Visiting battlefields seems like something Americans have done since the beginning of the republic. It’s a way of honoring those who fought and died there, and of better understanding our history.
But that’s not so, according to Thomas Chambers, chairman of the history department at Niagara University.
Having visited perhaps a hundred battlefields around the country, and sometimes experiencing the opposing emotions of annoyance at the not-always-respectful crowds (Gettysburg, Little Big Horn) and disappointment at the scarcity of interest (Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Massacre, Utah’s Mountain Meadows), I found his thesis intriguing.
Chambers makes his argument in a new book, “Memories of War, Visiting Battlefields and Bonefields in the Early American Republic” (Cornell University Press; $29.95).
A word in the subtitle captures attention: bonefields. Today places like Fort Niagara and Saratoga, both of which receive considerable attention from Chambers, are sanitized. If signs or guides didn’t tell you that the American victory at Saratoga saved the Revolution, and that more than 20,000 American and British soldiers fought there in two battles in 1777, and that more than 500 were killed, it would appear to be a public park, a place to picnic and hike.
Which is precisely what many visitors do.
Bones from the hundreds of British soldiers who died during Gen. Edward Braddock’s failed attempt to capture Fort Duquesne, near present-day Pittsburgh, lay in fields more than a decade after the battle. Bones on battlefields from the French and Indian War and the Revolution were common for decades after men fought and died there.
Today if you visit any of the numerous battlefields and forts associated with the Revolution or the War of 1812, the two conflicts Chambers’ book focuses on, you would be unable to tell that men fought and died there unless you read the signs. The site of the Battle of Oriskany, fought in 1777 near present-day Rome, N.Y., is pleasant and serene, also like a public park.
Go to Fort Niagara when there’s a crowd, which could be any day with nice weather, and you’ll see children romping about, barely aware of the fact that the fort played a role in three wars – the French and Indian, Revolution and 1812. For the children, and probably most of the adults, what’s interesting at Fort Niagara are the thick walls, the story of a possible haunting, the magnificent vista across Lake Ontario, the period uniforms. Knowing that soldiers fought and died there can ruin a pleasing family outing.
Chambers, when asked why it is that so few American presidents have visited our battlefields, responded, “The lack of presidential visits to battlefields is certainly an important factor in our lack of understanding of their importance, as well as the general anonymity of many sites.”
But he notes that some presidents, in fact, have visited battlefields: “FDR visited Gettysburg for its 75th anniversary, giving that sacred ground cultural importance in increased federal resources. William Howard Taft assisted in the opening of the restored Fort Ticonderoga in 1909. There certainly are others, but commanders in chief tended to avoid reminders of the negative consequences of their decisions to send troops into harm’s way.”
Chambers adds, “Perhaps [President Ronald] Reagan’s visit to Normandy in 1984 changed that perception, as he invoked the sacrifices and victories of the past to inspire the Cold War present. But there was already a cemetery there, and the idea of commemorating the past and honoring fallen soldiers had long been part of standard American practice.”
The main point is, “Battlefields often provide muddled stories or incomplete narratives that defy easy political rhetoric and ready symbolism. We have few great forts that are easily understood – too many earthworks or wooden barricades have vanished. Presidents need dramatic backdrops to announce policies or to summon patriotic emotions, and our nation’s battlefields provide few such examples. With little to draw them there, presidents have avoided our battlefields, and Americans have followed suit, directing their attentions elsewhere.”
None of our battlefields, in fact, come close to drawing the crowds that go to amusement parks or major college football games. They’re not playgrounds. They’re bonefields, even if today the bones are more metaphoric than physical.
Sometimes the battles were on water, not land, so they are nearly impossible to visit. But in Erie, Pa., visitors can tour a replica (made with some original parts) of the Niagara, the flagship that helped win the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813 and gave Americans control of the lake for the remainder of the war.
Visiting the ship, you might hear visitors talk about how small it was, how uncomfortable it must have been to spend time on it, how you could not stand up in the lower deck. Twenty-seven Americans and 41 British sailors died in the three-hour battle led by the Niagara.
Chambers noted that “Veterans constituted one of the earliest cohorts of visitors to battlefields and memorials, where they existed.” That is, after the Revolution and War of 1812, the two wars covered in his book.
He added, “I think the trend has increased more recently, with veterans’ groups seeking personal connections with their past service. But as David Blight has written in ‘Race and Reunion,’ after the Civil War the U.S. sought to remember a sanitized past of courage, valor and the common sacrifice of soldiers, not the war’s causes, slavery, among others.”
The reason for that? “That allows more Americans to connect with a noncontroversial past regardless of whether or not they served. And veterans with shared experience of combat can remember the war together without regard to which side they fought for. In a sense, we have moved away from personal connections as a culture, although individual veterans seek personal connections with battlefields and memorials.”
Some veterans will tell you – although they often note that it sometimes took them decades to realize this – that as a veteran they have more in common, emotionally at least, with veterans of other armies who fought or served against us. At Newtown Battlefield near Elmira or Saratoga, they empathize as much with the British soldiers, and the Senecas, who fought there as much as with those who served in the American army.
The signage and guides at the fields usually reflect the same balance. They are reminders that battlefields, bonefields, are where soldiers fight and die more than they are places where one country defeats another.
When we understand that, we better understand that we are visiting a place of battle more than one of victory, or defeat.
Martin Naparsteck is a local freelance writer and a veteran of the Vietnam War.