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Fair cause, unfair placement

October 19, 2003|by Timothy J. Reese

Upon returning from vacation, I was besieged with alarmed inquiries regarding the recent dedication of a commemorative plaque at Gathland State Park in Crampton's Gap on South Mountain near Burkittsville, Md. I then learned that this plaque is just the first of several planned to enshrine newsmen of America's various wars.

This plaque memorializes four journalists who lost their lives during the "War on Terrorism," what continues as America's contentious intervention in Iraq. The project has come to speedy, unimpeded completion, without formal government review. Nor was review of the site's historical sensitivity taken into account. The whole affair strikes me and many others as clandestinely ushered into the fast lane.

Having devoted nearly 20 years of my life to research and dissemination of the site's history, I've been strongly urged by colleagues and others to voice the incongruity of this act. Regardless of one's views on U.S. entanglement in Iraq, the Crampton's Gap battlefield is an ill-chosen, inappropriate and seemingly cynical locale for such a purpose. When the Athens (Georgia) Historical Society approached Maryland's park service in 1991 for installation of two historical markers descriptive of their state's troops in the battle, a 10-month period of rigorous review was needed to finally achieve approval. Two additional markers were turned down and subsequently installed at alternate Georgia locales. I was the historical consultant for the society.

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With remarkable speed, sponsors of the Iraq War plaque hastily chose the Gathland site through tenuous association with the War Correspondents Memorial Arch, erected in 1896 in Crampton's Gap by Civil War newspaper correspondent George A. Townsend, who had purchased 110 acres of the gap for his personal estate in 1885. Townsend was an eccentric, shameless self-promoter. He wrongly imagined that the old battlefield, used as grist for one of his maudlin novels, coupled to his anomalous arch, would propel him to greatness and immortality.

It did nothing of the kind. After his death, the estate fell to ruin, changed hands several times and was finally deeded as a derelict site to the State of Maryland for $10 for use as a historical park. Gathland State Park opened in 1958, its title hybridized from Townsend's pen name "Gath" and the estate title, "Gapland."

Since that time, the Townsend epoch has been allowed to smother the battlefield itself. Fought on Sept. 14, 1862, the battle for Crampton's Gap embodied Union Gen. George B. McClellan's direct strategic response to the finding of the legendary "Lost Order," the misplaced copy of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's campaign plans. Thereafter, Lee stated three times that the fall of Crampton's Gap was the primary cause for his retreat to Sharpsburg, where the famed battle of Antietam occurred three days later. Twenty-three years later, Townsend acquired the mountaintop land for a song, suffocating the site with his own ego. No one knows better than I how difficult it is to repair historical damage wrought by this conceited, self-indulgent novelist.

Townsend's intellectual dishonesty is perpetuated when modern motives feed on his fantasies. His Arch was erected solely to the memory of Civil War newsmen and himself, not present-day journalists. It's a highly personalized snapshot in stone, a poor platform for annexation of modern corollaries. The arch bears 157 names, compiled with unmistakable personal bias. Thirty-three of them cannot be identified. Twenty-two have no business being there at all, they being Townsend's personal friends, large contributors to the project or persons with whom Townsend wished to ingratiate himself.

Names were compiled through an imprecise, word-of-mouth method of random collection conducted by Townsend and his network of veteran news cronies. As a result, many names are absent, incomplete, misspelled or misstated.

Several prominent Union and Confederate journalists do not appear at all, overlooked or, in the latter case, omitted altogether due to Townsend's bitter anti-Southern bias.

Should we now allow yet another intruder to compound this distraction, thereby building a generational pyramid of impropriety at cross-purposes to hallowed ground?

The Crampton's Gap battlefield has no official historian. As its unofficial chronicler and principal advocate, I'd like to suggest an obvious means to mutual ends. The four journalistic lives lost in Iraq are worthy of remembrance, more fittingly at Arlington National Cemetery with Ernie Pyle and others of the World War II-era, where a monument to fallen journalists already stands. It is far more logical to honor them there, and the visiting public would anticipate such a memorial locale.

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