Our Opinion: Never mind statue flap, this battlefield needs help, support

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Local history buffs can spend a Saturday preserving the site of the closest Civil War battle to Wilson County, a skirmish in the war’s waning days that marked the Confederate Army’s last offensive against Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.

The Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site in Four Oaks is participating in Park Day, a national preservation initiative of the Civil War Trust that includes 155 projects in 32 states.

At Bentonville, volunteers will work to expand the historical site’s Morris Farm Trail and may also tackle other maintenance projects.

Participants will meet at the battlefield’s visitors center at 5466 Harper House Road, Four Oaks. Helpers are encouraged to bring hand tools including loppers and rakes. Chainsaws and other power tools are prohibited.

Fought March 19-21, 1865, the Battle of Bentonville was “the last full-scale action of the Civil War in which a Confederate army was able to mount a tactical offensive,” according to the Bentonville Battlefield website.

Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s 21,900-troop Army of the South advanced on Sherman’s Military Division of the Mississippi, a fighting force of 60,000 men. The Confederates retreated after suffering 2,606 casualties — 239 troops killed, 1,694 wounded and 673 missing or captured, according to historical records. Johnston’s men killed 194 Union troops and injured 1,112, with 221 more captured or missing.

The state-maintained Bentonville Battlefield includes the Harper House, which served as a hospital where injured troops received care.

Bentonville is one of nine Civil War sites in North Carolina with Park Day events scheduled for Saturday. Others in eastern North Carolina include the New Bern and Kinston battlefield parks, Fort Fisher in Kure Beach, the Edenton State Historic Site and Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson in Winnabow.

While gun blasts and cannon volleys haven’t echoed across Bentonville’s hallowed grounds for 153 years, the state historic site has been caught in the crossfire of political conflict over the disposition of three Confederate statues that now stand on the old State Capitol grounds.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper wants the monuments relocated to Bentonville, while Republican legislative leaders say they should remain where they are. Cooper’s petition to move the artifacts has spurred a series of public hearings conducted by the N.C. Historical Commission’s Confederate Monuments Study Committee. The panel will hold a conference call at 3:30 p.m. Thursday to review supplemental information it requested.

In the wake of a deadly attack during demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, many cities have chosen to remove statues of Confederate generals or to relocate them to battlegrounds and museums. Many consider the grand stone visages an inappropriate tribute to men who fought to preserve the institution of slavery.

Traditionalists who oppose moving the monuments point to their historical significance and the sacrifices made by rank-and-file Confederate troops, most of whom did not own slaves and believed they were fighting for independence and for their families. They say political correctness run amok is responsible for the present-day movement to mothball Civil War statues and fear a slippery slope could lead early presidents to lose their perches of prominence.

The monument debate continues, and Bentonville is stuck in the middle through no fault of its own. Curators of the state historic site didn’t ask for the Capitol statues. Whether they eventually will be on display there is beyond the control of anyone working to maintain the battlefield in Four Oaks.

Bentonville’s entanglement in a political tug of war shouldn’t dampen prospective volunteers’ enthusiasm. The park’s mission and its need for support from the community in the form of visitors and benefactors will continue with or without the addition of a few new statues.

Whatever your feeling on Civil War monuments in public places, we can all agree that preserving this battlefield as a place to learn history’s lessons is a worthy goal. Let’s put current political differences aside to come together and help Bentonville grow and prosper.

For more information about volunteering on Park Day, call Amanda Brantley at 910-594-0789, ext. 203, or email amanda.brantley@ncdcr.gov.