added a walking trail over the grounds where General Burnside’s troops advanced and then were repulsed by A.P. Hill’s Light Division after his 17 mile forced march from Harper’s Ferry. Even with no knowledge of what occurred on these fields, the near two mile trail meanders through beautiful terrain and allows views of the magnificent hills and valleys. Once experienced, the typically undulating, steep, rocky, uneven ground speaks volumes concerning the difficulties commanders would encounter organizing and directing their men. With few modern intrusions, the trail leads you back 140 years to the counterattack that saved the Confederate Army for future battles.

Of course, the Gettysburg Battlefield continues its journey towards its former 1863 appearance. Most significant has been the clearing of the ground just north of Little Round Top along the Cemetery Ridge line. Minus the concealing cover of trees and brush, a commanding knoll once again thrusts itself from the shadow of the more famous rises to its south. This protruding ground reinvigorates to the question concerning Sickles’ deployment of his troops further to the west. Ringed with artillery and his veteran troops, the Butternuts would have struggled mightily to dislodge their Northern protagonists from this high ground.

A few miles north, Oak Ridge will soon appear more like its name as young oak trees planted below the observation tower take root and reach for the sun. The 13th Massachusetts monument now shares its place of honor with trees that will help recreate the vista their men encountered July 1st 1863.

The Peach Orchard also is experiencing a rebirth. The darkness before the dawn began in October when the NPS removed all 89 existing trees planted 26 years ago and suffering from a parasitic infection. After two years, new trees will call the Sherfy Peach Orchard their home.

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All original material Copyright © 2005. All Rights Reserved

References for this article:
  1. Interpretation at Civil War Sites, A Report to Congress, March 2000
  2. National Park Service: Gettysburg

1 comment:

Novus Livy said...

Nothing serves the historian better than the near pristine conditions of restoration and preservation.