The Bloody Angle: Balancing Access and Interpretation

From John Hennessy, NPS:

In a comment yeasterday, reader Todd Berkoff queried about plans for the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania–especially questioning the decision to remove the foot bridge that sits atop the Bloody Angle.  As I promised in my response, here is a map of what we plan on doing. 

For those of you who missed it, I repeat much of my explanation included in my response to him last night.

The planning for what is about to happen at the Bloody Angle was done by a multi-disciplinary group of both NPS sorts, local planners, and some interested residents. Our efforts to lay out a new trail at the Bloody Angle was dominantly guided by two things. First, a desire to offer visitors a way to understand both the Union and Confederate perspectives of the battlefield. This entailed giving visitors visual access to the shallow ravine in front of the Bloody Angle. The art we have sharedteh other day is intended for use at that vantage point.

Second, and even more important, was to develop a treatment that would encourage visitors to view and respect the Bloody Angle itself as they would a precious artifact, and thus to enhance its prospects for long-term survival. Part of that entails treating the site with respect ourselves.

The plan  envisions a trail system with a crossing of the works at someplace other than the Angle itself. There are three reasons why visitors cross at the Angle. First, we offer no alternative; second we give them a bridge–we virtually beg them to cross there; and third, given the current access only from inside (CS) of the Angle, the monuments beyond the Confederate works are an irresistible attractor. Moreover, we believe the presence of the bridge, which encourages people to cross, is likely the reason the works immediately adjacent to the bridge are among the most deteriorated in the park.

Our plan is to 1) route visitors from the parking area to the monuments first–all on the Union side of the Angle 2) leave no obvious attractor on the other side that would inspire them to walk over the works.. 3) Then cross them 50 yards or so down the works, in the direction of the East Angle. We will combine this with low-scale signage that constantly reminds them of the hallowed nature of the place, urges them to respect it, and not to leave the trail.

By doing this, we hope to remove the reason for having a footbridge right on the Angle itself. There is literally no more intrusive modern component anywhere in our park than the footbridge at the Bloody Angle. It’s a bit like having an exterior elevator shaft to the front facade of the White House. This is arguably the most hallowed place in the park; certainly this is the most precious, evocative stretch of earthworks we have (and perhaps anywhere in North America); to have a bridge literally atop the Angle is something we should all seek to avoid.

So, the big question: will our plan work? We’ll be watching nothing more closely than how people use the new trail (which will be open in the fall or winter). If we find that people ignore all we have done and choose to cross the works regardless, then we’ll be ready to act–even to the point of putting the bridge back. While your concerns about the Angle are well taken, please know that our planning is intended specifically to end the ongoing deterioration of the site–the root of your concerns. We hope that the guidance offered by a more formalized trail, a ready alternative to getting across at the Bloody Angle, and an inspired respect for the site will render a bridge right at the Angle unnecessary. We admit it’s a bit of an experiment, but it’s not a risk. We won’t let it become one. We all take our charge to preserve exceedingly seriously, and rest assured there are no people on earth more devoted to the Bloody Angle’s preservation than we are.

3 thoughts on “The Bloody Angle: Balancing Access and Interpretation

  1. John —

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful and thorough response. I appreciate much better now the park’s plans and goals for his new walking trail, and its committment to preserving the fortifications while at the same time better interpreting the site.

    I have always saw the need for a walking trail that tells the story from the perspective of the attacking force rather from the “trench” side. There is indeed a great need for better interpretation of the site. I am still hesitant about the idea of a trail on the northern side of the earthworks — upon which thousands of Federal soldiers were pressed against and fought and died there, just as the southern soldiers did on the other side of the works, just a few feet away. The northern side of the Mule Shoe is equally as significant as the “trench” side. The current path on the southern side is far enough away from the trench itself that it does not disturb the most crucial fighting positions where the southern soldiers fought, died, and in some cases, were entombed and still reside. This planned path along the northern edge of the Mule Shoe will sit right atop the main Federal line.

    I agree with your points regarding the removal of the bridge. Its an eye sore and antiquated. My (and yours) chief concern is visitors either intentionally or unintentionally damaging the earthworks and the placing of a walking trail so close to the works (closer than the longstanding path on the southern side) could encourage visitors to walk on the works too, in addition to walking along it.

    Also, according to the map that you provided, it appears that the trail brings the visitor back into the Mule Shoe at an area where there is a sally port or small gap in the works used by skirmishers to enter or exit the main line. My concern is that this
    small gap will be expanded/altered to allow visitors to make their way through it.

    John, thank you again for your attention to this most important project that involves some of the most hard-fought ground in the United States. Under your watchful eye I trust that the park will be looking out to maintain the integrity of the park’s resources. But as you can see, this small patch of earth is very important hallowed ground — almost of religious significance — to those like me who visit and pay respect to the fallen many times per year.

    Todd Berkoff (
    Arlington, Va

  2. Todd: I apologize for the week of silence, but we are just back from vacation. Thanks for your comment. As for your query about the passage over the works, your conclusion that we intend to place it at the break in the works east of the Bloody Angle (you obviously know the ground well). This was clearly a Confederate gun position–the gun platform is still faintly visible. We will protect the works here with an short boardwalk laid atop the ground, spanning the entire length of the feature. While we would prefer not to have to do this, we also have to get visitors through/over the works in some way. But doing it at this location, we will render the crossing almost invisible from elsewhere along the Confederate line.

    I believe the trail work was done this past week, and will get out there to look at it this week. The trail will not become functional, though, until we get the new exhibits in and installed. That will be later this year. Thanks again. Watch over us–it’s a good thing to challenge and ask questions. These are tough issues, and mistakes carry a high price.

  3. Hello Mr. Hennessy. Thank you for your reply. I’m glad you agree that any changes to these fragile historical resources could have serious repercussions. I didn’t mean to be a “Johnny-come-lately” to this endeavor by the park but I thought it worthwhile to raise these concerns in this forum to ensure the protection of these earthworks, which are national treasures and are hallowed ground.

    My continuing concern is the fact that this new trail is built over the Federal position during the May 12th fight — where these Union soldiers fought and died just feet from their Confederate adversaries. I would hope similar concerns would be raised if the park decided to create a new trail inside the “trench,” given the fragility of the works, traverses, etc., and given the good possibility that there are Rebel dead still buried in the trench. The new trail on the Federal side of the works causes me the same concern, and even worse, I think it could encourage some visitors to walk on top of the parapet, since it follows the works so closely.

    Thanks for listening,

    Todd Berkoff

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