One of the first things I learned on my recent trip back east was the definition of the euphemism “historic site.”
Specifically, the word site (at least in National Park Service parlance) means that what you are looking for used to be...right...about...HERE.
But it ain’t anymore.
While some of the iconic structures, roads, stonewalls, and earthworks so integral to, and extant during, whatever historic battle you’re retracing has indeed survived both the war and the ravages of intervening years, other such landmarks are long, long gone.
This was made painfully clear to me when one day I visited Ferry Farm, boyhood home of George Washington and, years later, site of Federal encampments during the Civil War. (I should clarify that this area is now privately owned and operated, so the Park Service is not to blame for this one. I have great regard for the NPS, by the way.)
After ponying up an $8 admission I was free to wander the grounds, but quickly realized there was nothing to see. There was no “here,” here anymore. The foundation of the original home had been located and excavated, but then--for reasons not entirely clear to me--it was reinterred. The four corners of the old foundation buried beneath the grass were marked by a low stack of modern masonry work.
All I could do was stand near the very spot where George Washington once slept. Cicadas buzzed in the summer afternoon heat. Cars zoomed down the interstate a couple of hundred yards behind me. The nice young lady at the front desk conceded that, in fact, none of the quaint buildings, beautiful gardens, split rail fences, or stately trees were “original.” I hid my disappointment, but left after spending only about 15 minutes on the otherwise scenic grounds.
Across the Rappahannock in Fredericksburg, the wood-sided Innis house was once caught in a deadly crossfire between Confederate forces hunkered down behind a sunken road and stonewall, and waves of Federal troops on a suicidal charge towards their position. The Innis house still stands. You can walk inside and see dozens of small holes blasted through the interior walls by rifle fire during the daylong battle.
...But Widow Stephen’s place next door survived the war only to burn down in 1917.
At Spotsylvania, there are literally miles and miles of low earthworks--trenches--hastily dug and topped with timbers by Confederate troops in 1864 in a vain effort against Grant’s unstoppable march towards Richmond. But the McCoull house which once stood in the middle of the salient is now just a...site.
That structure is, well, history.
(At Harper’s Ferry, I surmised that my mildewed room at the Quality Inn may have rested over the approximate site of Pender’s lines. Perhaps I shared the lodgings with a spirit or two from those North Carolinian units.)
I spent a lot of time that week searching for various Holy Grails--famous houses, stonewalls, roads, and other historic landmarks, sometimes only to discover that what I was now looking at was merely a reproduction of what was once there.
Other times there was nothing there at all.
And so, when it can no longer be seen, it’s called a “site.”
And that’s a shame, by a damn sight.