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.