Tag Archives: battlefield preservation

Let’s commemorate the Battle of Princeton by defending the place where it happened

Today is the 239th anniversary of Washington’s victory at the Battle of Princeton.  Unfortunately, it’s also a day in which Princeton Battlefield is under threat.  Despite concerns from preservationists, historians, hydrologists, and now state lawmakers, the Institute for Advanced Study shows no signs of slowing down in its effort to build faculty housing at the site.

Why not commemorate the battle’s anniversary by taking a few minutes of your time to help protect the place where it happened?  Here are a few easy things you can do.

James Peale’s depiction of the battle.  From the collections of the Princeton University Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons

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Princeton Battlefield Society keeps up the fight

Here’s the latest news in the ongoing effort to preserve Princeton Battlefield.  Looks like the Institute for Advanced Study might have ignored some important environmental restrictions, which could impact the construction that threatens the battleground:

Members of a Senate committee said they want to get to the bottom of whether wetlands are on a site where the IAS is preparing to build 15 units of faculty housing on about six acres of its land adjacent to Battlefield State Park.

Sens. Bob Smith (D-17), Linda R. Greenstein (D-14) and Kip Bateman (R-16), all members of the senate Environment and Energy committee, sent a letter to DEP commissioner Bob Martin asking him to put a hold on the project until the committee hears from the DEP on the wetlands issue. For its part, the DEP said it does not issue stays, something that was up to a judge to do.

The letter went out the same day that Bruce I. Afran, the lawyer for the Princeton Battlefield Society, and other advocates went before the committee arguing that there are wetlands on the development site, an area they say is of historic value given that fighting took place during the battle of Princeton in January 1777.

In his remarks before the committee, Mr. Afran said that Amy S. Greene, a hydrologist, was retained by the IAS to do a wetlands survey in 1990, a report that found wetlands in the middle of where the IAS is planning to build. A subsequent survey in 1999, by another firm for the IAS, found no wetlands in the same area.

Mr. Afran contended that the IAS did not disclose to the DEP the original 1990 survey indicating the presence of those wetlands when it sought clearance from the agency for its housing project.

To him, that represented “a pattern of deception” to conceal the information from the DEP, which, in 2000, granted the IAS a “letter of interpretation” saying there are no wetlands in the construction area.

Mr. Afran said that in 2011, the Battlefield Society had hired Ms. Greene to contest the IAS application before the then-regional Princeton Planning Board. Her survey found the same wetlands that she originally had identified in 1990. Ms. Greene also testified at Monday’s hearing to support her findings.

He also said that a 2012 soil report by the IAS engineer also found wetlands but that the IAS did not turn over the information to DEP.

For his part, Sen. Bateman said the DEP revisited the site a few weeks ago and claim it sticks to its original interpretation.

“This issue, I would think, would be either black or white,” he said. “Either the wetlands are there or they’re not.”

 Yeah, you’d assume this would be a pretty straightforward question.  Then again, you’d also assume people would have enough decency not to build faculty housing on an important Rev War battleground.

Those disappearing wetlands aren’t the only thing shady about this whole affair:

The Battlefield Society came close to defeating the project when it went before the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission in January. A commissioner, Mark Texel, director of the state Park Service who is Mr. Martin’s representative on the board, initially abstained from the vote, which led to the development failing.

He changed his mind a month later, moved to have the DRCC reopen the matter and then voted for it. At Monday’s hearing, Mr. Afran claimed that Mr. Texel did so based on “political pressure.”

Mr. Afran claimed that in September Mr. Texel, in the presence of Mr. Afran and two other people, said he was sorry for the revote that he had asked for but explained that he had gotten a call from Mr. Martin’s office.

“He made it clear to us that he was pressured into that revote decision by the commissioner’s office,” Mr. Afran told reporters after the hearing.

“We’re disputing that characterization of the conversation, and it’s just hearsay,” said DEP spokesman Larry Hanja.

Note also that the IAS turned down a $4.5 million offer from the Civil War Trust to secure the land in question.  These guys are serious.  Good thing the Princeton Battlefield Society is showing just as much tenacity as the people who are out to churn up priceless historic ground.

