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An earlier version of this review misstated the year in which the Battle of Yorktown occurred. It was 1781, not 1787.
McMansionizing History
Can anyone save some of the Civil War's most important battlefields?

By John A. Farrell
Sunday, November 16, 2008

In 1964, Michael Shaara, a frustrated writer of little-known fiction, took his wife and children on a road trip to the World's Fair in New York. On their way home, they stopped at Gettysburg National Military Park, where a fine statue of Robert E. Lee guards the western reach of the famous battlefield.

The statue marks the area where, on July 3, 1863, Confederate Gen. George Pickett led some 13,000 men out from the shelter of the woods and up the long slope of Cemetery Ridge. Shaara and his 12-year-old son, Jeff, followed the path of Pickett's men, across undulating ground and a fence at Emmitsburg Road. As they climbed the ridge, Michael Shaara told stories to his son. He recounted how Pennsylvanians had done what Lee did not think they'd do that day: They'd fought and died in defense of their state's soil. He spoke of Confederate Gen. Lewis Armistead and Union Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, great friends before the war, and how they lay bleeding, yards apart, not knowing the other was near. And when the Shaaras got to the small stone monument that marks the dirt where Armistead was mortally wounded, the boy was stunned to see his father weeping.

"What happened to my father, walking the ground at Gettysburg, changed his life," Jeff Shaara remembers. "He became obsessed with telling that story."

It took Michael Shaara seven years to complete "The Killer Angels," which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975, but not a wide audience. It was only in the wake of Ken Burns's wildly popular 1990 PBS documentary series, "The Civil War," that a faithful adaptation of Shaara's book was filmed, propelling "The Killer Angels" to the top of the bestseller lists and establishing a family franchise. Michael Shaara, who died in 1988, never knew the success that Jeff has had with a series of novels that, in the style of his father, revisit the Civil War, the American Revolution and other storied clashes.

"It is a testament to the power of that ground," Shaara says, remembering when he climbed Cemetery Ridge with his dad. "There is no substitute for coming out by the Lee statue, looking out across that mile of open ground and then walking it yourself {lcub}hellip{rcub} And realizing it is not that Hollywood stuff where guys charge, sort of screaming and yelling and lickety-split. No. They walked. One step at a time."

Last summer, Shaara was asked to join the board of trustees of the Civil War Preservation Trust, whose calling is to save battlegrounds from bulldozers as sprawl creeps beyond the suburbs of Washington, Richmond and other cities with historic land nearby. The trust was formed in 1999, when the two small and troubled private groups merged and chose a onetime Maryland politico -- Jim Lighthizer -- to serve as president.

Lighthizer has built the trust into an effective organization that is part conservation fund, part lobbying shop, part political pit bull. He is not afraid to take the tools of modern politics -- polling, direct mail, media -- into battle with developers, and defeat them.

When the trust asked for Shaara's help, "I listened long and hard," the author says, "because this is a huge time commitment." In the end, Lighthizer won him over. "He is the energy behind this."

Which is noteworthy, because, when I ask Lighthizer what triggered his love for Civil War battlefields, he goes back to a day in 1983 when he asked a friend to recommend a book to take on vacation. Lighthizer was skeptical of his pal's suggestion. "I don't read novels. I read history," he says. But the friend persevered, and in Nags Head, N.C., that summer, Lighthizer read "The Killer Angels."

"It lit something that can best be defined as between a passion and an obsession," he says.

The ground had inspired a story; the story a man, to save the ground.

"When I took the job... did I say we were going to start a political organization? No," Lighthizer says. "But as the facts presented themselves, I recognized {lcub}hellip{rcub} if we don't get political, we are not going to be in business."

He and I are driving down Interstate 95, heading toward Fredericksburg, Va., the small town on the Rappahannock River where, along a 10-mile arc, the Union and Confederate armies fought four legendary battles -- Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House -- from December 1862 through May 1864. Lighthizer is behind the wheel of an SUV: a pale-skinned, freckled man of medium height and build, with thinning reddish hair, expressive features and a sometimes goofy grin. The singular feature of his personality, a sly candor, won him the affection of the Maryland press corps during his eight years as Anne Arundel's county executive and four years as transportation secretary under then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

He is a Democrat who delights in political incorrectness. He recalls -- jokingly, I believe -- that when one deal to protect a battlefield was hung up over the fate of the feral cats that inhabited the property, he toyed with the notion of delivering a few feline corpses, like the horse's head in "The Godfather," to the animal-loving landowner's doorstep.

Lighthizer's political acumen and deal-making skills have been put to the test trying to save the "hallowed ground" where more than 600,000 Americans lost their lives.

