At a time when American history is being fought over in the social and political arena, a sharp decline in visits to our national battlefields reveals a sad lack of public appreciation for our nation’s history.
To me, there’s something deeply important about visiting museums, forts, and battlefields, which is why I write weekly articles about historic sites and events. It’s one thing to read about a battle in a book. I’ve read dozens of books on the American Civil War, at least ten on the Battle of Gettysburg alone. But until you stand on the actual ground where those armies fought, you’ll never have a complete sense of what happened there.
Battlefields are more than just lifeless monuments and interpretive signs that tell a story. You are standing on the same dirt those armies trampled 150 years ago, that same soil over which men fought and died, whose wounds bled into that very ground. Standing on Little Round Top at Gettysburg National Military Park, you can imagine the gray columns advancing through the smoke from the perspective of a Union soldier.
That’s not something you’ll ever experience in a classroom.
Sadly, the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out that battlefield tourism, particularly regarding America’s Civil War sites, is in dramatic decline. I’m too cheap to subscribe to an online news outlet, but luckily the Washington Examiner summarized it for me:
“The National Park Service’s five major Civil War battlefield parks — Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, Chickamauga/Chattanooga and Vicksburg — had a combined 3.1 million visitors in 2018, down from about 10.2 million in 1970, according to park-service data. Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania, the most famous battle site, had about 950,000 visitors last year, just 14% of its draw in 1970 and the lowest annual number of visitors since 1959.”Wall Street Journal
Just think about that… in 1970, when there were far fewer people living in the United States, there were 7.1 million more visitors to these battlefields. Why such a decline? Especially when, I’d argue, battlefield signage, tours, and visitor centers have become better and more interesting.
Gettysburg, for example, has a new $29.4 million visitor center with 20,000 square feet of exhibit space. It houses a cyclorama, galleries, temporary exhibit spaces, an archive, two theaters, a full-service restaurant, catering kitchen, classrooms, gift shop/bookstore, staff offices, and a conference room, and employs 85-105 full time employees. It’s truly impressive.
Many National Battlefields have professional tour programs and multimedia displays and videos. Information about the Civil War has never been more accessible to the general public through blogs, online archives, and websites like Amazon.com and YouTube.
This should be the most exciting time to visit our nation’s battlefields. So why are we so apathetic? I genuinely don’t know the answer.
Younger generations are certainly not apathetic about history in certain contexts. Computer and console games based on World War 2 are massively popular. Battlefield 1, set during the First World War, sold over 15 million copies. But early American history has fallen by the wayside in schools and entertainment.
During the 1950s and through the ’60s, popular artists released hundreds of ballads about American history, including the Civil War. The Walt Disney Company invested heavily in TV programs and movies educating the public about American history from the Revolutionary War to the Old West. You would never see that today. Sure, there is a Civil War film released every few years, but nothing approaching the same level of mainstream attention.
History is important, and to be able to experience history firsthand by visiting a battlefield and standing on the actual ground where men fought and died is something special. I would hate to lose that experience because people care more about a shopping mall than American history. That’s why I regularly visit historic sites and battlefields and support organizations like American Battlefield Trust.
If you don’t want to see our nation’s heritage disappear, I’d suggest taking your kids to visit these places and instill in them an appreciation for our history.