Civil War Sites Advisory Commission Report
National Park Service

Why Save Civil War Sites?

More than 620,000 American soldiers, sailors, and marines died in the Civil War. If the same proportion of our population were killed today, five million Americans would die! The casualties at Antietam on September 17, 1862, totaled three times the American casualties on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The Civil War destroyed the Confederacy and the South sank from being one of the wealthiest to being one of the poorest regions in the United States.

This terrible trauma should not be celebrated, nor should it be blotted from the national memory. And for good reason. That second American Revolution of 1861-1865 radically changed America while settling two fundamental, festering issues left unresolved by the first Revolution of 1776: whether the precarious experiment of the democratic republic federated in a union of states would survive; and whether slavery would continue to mock the ideals of this boasted land of liberty.

The Civil War transformed a loose federation of states into a unified and confident nation that launched into the 20th century as the world's leading economic producer and foremost democratic nation.

Yet, while acknowledging all this, some have asked: Why do anything more to protect the battlefields? Are not the principal battlefields already preserved in National and state parks? Can we not understand the important political and social changes that resulted from the war without studying the battles? Does not this preoccupation with "hallowed ground" romanticize violence and glorify war? These questions deserve answers.

First, an understanding of military campaigns and battles is crucial to comprehending all other aspects of the Civil War. Lincoln said in his second inaugural address that on "the progress of our arms...all else chiefly depends." Individual battles swayed elections, shaped political decisions, determined economic mobilization, brought women into the war effort, and influenced decisions to abolish slavery as well as to recruit former slaves in large numbers as soldiers.

The Seven Days battles prevented an early Union victory and changed the conflict from a limited to a total war; Antietam forestalled European recognition of the Confederacy and prompted the Emancipation Proclamation; Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Chattanooga reversed a tide of Confederate victories that had threatened the Northern will to keep fighting; Sherman's capture of Atlanta and Sheridan's victories in the Shenandoah secured Lincoln's reelection, confirmed emancipation as a Northern war aim, and ensured continuation of the war to unconditional victory. A different outcome to any of these as well as other battles might have changed the course of the war -- and perhaps of the world's history.

So the battles were important. But do we need to preserve the battlefields to appreciate that truth? Can we not learn by reading books about campaigns and battles? The Commission has concluded the answer is "No." In part, this is simply a matter of being able to visualize how geography and topography shaped a battle -- the pattern of fields and woods, hills and valleys, roads and rock outcroppings, and rivers and streams. This cannot be done if the historical landscape has been paved over, cluttered with buildings, or carved into a different shape.

Those who have read about the ill-fated Pickett-Pettigrew charge at Gettysburg, but have not seen the place where it occurred, cannot understand it until they go there. Not until they view the three-quarters of a mile of open fields and walk the ground those Confederate soldiers trod, can they truly comprehend the courage needed to press onward, and why the assault, which cost some 10,000 Confederate casualties, failed.

If they could similarly view and walk the attack route of Union troops against Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga, they would be able to understand why that attack, seemingly more hopeless than at Gettysburg, succeeded spectacularly. Sadly though, Missionary Ridge now is built over.

But understanding Civil War battles is more than a matter of grasping their topographical and tactical details. Being present on a battlefield, we can experience an emotional empathy with the men who fought there. With a little imagination we can hear the first rebel yell at Manassas, imagine the horror as brush fires overtook the wounded at Wilderness, experience the terror of raw recruits at Perryville, share the anguish of the families of 800 or more unknown soldiers buried in a mass grave at Cold Harbor, or hear the hoarse yells of exhausted survivors of the Twentieth Maine as they launched a bayonet charge at Gettysburg's Little Round Top.

Every visitor to a Civil War battlefield has experienced such feelings. Proper educational and interpretive programs aid the visitor to visualize these dramatic scenes and to comprehend their meanings.

These experiences help us to understand what the Civil War was all about. This is not a matter of glorifying or romanticizing war. Quite the contrary; it is a matter of comprehending its grim reality. The battlefields are monuments to the gritty courage of the men who fought and died there. None condemned war more than those who suffered the horror and trauma of battle. In 1862, a Confederate veteran of Shiloh wrote home: "O it was too shocking too horrible. God grant that I may never be the partaker in such scenes again.... When released from this I shall ever be an advocate of peace."

Yet these men soldiered on through three more years of even bloodier battles than Shiloh. Most Civil War soldiers were volunteers. They fought not for glory, nor for money, but for a cause in which they believed deeply. They longed for peace and for a safe return to their families. But many of them reenlisted at least once, determined to fight for that cause even though they hated war.

A Confederate officer wrote in 1864 that "I am sick of war" but "were the contest again just commenced I would willingly undergo it again for the sake of our country's independence and liberty." An Ohio corporal in the trenches before Atlanta wrote, also in 1864: "There is nothing pleasant about this life, but I can endure its privations because there is a big idea at stake." And an African-American soldier wrote "If roasting on a bed of coals afire would do away with the curse of slavery, I would be willing to be the sacrifice."

These clashing convictions and the deadly determination to fight for them explain why the war lasted four long years and cost 620,000 lives. They also explain why Civil War veterans took the lead in creating the first National battlefield parks in the 1890s--not to glorify the war, but to commemorate the sacrifice of friends they had lost. "In our youth our hearts were touched with fire" wrote the thrice-wounded veteran Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., "It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing."

Americans cannot afford to forget this lesson. It is perhaps the most important legacy of the Civil War. And the battlefields are the tangible monuments of that legacy. The Civil War touched the lives of everyone at the time, and it continues to do so today. Americans by the millions visit those relatively few battle sites that are accessible. Most come to share in a renewal of values and to understand more about the war, its profound meaning for themselves, and its lessons for our diverse nation--such as our ideals of tolerance.

Today many people know, or would like to know, of specific battlefields where some three million of their own ancestors participated in the historic events. The ability for so many to identify such a personal connection with one of the most memorable events in the American consciousness sets the Civil War and its battlefield sites apart from most historical events.

Communities, too, take great pride in their proximity to battlefields. A connection exists between a community and large national themes. Relationships forged by the Civil War -- among its battlefields, its consequences, and our people and communities today -- form a seamless web of American values, traditions, and priorities.

And finally, as with many historic properties significant in our national history, the principal Civil War battlefields need to be preserved and protected as places to answer important questions not yet asked and for purposes not yet perceived.

In this manner, and for these reasons, Civil War battlefields are a crucial link in the historical traditions that bind our nation together -- today and for the future.

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Creation Date: 3/14/95

Last Update 2/15/96 by TGossett