Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Monocacy: The battlefield that saved itself from Washington

Last Friday I took a trip to Monocacy National Battlefield to check out their brand new Visitor's Center.

My first visit to Monocacy was when I was fifteen. My father and I took a week and travelled to Gettysburg, Antietam, and Frederick. Imagine my disapointment that Frederick and Fredericksburg weren't the same place. My dad assured me that Frederick had a battlefield too, it was called Monocacy. I was skeptical.

It took a lot of driving around and asking directions but eventually we found the place, two monuments on the shoulder of the road out in the middle of nowhere. It was such a let down we had to just laugh about it.

Back in 1967 "the battle that saved Washington" had little to show for itself.

All things advanced; my age, my interest in the Civil War, the growth of the National Park system, and the urban sprawl of lovely Frederick Maryland. In recent years I returned to Monocacy and visited the Visitor Center that was, until a couple of months ago in the historic Gambril Mill. I also discovered additional monuments that my father and I had overlooked back in the day.

The two things that I found most notable then (this was about eight years ago) were the forehead-level high water mark on the walls of the center (which was on a flood plain) and the steady growth of the commerical strip of Frederick. The pressure of encroaching development on the battlefield was palpable.

At that point it appeared to me that Monocacy was on the verge of being lost, paved over like so many other battlefields have become. The development pressures on what has become a bedroom community of both Baltimore and Washington DC have spurred rapid, rampant, and thoughtless development and sprawl throughout Frederick County.

The field of "the battle that saved Washington" seemed about to become engulfed by the very city it had saved.

With that as prologue, let me describe my visit last Thursday to Monocacy National Battlefield.

I have come to associate our National Parks visitor centers with magnificient architecture however, at Monocacy I was greeted by a particularly modest structure, somewhat resemblening a tidy concrete barn with a decidedly green roof. Although the building is altogether pleasant, I was expecting something more compelling in design.

Upon entering the main reception area, which is large, airy, and cool, I was greeted by a Ranger and a Volunteer, both of whom were cheery and informative, another hallmark of the Park Service. The ranger was on a temporary assignment from Ford's Theater so he wasn't hip to alot of the thought and planning that went in to the design of the structure, but he and the volunteer were very welcoming, and hospitable...nice guys.

The Main floor is dominated by the reception area (and a particularly deep counter), administrative offices, rest rooms, and well appointed bookstore area.

The main exhibit/interpretive area is up the stairs (or elevator if you so desire).

It was with some anticipation that I mounted those stairs. I have always enjoyed the story of this battle and the heroic though doomed stand made by the outnumbered yankees under writer/general Lew Wallace against the rebel hosts of Jubal Early in his sweep toward the defenseless Washington DC in July of 1864.

The main take-home message of this battlefield has always been "The battle that saved Washington".

I was a museum educator for eighteen years. In that time I helped to design and implement many exhibits both permanent and temporary. While ascending the stairs to the main exhibit area I had to remind my self that those years as a public museum person may have jaded me somewhat. I promised myself to refrain from being overly critical or inordinately nit-picky...you know...a prick.

Upon entering the main gallery at the top of the stairs I was greeted with this:

Take home message: "Uh-oh, there's going to be a lot of reading here"

...and how!

Though this is some people's cup of tea, personally, I'm not an exhibit reader, I'd rather buy the book. Amid the oceans of text my eyes were drawn up toward the honey colored ceiling. Bathed in light, the natural wood and exposed trusses create a beautiful, airy environment, the payoff for the barn shape of the building's roof.

Rather than focusing on any weaknesses of the exhibitry, which in many instances are simply a manifestation of the growing pains that come with any new installation or building, let me instead point out the things that will make a trip to Monocacy quite satisfying.

The electric map. This is some of the most appropriate use of fiber-opotic technology that I've ever seen. The visitor is presented with a well sculpted and painted relief map that utilizes pinpoint fiber optic lights to demonstrate the sequence and dynamism of the battle. Although the narrartive is a little verbose the effect is clear and quite exciting.

Somewhat disorienting is the fact that there is no indication of "You are here" that I could find on the map. Perhaps I missed it. This is altogether an outstanding teaching tool, which I throughly enjoyed. A smaller such map makes use of fiber optics to show the nip-and-tuck race to Washington with the Union forces winning by barely a nose. Although the joystick aspect of this experience was lost on me, the message was very clear that this was a very close thing and that Lew Wallace should be known for much more than just as the author of "Ben Hur, a Story of the Christ" (yeah, that Ben Hur).

