Director of policy and communications for the Civil War Preservation Trust
America’s fascination with the Civil War has waxed and waned over the years. The scholarship that emerged from the centennial commemoration of the 1960s spurred interest in the battles and personalities of the conflict. In the 1990s, Ken Burns’ landmark PBS series “The Civil War” led to a dramatic upsurge in visitation to battlefield parks and other Civil War sites. In both instances, renewed public interest in the four-year struggle led to a dramatic increase in efforts to preserve the remaining battlegrounds of the Civil War.
If history is any guide, the Civil War sesquicentennial will initiate another era of enthusiasm for the battlefield preservation cause. Already this year, major preservation victories have been achieved with the defeat of a casino at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and a decision by the Walmart Corporation to move a proposed super center off the Wilderness battlefield in Virginia.
In addition, significant Civil War battlefield properties have been protected in the past twelve months at Gettysburg (the 95-acre former Gettysburg Country Club tract), Glendale, Virginia (102 acres saved from imminent residential development), Spring Hill, Tennessee (84 acres surrounding Rippavilla Plantation) and the Wilderness (49 acres at Saunder’s Field).
In some cases, local, all-volunteer preservation groups are leading the charge to preserve historic sites in Central Virginia, at Harpers Ferry and at South Mountain and Antietam. In other instances, national groups like the Civil War Trust leverage private and public sector monies to protect endangered lands. In Franklin, Tennessee, community activists are reclaiming that battlefield, lot by lot, tearing down modern buildings and restoring the landscape to its 1864 appearance.
Naysayers ask, “isn’t this enough, haven’t we saved all there is to be saved?” The facts suggest otherwise; despite impressive progress, the National Park Service estimates that hundreds of thousands of acres of significant battlefield land throughout the country remain vulnerable to development. At places like Chantilly and Salem Church, only fragments remain. In Frederick County, Va., a limestone mining company is poised to begin bulldozing one of the most blood-soaked parts of the Cedar Creek battlefield.
To address the threats that continue to plague these and other battlegrounds, the Civil War Trust is preparing to announce a $40 million national fund raising campaign to create a lasting preservation legacy for the sesquicentennial. Its goal is to save 20,000 acres of hallowed ground during the next five years while enhancing the interpretive and educational tools that give these sites meaning.
The sesquicentennial is the optimal time to recommit ourselves to battlefield protection so that future generations can be inspired by these outdoor classrooms. As so many of us already know, there is no better method of learning about the heroism of our Civil War ancestors then by visiting the preserved sites where they once fought and bled.