Monthly Archives: May 2010

Even protected battlefields can be threatened

If you take a look at the Civil War Preservation Trust’s 2010 list of most endangered battlefields, you’ll notice that some of the sites included are national parks or have some similar type of protective designation. 

On the face of it, this might seem a little odd.  You’d assume that once a site becomes a national park, it’s safe and sound.  Nobody is going to build a row of condos on federally protected land, and no short-sighted local zoning board can approve a retail development within a park’s boundaries.  The truth of the matter, though, is that while designation as a park protects land within a site’s boundaries, threats from outside those boundaries can be considerable.

Anyone who doubts the impact of development outside of a site’s boundaries should visit Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in Greensboro, NC.  This is one of my favorite places, and one of the most important pieces of ground in America, where a British attempt to destroy Nathanael Greene’s army in March 1781 proved so costly that it led to the march to Virginia that ended at Yorktown.  It’s a beautiful park, and the NPS has done wonders in interpreting it.  I consider it a must-see for anyone interested in the Revolution.

It is sadly, however, crowded by construction.  Getting a perspective on the field as it appeared during the battle is extremely difficult, and the park will unfortunately never be able to interpret those parts of the field that lie outside the central core, since they’ve been churned up and built over.  GCNMP is a stellar example of what the NPS can do, but it’s also an example of the limitations that urban growth can place on a site.

Development proponents, of course, might call preservationists unreasonable and ask why we can’t be satisfied with what we’re allotted, why we’re always demanding more, more, more.  I’d be sorely tempted to ask them the same thing.  Preservationists need to remember that every time we draw a line in the sand, someone will be waiting to cross it and force us to draw another.  And another, and another.  We should be at least as persistent as they are.

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation

Here’s a little sample

…of how I spent my Saturday.

I didn’t take my camera, and couldn’t have used it if I had.  (It wouldn’t do to have a member of the cannon crew standing there taking pictures and video.)  Here, though, is some footage the 2009 Raid at Martin’s Station that’s available on YouTube.  If I can get my hands on any pics or videos from this year’s event, I’ll post them, too.  Enjoy!

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Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites

I’ve finally seen the elephant

A lot of people ask me if I reenact, and they’re sometimes surprised when I say no.  In fact, it surprises me a little.  I’ve been seriously interested in history for about ten years now, but I’ve never engaged in living history, although I’ve helped organize events.  I suppose it’s been a combination of lack of time, severe allergies, and a general aversion to being hot and sweaty that’s kept me from it.

Not long ago I plugged the tenth Raid at Martin’s Station, a frontier/Rev War event held at Wilderness Road State Park near Rose Hill, VA.  I’ve been to it several times, but always as a mere spectator.  WRSP has an active group of living history interpreters, one of whom is a schoolteacher I’ve known for many years.  In fact, it was my dad who got him involved in reenacting when the hobby took off after the Civil War centennial.  This year he asked me if I’d be interested in taking a spot on the cannon crew for the Martin’s Station event, and I said yes.

The cannon in question was a “grasshopper,” a light bronze gun which fires a three-pound projectile.  I knew a little bit about grasshoppers, because they were used in some of those Rev War battles in the South that fascinate me to no end; Tarleton had two of them at Cowpens.

This grasshopper in the visitor center exhibit at Cowpens is very similar to the one I helped service. From Cowpens National Battlefield's website

While the infantry assembled within the fort walls, we went over the routine.  My task was simple.  When the battery commander gave the order, I was to remove a round of canister from the box and hand it off to a runner.  I’d also be responsible, as were all the men on the crew, for helping move the piece into position.

The battle itself was a surreal experience for me, and not just because it was not the sort of thing you get to do every day.  One of the things I found while researching my master’s thesis is that accounts by men in the ranks differed greatly from those by officers.  Commanders remembered the battle with a bird’s eye perspective, as a set of objectives to be accomplished.  Accounts by average militiamen, such as the memoir by James Collins (who was only sixteen when he fought at King’s Mountain), tended to be more impressionistic, consisting of a series of kaleidoscopic and fragmented details: the thirst, the sweat, Ferguson riding into and out of view, and so on.

Once the shooting started during my own little trial by fire, I understood why this was the case.  When the gun crew was still inside the fort, I could observe the infantry assembling in the yard, the riflemen on the walls, and the officers passing around giving orders.  I couldn’t see what was going on outside the walls, of course, but my perspective of the action within the fort itself was pretty good.  Once we were ordered out, though, my perspective shrank to a pinpoint.  I knew nothing but what was happening right in front of me, and my memories of that part of the battle are exactly the sort of disjointed details I’d read in veterans’ accounts: the smell of gunpowder, the ungodly and inhuman yells of the Indians (a sound that raised the hair on the back of my neck), the shouted orders, the breeze, the pain in my feet, the red ammunition box with the word VENGEANCE painted in black on the top, the blurred faces of the spectators as we rolled the cannon past them.

Here’s an anecdote that will illustrate how much my point of view diminished once the frantic process of hauling and firing the cannon started.  After the battle was over, when we had the gun back at the fort and the tourists were allowed in, I looked around to see that an outbuilding had been set on fire and was now a smoldering ruin.  Right in front of me were the sprawled bodies of the “dead.”  I had passed directly in front of all this twice during the engagement, but didn’t notice any of it until it was over.

I also lost all sense of time.  I didn’t have my wristwatch on, for obvious reasons, and I have no idea how long the battle lasted.  It could have been twenty minutes or an hour.  Things seemed to speed up once we were ordered to take the grasshopper out of the fort, but I don’t know if this last phase of the battle was actually shorter or if it was simply due to the haste with which we had to move and load the grasshopper.

