Dedication of Battle Monument

Civil War Battlefield Preservation

Though Virginia has always been considered a focal point of the American Civil War (1861–1865), battlefield preservation in the state initially lagged far behind other areas. Virginia witnessed the greatest number of battles, engagements, and skirmishes, not only because of its geographic location but also because it was home to the Confederate capital in Richmond. Moreover, most of the postwar historiographical disputes, at least in the decades just after the war, focused on Virginia battles and Virginia generals, especially Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. That Virginia battlefields fell decades behind others in Civil War battlefield preservation is ironic, then, even startling. Major battleground states, such as Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, and even other Eastern Theater states, such as Maryland and Pennsylvania, saw their battlefields preserved comparatively soon after the war. Despite success in other areas to memorialize the war, such as establishing the Museum of the Confederacy and erecting memorial statues along Monument Avenue, both in Richmond, it took sixty years to establish the first park in Virginia. The history of Civil War battlefield preservation can be subdivided into four major generations. The first was characterized by limited, disjointed, and individual efforts on the part of the veterans themselves, with some specialized help from state and federal governments. The second generation, labeled the "Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation," began in 1890 and saw five major parks established by the federal government. The third generation, which began in the mid- to late 1920s after a lull of some thirty years, was marked by an initial flurry of activity that steadily dwindled over the decades. A resurgent fourth generation has recently emerged, with the Civil War Preservation Trust leading the way. MORE...

 

First Generation

The first generation of battleground preservation, beginning even during the war itself and lasting until 1890, was almost a non-event in Virginia. What effort there was in the state came early, when soldiers placed three monuments on the field of the First Battle of Manassas. (Only two of these monuments remain.) The federal government, in establishing national cemeteries, also inadvertently preserved portions of Virginia Civil War battlefields in the immediate post-war years. Cemeteries at Ball's Bluff, City Point, Cold Harbor, Richmond, Winchester, Fredericksburg, and Petersburg preserved some historic land late in the 1860s. This work was not central to Virginia, however. It was done in the context of establishing national cemeteries across the nation. Only at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was there a fledgling battlefield preservation effort on the local level.

Second Generation

The best opportunity to save Civil War battlefields came in the 1890s, when the North and the South began to reconcile after the acidic Reconstruction era (1865–1877). Civil War veterans who were still alive during this period were able to mark correct troop positions. There was also support for battlefield preservation in a veteran-dominated Congress, and the battlefields themselves had yet to be consumed by the massive urbanization and industrialization that took place early in the twentieth century. Thus, battlefields could be saved almost in their entirety, and the veterans tried to do so. Unfortunately, they had only limited success.

The five biggest and best-marked battlefields that emerged during the 1890s were at Shiloh in Tennessee; Chickamauga and Chattanooga in Georgia and Tennessee; Vicksburg in Mississippi; Antietam in Maryland; and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. The "Golden Age" passed Virginia by completely. In fact, the Western Theater, not the Eastern Theater, dominated the initiative, with three of the five parks located in the West. (Chickamauga and Chattanooga were combined into a single park.) There is no evidence, however, that veterans or Congress deemed Virginia battlefields less significant or suitable for preservation than the others. Rather, successes elsewhere were the result of powerful political support that Virginia lacked.

Third Generation

After a thirty-year lull, federal preservation efforts began again in the mid-1920s, but by this time there were few veterans left and many of the battlefields had been eradicated as the result of urbanization. Under these circumstances, nonetheless, five Virginia sites became federal preserves: Petersburg in 1926, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania in 1927, Appomattox in 1935, Richmond in 1936, and Manassas in 1940. Virginia's most important battlefields were now preserved, but in a more limited fashion than the earlier parks. Indeed, each of the Virginia parks contained only fractions of the original battlefields.