(Lew Wallace: soldier, writer, and all-around cool dude)

Another highlight of the new Visitor's Center are the collections of some really outstanding artifacts. Well lit and displayed, several cases provided some really choice objects which will delight the collector, the kid, and the casual visitor.

I sure liked (coveted) what I saw!

The elevation of that second floor provides a fine viewing platform from which the visitor can survey the battlefield. The very pleasant observation deck overlooks the landscape and the hills beyond the river and spotting scopes, along with sinage, provide narrative and orientation. I wish I'd been there on a less hazy day. I could barely make out sugarloaf mountain in the near distance. I'll be sure to return on a crisp autumn day when the view will be improved. I really enjoyed this overlook. The only thing that I would alter is the fixed aspect of the telescopes. The visitor is unable to pivot the scope in any way, thus restricting the view to simply the same one that appears on the sinage.

There are several hands-on experiences targeting especially younger visitors (and me). The one that I particularly liked was elegant and low-tech. Simply a reproduction Confederate uniform and knbapsack that can be tried on. Kids (and camera-toting parents) must love this one.

The only thing that could improve this would be a full-length mirror.

Altogether, the exhibits are bright, colorful, and quite engrossing. I wondered, however, as I decended the stairs back into the lobby if the big picture; that big take-home message, hadn't been somewhat muffled or obscured by all of the text. Will the casual visitor come away from this knowing that Monocacy was the battle that saved Washington? I do hope so, because its such a compelling story.

Whether you love it or merely like it, the new Visitors Center is an emblematic piece of a much larger whole. Exhibits come and go, industry-wide they have a fifteen year lifespan, but battlefields are forever. This tiny and significant battlefield was once in danger of permanent obscurity or loss to over-development. The pressures exerted by the proximity of Monocacy to Washington DC long threatened to swallow whole significant portions of the historic site.

Now however, with the addition of this new Visitor's Center, restored and accessible historic buildings, and new interpretive trails, I believe that Monocacy has come into its own as a National Battlefield Park. It has firmly asserted itself as an equal among its older (and more well-known) sister parks. And this new Visitor's Center stands like a bastion against further sprawl and development.

Quite literally...like a bastion.

This is the view of the center as you approach it. To the right all is emerald green fields under cultivation, woods, and rolling hills.

Here, however, is the view from that same position looking to the left.

That chain link fence is where development came to a shuddering halt. That lumber yard beyond the fence is the limit of the Highway 355 business strip that nearly swallowed up this little, but important battlefield.

The new Visitor's Center issues a defiant statement:

"On ne Passe Pas" They shall not pass!

Pardon the melodrama but I think it is altogether apt.

Lew Wallace made a stand on this ground that saved Washington from Early's Confederates, now this little Visitor's Center has saved the battlefield from the sprawl of Washington.

The irony and symmetry are pretty irresistible.

I salute the vision and determination of the park professionals at Monocacy National Battlefield in bringing this battlefield park into the new century with its own status, distinction, and future. I encourage anyone to make a trip soon to Monocacy National Battlefield, just 25 miles east of Boonsboro.

Next post will be mostly pix taken on the battlefield. The restored buildings, the trails, and the scenery of that jewel of a battlefield park made for a most enjoyable morning.

Ranger Mannie


Eric Wittenberg said...


Monocacy has long been one of my very favorite battlefields. It's a little rose among the thorns there, and I visit there every chance I get. I just love wandering the grounds of the Thomas and Worthington farms, usuallyw ith nobody else around, and enjoy seeing everything there is see there.

i'm really glad to hear that the new VC is nice. I guess it's time for another visit.

Thanks for the report. And congrats on making the top twenty list.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Mannie ... very nice pics. I lived in Frederick County briefly in 2001 (Libertytown) and miss it a lot ... Thanks again.

Barry Hill
Lakeland, FL

Raymond said...

Hello Mannie,

I love your blog so much, and I really enjoyed this trip to Monocacy with you, and the other places you go. You have shown me places I have never too before, and I hope to go to one day.

I have been to Antietam several times, a place I love very much, and have a photographic tour album that I created during the times I was there. I envy you for where you work and for what you do.

Thank you again for your postings, for I read your blog everyday.