Battles of our War for Independence were fought in every state from Maine to Florida. Fighting also occurred west of the Appalachians, in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois; Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri; and along the Gulf of Mexico, in Alabama and Louisiana. Most of those battlefields are forgotten and neglected. It doesn’t have to be that way. The time to save these battlefields is now—before developers target the land. If we act quickly, we can save the remaining battlefields of the Revolution, interpret them effectively and attract millions of visitors to the story of the Revolutionary War.
Deliberate efforts to preserve Revolutionary War battlefields began in the twentieth century, decades after the federal government started to acquire Civil War battlefields. By the time the first Revolutionary War battlefield parks were created—mostly between 1920 and 1960—many of the most important battlefields and historic sites of our Revolutionary War had long been lost to urban growth. The battlefields of Bunker Hill, Brooklyn, Kip’s Bay, Harlem Heights, Fort Washington, Trenton, Germantown, Charleston and Savannah were built over in the nineteenth century. Monuments surrounded by city streets mark the battlefields of Bunker Hill and Trenton. Tiny fragments of the battlefields of Charleston and Savannah survive, providing a faint idea of the Revolutionary War landscape.
Some of the most important battlefields of the war are preserved, at least in part, in parks maintained by the National Park Service and by several states. The Battle Road between Lexington and Concord, Saratoga, Ninety-Six, Kings Mountain, Cowpens, Guilford Court House and Yorktown are all preserved, at least in part, in the National Park System, as are the winter encampment sites at Morristown and Valley Forge. States preserve parts of the battlefields of Princeton and Monmouth in New Jersey, Bennington in New York, Hubbardton in Vermont, Brandywine in Pennsylvania, Moores Creek in North Carolina and several others. A few battlefields, including Camden in South Carolina, are preserved by private organizations.
Elsewhere battlefields of the Revolutionary War are unprotected. In Georgia and the Carolinas, where Americans frustrated the British in a partisan war involving scores of small engagements, most battlefields remain in private hands. The same is true of battlefields in the North. Even where battlefield parks have been established, important battlefield land remains outside park boundaries and, in many instances, threatened by development. This is the situation at Saratoga, Guilford Court House and Yorktown, as well as other battlefields where Americans fought to win our independence.
Saving these and other battlefields requires a complicated combination of historical knowledge, political skill, negotiating ability and fundraising talent. The leader in this field—indeed the most successful historic land preservation organization in the world—is the American Battlefield Trust. For most of its history, it focused exclusively on Civil War battlefields, saving some of the most important battlefield land in the country. Among its most recent accomplishment is saving Lee’s headquarters at Gettysburg and a large parcel at the heart of the Antietam battlefield—the scene of some of the heaviest fighting on the Civil War’s bloodiest day. The Trust has also even saved whole battlefields, including the site of the Battle of Jericho Mill on Virginia’s North Anna River. To put the Trust’s accomplishment in perspective: the federal government saved 75,000 acres of Civil War battlefield land in more than a century. The Trust has saved nearly 50,000 acres of Civil War battlefield land in the last fifteen years.
Early in 2014, leaders of the American Battlefield Trust decided to expand their work to include battlefields of the Revolutionary War, and approached the Society of the Cincinnati to join it in this work. The goals of this new Revolutionary War preservation initiative are in line with aims of the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati to perpetuate the memory of the American Revolution.
Officials of the Society of the Cincinnati joined the Trust at Princeton, New Jersey, on November 11, 2014, for a press event to launch the new effort. American Revolution Institute Executive Director Jack Warren spoke to the assembled crowd about the importance of saving the places where “the great drama of our war for independence can still be imagined and remembered.”
“We can save many of the battlefields where our independence was won,” he said, “but we have to do it now. We cannot have this conversation in fifty years. We cannot have it in twenty and in some cases we cannot have it in ten. Population growth and the economic success of our country—success that is a consequence of the very free institutions established by the heroes of our revolution—puts continuously mounting development pressure on these great historic places. We must preserve them as memorials, in the true sense of that word, to the generation that won our independence—to the men and women who spent so many anxious days and sleepless nights, who endured hunger and cold, who went into battle with a handful of bullets and dared the greatest military power of their age to win their liberty.”