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Message from Headquarters: September 21, 2017

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A message from Jim Lighthizer, Civil War Trust President

September 21, 2017

Dear Friend of Preservation,

From the beginning of the modern battlefield preservation movement, it has been the charge of the Civil War Trust and its predecessors to preserve American battlefields to educate the public about what happened on these Hallowed Grounds and the ongoing significance of those events. Battlefields are outdoor classrooms, teaching young and old alike about the sacrifices made during our nation’s turbulent first century to secure the precious freedoms we enjoy today. 

Battlefields are where crucial chapters of the American story were written, where ordinary citizens — farmers, merchants and laborers — displayed extraordinary valor. The United States is the oldest and most successful democratic republic in the world, thanks to the sacrifices made by these citizen soldiers. We see the battlefields on which they fought as living memorials to all Americans who have honorably served in our armed forces.

It is, however, a different kind of memorial that has been in the news recently, as debate has intensified over the role of Confederate monuments in our modern society. Hate groups have attempted to utilize some of these statues as gathering places to promote despicable and long discredited ideologies, displaying violence and intolerance that have no place in this great nation.

It is vital for the future of our country that Americans understand the full scope of our nation’s complex story. Our history — both good and bad, heroic and shameful — shaped who we are as Americans today. Thus, history education is a foundation of good citizenship and a key ingredient in developing the leaders of tomorrow. Professional historians frequently caution against the tendency to look at historical events solely through a contemporary prism — when judged against modernity and contemporary values, it is the rare historical personality or era that is not found wanting.

As students of history, you know that these monuments are not monolithic. They were commissioned at various times, by various individuals and groups, for a variety of reasons. Each was specifically designed for its community and context. While some were erected as political statements, many more were intended as a locus for collective grief as an entire community mourned its fallen sons — an instinct as common after the Civil War as it is today with veterans of World War II and other conflicts of the last 70 years.

Accordingly, we see monuments and memorials — especially those on America’s battlefields— as educational tools for teaching valuable lessons about national, and local, history. Given that perspectives on history can and do shift, rather than move or remove monuments, we encourage communities to augment these memorials with thorough interpretation to help the public reflect on the many layers of their history. We also recognize that such decisions will ultimately be made at the local level.

Since the events in Charlottesville, I have received many calls for the Trust to “do something” about the situation. The question may be slightly different, but the answer is one I have become familiar with giving, thanks to countless pleas for assistance saving a cemetery or museum or historic home: We save battlefields. And it is the strict adherence to that mission that has driven our success.

I am also aware of suggestions to move monuments from public parks to battlefields, museums, cemeteries and other locations. As a general rule, we believe monuments should remain where they were erected. Taking a historic resource out of its proper, historic context is rarely an advisable course of action. But in the case of moving monuments to battlefields, our imperative is to ensure their integrity in perpetuity – so future visitors can fully experience the landscapes the soldiers once saw. Aside from the immense costs in moving and maintaining such monuments, the Civil War Trust would not want to facilitate the loss of pristine battlefield landscapes by placing monuments where they were never intended.

In the coming weeks, we will be sending a survey to our membership, asking you to weigh in on this controversy. Tell us what you think! And as this debate continues to sweep across the country, please remember — and remind others of — the words of Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends.…  Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Sincerely,

O. James Lighthizer, President
Civil War Trust