I was also surprised at how easily and quickly I forgot things that I’d long known—at least in an abstract sort of way—about eighteenth-century weapons.  Before we wheeled the cannon outside, I was given a pistol and told to take a post on the fort wall.  I hadn’t taken three steps before I absent-mindedly lowered the pistol barrel to the ground, dumping out every bit of the powder.  Once I finally stepped up onto a platform and stuck the pistol out of a firing port, I made an even more basic mistake.  Despite reading countless descriptions of the procedure for cocking and firing flintlock weapons, I neglected to pull back the frizzen before pulling the trigger.  Even in a mock battle in which no one’s life was in serious danger, it was easy to see how the uproar of things could get the better of you.

I’ve long believed that living history is a fantastic instructional tool when it comes to the general public, but now I’m more convinced than ever of its value for the researcher.  I didn’t “learn” anything about the eighteenth century in the sense of increasing my store of knowledge.  Instead, the information that I already had became deeper and more visceral.  I already knew that common soldiers experienced battle as a disjointed series of impressions, that their perspective of time changed, and that they often did things (or failed to do things) for which they couldn’t account afterward.  I knew all that, but I knew it in only the abstract.  Now I know it with a kind of visceral certainty, and from participating in only one event.  So to any researchers who wonder if reenacting will be of any benefit to their work, let me assure you that it will.  And the fact that it’s just plain fun doesn’t hurt, either.

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Filed under American Revolution, Reenacting

“Why do you like coming here?”

Not too long ago a few other folks and I made a quick run out to two of my favorite places, King’s Mountain National Military Park and Cowpens National Battlefield.  Both are Rev War sites in northwestern South Carolina.  It’s a pretty short trip from where I live, and I try to make it at least every year.  It’s my favorite way of recharging my batteries when I get burned out or over-stressed, as I have been for the past several weeks.  

We’d walked the first part of the loop at Cowpens and were headed back toward the Visitor Center when a member of my little group asked me, “Why do you like coming here?”  It was a good question, and my inability to come up with an answer has been bothering me a little.  

 Whatever a battlefield is—a monument, a learning center, an artifact—it was once the scene of violence and bloodshed on a massive scale.  And yet I thoroughly enjoy visiting battlefields, as do thousands of other people.  In fact, when I visit these places of slaughter and misery, I can find myself in a state of almost blissful contentment.  There’s a contradiction here that’s a little disturbing, especially given the fact that I abhor the misuse and neglect of these sites.  

I suppose part of the reason I enjoy visiting battlefields could be the simple fact that it’s always nice to get outdoors and walk around a bit.  I spend most of my time reclining with a book, hunkered over a computer screen, or standing in a classroom, so I’m always eager for any excuse to get out and stretch my legs.  

 Also, it doesn’t hurt that many preserved battlefields are lovely places.  You can’t beat King’s Mountain for a nice outdoor stroll.  It’s a small ridge surrounded by gently undulating, wooded hills; think of a series of high ocean swells turned into solid ground and covered with timber.  Cowpens is pretty pleasant, too, a grassy field bordered by woods with a sandy path running down the middle.  I could name any number of other killing fields that are gorgeous spots: Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh.

Cowpens today, from the NPS website

It would be easier to associate these locations with death and destruction if they had that almost tangibly sinister quality that permeates some places.  Some historic sites do have this quality; Wounded Knee and Waxhaws both have a sort of forlorn atmosphere, even independently of the brutal events that took place at them.  Little Bighorn and Appomattox are lovely, but also appropriately melancholy.  The rocky mountain face near the southern entrance to Cumberland Gap can seem pretty forbidding, especially in the winter, but having looked at it several times a week for much of my adult life, I’ve grown very fond of it.  Still, I find that a visit to such ominous places can be as rejuvenating as a trip to any other historic site, so the question of why I enjoy battlefields so much remains.

The conclusion I’ve come to is pretty simple.  The main reason I like being in these places is because I can get my head around them.  I can understand the ground because I can understand what happened on it.  In the same way that some places are comfortable because you can link them to personal memories, a familiar battlefield can be comfortable because you can link them to names, events, and meanings.  You can make sense of the landscape by making sense of a moment in its past. 

Indeed, making sense of the past is basically what history is.  It operates from the same basic impulse that drives people to catalogue insects or build astronomical observatories.  When we encounter something that transcends the mundane business of everyday life, our instinct is to try to come to some kind of terms with it.  Past wars have that transcendence for me, and studying them is my way of coming to terms. 

Besides, if thousands of people find these places of slaughter more compelling than the modern world outside them, it just might reveal as much about the banality of that modern world as it does about anything else.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Looking for something to do this weekend?

Over the years, history buffs here in the Cumberland Gap region have watched Wilderness Road State Park near Ewing, VA become a first-rate center of historical interpretation.  In addition to a beautiful visitor center and a gorgeous setting, the park features a reconstruction of Martin’s Station, which was once the last outpost settlers reached before heading through the mountains into Kentucky.  Today it’s the most accurately rebuilt frontier fort anywhere in America.

For ten years now, WRSP has hosted an annual reenactment which has become one of the most exciting living history events in the South.  It’s happening again this weekend, and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the eighteenth-century frontier, the American Revolution, or Native American history.

In addition to the usual reenactment goings-on—demonstrations, a mock battle, sutlers, music—one especially nifty feature of this event is a staged nighttime raid, in which visitors get locked inside the fort with the militia while Indians attack in the dark.  This is one of those rare experiences that does what good living history is supposed to do, which is give you a sense of a long-past event that’s difficult to convey through any other medium.  It’s one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had at any historic site.

Here’s some additional information.  Check it out.

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Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites, Reenacting