Park vs. Battlefield

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

Sometimes visitors are disappointed when they arrive at a national park.  Maybe the scenery was obscured by fog, or they arrived a bit too late, or the visitor center was closed for repairs.  Many things can conspire to make a visit less than satisfactory.

On a recent morning at the Battlefield Visitor Center, a visitor mentioned how her eight-year-old son had been disappointed when they drove up to the parking lot.  Apparently he remarked upon arrival that it “didn’t look like a battlefield.”

It’s hard to gainsay his observation, few national park service parking lots show the resources to their fullest, and Saratoga’s parking lot is certainly no exception.  However, the young visitor’s initial disappointment does generate some questions.  Not only “What does a battlefield look like?” but also “Would anyone really want to see what a battlefield looks like?

Saratoga Battlefield today bears little resemblance to 1777 when Gates’ and Burgoyne’s troops were present.  The park bears imprints of later human activity like farms, roads, sand mining and recreation.  Today’s woodlands are mostly the product of reforestation that took place within the past 60 years,  a far cry from the timber encountered at the time of the battles.  Structures that existed in the 18th century (the Neilson House excepted) have vanished long ago.

Considering the impact that two armies had on the terrain and vegetation a precise recreation of the historic scene of 1777 the park would be a lot less attractive than its present state.  Restoration of the fortifications might increase historical accuracy, but the resulting hundreds of acres of stumps and the resulting mud would make the place as ugly as a popped blister.

In place of tearing the park apart, there is the option offered through visual arts.  Although artists have contrived to evoke the battles they eschew the nastier points of combat.  Notably, John Trumbull’s iconic painting is of the formality of Burgoyne’s surrender; death and destruction are finished, and tucked safely out of sight and mind.

Battle images created by other artists show casualties, but they are understandably sanitized.  Perhaps these artists have taken the words of author Kenneth Roberts to heart.  In his novel Northwest Passage, Roberts has 18th century artist John Singleton Copley advising one of the fictional characters about depicting combat:

“…You know how an officer really dies in battle, usually on his hands and knees, spitting blood, or under a bush where someone dragged him, all crumpled and dirty.  But in paintings, things mustn’t happen so!  Those who die must do it, beautifully, in a fitting pose….”

Simply put, pictures of hemorrhage, evulsions, amputation, evisceration and a host of other trauma, rarely compliment most people’s home décor, and probably would have a negative effect on sales.  (Artists may declaim “ars gratia ars,” but they have bills to pay, the same as the rest of us mere mortals.)

Not everyone can render the past on canvas or paper, but many have contrived to do so through the hobby of living history.  As an interpretive tool, this sort of program has helped many visitors to Saratoga National Historical Park understand that history is not just “names and dates.”

Indeed, the attraction of such programs goes back right to when the Battlefield was first preserved by the State of New York.  Opening day in 1927 was marked by a historical pageant of epic proportions, a bit weak on historical accuracy, but strong on regional and national pride.

It has been argued, sometimes heatedly, the Saratoga National Historical Park could and should present a re-enactment of the battles.  Better research and increased availability of recreated 18th century clothing and equipment allow for a more authentic rendering of the battles of 1777.  Visitors, the argument goes, could (finally) see how the battles were fought, and appreciate the sacrifices that were made here.

The notion of re-enacting the battles runs head long against National Park Service policy:

“Battle re-enactments and demonstrations of battle tactics that involve exchanges of fire between opposing lines, the taking of casualties, hand-to-hand combat, or any other form of simulated warfare, are prohibited in all parks….” (National Park Service Director’s Orders #6, Interpretation and Education)

For some re-enactors, this ban is seen as an insult; that their safety record or ability to portray people the War for Independence authentically has been called into question.  Actually, the reasoning behind the policy has little to do with safety concerns or the inevitable quibbles about details of material culture.  At Saratoga, there are over 1400 reasons for not having battle re-enactments on its grounds: the wounded and dead.

“Battle re-enactments create an atmosphere inconsistent with the memorial qualities of the battlefields and other military sites placed in the Service’s trust.” (Ibid.)

Saratoga National Historical Park commemorates world-changing events and recalls life changing (and life-ending) events as well.  It is out of respect for those who died or were injured here, that the park does not have battle re-enactments.

The muddy, scarred Battlefield in 1777 was anything but scenic.  The realities facing people here were fear, uncertainty, injury, and death.  Not exactly things to ensure an AAA Diamond Rating or be fun for the whole family.

When the young visitor opined that the Saratoga NHP “didn’t look like a battlefield,” he was right.  Saratoga Battlefield is a remarkably beautiful site, notably serene and if one discounts ticks, mostly safe.  For visitors and staff alike it provides the opportunity to reflect upon the events and tribulations that people encountered in 1777.  If they are truly honest, they will realize that such things are better in the past tense.

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