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Taking a Stand for Our Civil War History

By Jay Wertz
8/24/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

While in Tennessee for a wedding in 2000, Congressman Gary Miller (R-CA) decided to make a side trip to the site of the Battle of Nashville. All he found when he arrived was a plaque on the side of the road and a community of townhomes. Two years later, after landing a small part in the movie Gods and Generals, Miller discovered that the film crew had to shoot scenes of the Fredericksburg Campaign in the Maryland countryside “because there was nothing left in Fredericksburg to do that.” Deciding that the federal government needed to play a larger role in protecting the nation’s Civil War heritage, Miller cosponsored the Civil War Battlefield Preservation Act of 2002, which authorizes up to $10 million annually to help preserve endangered battle sites across the country. Miller recently sat down in his Brea, Calif., office with Civil War Times contributor Jay Wertz to discuss the bill’s effect and his personal passion for the war. “It’s sad looking at our history and watching it disappear,” Miller said. “We’re probably losing about 30 acres of battlefield a day; we’ve got to do something rapidly.”

Jay Wertz: You’ve used the term “living classroom” to describe Civil War battlefields’ roles as critical reminders of our national history. Can you expand on that?

Gary Miller: If we preserve enough of the battlefield that we can actually create a true depiction of what occurred, it’s tremendously beneficial. The problem you face many times is that in order to understand what really happened during a battle you might have to read eight or 10 books to discover the significance of each part of it. Look at Chancellorsville. To really understand it—the thinking, the mind-set on both sides, whether it applies to Hooker or Jackson or Lee or Reynolds, or any other officer who was involved—you can’t go to one author, one book, and really have a true understanding of the complexity of what was occurring. Because that was such a complex battle, as we start to lose portions of the battle area we start to lose part of the history and part of the information associated with the battle. If you go out to the battlefield and experience where everything took place, it’s much easier to explain it to a person—it’s also much easier for them to be there and look around to get a true understanding of what really took place. If we’re not proactive in dealing with preservation, if we’re not dedicated to doing it, we’re going to lose a lot that we can never recapture.

Do you see parallels in the perils facing the country then and now?

Absolutely. If you look at what was happening on both sides, North and South, as the Civil War dragged on you started having more individuals oppose it. And many who oppose war as it is taking place are usually not directly involved or don’t have a true understanding of what we’re really doing and what’s really taking place. Today, if you pose a question about the Civil War to an average undergraduate, or even someone getting an advanced degree, who isn’t majoring in history or a related field, they really don’t have an understanding of what went on. You have many students who will look at the Southern cause and say, “Oh, it was all about slavery,” but in many cases that’s absolutely not true. There were a lot of individuals who were not out there fighting for or against slavery. It was a states’ rights issue for Southerners. In the North, many individuals said that if the war was about slavery, then they were not going to fight….No, they were fighting for the Union.

I’m not trying to minimize the issue of slavery or anything else, but we really need to understand what people were thinking and why they were fighting for a particular cause. We can’t undervalue either side, and we can’t undervalue what either soldier fought for, whether blue or gray. They both had a reason to be fighting this war, and obviously they both were convinced that what they were doing was right or they wouldn’t have been willing to die for it. But there were many in the North who would have applauded Lincoln for backing off and letting the Confederate States of America exist.

There are major parallels to what we’ve seen in every war since then. Halfway through World War II, many Americans lost interest in the fighting and thought we shouldn’t be over there. It’s the same thing we’re facing in Iraq. Everybody supported it when we went in, but as war drags on, people lose interest, because they’re thinking: ‘What are we really doing? Is it really worth it?’ If we lose our history and we don’t preserve what’s happened in the past, we can’t apply it to what’s happening currently or to what might happen in the future. I think we have to look at every war we’ve ever fought to understand the difficulties that people went through during them—the loss of life, how that impacted individuals—and apply that to what we’re doing today.

What should Congress’ role be in continuing preservation efforts beyond this act?

We need to provide the resources; we need to provide money. This year I’ve asked for $10 million, which is the largest grant we’ve asked for so far. Some might say, “Well, $10 million is a lot of money,” but when you look at the size of the federal budget, it’s very small in comparison.

