Reflecting on the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War
A message from Jim Lighthizer, Civil War Trust President
“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays.
Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger,
to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls.
And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not
and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things
were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field to ponder and dream;
And lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom,
and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”
- Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
These words, spoken by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain at the 1889 dedication of the 20th Maine monument at Gettysburg, truly get to the heart of the Civil War Trust’s mission and imperative. You and I are the future generations that Chamberlain envisioned making pilgrimages to the Civil War battlefields where he and his comrades fought and bled. We are drawn by the stories of sacrifice and honor contained in these fields; and through us the memory of those soldiers in blue and gray echoes across the ensuing years.
On the eve of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, we are faced with a challenge that Chamberlain and his comrades could not have predicted — the relentless destruction of these battlefields by development and sprawl. The sad truth is that roughly 30 acres of battlefield land are destroyed each and every day, paved over and lost forever. Even in our current economic climate, the steady stream of loss continues, leading me to a sobering conclusion — ours is the last generation with the opportunity to ensure that appropriate portions of these sites remain.
As we remember the profound events of the Civil War, contemplating the ways in which it has shaped our nation, we must also look to the future. We must embrace the sesquicentennial period as an opportunity to improve our intellectual perspective on the past. We must also look upon it as our chance to complete the altogether fitting and proper work of protecting these battlefields for future generations.
Each and every acre of these battlefields is truly hallowed ground. But they are not static sites; they are dynamic outdoor classrooms that provide a more interactive learning experience than any library or museum. Preserving this land, both out of respect for the sacrifices made there and for its continuing educational value, should be a major goal for the sesquicentennial commemoration.
Currently, a wide variety of agencies, commissions and other bodies are hard at work formulating the guiding principles for their sesquicentennial activities and planning special exhibits, lectures and other events to capture the spirit and memory of the war. These activities provide the perfect framework to reexamine public perceptions of the Civil War with the benefit of perspective offered by the passage of time. No doubt these endeavors will have a valuable and wide-reaching impact.
However, no result can be more lasting or fitting than the permanent protection of the battlefields where our ancestors fought and bled. Long after the final commemorative lectures have concluded and all the special museum exhibits are packed away, preserved battlefield land will continue to stand as a permanent and tangible tribute to the memory of the brave soldiers North and South.
In order for this sesquicentennial push for battlefield preservation to reach its full potential, it must be a call that echoes from every corner of the commemoration. I call upon the numerous bodies currently involved planning and executing anniversary activities to join the Civil War Trust in emphasizing the critical importance of our preservation mission.