Battlefields and Massacre Sites

This week’s readings focused on places of conflict, namely, battlefields and massacre sites. Edward Linenthal’s Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields utilizes a case study approach to examine Lexington and Concord, the Alamo, Gettysburg, Little Bighorn, and Pearl Harbor. His book “is about the process of veneration, defilement, and redefinition that have characterized public attitudes towards America’s most famous battlefields.” (Linenthal 1) Linenthal sees battlefields as sacred spaces imbued with religious connotations that preserve and protect the memories of war and the sacrifices of those who fought. (Linenthal 3) The sites are “symbolically transformed,” and visitors to such sites are looking for “environmental intimacy in order to experience patriotic inspiration.” (Linenthal 3) The forms of veneration Linenthal identifies are patriotic rhetoric, monument building, physical preservation, and battle reenactment.

Linenthal notes that he chose those five places particularly because they “function as sacred centers in several ways”: each place is a “center of power” and places where power will continue to be contested. The sites are “places where the struggle for ownership, for the right to alter the story, is a vibrant part of the site’s cultural history.” (Linenthal 215) Linenthal’s conclusion attempts to bring the five (what could have been disparate) pieces together and connects them through their similarities. As stated, they are places of power and places where power is contested; they are places where the national narrative is defined, particularly by who is included and who is excluded; they are sanctified sites where purity should be maintained; they are places of reconciliation, and sometimes, of protest.

The notion of maintaining the purity of a site is particularly interesting, and comes up often throughout Linenthal’s book. He notes that many are concerned about modern development encroaching on the Alamo and defiling its sanctity. Many believe that it is impossible to imagine what the Alamo was like at the time of the battle because much of the original mission is no longer extant. The owner of the former Remember the Alamo Theater and Museum goes so far as to suggest to those who want to visit the site in a “pure” state to travel three hours outside the city to visit the Alamo that was constructed for the 1950s John Wayne movie. (Linenthal 69) The sanctity of Pearl Harbor was also mentioned. Some visitors to the site felt that the presence of Japanese tourists defiled the space, despite these places also being sites of reconciliation. Others balked at the idea of establishing a restaurant near the boat launch that takes the visitors to the Arizona. Maintaining a sacred site’s sanctity and purity from development and modern infrastructure reinforces the religiosity of the site. Most visitors want to be able to come to the site and experience it as it was during the battle.

It would have been helpful to have a slightly longer introduction and conclusion to more fully tie the five case studies together. The first chapter on Lexington and Concord is not as fully developed or cohesive as the rest of the case studies, and is rather dry. The themes Linenthal brings up are much more prevalent and easy to discern in the final four case studies. Linenthal’s book could be updated with a few new case studies, as it was originally published in 1991. Linenthal would, most likely, have insightful thoughts about the 9/11 memorial and museum, for example.

Combined with Linenthal’s Sacred Ground, Ari Kelman’s A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek provides a sixth case study of a place of conflict. Kelman notes that his book is a “study on the collision of history and memory, of past and present, at Sand Creek.” (Kelman x) He details the process, as well as the conflicts, of discovering and preserving the site in Colorado where American soldiers killed Arapaho and Cheyenne Native Americans. Kelman aptly discusses how the narrative of what happened (what Trouillot would label as historicity two: “that which is said to have happened”) at Sand Creek had been constructed as a “battle” as a part of the Indian Wars but has more recently been rightly redefined as a massacre. Kelman relies on three perspectives to provide a historical background of the massacre: John Chivington, the perpetrator; Silas Soule, a witness; and George Bent, a survivor. He weaves between the historical perspective and the contemporary, interdisciplinary efforts of the National Park Service and Native representatives to find and memorialize the massacre site. Ultimately, Kelman’s book is “the story of how a diverse group of people worked to bridge cultural divides in order to find and remember a misplaced massacre.” (Kelman 43)

While complementing Linenthal’s selected case studies well, Kelman’s book is might be a bit too lengthy. Perhaps the parts where the landowners were bickering with the National Park Service on purchasing private property or reading about the ignorance of non-Natives who cheerfully celebrated when finding Native remains was simply frustrating to read about. However, it did seem that the book could have been shorter and edited to be more pithy. Kelman’s weaving of the past and present was not always done smoothly, and his recounting of nineteenth century events could have been better integrated into the narrative. Despite these flaws, the account of the struggle over Sand Creek is both enlightening and troubling, and details a process important in public history: reclaiming the narrative to promote and propagate a more “correct” version of history; finding and memorializing a massacre site that allows Americans and Native Americans to come to terms with historical events; and working together with historians, archaeologists, Native Americans, employees of the National Park Service, and the general public to commemorate the massacre.

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