Monday, August 25, 2014

Storying Limestone

I remember my first (cognizant) visit to an American Civil War battlefield. It was a place managed by the National Park Service. At the ripe ol' age of 12, I discovered (unconsciously) how places contain stories because of that visit. The park ranger who led the battle tour made the stories of the battle feel real and the few remaining traces of the landscape contemporary to the mid-nineteenth century fueled my imagination of the past. I could see it! I could feel it! Later, I would write my master's thesis on how the significance of space and place and landscape in history and the roles space and place and landscape play in the interpretation of the past. That early visit planted a seed in me about how I engaged with the past and created a desire to share that passion. I still utilize that passion by taking people through the streets of downtown Nashville and reveal how the places tell stories of a rich and complex history.

My first experience at utilizing my experience of using a place to reveal a story happened during my time working as a park ranger at Stones River National Battlefield. Have you ever been to middle Tennessee? It's a pretty place. Have you ever tried to garden in middle Tennessee? Depending on the landscape, you might have a heck of a time digging in the dirt because of that limestone. Limestone plays such a role in the landscape here (all the way up through Kentucky, too- just ask the Corvette Museum). It forms rolling hills and hollers. It jets out in some places and recedes in others to create visually striking scenes. It makes post-hole digging an exponentially strenuous task. Basements are nearly non-existent in the area because it is so hard to dig down before hitting solid rock. As it plays roles today, the limestone has contributed to the human history on the landscape, especially during the Battle of Stones River and the events that followed.

Even the national cemetery established at the battlefield after the Battle of Stones River
had to be built "up" and dirt brought in because the limestone interfered with digging efforts.

At the battlefield park now managed by the National Park Service, the approximately 15% of preserved battlefield land contains trails and roads and signs to guide visitors through the place to learn more about the site. The vast majority of the interpretive media focuses on the three days of battle history. One of the most iconic scenes of the battlefield rests on the south side of the tour loop; protruding from the ground are dozens of large limestone outcroppings with narrow crevices between them. This place is now called "The Slaughter Pen." It is featured in many visual materials, as it helps separate this battlefield from others. During the battle, the place ultimately became a turning place for the Union army and the landscape played a role in the outcome of the battle. The fighting concentrated in the place was particularly brutal, and soldiers remembered those rocks as both defense places and then death traps.

No longer on the landscape, park managers once used these broken cannons
as a visual tool to convey the significance of these rocks.

So most visiting the place or going on a tour will visit the rocks and learn something about the limestone's significance in this battle (and how it contributed to the two armies and where they moved and ultimately the outcome of the war). Few will consider how the presence of limestone played a role in the years following the war or even the development of a battlefield park. The abundance of limestone (in addition to the detritus of war remaining on the battlefield) meant that particular swath of land retained little value after the war. Ultimately, a community of former slaves would claim the land as their own. "Rising Up From the Ashes" is the name of an interpretive program the park sometimes offers and now a wayside at the battlefield mentions this community called Cemetery. Did they choose the land deliberately? Probably not. It was not easy to grow crops on most of the land there. Lots of work likely went into cleaning up a battle-ravaged land. This group of people made the land into a community that at its height had over 1,500 citizens. This community claimed this place as "home" for several decades following the war. Many of the folks who lived out the rest of their days on the land were once considered property; this community allowed them to own property as free citizens. Wild.

"Exploring the Promise of Freedom" is a wayside along the tour route at
Stones River National Battlefield. Notice the limestone rock in the background?

The presence of a black community made it easier for the federal government to move in and buy land from these folks. At the very basic core of this, the particular piece of land attained by the government to make into a military park in the late 1920s, early 1930s had little monetary value. Again, that limestone played a role in what happened to the various parcels of land that made up this place where a battle once happened. The government did not actively pursue purchasing the nearby arable land primarily owned by white citizens; the core was secured and the place turned into a park. "The rest is history."**

Today, the National Park Service still utilizes the landscape to help tell the stories of the past. Visitors come to experience the place and learn about the history. Most are surprised to learn about the community's presence after the war (because you know, once a battlefield happens, it just turns into a park magically afterward... or at least that's the idea that just all shook up when people realize the 150 year span between fighting and today). But the park's presence is just another layer of a story. The National Park Service is one method used to preserve a place and share a place, but it is not the place.

The National Park Service as a federal agency is 98 years old today, so today seemed like a good time to reflect on what that means to me. It is a baby in the grand scheme of things and is just one portal to something bigger than ourselves. It is a land-management bureaucracy. It is also a history-management bureaucracy. And a story-management bureaucracy. And a memory-inducing bureaucracy. And an experience-producing bureaucracy. But the National Park Service is there for the resources and should be celebrating and honoring the resources, birthday or not. That limestone has been around for a while (as evidenced by some of the fossils embedded in the rock). It formed as the calcified remains of sea creatures settled a gazillion or so years ago. It has stood as native tribes hunted game through the area. It has rested quietly as white settlers began to take ownership of this land. It has had the brogans of soldiers run through it. It has existed as the barefeet of children hopped over it, playing and exploring the space on their own terms. My own park ranger hiking boots have led groups through it. It has been the frame as many scenes played out on it. And for the enjoyment of future generations that the National Park Service conserves this site, that limestone will continue to hold and tell stories regardless of how we choose to designate anniversaries.

These rocks have witnessed time march on and various people interact with the space.
In this case, a child rests amongst the limestone circa 1932.
(Photo from Stones River National Battlefield collection.)




*As a toddler, my parents took me to Fort Donelson. That's my official first battlefield visit.

**I hate that catch phrase.

***My time, my opinions, etc. etc.

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