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The Truth About the War Memorial to Fallen Journalists

"Senior Bush administration officials and media executives gathered here yesterday at the only national war correspondents memorial to unveil a plaque in memory of four American journalists who died covering the war in Iraq and the war on terror. It was the first time since the Civil War that US journalists who lost their lives covering military conflicts were honored here." -- Boston Globe, 10/2/03

Upon returning from vacation, I was besieged with alarmed inquires regarding the dedication of a commemorative plaque at Gathland State Park in Crampton's Gap on South Mountain, near Burkittsville, Maryland. 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 review by the Maryland State Forest & Park Service, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, or the U.S. National Park Service, which holds administrative responsibility over the War Correspondents Memorial Arch at Gathland. 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.

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. The War Correspondents Memorial Arch in Crampton's Gap

It did nothing of the kind. Townsend's overall contribution to journalism was judged so marginal, his name does not appear in the Biographical Dictionary of American Journalism. 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. The Arch itself had been deeded to the federal government during Townsend's lifetime. 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.

Townsend willfully corrupted a pivotal, nationally significant battlefield for his own ends while no one was looking. Should we now allow yet another intruder to compound this distraction, thereby building a generational pyramid of impropriety at cross-purposes to hallowed ground? Is Crampton's Gap to remain a dumping ground for ulterior motives? Do we no longer honor the combat dead of earlier wars, descendants of whom routinely visit, in deference to those very few who died while reporting (often erroneously) their exploits?

Further, some will make a convincing case that hasty installation of this Iraq War plaque, at an obscure state park with contrived motivation, amid a seemingly endless and inordinately costly conflict, is a surreptitious attempt to validate an unjust war.

Be that as it may, 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.

In counterpoint, the time has long since passed when the Townsend epoch should take a back seat to the historical event which drew him here in the first place, a battlefield directly leading to Antietam and President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. To this end, a bill renaming the park as "Crampton's Gap State Battlefield Park" was crafted by State Delegate Richard Weldon for submission to the 2003 Session of the Maryland General Assembly. Though postponed due to restructuring within the Dept. of Natural Resources, the bill remains poised for introduction when the 2004 Session opens in January. Support for this bill should be voiced to: Delegate Richard B. Weldon, Jr., District 3B, 13 W. Potomac St., Brunswick, MD 21716, 301/834-4119, e-mail: Richard_Weldon@house.state.md.us. Without a name change this battlefield, like many before it, will ultimately disappear, victim of ignoble, competing interests.

As a long-term Crampton's Gap guide, I well know that Civil War tourism is the site's primary draw. By retitling the park with its correct, key identity (asking no additional funding), growing visitation from outside the region can more easily find a poorly marketed site, understand and appreciate it in clear historical context, and prioritize its multiple epochs in proper context. Moreover, calling a spade a spade will head off any future designs incompatible with its fundamental significance, arresting once and for all Townsend's misuse of the site.

In the 1960s, an ill-conceived plan to convert Gathland into a "Newspaper Hall of Fame" just barely avoided total rape of the Crampton's Gap battlefield through lack of funds. This project also propagated on the presence of Townsend's ill-placed Arch. There's nothing inherently wrong with the concept, only the location. Townsend's epoch is without question an inescapable adjunct to the site, but one strictly secondary to the battlefield. To emphasize journalism at Crampton's Gap would be tantamount to labeling Gettysburg as "Eisenhower National Military Park." The Eisenhower Farm enhances, but does not supplant the battlefield. First things first.

The Iraq War plaque to fallen journalists will inevitably find an appropriate locale. Crampton's Gap still struggles to claim its own, its sanctity hopefully preserved for posterity. Both are worthy of note, but mutually exclusive, each viewed and upheld in separate context. However noble the intentions of Iraq War plaque sponsors, they failed to consider those who fought and died long before war journalism had any lasting impact. Certainly, they should reconsider their judgment, preserve Crampton's Gap inviolate, and take their project elsewhere.