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.
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.