When it comes to the battlefield itself, the emphasis today is on what is often called “a sense of place.” It is an amorphous term, but it seems to mean something like a landscape that is so detached from the ordinary hodgepodge of suburbia that it has an almost mystical power to inspire emotion and curiosity. But to create a “sense of place,” you need to make the modern world disappear for a bit, and that is almost impossible to do. On a sunny afternoon at Manassas not so long ago, you could stand in a thicket near the bloody ground of Henry Hill and almost believe that you were seeing what the soldiers saw there when the First Battle of Manassas was fought. And then a young man in brightly colored spandex and orange running shoes came jogging by, an intruder from the present.
Despite the fear of Civil War veterans that hallowed ground might become simply another pleasure park, many sites are exactly that: refreshing landscapes with an optional history lesson. The danger, as some critics of the Park Service have suggested, is that the fantasy 19th-century landscape becomes the main attraction and history takes a back seat.
The custodians of our battlefields might well take advice from people who run more-traditional museums, where the challenge is to engage visitors with the history of objects. The best museums assume that visitors want to see details, understand interrelations and dig into history. The objects are the focus of the experience and, to use Civil War terms, the best museum experience is as much about tactics as strategy.
Despite admirable efforts to connect battlefields to the larger history of the Civil War, the one thing that battlefields can teach very well is the history of what happened in a particular place. If the goal is simply to inspire thoughts about the larger social history of the Civil War, one battlefield is pretty much the same as the next — and it becomes difficult to explain why we need to preserve so many of them, and with so much land taken off the tax rolls. If the goal is to make people passionate about battlefields and their preservation, visitors need to engage with the actual place to understand its strategic importance and the tactical back-and-forth.
As the nation continues to mature, as it continues to digest the larger context of the Civil War, it seems likely that there is yet another era to come in the way we relate to these sites. The old veterans, long gone but having left an indelible mark on the landscape, will be heard again as Civil War cultural stewardship incorporates the best of all that has gone before, including the passion to know exactly where men were standing, how they moved, why they fought and where they died.