Point/Counterpoint: Questions of Historical Preservation

By Bryan Caswell ’15 and Heather Clancy ’15

Bryan: Events of the past year here in Gettysburg have been momentous for historical preservation. On July 1, 2014 the Civil War Trust announced that it plans to purchase a four-acre plot of land opposite the Lutheran Seminary. On this land sits the original building that housed Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters during the Battle of Gettysburg. Lee’s Headquarters does not sit alone, however, sharing the property with a Quality Inn and an extremely popular local restaurant, the Appalachian Brewing Company. The Civil War Trust plans on removing these modern buildings and placing a conservation easement on the property in order to ensure its protection and return the landscape to a more nineteenth-century vista. The importance of such an event seems to be self-evident to many historians and so-called ‘Civil War buffs,’ but reactions in Gettysburg itself have been rather varied. This debate has intrigued me, leading me to reconsider notions of historical preservation and ask a question that may seem heretical: what is the value of further preservation?

Heather: For this particular site, preservation and the return to an approximation of its 1863 appearance is easily defensible. Lee’s Headquarters was the location of some of the key tactical planning moments of the Battle of Gettysburg. It was here that the Confederate general and his officers triggered many of the actions that would decide the fate of this small town and the armies that had gathered on its rolling hills and fields. By acquiring the land on which the structure stands, the Civil War Trust has enabled the transition of Lee’s Headquarters to the National Park Service for maintenance and interpretation. Once under NPS supervision, the headquarters will be able to be incorporated into the existing interpretive framework of Gettysburg National Military Park, enriching the experiences of thousands of visitors who come to the park to hear the story of one of our nation’s countless military turning points.

Bryan: Absolutely! The Civil War Trust and similar preservation organizations have done incredible work in preserving such pivotal landmarks as the Slaughter Pen Farm at Fredericksburg, the route of Jackson’s Flank March at Chancellorsville, and, now, Lee’s Headquarters at Gettysburg. These undeniably important locations provide unparalleled opportunities for interpretation and allow the public to engage with the larger historical narrative. Easily recognizable sections of battlefield are not the only objective of preservation campaigns, however. In the case of Lee’s Headquarters, the Civil War Trust will also be acquiring the four acres around the original headquarters building, which will be returned to as close to its state during the battle as possible. This process of historical reclamation will demolish structures that house two pre-existing businesses, as mentioned above, solely for a few more acres of nineteenth-century fields in a battlefield that contains thousands. That direction of preservation seems not so much to facilitate historical preservation and commemoration, but rather to enforce a collector’s mentality that will only rest when every inch of ground over which men marched in 1863 is protected. Indeed, the Civil War Trust’s website even emphasizes the raw acreage of saved land over any significant sites preserved.

Heather: Perhaps some sites offer more concrete historical detail to provide a basis of historical interpretation than others do, but visitors may find personal meaning even in areas seemingly lacking in historical significance. What historians refer to as the ‘power of place’ is often not closely dependent on a site’s recognition as a family name. Simply by standing at the location where great events occurred, individuals can have the feeling of being at the place where it happened. Additionally, visitors to Gettysburg and other highly preserved historic sites often rejoice at the opportunity to not only be at a site where historic events transpired, but to see the site as it was. To come to a Gettysburg that has been restored as extensively as possible to its 1863 appearance can allow such individuals to form an emotionally-charged connection to the landscape and, by extension, to the history itself. In doing so, they are encouraged to invest passionately in the preservation and interpretation of the historical sites about which they care deeply.

Bryan: The power of place is indeed a powerful draw to places like Gettysburg, and I know numerous students at Gettysburg who cite just that phenomenon as a main cause of their desire to go to school here. The problem, however, is that it is not 1863 any longer. History has moved on in the one hundred and fifty years since the Battle of Gettysburg, and the needs of modern society must be balanced against the desires of historical preservation. The demolition of the two businesses around Lee’s Headquarters will remove valuable tax base from the town of Gettysburg, a concern voiced by some on the town council. Additionally, as students of the battle are well aware, the Battle of Gettysburg did not solely take place in the fields outside of town, but also through the streets of town and across the campus of our own Gettysburg College. It is, of course, ludicrous to suggest that an entire town be sacrificed on the altar of historical preservation, but as long as a modern community resides in Gettysburg, the clock can never really be turned back to 1863. While I seem to be advocating an adherence to practicality over preservation, I must remind myself that such a practice would have resulted in a much-truncated version of the beautiful battlefield that the public and I enjoy today. This is truly a conundrum, and one that only raises more questions.


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