Civil War buffs couldn't see history for the trees

National parks clear trees from original battlefield 'sight lines,' delighting (and appalling) students of history.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Revealed: At the Battle of Gettysburg site, 576 acres of trees once hid the story of July 3, 1863.
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    Before and after: Recent Gettysburg battlefield restoration demolished modern additions including a motel, to better represent the scene as it appeared in 1863. Critics call such measures excessive – or not enough.
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    Before and after: Recent Gettysburg battlefield restoration demolished modern additions including a motel, to better represent the scene as it appeared in 1863. Critics call such measures excessive – or not enough.
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Even though he spends his time guiding tourists through the nooks and crannies of a Civil War-era house, retired librarian Harry Conay believes that nature can trump history.

He's watched in horror as the National Park Service has tried to make the Gettysburg National Military Park look more like it did on three July days in 1863. Officials are nearly a third of the way through cutting down 576 acres of trees that didn't exist back then.

Another 275 acres will be replanted with trees and orchards that disappeared over the past 15 decades. But it's not enough to please Mr. Conay, who says the battlefield's history is partly told through the healing of the earth. After all, the trees managed to thrive on land ravaged by a deadly struggle between two immense armies.

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"During those 140 years, this has become something more than a battlefield lesson," Conay says from behind the gift-shop counter at the historic house where he serves as a guide.

But the trees continue to fall, despite a flurry of protests amid preparations for this month's opening of a $103 million visitors center and museum. And as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaches, at least one other battlefield is poised to restore history by chopping down countless trees.

To supporters, including park officials and amateur historians, the Gettysburg project makes perfect sense because it allows visitors to better understand the past. The enormous challenges facing generals and soldiers, they say, will finally be clear.

"It's not just about trying to create a postcard picture to make something look like it did 150 years ago," says Don Barger, a regional director with the National Parks Service, which runs the military park. "It's about protecting the elements necessary to tell the story."

New views on the challenge of the battle

The park, in southern Pennsylvania, draws about 2 million visitors each year to marvel at a crucial and bloody battle. The South, which had come close to forcing the North to the bargaining table, lost the battle and never recovered.

Dozens of tour buses traverse the 6,000-acre military park each day, bringing visitors to admire hundreds of statues and monuments and view battle landmarks such as Little Round Top and the Peach Orchard.

As part of the restoration project, park officials digitized 19th-century maps and conducted "terrain analysis" – a military strategy taught at West Point – to figure out which features of the landscape affected the battle. Then the officials made choices about adding or removing everything from trees and fences to roads and orchards.

The "rehabilitation" project – about halfway completed – will eliminate 576 acres of trees while adding 115 acres of trees and 160 acres of orchards. Thirty-nine miles of "historic" fencing will be erected, too. In addition, power poles have been removed along with a car dealership and a motel.

Among other things, the park service has cut down a stand of trees at Devil's Den, uncovering more of the rocky patch where Civil War photographers captured stunning images of the carnage.

Elsewhere, fences will be built to show the challenges facing Confederate troops who tried to ambush Union soldiers by crossing a wide field. According to the park's plan, the fences will allow visitors to see that the soldiers in the famous Pickett's Charge had to pick their way through: 12 small fields instead of one big one.

William G. Jeff Davis, an amateur historian in Gettysburg, says the restoration project has allowed him and others to better understand the maneuvers of the armies.

"It's forcing historians to take another look and perhaps even rewrite their histories to an extent. To me, that's exciting," says Mr. Davis (no relation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis).

Mr. Barger, the park service regional director, says battlefield restoration allows visitors to fully understand moments of history. At Stones River National Battlefield in Tennessee, for instance, a cotton field still stands where it did at the end of 1862. "There are records about the cotton flying in the air because of all the bullets going every which way," Barger says. "It's part of telling the story to say, 'That's where it was,' and there it is."

Critics say, 'get rid of' all modernity, then

But critics of the Gettysburg project are unimpressed and have made their views known in letters to the editor and online comments. "If you're a true preservationist, then all the monuments and access roads need to go because they weren't there in 1863," wrote a Gettysburg native to an Illinois paper. "For that matter, most of the population, infrastructure, and business wasn't there either. If you are a true preservationist, then get rid of it all."

Barger acknowledges that cutting down trees seems an unusual thing for the park service to do. "It is one of those things which seems like a contradiction at first, but only if you have a narrow scope of what the national park system protects."

The park service preserves history in addition to nature, Barger says. Indeed, 60 percent of sites preserved by the park service are historic, not natural treasures such as Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, he says.

More battlefields will be spiffed up themselves as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaches in 2011, and controversies over restoration projects may be inevitable. A debate is already under way at Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi, where Union and Confederate troops battled over access to the Mississippi River.

Under one proposal, the park would cut down stands of oak and hickory trees to allow visitors to better understand the Confederate defenses.

The key to battlefield rehabilitation, Barger says, is to create spots where visitors can "almost feel the bullets."

"That," he says, "is what you want to have happen in a battlefield."

At historic sites, looking forward while looking back

Several U.S. historic sites are being given new looks. A few notable examples:

•The Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania unveiled a $103 million museum and visitors center in a "soft opening" earlier this month. A grand opening will be held in September, when visitors will be able to see the famous cyclorama painting of the pivotal battle, restored to the way it looked in 1884.

•As part of a $110 million restoration project, a new visitors center and museum opened at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estates and Gardens in 2006. Visitors to the Virginia estates can watch documentary films, wander through galleries, and look at three life-sized models of America's first president, each created with the assistance of a forensic anthropologist.

•Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants first encountered New York City and America, opened a newly restored ferry building on its south side to visitors last year and is raising money to restore more buildings.

•At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia, construction has begun on a $55 million visitors center and museum that will include hands-on activities for children.

•A $14 million visitors center opened in 2005 at Fort Necessity, the Pennsylvania site of the first battle of the French and Indian War. It draws about 90,000 visitors a year.

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