We’re dealing with something where, if we don’t make the investment now it’s lost, it’s gone. It’s not like a program that you can decide to fund this year, next year, or the year after and the program can still go forward—this is something that if we don’t prioritize now, if we don’t fund it in a more reasonable fashion, we’re not going to have an opportunity to do it in the future because it’s going to be gone. We can’t expect private property owners to bear the burden of preserving battlefields when in many cases this is the largest asset some of these individuals have. We just can’t expect them to give up that asset without being fairly compensated. We also can’t expect development in a region of the United States to just stop because something might have occurred there in the past; yet, nobody’s willing to forgo the cost of the property to preserve it, because it’s burdensome on the individual. I think we need to be more proactive on this very issue. The federal government can do more than we’ve done. We’ve just got to encourage other members of Congress to understand the benefits of this effort and prioritize the necessary funding.

How should the National Park Service help in preserving battlefields and extending the education of Civil War history?

You’ve got to place a battlefield at the same level of importance as you would a national forest, as far as something you preserve for the future. These places are living history; these are pieces of property that warrant the same prioritization. We’re trying to preserve these areas so that they’ll always be there. Yosemite’s going to be there; Yellowstone’s going to be there; Chancellorsville should be there. They have unique importance because of what occurred there and its relevance to this nation.

Regarding the private and charitable efforts led by groups like the Civil War Preservation Trust, are you satisfied with the direction that private funding is taking and the cooperation between the private and public sectors?

No. These groups are doing a very good job with the resources they have. They’ve accomplished a tremendous amount. I think from the federal perspective that we need to do a better job of providing assets for them to do what they do. We need to do everything we can to assist them.

It’s been nearly five years since your act was passed. Do you think it’s a good vehicle for going forward? Is the model set and now it’s just a matter of prioritizing its use?

This bill is the one thing I’m most proud of because its intent is to preserve history in this country for future generations, and that’s something that we have only one opportunity to do. This bill should have happened years ago; we should have prioritized it. I thank all my colleagues who supported me on this, and the preservation groups for getting involved with individuals and educating them on what we are trying to do. If we can couple all our efforts together, we can accomplish a great deal.

What Civil War sites today do you feel are the most threatened and need the most help?

Chancellorsville—we need to move on it rapidly. I know they did a very good job negotiating with, I believe, the Toll Brothers development company, which agreed to sell and work with the preservation groups. That’s one we need to move proactively to preserve, but there are many others. All you have to do is go to Fredericksburg and realize that we made mistakes. Fredericksburg is an example of what we allowed to occur, if we had been more dilligent we could have avoided that. And that’s not impugning or demeaning anybody who built on that property. It’s not shame on them, it’s shame on us, because we should have been more proactive. That was the purpose of this bill: to shed new light on the effort and point out the benefits of doing this. The bill was intended to raise the level of awareness about preserving these sites.

How did your experience in Gods and Generals affect your thinking about the Civil War?

I’m in the movie very little—I’m all over the cutting room floor. But it was great. We were supposed to shoot for two days. One day we were shooting at what was supposed to be Marye’s Heights, and I was playing a general at that point. The next day I was supposed to do a horseback part, which would have been at Manassas, Chancellorsville or Fredericksburg, but it rained so I didn’t get to do the last day of shooting. This was shot at a place in Maryland, about six miles out of Sharpsburg, and we were supposed to have 12 artillery pieces at Marye’s Heights. These were authentic Civil War pieces, and we shot all day. You can see why these fellows who had been artillerists all those years had cones in their ears. They would have blown their eardrums out.

The thing that was most striking to me was that the owner of the property we were shooting on said that during the Civil War it was the largest slave-breeding farm in the United States. That floored me. He said at that point in time people used to breed slaves like they did cattle. It really brought home the realization of what that meant: To think that we were shooting the Battle of Fredericksburg at a farm that had been used for that purpose.

It was a real honor to be part of that movie, to really understand. When you stand on top of that hill and look down, you realize what those troops went through as they walked across the open field. You begin to understand what an impact it had on the soldiers when they were hit by a long-range shell. The commitment and fortitude they demonstrated to even step onto that field was just absolutely amazing.

 

Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here

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