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Judge gives go-ahead for new housing at Princeton battleground

Here’s the latest news in the long, drawn-out dispute over proposed faculty housing at the Rev War battlefield.  Unfortunately, it’s not the good kind of news, but the Princeton Battlefield Society is going to keep fighting the good fight.

Judge Jacobson’s decision upheld the approval that Princeton’s Planning Board gave the Institute last year for an amended version of the project, which had first been approved in 2012. The IAS wants to build 15 units, clustering eight townhouses and seven single-family dwellings on a seven-acre parcel. The Battlefield Society says the houses would be on land where American and British soldiers fought during the Revolutionary War in 1777.

The Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission blocked the project in 2012 because of its encroachment on a stream corridor, and the IAS tweaked the plans to slightly shrink the footprint. It was that amended application that the Planning Board approved last year. The Battlefield Society said that because of the amendments, the project is essentially new and the IAS should have to start over. The Planning Board did not agree, and Judge Jacobson concurred.

As part of the ruling, Judge Jacobson issued a temporary delay on any start of construction to allow time for the Battlefield Society to appeal.

“We respect Judge Jacobson’s opinion, but we do not believe she’s correct,” Mr. Afran said. “And we believe there are serious failings in what the Planning Board did three years ago and again [in 2010]. They refused to hear relevant evidence. This decision is an error and it ignores all of the duties of the Planning Board to protect historical sites.”

I wish the PBS good luck in the appeal process, and a tip of the hat for their effort to keep this battleground intact.

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Flags, monuments, and a proposal for proponents of Confederate heritage

While I was on the road the past couple of weeks, a heck of a brouhaha erupted over historical memory, specifically the place of the Confederate flag, Confederate monuments, and the Confederacy generally in contemporary American life.

I was getting snippets of all the arguments on Twitter, but I didn’t really have time to make my usual rounds of the historical blogosphere.  In fact, over the last few weeks, I haven’t been thinking about American history or historical memory as much as I usually do.  Instead, I’ve been enjoying the company of old friends, gorging on good food, visiting places oriented toward non-historical subjects, and going to the movies.  (Well, I’ve actually been going to the same movie, over and over again.)

To tell you the truth, I was pretty glad I had other things to distract me, mostly because I was already weary of the whole thing as soon as I got wind of it.  If you follow the intersections of history, politics, culture, and current events long enough, then you can usually predict the lines along which arguments of this sort are going to run.

The only thing that’s surprised me about this latest Confederacy kerfuffle has been the speed at which it became so widespread.  Usually these debates play out within the context of one particular town or organization trying to figure out what to do with a monument or a flagpole, and the only people who take an interest are the local media, a few heritage groups, and those of us who blog about historical stuff.  With this round, though, it seems like everybody’s in the fray.

Well, for whatever it’s worth, here’s my take.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to be uncomfortable about seeing a Confederate battle flag on the grounds of a state capitol, or any other space where it’s implied that a sitting government is wholeheartedly endorsing the ideals on which the Confederacy was founded.  The secessionists were quite explicit about why they were doing what they did, and they did it because they felt slavery was threatened if they remained in the Union.  Slavery was simply the Confederacy’s raison d’être.

This is not to say that every Confederate soldier enlisted or fought to uphold slavery, still less that the desire to preserve slavery and white supremacy lay behind every thought and action of white southerners in the Civil War era.  Nor is it to say that descendants of Confederate soldiers have no business remembering and honoring their ancestors.  But it is to say that without slavery, there would have been no Confederacy.

It is therefore not at all inappropriate to keep statehouse flagpoles Confederate flag-free.

Am I, then, opposed to the display of Confederate flags in any context other than the exhibition of artifacts in museums?  No, I’m not.  I don’t see anything wrong with using the battle flag to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers, or in certain other commemorative settings.  Indeed, I thought the W&L students’ demand to remove the flags from Lee Chapel was a bit much, and I said so at the time.

