(Photo credit: Brandywine Battlefield historical marker, courtesy Chester County (Pennsylvania) Planning Commission, Flickr Creative Commons)
Long before the World Trade Center attacks, September 11 was a black day in U.S. history for another reason. This was the day in 1777 that saw the defeat of Washington’s Continental Army at the Battle of Brandywine, and a victory for British commander-in-chief General William Howe. This clash, along with the inconclusive battle of Germantown, led to the capture of Philadelphia that fall (though that British victory was overshadowed by Burgoyne’s calamitous loss to the Continentals at Saratoga).
The Brandywine Battlefield Park is near Chadds Ford, Delaware County, in southeastern Pennsylvania. The park exists today to interpret what was an important engagement in the Revolutionary War, even if that engagement also turned out to be an American loss. Apart from anything else, this was one of the largest land battles of the Revolutionary War: a total of 30,000 troops and militia on both sides took part. In scale it was matched only by 1776’s Battle of Long Island (another Continental Army defeat, btw). The present-day park of 50-odd acres covers the 1777 battlefield and includes two revolutionary era buildings: the Ring house, which was Washington’s headquarters, and the Gilpin house, supposedly used by the marquis de Lafayette, who showed his mettle at this battle. Back in 2009, on a hot, sticky day in late June (one of my park service lieu days), I visited the park, which is, I should mention, a historic site run by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. And therein lies a problem.
The site was established as a Pennsylvania State Park in 1949 and attained National Historic Landmark status in 1961. But it’s still run by the state rather than the U.S. National Park Service. That means it’s run on a shoestring. And in recent years, with continuous cutbacks, the state agency’s funding has been placed in even more dire straits than is the case with the NPS. So, like most state historic sites in Pennsylvania, the place is basically being kept going by groups of volunteers such as the Friends of Brandywine Battlefield. The Visitor Center, which really should be free, charges a pretty hefty entry fee ($8 for adults in 2013, though that includes the two house tours). When I was there the building’s interior looked a little tired, as did the presentation of the exhibits. The volunteer staff was doing a fine job, but the whole place looked like it was in need of an update. There are tours of the battlefield available, but these also cost money. There’s no alternative to this in the current economic climate, of course. The volunteers who give their time and energy have to be able to fund their activities somehow. The point is that there is very little money coming from the state—and none, as far as I know, from the federal government—to keep an important site such as this open to the public.
The Brandywine battlefield site also throws up a broader issue regarding commemoration of major Revolutionary War battles on U.S. soil. A battle of this scale, which, again, was one of the largest engagements of the whole eight-year conflict, really should be commemorated at the national level, even if the Americans didn’t win. But what has tended to happen is that sites that represent big American victories, like Saratoga (NY), Cowpens (SC), or Yorktown (VA), long ago received national park status—because these sites, often alongside national cemeteries, were originally administered by the War Office until 1933, when the National Park Service took them over. This has been hugely beneficial over the long term. Such sites were typically given the full park service treatment in the good years, with economic and human resources devoted to site conservation and interpretation of events (back when more money was available to build up such operations). On the other hand, sites that are associated with inconclusive outcomes or American defeats, such as Long Island (NY), Brandywine (PA), Monmouth (NJ) or Camden (SC), have been left out in the cold, to be ignored or run by state or local historical societies on a smaller scale and on much smaller budgets.
The same is even more true, by the way, of sites from the War of 1812. There are very few NPS sites devoted to the land component of that war. It might have something to do with the fact that most of these land battles led to American defeats or stalemates. The NPS admits as much visually with its Find a Park map for the War of 1812 Bicentennial—see http://www.nps.gov/history/1812/map.html . You’ve got parks devoted to victories at Fort McHenry (really a failed British naval encounter and seaborne assault against an American fort); and of course there’s the Battle of New Orleans (Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery). But there’s not much else at the national level. The map does include plenty of purple dots, however, indicating sites with no NPS status. Most (though not all) of these are British victories.
I do have a bit of a problem with this. I can certainly see how the country would like to celebrate its military victories—the more glorious the better—and spend federal resources interpreting and communicating the stories of these victories to visitors. But on the other hand, this focus, if taken too far, could lead people to the lazy conclusion that the story of America’s birth and early development was one of easy and inevitable wartime victories over always-inferior or stupid opponents. That’s certainly not the case. The American struggle from 1775 to 1783 was long and hard, and came very close to being snuffed out more than once. Brandywine, although a defeat for the Americans, was not a calamity. The British forces won the day but did not break the Continental Army, nor crush its morale. Likewise, at nearby Germantown—another battlefield lacking any NPS presence—Washington’s Continentals came close to success, and were hamstrung only by bad luck, bad timing, and a stern British defense of a strategic location (the Chew House). But again, Germantown was not an American defeat: it was a close-run thing, and neither side really lost. I think it would be very healthy for us to give greater prominence to more of these sorts of key moments where Americans had to deal with either defeat or stalemate. Such encounters can be just as instructive as the victories, in terms of showing how adversities were overcome, lessons learned. Of course, that means spending more money on interpretation and conservation—a dim prospect right now, I’ll grant you.
Which brings me to my last point: National Park Service sites are hardly flush with money, especially in this age of austerity and sequestration. It’s not like they’re able to throw money even at their most developed and heavily visited sites. NPS units do still receive a whole different order of support from that eked out to most state-administered sites, even those of similar historical value. At least that has traditionally been the case. Unfortunately, though, the national historical parks and battlefield parks are, if anything, starting to go the way of the state parks, with NPS staff having to charge more fees and rely on more volunteers to keep basic interpretive services going as budgets are slashed. Recently added park service units are going to struggle to get any serious funding, especially as the overall pie is shrinking. One such recent (2009) addition to War of 1812 land war commemoration is River Raisin National Battlefield Park; it somehow bucked the trend outlined above in that it was a county- and state-run site that was taken over by the NPS because of its historical value. But it will take years before it receives enough funding to develop into a fully fledged national battlefield park. Honestly, in the current environment I’m not certain that will ever happen.
If I were really cynical I’d say: If you want to see how our national battlefield parks are going to look 10 years from now, visit Brandywine today. OK, I’m not going to be that cynical. I am worried, though.