Joan of Arc monument in Philadelphia

Why Not Call them “Killingfields”?

Historian John Rudy has lamented the romanticizing of Civil War battles from books, documentaries, and reenactors. He believes that too many people idealize the marching and flag waving while brushing aside the carnage. When I tell people I trekked out to Gettysburg eight times last year, the first thing I am asked is if I am a reenactor. The reoccurrence of such a question reveals that the perception people have of Civil War battlefields is not the horrific nature of the engagements, but the often lampooned, celebratory reenacting.

There are multiple ways to deal with this misperception and Rudy offers an interesting approach: Call them “killingfields” instead of “battlefields”. The effect is obvious. It is much harder for people to celebrate a killing instead of a battle. The impossibility of changing a term that has been in our lexicon for centuries aside, this is a great topic.

While I appreciate the goal of stressing the horrific nature of battles, referring to the Antietam National Killingfield can imply a one-sided engagement where one army did the killing and the other did the dying. Yet, were not many portions of these battles simply massacres? Pickett’s Charge comes to mind. Marye’s Heights is another. When I took my father on a whirlwind tour of battlefields in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania last year, he often made the statement, “This wasn’t a battle; this was a turkey shoot!”

My father looking toward Cemetery Ridge

Looking toward Cemetery Ridge

Interestingly enough, a turkey shoot does imply successful deployment and tactics on the part of one of the commanders. Lee positioned his troops in the ideal spot at Marye’s Heights to inflict the most casualties while suffering the least. Meade did the same on Cemetery Ridge. In both of these instances, the commanders essentially won the engagement before it started. Both of these spots were killingfields, turkey shoots, and massacres. Not all of Gettysburg or Fredericksburg fit into this one-sided scenario and simply referring to the whole event as a killing would diminish that.

Putting the terminology aside again, consider the fact that my dad came to his own conclusion on the nature of the fighting by simply walking the terrain and learning about the events. Any romanticism he had for Pickett’s Charge was gone after he walked the field, saw how far the Confederates made it to the other side, and looked at the casualty reports. At one point he exclaimed, “They never had a chance.” Historians have other tools at their disposal. Where possible, I show post-battle photos with fallen soldiers and ramparts. I also carry a musket ball, a minié ball, and photos of what both can do to a 6×6″ piece of wood. Then there are eyewitness accounts that describe being hit on the back with pieces of a fellow soldier that should sap all joy out of any battle.

It is important that people understand the gruesomeness of Civil War battles. It is part of the key to understanding the war. It was a lack of understanding that led men to joyously march toward war in 1861 and again in 1914.  Yet, renaming battlefields to killingfields is not the answer because it will diminish the two-sided nature of the conflict and the importance of the decisions by commanders. There will always be people who romanticize gruesome events, but if you get people on the terrain, explain the actions, and detail the casualties, they will come to the right conclusion.


This same lack of understanding that made men joyously march toward war in 1861 and again in 1914.