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  • Memories of War: Visiting Battlefields and Bonefields in the Early American Republic by Thomas A. Chambers
  • Matthew Dennis (bio)

Battlefields, Public memory, Tourism, Memorials

Memories of War: Visiting Battlefields and Bonefields in the Early American Republic. By Thomas A. Chambers. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. Pp. 232. Cloth, $29.95.)

Thomas A. Chambers writes, "Americans love their battlefields" (ix). In 2010, over 8.5 million walked the grounds of twenty-two battlefields administered by the National Park Service; countless more visited numerous other battlegrounds preserved privately and by state and local governments. Such interest or even veneration, he argues, was not always present. Memories of War: Visiting Battlefields and Bonefields in the Early American Republic explores, essentially, the prehistory of the modern public memory of these sites in the United States—a memory that dates to the era of the Civil War.

Six engaging chapters conduct readers on a tour through the time and the space of America's historic battlefields in the first half of the nineteenth century—those bloodied during the French and Indian War, the Revolution, and the War of 1812. Chambers's excursion is not exhaustive. Important memory sites associated with King Philip's War predate his study, for example, and we mostly do not encounter the dark and bloody grounds of Indian-white conflicts, those War of 1812 arenas of conflict far from the Canadian borderlands, or the battlegrounds of the Mexican War. Moreover, Chambers sets aside "well-studied locations"—notably Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill—in favor of more obscure or less storied historic battle sites eventually rediscovered by Americans by the mid nineteenth century. These omissions do not necessarily compromise the author's larger thesis, because, as he argues, Americans poorly remembered all of these martial spaces—even a place as significant as Yorktown—and felt little compulsion to preserve them. [End Page 388]

Chambers is at his best when he reconstructs the experiences of the few Americans ("accidental tourists") who actually did visit the exfoliating bonefields of Braddock's 1758 defeat in the wilds of western Pennsylvania, gazed at the moldering ruins of Ticonderoga, toured the long forsaken grounds of Guilford Courthouse, or as an afterthought combined an excursion to Niagara Falls with a trip to Chippawa or Lundy Lane, nearby Canadian battlegrounds. The author places these uncommon outings in the context of the growth of tourism in the United States, initially an elite affair and one that emphasized class performance, health, and aesthetics, particularly the quest for picturesque scenery. Chambers draws important distinctions between such tourism, North and South, and between rural and urban locales; his emphasis (geographically) on the Niagara Frontier and the southern backcountry yields important information and insights into these remote places and how they contributed to the protracted and conflicted construction of American identity and nationalism. But the great irony of book is that its subject is, essentially, an absence rather than a presence.

Chambers writes, "Before battlefield tourism could become a significant part of American tourism or culture, an impetus to visit such places needed to develop. That pull factor came from the landscapes around battlefields" (6). Did Americans feel such a need? And did (or should) battlefields pull them? Chambers is at pains to demonstrate that the historical tourist impulse came only haltingly, and very late. Americans saw many of these sites only when, by coincidence, they happened to be on their way to other places. They sought the picturesque or the sublime, or the social and therapeutic possibilities of new resorts, not the historic. Some generic history might be tolerated, for example, when embodied in the romantic ruins of Fort Ticonderoga, which tended to remind cultured travelers of Old World antiquities. But history—especially the specifics of national history—remained of secondary interest at best. More troubling for those idiosyncratic few committed to battlefield remembrance and preservation, many battle sites proved distant from well-trod tourist circuits and largely inaccessible in the absence of transportation infrastructure and tourist accommodations, particularly in the rural South. Only in the 1850s, in the context of escalating sectionalism, did southerners find battlefields such as Kings Mountain or Cowpens useful in promoting their own...


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pp. 388-390
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