Surveying the Fields
And the (surprisingly) gradual process of commemoration.
Feb 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 23 • By ANTHONY PALETTA
Now that Gettysburg hotels sell out for the July battle anniversary by December, and the Virginia peninsula might as well be rezoned as a historical theme park, it’s worth looking back to a time when plenty of American history wasn’t the stuff of vacation plans. There was no permanent monument at Yorktown until the battle’s centennial in 1881, and nearby lodging for its dedication was so sparse that visitors to the commemoration were housed in tents.
How things have changed—and this fascinating study is ideal reading for the ongoing sesquicentennial of the Civil War and bicentennial of the War of 1812. It offers a close examination of just how overgrown fields and crumbling fortresses came to be reclaimed as objects worthy of preservation and visitation.
Yorktown monument, Virginia
The tale of how a protean form of the American battlefield came about has several phases, some relating directly to a sheer drive for historical remembrance, and many bearing a considerably peripheral relation to the conflicts themselves. In the end, though, who’s to argue with a good thing, especially when it makes so captivating a story?
A core difficulty in early American existence was simply getting anywhere, let alone to commemorative battlefields. Author Thomas Chambers cites the example of a traveler who “encountered a mere seven bridges but crossed fifty-five ferries on his four-month journey in 1744 from Virginia to Maine.” Cities tended to crop up at convenient locations; battlefields, unhelpfully, did not. Sheer accessibility played a significant role in the emerging cultural significance of some early battlefields. Braddock’s defeat, near Pittsburgh, occurred along the subsequently busy Braddock’s Road, where grisly evidence of the battle could be found for decades. (The Pennsylvania Turnpike might be a modern-day horror, but at least it is not littered with skulls.) Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, meanwhile, lay remote and neglected until it became a convenient, picturesque sight for burgeoning steamship traffic in the 1820s.