By April McDonough
(June 2011 Civil War News - Preservation Column)
Over 150 years ago America was caught in the grasp of an extraordinary struggle that would be a defining moment in our nation’s history. The question to be answered was whether our country would ultimately be united by a common belief in individual freedom or divided by incompatible principles and laws.
The Civil War was a test for democracy, and the outcome of the war determined the fate of representative government for the entire world.
More than 620,000 Northerners and Southerners died in the American Civil War, almost as many as those who have died in all other American wars combined. As many as 50,000 died in a single battle.
The legacy of this devastating struggle is in the lessons we can learn from the causes of the conflict, the personalities of the Union and Confederate leaders, the bloody battles between brothers and neighbors, and the painful process of reconstruction.
“I cannot give you anything of an idea of the scene upon that day. The carnage was awful. Our men fell around us like the leaves of the forest in autumn, while the enemy were mowed down by our unerring rifles and destroying batteries like grass before the scythe.
There was a perfect storm of iron and lead. The boys who were killed died like brave men, some urging us in their last words to ‘fight on and never yield the field’.” –1st Lt. Newell W. Spicer, 1st Kansas Infantry
The conflict that threatened the future of our nation came very close to home for the residents of southwest Missouri in August 1861, when two armies descended on the Oak Hills south of Springfield. The Battle of Wilson’s Creek decided the fate of Missouri and defined its role in the Civil War.
Not many years after the conflict soldiers returned to relive the events of that hot August day, walking the hills and remembering — the stand at Gibson’s Mill, the early morning surprise attack, the fight in Ray’s cornfield, and the gruesome battle on Bloody Hill, the fateful spot where Gen. Nathaniel Lyon was killed.
In 1961 on the 100th anniversary of the battle, Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield was dedicated, becoming one of the best preserved and most pristine Civil War sites in the National Park System.
Today visitors are still reminded of the events that took place there, the role Wilson’s Creek played in the struggle to save Missouri for the Union, and the larger effort to win freedom for an entire race of Americans.
But the Battle for Wilson’s Creek is not over. Land preservation to protect the rural character of the battlefield and the surrounding area is still a pressing concern.
In 2004 Congress passed the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield Expansion Bill, allowing the National Park Service to purchase an additional six parcels of land adjacent to the battlefield that have been identified as significant to the battle. To date more than 400 acres of important battlefield land remains in private ownership. Once historic land has been sold for commercial or residential development, it is gone forever and its story will never be told.
And a new threat is now looming on the horizon at Wilson’s Creek. The National Park Service has recently announced plans to put most of the artifacts in the Civil War Museum in storage, where they will no longer be accessible to the public.
This Trans-Mississippi collection, acquired by the battlefield in 2005, is considered to be one of the best and most complete in the country. The unique and irreplaceable artifacts in the museum are essential to understanding the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and the war west of the Mississippi.
During the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it is even more important that the stories told by the items in this collection be available for the thousands of people who will visit the park this year.
On Aug. 12-14 the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield Foundation will host one of the first major reenactments of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, commemorating the military and cultural history of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.
The goal of this sesquicentennial commemoration is to recruit the next generation of caretakers of our nation’s historic places, through educational and entertaining activities and events that will appeal to people of all ages and interests. Visitors will connect to a part of our nation’s history that continues to teach us important lessons today.
All proceeds from the reenactment will support projects like education programs, land preservation, and a new museum wing to provide security and public access for the Civil War Museum collection.
During the next four years as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we must remember the reality of this great struggle. Our impressions of the past are often formed by romantic and gallant images of soldiers fighting for noble causes. We close our eyes to violent battle scenes with torn and shattered bodies, sacrificed for beliefs held dear.
We forget the struggles of those left at home to run farms and businesses and care for families with little or no word of the husband, brother or son. We too often fail to contemplate how the events of so many years ago are woven in to the very fiber of our community state and nation. We must pass this legacy on to the next generation so that our nation’s history will not be lost.
Jim Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Trust, expressed a valuable perspective this 150th anniversary: “As we remember the profound events of the Civil War, contemplating the ways in which it has shaped our nation, we must also look to the future….as our chance to complete the altogether fitting and proper work of protecting these battlefields for future generations.”
Information about the Wilson’s Creek Battlefield Foundation and the 150th Anniversary Battle of Wilson’s Creek Reenactment is available at www.wilsonscreek150.com, www.wilsonscreek.com and (417) 864-3041.
April McDonough taught high school English for 12 years and was marketing director for an environmental management company. She has been the Executive Director of the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield Foundation since 2002.