In Defense of Preservation

A misguided column appeared in today’s Fredericksburg, Virginia, Free Lance-Star that gives preservation-minded folks reason to pause. Columnist Donnie Johnston denounced battlefield preservation as an nothing more than an effort to strip landowners of their rights in the name of “glorifying war.”

“The Civil War is over,” Johnston says. “Let’s move on. The good earth was put here for us to use, not to glorify because one man killed another man at some particular spot.”

Johnston, unconcerned by America’s general historical illiteracy, seems oblivious to the fact that the first step toward remembering our history is to preserve it. He also seems callous to the idea that the sacrifice of soldiers is worth remembering and commemorating.

Mike Stevens, the president of the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust, offered an articulate response, which we are pleased to pass along with CVBT’s permission:

To the Editor:

Donnie Johnston’s recent column, “War shouldn’t be hallowed,” made clear his antipathy toward, and opposition to, preserving our remaining Civil War battlefields. He was direct, forthright, and pulled no punches.

I am President of our local preservation group, Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT), and would like to respond. (For a more complete picture of why we preservationists do what we do, please check the paper’s archives for my past op-ed articles.)

–We of CVBT don’t wish to preserve the ground of a Civil War battlefield in order to glorify war or to enable reenactors to “play soldier and have a high old time.” Rather, we do so in order to commemorate this most important and defining event in the history of our country, to preserve the memory and meaning of what took place on that ground, and to remember and honor the men in both blue and gray who fought and fell there, to ponder what they did and why they did it. There are lessons to be learned by having such special ground to walk upon.

–We of CVBT do not attempt to save every inch of battlefield ground where “there may be a Minie ball somewhere in the ground” or where “some farmer once plowed up a rusty bayonet in that field.” Rather, we consider the ground sanctified by the blood and bravery of thousands of Americans (ground almost certainly still containing the remains of many of those men) to be consecrated and special, to be as worthy of respect and preservation as is the consecrated and special ground of any existing cemetery.

–We of CVBT are not “stripping landowners of their rights.” We understand that a man’s property is his own, and we support this as a fundamental right of citizenship, as long as the corresponding responsibility to respect the historical stewardship of that property is taken into serious account.

–Finally, some of us might wonder about his comment that “the good earth was put here for us to use, not to glorify because one man killed another man at some particular spot.” It might be more respectful and honest to say that we are called upon to be good stewards of God’s created order, to use what we have been given not exclusively for personal profit and gain but with the acknowledgment that there are places touched by such suffering and sacrifice that they become special and Spirit-filled, worthy of being preserved forever. To us of CVBT, a Civil War battlefield is just such a place.

Mike Stevens
Fredericksburg, VA

16 Responses to In Defense of Preservation

  1. Mr. Johnston makes a giant leap from highly respected preservation groups paying fair market prices for land to “stripping land owners of their rights”. I thought this was a free market system.

  2. Thank you for your articulate response to Donnie Johnston’s insulting rant about preserving Civil War battlefields. All our battlefields, from Bunker Hill to the Alamo to Gettysburg to Ground Zero remind us who we are as a country and what it means to be an American. A different view of our history is being presented in the public schools than was taught 50 years ago, so our battlefields help to preserve truth. Mr. Johnston’s brand of “gosh by golly”, tooth sucking boobery is better put to use complaining about Stafford County’s recent decision to charge its residents a fee to dump their trash in the county landfill.

    1. As a public school teacher for the last 30+ years, I unfortunately, and sadly, agree with Tommy Davis–our history is is barely presented at all in school. It has been co-opted by Economics, Civics, and a bunch of other stuff someone thought was “more relevant” at some point. This is why I went to teaching Math. When we wonder why our immigrants seem indifferent to America, we have to look no further than our classrooms. No pride in America, no responsibilities of citizenship, not even any heroes or heroines are given even a mention. If we fail to preserve what we have left, from Native American relics to Ground Zero, we will all lose, by a huge margin!

  3. I have shared this on Our FB page (FoWB) …. The Free Lance Star should be truly ashamed to have posted such nonsense. Fredericksburg is all about history and preserving history .. Just walk around down town! How dare they!

    1. Mark, I’d disagree with you on this one point. I applaud the Free Lance-Star for not censoring the thoughts of one of its columnists. While you, I, and most people we know strongly disagree with Donnie Johnston on this topic, we should not ask that he be stopped from saying what HE believes. I believe Mike Stevens’s letter speaks for us, eloquently, in response, and will garner more agreement than will Johnston’s column.

      1. I think the FLS is at fault for letting one of its columnists print things that are demonstrably wrong while writing about a topic he obviously does not understand. To equate preservation and reenacting is fundamentally flawed, yet Johnston builds his whole argument around that flawed premise. It makes the newspaper look foolish.

      2. I understand your consternation, Chris. But I see opinion columns every day that are written by nationally syndicated columnists that are, to my way of thinking, “demonstrably wrong.” Let’s look at this in a positive way: Johnston’s column has provided a forum for discussing battlefield preservation and countering his misguided point of view, which Mike Stevens has done well. Unfortunately, some FLS readers have responded with a “let Donnie be Donnie” attitude, although none has yet supported his argument — only his right to make it.

      3. Donnie Johnston has the right to express his opinion, but he does NOT have the right to use lies to affirm his statements, as when he implies that CVBT strips landowners of their rights. He has a big following in this area, and unfortunately, there are still a lot of people who believe everything they read in the paper or see on the nightly news.
        Newspapers are supposed to print the truth. If they don’t, they should be called out for it, instead of slickly trying to equate lying with a first amendment right.

  4. Excellent defense and statement reply to a disturbing article. Keep up the respectful and reasonable defense! And a big thank you to CVBT for their battlefield preservation work.

  5. I thank ECW for this post. I do agree. As a European I must say these places are forever sacred, not only for Americans, but for us all human beings. Is it glorifying war? Absolutely not. On the contrary, it is an opportunity to remember that here men killed one another for what they believed in. We respect them, but can’t help wondering: How could this have been avoided?. And now what can we do to prevent such events to happen again?.
    Anyway, what has become of us if we cannot look at a piece of our planet without immediately wondering how much money can be made of it?. Are the Yellowstone guards in danger?
    As a conclusion: “Un peuple qui néglige son passé, compromet son avenir”, I am ashamed I don’t remember for sure who wrote it (Aimé Césaire or Léopold Sédar Senghor, two exceptionally great men) If we neglect our past, we compromise our future.We learn from our past experience and it helps us to build our future.
    I do like this post as I do all ECW posts. They are my favorite CW posts, with Craig Swain’s.

    1. I’m sorry, I first learned British English and I sometimes find it difficult to adapt to American English: I wrote: “it helps us TO build”, instead of “helps us build”.

  6. The anti-preservation editorial makes me genuinely wonder if Johnston was glad to see the historic Harris Farm out on the Spotsylvania Battlefield get torn down.

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