Nor do I agree with every position that supporters of Confederate de-flagging have taken in the recent brouhaha.  As a preservationist, I’m generally opposed to moving longstanding Confederate monuments.  To me, monuments are more of a historic preservation issue than anything else.  We maintain old structures and works of public art because they have intrinsic historic value, not because we agree with the statements made by their creators.

I think my opinion on old Confederate monuments squares up pretty well with Andy Hall’s post from yesterday, which I heartily commend to your attention:

While I adamantly support the authority of local governments to make these decisions, I’m not sure that a reflexive decision to remove them is always the best way of addressing the problems we all face together. Monuments are not “history,” as some folks seem to believe, but they are are historic artifacts in their own right, and like a regimental flag or a dress or a letter, they can tell us a great deal about the people who created them, and the efforts they went to to craft and tell a particular story.

I think we need to be done, done, with governmental sanction of the Confederacy, and particularly public-property displays that look suspiciously like pronouncements of Confederate sovereignty. The time for that ended approximately 150 years ago. But wholesale scrubbing of the landscape doesn’t really help, either, if the goal is to have a more honest discussion about race and the history of this country. I’m all for having that discussion, but experience tells me that it probably won’t happen. It’s much easier to score points by railing against easy and inanimate targets.

Furthermore, I’ll go ahead and state that I think some of the actions taken in response to this latest round of controversy have been downright asinine.  Banning Civil War video games because the pixelated Confederates are carrying Confederate flags?  That was like something out of The Onion.  (What are video game Confederate troops supposed to carry?  A banner with the Cobra emblem?)

I’ll also happily go on record to denounce vandalism aimed at historic monuments in all cases whatsoever.  It’s not that I don’t understand why these monuments can still arouse strong feelings.  It’s just that, as a preservationist, I cannot get behind any effort to deface historic structures, property, or artworks.

But, as I said, I think it’s eminently reasonable to remove the Confederate flag from state capitols.  And to self-professed defenders of Confederate heritage who are rushing to keep those flags flying, to set up new flags on private property, or to buy up Confederate flag merchandise just to prove a point, I have a proposal.  It echoes an argument I made on this blog five years ago.

Why not direct that energy and money elsewhere and really preserve some heritage?  Instead of defending reproduction flags and buying Confederate emblem merch, use your time and money to preserve actual Civil War land and artifacts.

Sure, you can start a petition urging legislators to keep a piece of synthetic fabric flying from a pole on the statehouse grounds…or you can start a petition urging them to pass legislation keeping historic ground intact, and to fund the facilities where actual relics are conserved and treated.

You can spend thousands of dollars setting up ginormous Confederate flags on private land just to give de-flaggers the middle finger…or you can give that money to an organization that will purchase endangered battlefield land where real Civil War soldiers fought and died.

You can hold a rally to demand that a historic symbol be displayed out of reach and free of any context whatsoever…or you can support museums and archives where genuine historic artifacts are kept in stewardship for all of us and our descendants to enjoy.

Let me submit that the stuff of “heritage” isn’t flying from a modern flagpole or emblazoned on the roof of a toy car.  It’s on battlefield land that’s threatened by development, and it’s sitting in underfunded museums and archives that need money to keep it in intact.

As someone born and raised in the South—someone who loves the South and the people who live here, someone would not live anywhere else—I’d much rather see our historic sites and artifacts preserved so that Americans of all ages, sections, races, backgrounds, and political persuasions can enjoy them and learn from them than see a reproduction flag hanging from a pole.

Wouldn’t you rather rally to keep the real, raw material of history around?

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The continuing threat to the Princeton battleground

Here’s an update on the ongoing preservation issue at Princeton.  You might recall that the Institute for Advanced Study’s initial plan to build faculty housing on land adjacent to the battlefield got shot down because it encroached on a local drainage.  

The institute later received approval for a revised building plan, but preservationists claim the planned construction still threatens land involved in the battle.

Now comes news that an archaeological survey on the site found artifacts associated with the battle, supporting the preservatonists’ argument that the land in question is historically significant.

The fact that archaeologists hired by the institute itself have noted the historical importance of the ground ought to indicate that putting buildings there is a bad idea.  But it looks like the institute is moving forward anyway.

