DEATH BECOMES HER

These American Memorials Are Haunting—And I Love Them

To fully comprehend where we came from and how we got where we are, we need the darker places too.

Malcolm Jones

Looking up at the Greco-Roman temple that marks the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, I was struck by how many of our national parks and national monuments and national memorials were inspired by death.

First and most obvious, there are all the Revolutionary War and Civil War battlefields that fall under the protection of the National Park Service. But then you start adding on the sites that celebrate particular wars—World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and so on—and then the single buildings and sites linked to tragedy, such as Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot in Washington, D.C., or the Flight 93 National Memorial in rural western Pennsylvania, dedicated to those who lost their lives ensuring that at least one of the four planes hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, did not reach its target. And then there are places, like the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Park in Kentucky—or the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. for that matter—that you can argue would never have existed had not Lincoln been assassinated.  

Of course, most of the real estate in the Park Service portfolio has no such dark connotations, because most of it is geography beloved for its beauty. But when it comes to sites protected and celebrated for their history, that history is often bloodstained.

And in Lincoln’s case, his death and his subsequent ascension to secular sainthood have inspired memorials resting on some pretty sketchy history, so desperate were our ancestors to supplant the tragedy of his ending with feel-good monuments to his origins and his acts while alive.

The birthplace memorial near Hodgenville, Kentucky is Exhibit A in this regard. The columned and porticoed shrine at the top of 56 steps (one for every year of Lincoln’s life) looks like a big mausoleum. But it does not house graves. Instead, it contains a log cabin like the one in which Lincoln was born. For decades, the cabin was said to be the cabin of his birth, until it was determined that the logs used in its construction post-dated the year of his birth. Now it’s called a symbolic cabin.

If that weren’t enough shaky history, down the road there’s another cabin on another plot of land associated with the itinerant Lincolns, who were kicked off the property where he was born and moved up the road before finally quitting the state altogether when Abe was 7. (The family wasn’t poor, the park service guides are quick to point out. If anything, they were solidly middle class. But Thomas Lincoln, the president’s father, was careless when it came to things like deeds and property rights, and eviction sent him packing.) No one has ever pretended that the second cabin housed the 16th president, but as the tour guide goes through her spiel, you learn that not even the location is certain. The Lincolns might have lived where the second cabin stands, or they might have lived across the road.

This is, naturally enough, what happens when it comes to origin stories of people with humble beginnings. Those beginnings are often obscure, because no one was paying attention at the time. Wanting to do justice to the man and to what facts we possess, we usually split the difference. Or as the newspaper editor says in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.” The Lincoln birthplace memorial does not trade in outright fabrication—indeed, its keepers carefully document how previous generations did fabricate the truth before ultimately setting the record straight. But by maintaining the faux cabin inside the memorial building, it ultimately tells us more about how our ancestors doctored the past than it does about Lincoln himself.

Set off by itself amid rolling hills and Kentucky farmland, the Lincoln birthplace memorial is not overrun with tourists, something the Park Service and its fund-raising adjunct, the National Park Foundation, would like to see change (According to the Park Service, its 10 most-visited properties get over 28 percent of the visits to all park service properties, and the top 10 percent of parks (41) receive 62.8 percent of all visits). If you do chance to visit, you are likely to concur. This odd creation in the middle of nowhere is surreally moving, or at least I found it so. The site of that temple to Lincoln astride its hill is like something from a Fellini movie: solid but dreamlike. And if it conjures thoughts more funereal than fun, if it tells us more about how history is written and then rewritten than it does about actual fact, that’s a good history lesson, too.

South of the Lincoln memorial, near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, lies the Stones River National Battlefield, where some 3,000 men lost their lives in three days of fighting in the freezing cold around the new year in 1862-63. The costly victory was a crucial Union win, because while Lincoln had published his Emancipation Proclamation (the Union win at Antietam had given him the momentum necessary for that move), he badly needed another major victory before enforcing the proclamation. Stones River delivered the win he needed.

You can tour the battlefield today, which is beautifully marked and labeled to allow you to follow the ebb and flow of three days of fighting, but the most eye-opening thing at Stones River is the national cemetery, where more than 6,000 veterans’ graves now march across the landscape with what the poet Allen Tate so mordantly called “strict impunity.” As with the Lincoln birthplace, to study the graveyard closely is itself a lesson in how history and mores change: Immediately after the war, white and black troops were buried side by side, but that ended with the rise of Jim Crow. And then, sometime in the ’50s or early ’60s, the segregation ended. So what was fought for in the Civil War was ultimately redeemed.

But Stones River has more than one curve to throw at you: Cutting right through the sprawling battlefield is another Park-Service protected landscape: the Trail of Tears taken by the Cherokee who were driven off their lands and forced into exile in the western territories. So in this spot, one bloodsoaked piece of history overlays and mingles with another genocidal tragedy. It is, at the very least, an unsettling place. Protected and bounded, with plenty of parking, it still reeks of death, even in the silence of a summer noon.

To fully understand and appreciate our country, we need parks like Yosemite and the Blue Ridge Parkway to lift our spirits. But to fully comprehend where we came from and how we got where we are, we need the darker places too.