VETERANS DAY – A day to honor those who served. This day has been observed in some form for a century, but preserved structures of all kinds – from memorials, to monuments, to buildings – provide tangible evidence of that observance, solidifying the impact of veterans’ actions in the conscious memory. Visiting these physical traces keeps that history alive long after those they honor are gone. 

Photo of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, located at the Northeast intersection of King and Queen Streets (with the Watt and Shand façade in the background), in Lancaster, PA. Photo courtesy of the author’s father, Bob Kise.

 

A Brief History of Veterans Day

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year 1918 is significant for its designation as the cessation of hostilities of World War I (“The Great War”) on the Western Front. It was marked by the signing of the final armistice with the last opponent (Germany) of the allied forces. Although various complexities meant that true formal peace was not negotiated until the Treaty of Versailles’ signing nearly a year later, Armistice Day was celebrated on the November 11th. It became a day to honor the men who served in WWI and was observed as early as 1919 across the world. As the years went by the name and date of observance evolved in several countries. In the United States, the name was officially changed to Veterans Day in 1954 by President Eisenhower after a grassroots push to honor all veterans of all wars. The date was temporarily changed to the fourth Monday of October in the late 1960’s due to the federal government’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act, but was returned to the original date a decade later after much disproval from American citizens and state governments, based on their conviction about the historical significance of November 11th. 

 

Pennsylvania’s Preserved Military History

Just like preservation happened well before it was formally legislated, and much earlier than anyone thought of preservation as a career, dedicating historical military sites and honoring veterans throughout the United States also occurred on an informal level prior to Armistice and Veterans Day. As the American Battlefield Trust notes, in the mid-nineteenth century caring individuals started saving Revolutionary War battlefields, and during the Civil War, almost as soon as the battles were over, veterans erected monuments and memorials to their fallen comrades. By the end of the nineteenth century there were 5 national battlefield parks – one of the most famous being Pennsylvania’s own Gettysburg Battlefield. 

Even after these battlefield parks were established, however, there were conflicts over how and what should be preserved or restored, and disputes continue to this day (a recent example includes the battle over the Cyclorama building at Gettysburg), including arguments about the necessity of preserving historic commemorations of the original historical people, objects, and places vs. the actual thing being commemorated

Regardless, we are fortunate that people saw the necessity of saving these places in the past. This sense of place is key to making this history meaningful hundreds of years after the battles. A sense of place often requires more than construction of monuments, memorials, or signs to be truly felt, but also battlefields and other relevant lands and buildings. In Pennsylvania, we have numerous examples of preserved military history where people can gain a greater understanding of past conflicts as well as a better appreciation for what past and present veterans experienced and contributed. And to paraphrase Philip Kennicott’s summary in his 2013 article for the Washington Post, it’s best to engage and be engaged in this sense of place to truly make it meaningful.

“But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”

– Lines from President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered November 19, 1863

 

Examples of unique preserved military sites in Pennsylvania:

 

Fort Mifflin. One of the few remaining intact Revolutionary War battlefields – and the only fort in Philadelphia – this site has functioned well beyond its initial purpose, serving various needs through the Civil War, as well as both world wars, until it was decommissioned, fell into disrepair, listed on the National Register in the 1970s, and saved in the 1980s to become a significant historical museum. Read more about it here.

 

Photo above courtesy of Bob Kise.

 

Gettysburg Train Station. Constructed in 1859, this station is more than a station. Not only did it host President Abraham Lincoln when he arrived to provide the Gettysburg Address, it served as an advantageous spot – with its cupola – for soldiers to post themselves during battle, a hospital for wounded soldiers as well as the point from which wounded soldiers were transported to other locations. Read more here.

 

Photo above courtesy of Bob Kise.

 

Lee’s Headquarters at Gettysburg. Built in 1834, this home that was owned by Thaddeus Stevens and occupied by the widow Mary Thompson during the Civil War, this unassuming farmhouse became Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters due to its prime location. It also served as a hospital for wounded from both sides. It became a museum as early as the 1920s and was significantly altered before restoration by then-Civil War Trust in 2016. Read more here.

 

Photo above courtesy of Bob Kise.

 

Observing Veterans Day

 

Visit or Engage.

  • Self-guided tours – Many sites and parks are free and open to all, allowing for plenty of social-distancing. You can visit some of the sites (or at least the outside of them) pictured above, but may also consider cemeteries, or sites listed here.
  • Guided tours – some sites are still offering guided tours with mandatory precautions in place for COVID-19. Find information on Gettysburg Battlefield tours here.
  • Virtual events – The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs blog lists virtual events for 2020, in light of the pandemic, here.
  • Live events – Gettysburg is holding a special day honoring veterans on November 12, 2020, information here.
  • Preservation – Consider these suggestions for preserving sites honoring veterans, or consider donating to or becoming a member of the American Battlefield Trust, here

 

For further resources and reading: 

  • Read more about battlefield preservation here, here, and here.
  • Read about the history of battlefield preservation here and here