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Once killing fields, civil war sites now beautiful museums

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SHARPSBURG, Md. - They could be called the most beautiful museums in the world.

Many have actual museums attached to them. They also function as shrines and as burial places for some of the more than 600,000 who perished in the great national slaughter that was America's only war with itself.

All or portions of nearly 400 American Civil War battlefields or historic sites have been preserved. Largely under the management of the National Park Service, and often in collaboration with local battlefield associations and preservation societies, many have been restored at least to approximations of what they looked like when the armies of Union and rebellion marched or rode upon them.

The Antietam battlefield here at Sharpsburg, with its rolling hills and such blood-soaked landmarks as the Cornfield, the Sunken Road and Burnside Bridge, is perhaps the finest. It has been a long, continuing struggle to maintain and add to them, with much of that work accomplished by the Washington-based Civil War Preservation Trust. We are familiar with recent national controversies that erupted over attempts by developers to encroach upon them - the planned and later canceled Disney Civil War theme park at Haymarket, Va., near the Bull Run battlefield; a current effort to intrude gambling casinos at Gettysburg.

But how were these now-sacred expanses - to be found all over the country - established in the first place? As National Park Service historian Richard West Sellars explains in a new book, "Pilgrim Places" - published by Eastern National and available at national parks - it was the soldiers.

"It was the aging of the veterans, at the peak of their political power in the last decades of the 19th Century," said Sellars, describing a situation similar to the recent rush to complete a World War II monument on Washington's National Mall. "Their numbers began to decline, and they made that point. The (Union veterans') Grand Army of the Republic said they were gaining no new recruits and were losing members all the time."

It helped that every U.S. president, save Grover Cleveland, from Ulysses Grant through William McKinley was a Civil War veteran, as were hundreds of members of Congress and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Gettysburg, which historians consider the war's most important battlefield, led the way, with a private preservation effort begun by local attorney David McConaughy less than three weeks after the fighting there ended. With the awful refuse of warfare still littering the fields, and the stench of burned horse corpses still in the air, McConaughy began buying up small tracts for use as a cemetery for the Union dead and for the erection of monuments.

"(There could) be no more fitting and expressive memorial of the heroic valor and signal triumphs of our army," he said, "than the battlefield itself, with its natural and artificial defenses preserved and perpetuated in the exact form and condition they presented during the battle."

The dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery, featuring the historic remarks of President Abraham Lincoln, gave the movement further impetus. Within the next two years, an estimated 150,000 visitors went to the place. The federal government did not acquire Gettysburg until 1895. It had by then taken possession of three other battlefields: Antietam; Chicamauga, Ga.; and Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1890. Vicksburg, Miss., was added in 1899.

The rest, as one can definitely say in this regard, is history.

"This was, by far, the largest preservation effort in the country in the 19th Century," Sellars said. "Before this, historians were talking about preserving houses: Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, George Washington's Mt. Vernon, Andrew Jackson's Hermitage. They didn't look upon Civil War battlefields as part of historic preservation."

The South was largely excluded from Gettysburg until the late 19th Century, to the point that a large rock associated with Gen. Robert E. Lee's placement on the battlefield was ordered removed. But, gradually, Confederate groups became part of the national movement and added considerable political weight to it.

Though some 180,000 African-Americans served in the Civil War after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, they were excluded from preservation and memorial activities until modern times. Of the five original preserved battlefields, they were engaged in a major way only at Vicksburg. For decades, commemorative ceremonies there were segregated. That form of racism prompted Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., to tour all manner of Civil War sites and then compel the Park Service to take note at its visitors' centers of blacks' participation and the root causes of the conflict.

"It was something long overdue," said Sellars. "These are military engagements, but it's important to know what was behind them."

Here and there, one finds remnants of French Indian War, Revolutionary War and War of 1812 battlegrounds and historic sites (though Valley Forge, in the shadow of Philadelphia suburban high-rises, is something of a joke), but they are few compared with those of the Civil War.

That is "in part because it was a civil war," said Sellars, "which meant that one side of the nation had to win or lose, so the memory of it hangs on. It was an extremely compelling time. It's amazing to go back and realize how much that means in the East, the South and the Upper Midwest."

Must we save every acre?

"There is a benefit to every acre that is saved. These battlefields where this terrible slaughter took place," said Sellars, "are now very beautiful places."


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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