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.
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.
Soon after this rise in technological accessibility, Fort Ticonderoga and other Hudson River sites began to benefit considerably from the rise of a new spirit of Romantic tourism. The Hudson figured prominently in the nascent domestic reckoning of the European Grand Tour. Here, scenery, rendered vivid in works by the Hudson River school of artists and described in newly emerging guidebooks, seemed to trump history as an active draw, yet the past was rarely far from nature in descriptions of the merits of these trips. As Chambers writes of Thomas Cole’s “Essay on American Scenery” (1835), “America’s wild and unsettled scenery provoked more than reflections upon a specific castle’s legend or an associated poem. Surrounded by untrammeled mountains and ancient forests, ‘the consequent associations are of God, the Creator; they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things.’ ”
“American scenery,” Chambers adds, “struck the perfect balance between historical associations and unspoiled wilderness; it provided a source of national pride while simultaneously conforming to British ideals of the picturesque.”
Ticonderoga’s Romantic role was accentuated by the fact that the fort itself was a collapsing ruin, and scattered aged veterans added to the location’s impressionistic appeal. Nathaniel Hawthorne, upon visiting in 1835, was irritated by his youthful West Point guide; rather, he
should have been glad of a hoary veteran to totter by my side, and tell me, perhaps, of the French garrisons and their Indian allies, of Abercrombie, Lord Howe, and Amherst; of Ethan Allen’s triumph and Saint Clair’s surrender. The old soldier and the old fortress would be emblems of each other.