After a flood of preservation efforts from the 1920s until the 1940s, federal preservation initiatives slowed, with only moderate attention paid during the Civil War Centennial (1961–1965). State governments, however, worked to pick up the slack, and Virginia created state parks at Sailor's Creek in 1934 and Staunton River in 1955, along with the Virginia Military Institute's New Market Battlefield State Historical Park in 1967. Still, by the 1970s and 1980s, battlefield preservation nationwide was once again almost nonexistent.

Fourth Generation

A resurgence of preservation consciousness emerged in the 1990s and has continued into the twenty-first century. In this fourth generation, such entities as the National Park Service, the Conservation Fund, the Civil War Preservation Trust, and others have defeated efforts to create commercial recreational areas on non-preserved battlefield and, in so doing, saved thousands of acres for preservation. In addition, Virginia finally seems to be getting its due. According to the Civil War Preservation Trust website in 2008, nearly half of the 25,000 acres saved by that organization to date are in Virginia. By this time the federal government had also become involved again, in particular with the creation of the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park.

In this fourth generation, such entities as the National Park Service, the Conservation Fund, the Civil War Preservation Trust, and others have defeated efforts to create commercial recreational areas on battlefields and, in so doing, saved thousands of acres for preservation. In addition, according to the Civil War Preservation Trust website in 2008, nearly half of the 25,000 acres saved by that organization to date are in Virginia. By this time the federal government had also become involved again, in particular with the creation of the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park. Virginia finally seems to be getting its due.

Time Line

  • September 1861 - Confederate soldiers of Colonel Francis Bartow's brigade place a monument on the battlefield of First Manassas marking Bartow's death site.
  • June 1865 - Union veterans place two sandstone obelisks on the Manassas battlefield.
  • July 1865 - Fredericksburg National Cemetery is authorized.
  • April 1866 - Winchester National Cemetery is dedicated.
  • July 1867 - Land is bought for the Richmond National Cemetery.
  • July 3, 1926 - Petersburg National Military Park is established (it is re-designated a National Battlefield in 1962).
  • February 1927 - Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park is established.
  • 1934 - Virginia establishes a state park at the battlefield site of Sailor's Creek.
  • August 1935 - Appomattox Court House National Historical Park is established.
  • March 1936 - Richmond National Battlefield Park is established.
  • May 1940 - Manassas National Battlefield Park is established.
  • 1955 - Staunton River Battlefield is made a state park.
  • May 2008 - The Civil War Preservation Trust reports 11,099 of 25,000 acres saved are in Virginia.

References

Further Reading
Blight, David. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in Memory and Reunion. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Civil War Sites Advisory Commission Report on the Nation's Civil War Battlefields. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1993.
Holt, Dean W. American Military Cemeteries: A Comprehensive Illustrated Guide to the Hallowed Grounds of the United States, Including Cemeteries Overseas. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1992.
Krick, Robert E. L. "The Civil War's First Monument: Bartow's Marker at Manassas" in Blue and Gray 8, no. 4 (April 1991): 32–34.
Lee, Ronald F. The Origin and Evolution of the National Military Park Idea. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1973.
Sellars, Richard W. Pilgrim Places: Civil War Battlefields, Historic Preservation, and America's First National Military Parks, 1863–1900. Fort Washington, Pennsylvania: Eastern National, 2005.
Smith, Timothy B. The Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation: The Decade of the 1890s and the Establishment of America's First Five Military Parks. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008.
Zenzen, Joan M. Battling for Manassas: The Fifty-Year Preservation Struggle at Manassas National Battlefield Park. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Smith, T. B. Civil War Battlefield Preservation. (2012, September 20). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Civil_War_Battlefield_Preservation.

  • MLA Citation:

    Smith, Timothy B. "Civil War Battlefield Preservation." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 20 Sep. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: January 28, 2009 | Last modified: September 20, 2012


Contributed by Timothy B. Smith, a history teacher at the University of Tennessee at Martin. He is the author of The Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation: The Decade of the 1890s and the Establishment of America's First Five Military Parks (2008).