Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Why did so many Civil War battles take place inside of national parks?

Nice try citizen, but the moon only looks small. 
Michael Lynch, in his Past in the Present blog, has a post reflecting on the confusion of American tourists who somehow conflate the Revolution with the Civil War. This prompted Michael to relate a personal anecdote about an encounter he had with a gentleman while Michael was manning the counter in a small museum in Harrogate, Tennessee. You can read that amusing, and depressing, story here.

In the discussion that followed, a reader of Michael's blog invoked one of the most famous of all Civil War tourist stories -- the one in which a visitor to a battlefield allegedly asks the park ranger, something to the effect of, "why did so many of these Civil War battles take place in national parks?"

It's a good question, and the way I first heard the story -- from Jerry Russell, I think -- was that the ranger, without skipping a beat, replied, "because that's where all the cannon were."

Reading this reminded me of a conversation I had with Bobby Krick, historian at Richmond National Battlefields, during the Civil War Forum's visit to Richmond last spring. I knew he had spent many years on battlefields, and that he was the son of a career NPS historian, so figured he must have some good tales to tell. I asked him about the famous story -- the one about why battles were fought on park service grounds -- and whether those kinds of things really happened, or were merely apocryphal. It's easy to imagine that a story like that is made up to accentuate the humor, while still being emblematic of the fact that we are a nation of idiots.

Bobby said that indeed, people do ask questions like that, and he had a pretty good story from his first NPS assignment, one summer years ago at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Anyone who has visited, or seen pictures of that battlefield knows that the landscape is open, with little in the way of trees beyond the edges of meager watercourses. Bobby tells of a tourist on Last Stand Hill who, feverishly working through in his or her head how exposed the troopers were to the storm of Indian bullets and arrows, asked, "why didn't the soldiers take cover behind all these grave markers?"

And that, my friends, was Custer's last and probably most egregious mistake. 


DW@CWBA said...

I'm sure you'd find this kind of stuff in every country. There's a story about a British soldier (WW1 or 2) that got off a train in London at Waterloo Station and promptly exclaimed "so this is where the famous battle was fought."

Tim Kent said...

Great blog! I remember one park ranger was asked by a woman, "If there was that big of a fight here, why don't the monuments have bullet scars?" I bet a good book could be written on all the silly questions people have asked them.

Chris Evans said...

At Shiloh on a guided tour that I was on the person asked the Park Ranger (actually the now published author Timothy Smith) were the recreated worm fences at the Hornet's nest the original ones from the battle.

Those would have been unbelievable artifacts to have survived in the outdoors for 140 years!