For a century after the Civil War, there was little cause to fret about its battlegrounds. In recent decades, that has changed. Entire battlefields have been lost to sprawl in Franklin, Tenn., and Atlanta. From the red clay around Richmond, developments with names such as Stonewall Estates have sprouted where Lee stopped the Union drive to capture the Confederate capital in 1862. Even the historic vistas at Antietam and Gettysburg have been put at risk, as the tendrils of exurban Washington creep into Western Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. In 1997, the federal government's Civil War Sites Advisory Commission published an updated survey of 384 "principal" battlegrounds and warned: "This nation's Civil War heritage is in grave danger. It is disappearing under buildings, parking lots, and highways {lcub}hellip{rcub} We may lose fully two-thirds of the principal battlefields."

"I will give you an example," Lighthizer says. "You know about Pickett's Charge? It was a charge by 13,000 men, more or less, across a mile of open ground, supported by artillery, attacking a wall. What do you know about the Battle of Franklin? Well, it was an attack by 25,000 men -- twice the number -- over two miles of open ground, with no artillery support against a {lcub}hellip{rcub} heavily fortified line, with significantly more casualties.

"And you know why most people haven't heard about Franklin? Because they paved it over."

The route we travel down I-95 offers compelling proof. For years, it was a lightly populated stretch of pine woods, creeks and rivers. Now, with its housing developments, malls and outlet stores, the land is being consumed at a rapid pace. Of the 100 fastest-growing counties in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, six are in Virginia, including Prince William, Stafford and Spotsylvania counties along the I-95 corridor. The boom has generated a backlash. Development-friendly county officials are being pressured by new residents, who want additional open space, fewer traffic jams and better planning.

Under Lighthizer, the trust has found ways to tap that slow-growth sentiment, which is ironic, given that Lighthizer presided over a period of rapid development as a county executive in the 1980s and as transportation secretary in the 1990s. Back then, contributions from developers fueled his political campaigns. In Anne Arundel, he concedes, "we issued 3,000 building permits a year, in some years."

Yet, in a way, this makes Lighthizer a cunning soldier in the war he's now waging against development. When he arrived at the trust, he recognized that his group could not outbid developers, who were inflating the value of land from about $2,000 an acre to as much as $40,000 an acre. "They would price us out of existence," he says. "But the land-use process at the local level is often very political. I knew how to stop rezoning." He had seen it done by determined residents who had sometimes thwarted projects he'd supported. "You can aggressively, as we have done, start grass-roots efforts to put the pressure on local officials.

"If we can compromise, we will do it -- and have done it," Lighthizer says. "But if we engage [developers] in battle, we want to make the battle so nasty and so brutal that even if we lose, they won't ever want to cross our path again.

"Like somebody said after the Chancellorsville fight: Now all we have to do is bark."

"This is the Zoan ridge," says Robert Krick, who served as the National Park Service's chief historian for some of Virginia's most important battlefields before retiring several years ago. "It is the highest ground from here, eastward, to somewhere in France. Wonderful high ground. And just in front of you is where -- when Joe Hooker did not have the nerve to come out of the Wilderness and take this dominating high ground -- Stonewall Jackson bared his teeth, and Hooker collapsed upon himself."

After Lighthizer and I pick up Krick up at the park's headquarters, the three of us stand at the point where the sprawling housing developments and strip malls of greater Fredericksburg rub up against Chancellorsville Battlefield.

In the spring of 1863, swaggering Union Gen. Joe Hooker launched an ambitious assault on the Confederates. He sent part of his army across the Rappahannock just south of Fredericksburg. A second wing of the Union forces swung north and west, crossed the river, came down through the scrub woods known locally as the Wilderness and arrived behind the unsuspecting and outnumbered Rebels, halting that night at a 70-acre clearing at the small country crossroads called Chancellorsville. Hooker was jubilant. "Our enemy must either ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him," he told his troops.

Lee responded by dividing his army and attacking Hooker on his own ground, as the Union general had predicted. On the morning of May 1, the armies clashed at the Zoan ridge, where, after a spirited battle, the Union general inexplicably ordered his men back into the Wilderness. Recognizing a psychological advantage, Lee divided his army again and sent Stonewall Jackson on a sweeping march around Hooker's right flank, which ended in a surprise Confederate assault at dusk. The shock of the attack sent the Union forces reeling back to the river, though it cost Jackson his life -- he was shot by his own troops in the chaos and gloom. The fighting at the Zoan ridge was the opening act in what historian Shelby Foote called "in terms of glory {lcub}hellip{rcub} the greatest" of all Confederate victories.

