Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory has a bitter screed about people going to Antietam and enjoying themselves, damn it. It’s a battlefield! People died! Platitudes are being uttered!
What do you see when you go to a national battlefield? If the NPS is operating it, you can bet its really clean. And tasteful. In Concord Mass. near where I teach, the Battle road has been “restored” to some never never atmosphere of empty houses, patches of little fields that don’t grow crops, where the few surviving actual farms struggle in the face of the overheated real estate market, you hear the ceaseless hum of one of the busiest highways in the state, and see lots of intrepretive panels. As you walk along you sometimes run across a marker from the early 20th century, and it feels more real than the accurately restored colonial home you just visited.
In battlefields like Antietam, with their neatness, silence and the oppressive weight of past death, I feel the same as I do in a cemetary. I can sometimes understand what happened better by seeing the ground, but I’m not getting a feel for the experience of the time, because I don’t think it can be recaptured.
The only time I felt that was one day with a small group of students at North Bridge in Concord. I could feel the confined, hemmed in feeling of the British detachment in a brief crush of students and visitors on the bridge and looking up at the ridge, really could feel the lines of angry farmers, nerved to face the troops, start down the slope. Probably I have a vivid imagination.
Usually I just have a morbid curiousity to see infamous things and places(Lincoln’s coat at Ford’s Theatre–is that blood? Cool.) A very common, but not a particular attractive trait.
At the American Library Association conference one year, me and a hundred other teachers went to a talk by a historian from the National Holocaust Museum on materials to use in the classroom. She spoke in a quiet voice and passed around some pictures in a dead silent room. The pictures weren’t gruesome, just of regular stuff, like eyeglasses or wedding rings, obscene only because they were in enormous heaps.
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