Saturday, May 14, 2005

09: “Why the Park Needs to Close at Sundown”

It may be the most sacred ground in the United States. You can argue that perhaps Valley Forge, or Independence National Park in Philadelphia is equally sacred, or Lexington and Concord Battlefields, or perhaps Cowpens. But, at no other place in this great nation did more Americans shed their blood in conflict to help shape this country.

In my mind, the Civil War finished what the Constitution left undone: dealing with slavery. In order to fix the problems inherent with the Articles of Confederation, the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 produced the document we now call, simply, “The Constitution”. Throughout the long, and very hot summer of that year, the delegates hammered away at the document, and often verbally at each other. By September it was almost ready. One final issue had to be resolved: what the states would do about slavery.

Obviously, slavery did not sit well with the Founders, and the very words of our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, clearly are in conflict with slavery. But the Framers, the convention delegates, had no ability to solve the issue satisfactorily, so they put it off for a later generation to fix. “The rest,” as the immortal Bard said, “is history.” Briefly, the states never resolved the issue, instead allowing it to grow and fester until attempted secession and the outbreak of the Civil War.

It is within the context of that war that the Battle of Gettysburg was fought, over three steamy July days in 1863. The bloodiest battle in United States history, with over 50,000 casualties combined for both sides, has its importance as a turning point of sorts. It marked the first time the Army of the Potomac handled Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia in so complete a fashion. While most of the individual actions within the battle were close-run contests, throughout the battle the Union forces asserted superiority over their Confederate counterparts,in leadership, Cavalry, Artillery, and in the Infantry. Lee never really ventured out of Virginia after Gettysburg outside of a few small raids. The Battle of Gettysburg, ending on July 3, 1863, along with the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi the next day, marked the point from which the chances of any Confederate success began a rapid decline. With the actions that President Abraham Lincoln had taken during the war, slavery would die at war’s end, and officially with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in December of 1865. Just to make sure, the amendment also removes slavery as a state right, and asserts it as a federal one.

Fast forward to 2005. After ten years of Congressional budget cuts, the National Park Service staff at Gettysburg Battlefield National Military Park, and Eisenhower Presidential Site is cut to the bone. Each year at the Volunteer Appreciation Night banquet, Superintendent Dr. John Latschar opens his speech to the volunteers with some figures totally the volunteer hours from the previous year. Then he translates those figures into something important. He say those volunteer hours are the equivalent of 10, 15, or 20 full time employees. It grows each year. It is obviously a statistic that is important to him as Superintendent, as he is charged with administering the Park and all its lands, monuments, buildings, roads, infrastructure, and employees, with an ever shrinking budget. He is required to protect, and preserve the park and all within it, so the public may visit and make use of it as a memorial to the men who fought here. He is also required to protect all who visit, as well. There are no facilities for kids – no sliding boards, no sandboxes, no basketball courts or ball fields. It is not that kind of park. It is sacred ground. The blood of 50,000 Americans dictates it thus.

The simple fact of the matter is there is not enough protection staff to go around. With daytime operations, the park protection staff is required to be present on the battlefield in sufficient numbers to provide protection to the Park, and to the Visitors. Even with Park Watch volunteers providing extra eyes and ears, the protection staff is stretched very thin. Park Watch volunteers have no powers of arrest, are present solely to report incidents to the protection staff, and to assist visitors in a very limited capacity, such as providing directions when asked.

The second simple fact is that there is really no legitimate use of the Park after dark. The Park was never intended for nighttime use, and is not set up for such use. It would require lighting throughout the Battlefield, and that goes against the very grain of the effort to restore it to near its 1863 condition. The scouts, and re-enactors who are camped on the Battlefield during the warmer months do not have free access of the park beyond their campsites, except in the case of emergency.

Yes, the Battlefield is a place of serenity and quiet at night, and a place to honor the fallen. It is a place of beauty, at night, as well as in the daytime. Unfortunately, the nighttime hours see the invasion of the park by relic hunters, vandals, and drug users, as well as young partiers with drugs and alcohol. All of these are illegal activities. None would be tolerated during the day, and will not be tolerated after dark. Many of these activities are done under the cover of the legitimate Park visitors, and the ghost hunters who manage to dominate the late evening hours year round. Removing this “cover” would be one of the benefits to closing the Park after sundown. A huge benefit. Then Park protection personnel, and the volunteers can be certain that anyone in the park at those hours is there for nefarious purposes, and react accordingly.

Finally, the night belongs to the wildlife. Removing the visitors from the park after dark would significantly offer more relief to the fauna on the Battlefield. And, in some instance, that fauna can pose a threat to unwary visitors.

Closing the park after sunset is a common sense solution to a current set of problems beyond the control of the National Park Service.

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