Of Bumps and Obelisks

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

When the Prospect Hill Cemetery was established in 1865, remnants of General John Burgoyne’s final entrenchments were still visible. The construction of the cemetery resulted in the complete eradication of that direct link to the events of 1777. Such actions often elicit a yelp of pain from modern historians, but for the people in the 19th century the fortification remnants were just large bumps that were in the way.

This is not to say that people in the past had no respect or interest in what had occurred in 1777. (Indeed, some would claim that the present day population cares even less for its history.) It is just a matter of how people remember the past. When considering the battles of Saratoga, the situation was rather simple for people in the 19th century: They lost; We won. And the victory could be attributed to American superiority, divine intervention or the actions of one’s immediate ancestor. The death throes of a defeated, invading enemy were small potatoes by comparison. Those large bumps were superfluous.

Not surprisingly, when anyone finally got around to commemorating the victory at Saratoga, it was in a style that was in line with the attitudes of the later 19th century. Events as important as the battles and surrender at Saratoga demanded a soaring monument, from which people could look down upon the earth and imagine the events unfolding at their feet. Great Men would be honored with statues: Horatio Gates, Philip Schuyler, Daniel Morgan, and Benedict Arnold, in absentia. Bronze bas reliefs inside would show that the “Spirit of 1777” gained independence and by inference was now shifted to making the United States into a regional and world power in the late 1800’s.

The Saratoga Monument, when completed, clearly reinforced those notions. Yet, interestingly, among the figures in the bas reliefs are people who didn’t make the cut as “Great Men”. They are definitely pictured as supernumeraries, mostly sidelined into bit parts in the Great Drama. Women are shown in a totally subordinate role; other ethnic and racial groups are depicted as stock character figures who know their place. Catherine van Renesselaer Schuyler­ a remarkable and active woman in her own right­ is relegated to “Mrs. General Schuyler” and shown in an entirely fictional event. But they are there, women, minorities and poor men alongside the movers and shakers.

As the 20th century progressed, there was a marked shift in the study of history from only the recitation of accomplishments by Great Men to the experiences of everyday people. The toil of building fortifications was now as important as the planning that sited them. Faces that made up the armies were no longer uniformly white; lo and behold, there were women sharing hardships and triumphs along with the men. Battles became less the glorious paintings on museum walls than actual suffering, loss, sacrifice and the heroism of simple endurance amid horror and death.

It was not that the Great Men were no longer relevant; rather, their place on the stage of history was altered from being soloists to part of a grand chorus. The people affected by the decisions and actions of Great Men were equally vital. Their lives and decisions in turn could be now studied, held up to scrutiny and admired or excoriated, same as the big boys. Piles of dirt, laboriously dug by sweating, tired troops became as important as obelisks financed by nabobs.

Sadly, many connections to the less-known players in the battles were erased before they might have been preserved. The small traces of fortifications in Victory Woods unit of Saratoga NHP, worn down by the elements, are some of the rare signs of the labor of anonymous British soldiers. Their desperation, discomfort and the blisters on their hands from digging those fortifications have been swallowed by time. Even the litter they created­ the stuff they dropped or discarded­ was lost due to archeological looting.

Ironically, the survival of Victory Woods was made possible by the same 19th century notions of progress that eliminated so many other features of the past. Victory Woods survived because the land was part of the watershed that powered local factories: to build on that parcel of land would mean an adverse effect upon the local economy. Signs of Burgoyne’s weary men were not entirely obliterated.

In the course of a good stroll visitors can experience two radically different ways of looking at the past. A visit to the Saratoga Monument shows the pride of accomplishment of the United States in its War for Independence. A walk along the paths of Victory Woods reminds all that history is not merely the hubris of the great, but also harsh and unpleasant realities.

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