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The Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation: The Decade of the 1890’s and the Establishment of America’s First Five Military Parks

by Timothy B. Smith, University of Tennessee Press, 2008, $38.95

Just before he disappeared into Mexico in 1913, Ambrose Bierce, the accomplished short story writer, made a pilgrimage to many of the Civil War battlefields he had fought upon as a young man. The trip helped Bierce bring closure to the most tumultuous and exciting events of his life while paying his respects to the many Union and Confederate soldiers who had perished on those far-flung fields of honor.

Timothy B. Smith, a former park ranger at Shiloh National Military Park currently teaching at the University of Tennessee-Martin, has chronicled the creation of the nation’s first five Civil War National Military Parks. He details how various veterans groups sought to accomplish what Bierce later did as an individual. For Smith, this journey to the sites of some of the most violent events in American history is a labor of love and respect that reflects a lifetime devoted to preserving the ground hallowed by the blood shed by thousands of Americans between 1861 and 1865. For 21st-century preservationists, reenactors, battlefield trampers and other Civil War enthusiasts, Smith’s book is an essential guide to the origins of the parks that are the flagships of today’s preserved Civil War lands administered by the U.S. National Park Service.

Antietam, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Shiloh and Vicksburg were all scenes of remarkable carnage and valor. By the 1890s a generation of aging veterans, North and South, was becoming increasingly concerned about how to tell its stories to future generations. The veterans wished to preserve the almost-pristine battlefields, memorialize the sacrifices made by their dead comrades and further encourage a growing spirit of national reconciliation.

The creation of national military parks could fulfill all those desires. Smith concludes that the decade of the 1890s “was the best and only real opportunity the nation had to preserve their battlefields effectively,” contending that several important factors aligned to produce “results the likes of which we will never see again.”

Those critical factors included a large population of living Civil War veterans who, individually and through fraternal associations, could push for the preservation of the battle fields as they existed at the time of the fighting. Each potential park had at least one energetic champion, usually a veteran who had fought there. Many former veterans served in Congress and supported federal appropriations for land acquisition and infrastructure development. Perhaps most important of all, there was a post-Reconstruction movement afoot to put aside old animosities and ignore unpleasant issues like race. It was hoped that Northern and Southern society could be reconciled around issues nearly everyone could support, such as honoring the valor of old soldiers.

Each park had its own unique organization, development plan and administrative requirements. Veterans committees that included both Union and Confederate members developed all the parks, but how each group went about its business determined to a great extent what type of park finally emerged. Smith details the political pressures needed to secure sufficient annual appropriations for the parks, the various methods used to buy land from recalcitrant or greedy landowners, the need to create new accurate maps for proper unit placement and the inconsistency of memory among aging veterans as to where they fought and where their unit monuments should be placed. The author maintains that how these issues were resolved has determined, to a large extent, “the physical foundation of our collective Civil War memory.”

Most of Smith’s previous scholarship has focused on Shiloh. His book This Great Battlefield of Shiloh: History, Memory, and the Establishment of a Civil War National Military Park, in fact, provided him a model for examining the establishment of the other four parks. Sometimes his penchant for including the obscure detail may overwhelm the casual reader, and viewing park development almost exclusively through the actions of the veterans committees keeps Smith from putting them into a wider historical context of the time.

He acknowledges that “the idea of memory tied to battlefield preservation is also becoming more important to historians,” and he suggests perhaps the melding of this discipline to the physical evolution of the country’s first five national military parks will be the focus of future scholars. Tim Smith has certainly given them a firm foundation on which to build.


Originally published in the November 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here