This early postcard reproduces a painting of French troops on the battlefield of Rossbach in 1806 destroying a Prussian monument commemorating the French and Austrian/Holy Roman defeat there in 1757:
For my particular ruminations, the postcard is more a prompt than an analogy, since the historic preservation policies and laws under which the National Park Service operates generally prevent a destructive- or iconoclastic response to monuments that are present on the lands it manages but that prove, to some viewers, ineffective or otherwise unwelcome over time. Monuments, after all, help the Park Service fulfill congressional mandates to “mark” troop positions at many battlefields. Monuments proposed for Park Service-managed sites are now vetted for appropriateness at several levels of review.
Situated in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery and maintained by the Park Service, the visually dominating monument to General Alexander A. Humphreys and his division of Pennsylvania troops should therefore feel no unease in its bronze soul despite my personal view of its inappropriateness on a ridgetop that Humphreys and his men failed, however gallantly and dramatically, to capture during the December 1862 battle, and in a cemetery that does not host Humphreys’ grave:
(Moreover, one might argue that Humphreys’ skill as Army of the Potomac chief of staff during the Overland Campaign helped Federal forces to eventually neutralize the tactical power of the same ridgetop, and then bloodlessly occupy it in the process of converting Fredericksburg into a vast hospital in 1864.)
Nevertheless, and as John Hennessy has written recently, the mandate to maintain and preserve some categories of interpretive devices raises the possibility of battlefield parks becoming outdoor museums of historical expression, confusing the stories conveyed to visitors and even hiding the wartime terrain-features that helped inspire the preservation of those places in the first place. Battlefield monuments, moreover, can obscure not only visual resources but also other stories and historical actors that, while lacking monuments of their own, have been shown by new research or new perspectives to be vitally important at the same places.
Moving beyond the category of national parks, and speaking of all battlefields regardless of who manages those, I do harbor a personal curiosity about whether future monuments could be designed and installed with a “sunset clause”—stipulating that they would be removed after a certain amount of time, after, say, five or ten years. Such a clause would allow for rotating, full restoration of visual access to the surrounding landscape that a given monument had obstructed; a reconsideration of the monument’s message(s) and location in light of historical information discovered after its installation; the maximizing of artistic variety among a given battlefield’s collection of monuments; and a continual shifting of the spotlight among different stories and historical people—such as a different regiment that fought on the same field. It’s my hope that, for monuments proposed at a battlefield, public historians can experiment with making routine and thus non-ideological (and less literally destructive, since a monument removed with minimal damage would have a better chance of securing relocation to another public or private historical venue) the same impulse that’s depicted on my old postcard. This process indeed occurs constantly but, again, in a frequently destructive way, as this list of recent monument removals and alterations shows.
How might a system of sunset-clause monuments look on the ground? Obviously, their temporary nature would discourage the expense and bulk necessitated by the traditional, bronze-and-stone approach that has given rise to structural behemoths on a number of battlefields. Not far from where I write this, the City of Charlottesville hosts an ArtInPlace program that reviews proposals for and then installs public sculpture beside streets for eleven-month periods. While ArtInPlace, to my knowledge, has not yet marked places or events from Charlottesville’s military history, which includes sites connected to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and even the Cold War, the program nonetheless offers a kind of example for the experiment that I envision for a battlefield.
Whether in terms of scale (as with the new installation shown below, beside a sidewalk on the Corinth, Mississippi battlefield) or of shelf-life–or of both, ideally–I’m convinced that less can be more.
Noel G. Harrison