Why should we care about battlefield preservation? You might expect this Mewsing to be about reasons such as the goal of preserving the ground where our nation’s history was made, the thrill that history buffs get when standing where their heroes stood, or the understanding historians can gain from seeing the lay of the land or walking the terrain. Those are significant reasons for battlefield preservation. But as makers of historically accurate dioramas, we have come to appreciate battlefield preservation in an additional way.
Thanks to preservation, visitors to a battlefield can see features of the terrain that the soldiers had to deal with. We can get a sense of the scale involved, when we know where a particular regiment’s flanks were. Were they squeezed into a tiny spot? Were they stretched so far that they must have been in single file? Was the terrain easy or impossible to cross? Our dioramas take this one step further by helping people to interpret the ground they have just walked, what they have seen, and the facts that they are learning. But it takes accurate terrain on a diorama for visitors to recognize features such as Little Round Top or Devil’s Den. This is where battlefield preservation is so vital.
Our diorama of Little Round Top, “The Boys Are Still There,” is eleven feet long with 2,600 boulders on it. Each hand-shaped boulder is based off of hundreds of photographs of the actual boulders on the hill. If no one had had the foresight to preserve Little Round Top, the accuracy of our miniature boulders and hill would be impossible. Visitors would not be able to look at the diorama populated with soldiers and say, “Oh! We were on that rock! We were near that monument! That’s right in the middle of the action!” Just as importantly, we would not be as well-equipped to tell the stories, through our dioramas, of the men who fought and died here.
Without the preserved ground, the veterans would not have placed monuments and markers. While there is always a certain amount of human error in recalling the events of decades earlier, some monuments are specifically placed so as to mark where a beloved officer fell. The monument for the 140th New York stands where Col. Patrick O’Rorke’s soldiers believed their colonel fell on the crest of Little Round Top. Knowing this and seeing the physical location of the marker will help us to place our cat-soldier of O’Rorke precisely.
Sometimes there is no marker raised by humans, but the ground itself provides the marker. Such is the case with the Oates boulder on the spur of Little Round Top. Col. William Oates (15th Alabama) drew a map showing where his brother, Lt. John Oates, fell mortally wounded. Looking at his sketch and the actual ground, it is possible to identify the location and boulder where Col. Oates wanted—but was not permitted—to raise a marker for the 15th Alabama.
Seeing our museum visitors make connections as they look at a to-scale diorama with accurate terrain and features is one of the greatest joys of running Civil War Tails. Thanks to the historical records and faithful battlefield preservation, we can help people make those connections, see the battle in a way they never expected, and gain an appreciation for what the participants went through. We really can bring soldiers’ stories to life 156 years later.
This Giving Tuesday, consider supporting the people who make such historically-accurate projects—and through them an accurate representation of our history—possible. There are many local organizations, including the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation which has preserved trenches from the Battle of Cedar Creek in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (which, by the way, is Ruth’s favorite battle, and the subject of a future Civil War Tails diorama!). If you would like to support preservation on a national scale, the American Battlefield Trust is an extremely successful and efficient organization. Previously known as the Civil War Preservation Trust, the ABT now preserves sites not only from the Civil War, but also the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. A recent example of their work is the restored Lee’s Headquarters, here at Gettysburg, where we can finally see the house as it stood 156 years ago.
By preserving battlefields, historical sites, and historical buildings and objects, we can have an impact on someone far in the future. The first person to think of preserving land at Gettysburg could never imagine the impact the National Military Park would have. They certainly never would have guessed that preserving the land would allow for a historically accurate diorama with several thousand clay cat-soldiers and 2,600 clay rocks depicting what happened here!