If you’ve been to Guilford Courthouse, you’ve seen the impact that encroaching development can have on a Rev War battlefield, and how much harder it is to understand and interpret sites that are suffocated by buildings.  Americans deserve to have the places where their country was born kept whole.

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The latest in anti-preservation follies and fallacies

Donnie Johnston of Fredericksburg’s Free Lance-Star has decided to let us all know how sick he is of all this hallowed ground from the Civil War.

Mike Stevens of the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust penned an eloquent and measured response to Johnston’s rant, which you can read at the Emerging Civil War blog.

For my part, I note that Johnston indulges in the anti-preservationist’s favorite logical fallacy: the straw man argument.  Anti-preservationists are seemingly incapable of engaging with actual preservationist arguments.  Instead, they have to reduce things to the most asinine mischaracterizations imaginable:

Everywhere a Union or Confederate soldier set his chamber pot is now declared “hallowed ground.”
You can’t build a store because there may be a Minié ball somewhere in the ground. Housing developments get axed because some farmer once plowed up a rusty bayonet in that field. You can’t construct a road because some soldier once fired a cannon from that spot.
This is all getting absurd.

Yes, that does sound absurd, and the reason it sounds absurd is because it’s a gross caricature of the actual situation.

Why people are so adamant about glorifying war—any war—is beyond me. Ask anybody who ever fought in one and they will tell you that war is indeed hell.
People kill other people in wars. They blow their heads off—literally. They disembowel fathers and sons and brothers with cannons and mortars.
Soldiers lose their arms, their legs, their feet and their hands in wars. You want to glorify that?

No, actually, I don’t want to glorify that.  I do, however, want to make sure the places where it happened remain available for future generations to draw meaning and information from them.  And it’s worth noting that the men who actually experienced those battles led some of the earliest efforts to set aside the sites where they happened.  They didn’t see anything inappropriate about commemorating the war.

The Civil War began because big landowners in the South wanted to keep black people enslaved. You can sugarcoat it all you want, but slavery was what that conflict was all about. You want to glorify slavery?

Certainly not, but I think the war that brought about its end might merit some commemoration.  It was kind of a big deal.

Now we want to save every inch of ground trod upon by every Federal and Confederate. Why? Well, partly so that re-enactors can line up, fire blank shells and show us what the war was like.

Actually, the NPS doesn’t permit reenactments on its battlefields.  But don’t let the facts get in your way.

Enough is enough. We don’t glorify World War I or World War II or even the Revolutionary War, where we won our independence. It is only the Civil War that seems to excite us.

I hate to be the one to break this to you, dude, but they actually do commemorations at World War I, World War II, and Revolutionary War battlefields, too.

The Civil War is over. Let’s move on. The good earth was put here for us to use, not to glorify because one man killed another man at some particular spot.

Preserving historic battlegrounds doesn’t mean we’re “glorifying” war, any more than setting aside Auschwitz as a historic site means we’re glorifying genocide.  There’s a difference between commemoration and glorification, and I just don’t get some people’s inability to make that simple distinction.

But maybe I’m making too much out of a conflict that tore the nation apart, ended slavery, and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.  We could really do something about our national shortage of big-box stores and fast food franchises, if only we could develop some of that prime real estate all those Civil War soldiers were inconsiderate enough to die on.

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The Battle of Franklin after 150 years

Today’s the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Franklin.  When it comes to the Civil War Sesquicentennial, I haven’t really done much in the way of commemorative posting.  I’m taking notice of this anniversary, however, because I have a personal connection to Franklin.  I don’t have an ancestor who died there or anything of that sort; it’s entirely a matter of happenstance.

I was born on November 30, and every year my dad—a longtime history teacher and Civil War buff—would remind me of the coincidence.  (Luckily for him, my mom’s birthday is the anniversary of Bunker Hill, so he always remembered that one, too.)  So here are a few links in recognition of a dark day for the Confederacy and an auspicious one for me.

A few of the many Franklin graves at McGavock Confederate Cemetery. By Boggartslayer2 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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