The educated mind grieves at reading in the Wall Street Journal that Civil War battlefields are attracting dramatically fewer visitors.

These battlefields, especially as manned by enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guides, are national treasures. These martial grounds are incalculably valuable not because some “Lost Cause” devotees want to mythologize Confederate honor, but because they sear into visiting souls some key sensibilities and understandings important for good citizenship. In particular, they impart an appreciation for how virtues such as courage and sacrifice meld with practicalities such as logistics and terrain, in ways that change the fate of nations.

Alas, ever-fewer numbers of people now visit these sites that once were held virtually sacred.

“The National Park Service’s five major Civil War battlefield parks—Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, Chickamauga/Chattanooga and Vicksburg—had a combined 3.1 million visitors in 2018,” reported the Journal, “down from about 10.2 million in 1970, according to park-service data. Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania, the most famous battle site, had about 950,000 visitors last year, just 14% of its draw in 1970 and the lowest annual number of visitors since 1959.”

What the non-visitors are missing is a tremendously moving experience. The Park Service does a wonderful job at preserving the grounds of those and other Civil War sites, both aesthetically (most are truly lovely vistas) and functionally. On the latter point, which of course is educationally crucial, the Park Service presents the exhibits in ways that make comprehension of the “action” easier, while giving a sense of the scope and human cost of the engagements.

At Fredericksburg, one sees and appreciates the deadly folly of Union general Ambrose Burnside’s attack plan, along with the cold brilliance of Stonewall Jackson’s direction of its repulse. At Antietam, one can almost feel the Confederates’ relief at their respite from utter disaster when “up came [General A.P.] Hill” to save the day. At little-remembered Monocacy, one sees, from a well-placed tower, just how important it was that a few outnumbered Union divisions managed to slow a nearly successful last-ditch Confederate attempt to take Washington, D.C.

And most famously, at Gettysburg, a visitor’s throat catches upon seeing the mile of open ground through which Lee ordered Pickett’s men to charge, while the visitor’s heart is stirred by the dazzling boldness of the decisive bayonet charge down Little Round Top ordered by Union colonel Joshua Chamberlain.

War is never a pleasant subject. Valor, though, is inspirational – and history is important. These battlefields remain some of the best places on Earth for valor and history to intersect so well.


Tags: , , , ,