"The fighting through here was not Armageddon {lcub}hellip{rcub} but it was very significant because it pushed Hooker back," Krick says. "And all of this land would be paved or covered with houses today, but Jim Lighthizer saved it."

Lighthizer came to the preservation movement as a sportsman. He is a lifelong hunter, an Ohio boy who put himself through Georgetown University law school by selling typewriters for IBM. Inspired by John F. Kennedy, Lighthizer ventured into Democratic politics and won a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates in 1978. He was elected Anne Arundel County executive in 1982 and inherited a budget seeping red ink. He capped wages for Anne Arundel's teachers and other public employees and encouraged development to grow the county's tax base. By the end of his first term, he was able to cut property taxes and introduce a "smart growth" plan that satisfied the public yearning for containing sprawl. It had the added benefit, he says with a smile, of pressuring developers to donate to his campaign. He faced no real opposition for reelection.

Anne Arundel County is famed for its Colonial capital, Annapolis, and for hundreds of miles of shoreline on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Historic preservation, environmental protection and "quality of life" are huge issues there. Awash in revenue, Lighthizer let the conservationist in him blossom in his second term. He spent millions of dollars buying parkland on the rivers and bay. A lasting legacy of his tenure as county executive is the $17 million Quiet Waters riverfront park, near Annapolis, on 340 acres that he snatched from developers.

Lighthizer had a reputation for cockiness, fueled by the embarrassing disclosure that, as his second term ended, he had spent more than $100,000 of public funds on a glossy, 96-page, self-aggrandizing booklet titled "The Lighthizer Years." Nevertheless, when he left in 1990, limited by law to only two consecutive terms, he was viewed as a potential candidate for higher office.

As state transportation secretary, he presided over the arrival of Southwest Airlines at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, a development that tripled flights and transformed the airport into a big-league operation. He won praise from conservationists for exploiting a clause in the massive 1991 federal transportation bill and using highway "enhancement" monies for battlefield preservation. At Antietam and other battlefields, the state spent more than $16 million to acquire land and conservation easements. The money, coupled with other open-space efforts, left Antietam, site of the war's single bloodiest day of fighting, one of the nation's best-preserved battlegrounds.

Then came a time of personal and professional ordeal. After Lighthizer became transportation secretary, state and federal investigators began scrutinizing several land deals that had been sanctioned by his administration during his time as county executive. Though no charges were filed, the investigations were an embarrassment.

They were followed by something far worse. In February 1993, a state trooper found Lighthizer's son Robert, named in honor of Robert F. Kennedy, dead in a state park. The 23-year-old Army veteran, and former all-county lacrosse player, committed suicide. His son's death "took a tremendous amount out of me," Lighthizer says. "I went, in the course of a year, from thinking of running for governor to getting out of the business. I just decided I didn't want to do this anymore."

Instead Lighthizer went to work as a lobbyist in Annapolis, representing Southwest Airlines and other clients for the Baltimore law firm Miles & Stockbridge. He quickly came to detest his new duties. "If you want a lesson in humility, go from being county executive and transportation secretary to chasing state legislators up and down the hall," he says. "I hated to go to work. I was making more money than I ever made in my life, and I was less happy, professionally, than ever. And in the end, I didn't care if they got a comma in the tax bill."

Lighthizer seemed on course to become just one more Maryland political hack. It was his obsession with the Civil War that rescued him from that fate.

Starting in 1890,Congress authorized the creation of the first four national military parks -- at Chickamauga, Shiloh, Gettysburg and Vicksburg. But, over time, even major battlefields suffered from chronic federal budget shortfalls. At Fredericksburg, for example, the northernmost stretch was overrun by housing; the southern sector by an industrial park and a General Motors factory; and what's known as the Slaughter Pen Farm, at the center of the battleground, was zoned for commercial or industrial development.

Over the years, the federal bureaucracies "lost deals because they couldn't get appropriations, and they lost deals because they moved so goddamn slow when they had the money," Lighthizer says. "And a lot of the important battlefield land is outside the Park Service boundaries, because the boundaries are arbitrary. They are political."

Slaughter Pen Farm is outside the boundaries. "Some farmer went to his congressman 50 years ago and said: 'Screw you. Don't put me in that battlefield. I don't want to be in it,' " Lighthizer says. "And so it's not."

At Chancellorsville, the federal government owns all but 1,703 acres of the 7,517-acre "core area" of the battleground, "where the heaviest fighting took place," says Russ Smith, the Park Service superintendent there. The greater, federally recognized "study area," which includes land on which the armies maneuvered or set up camps and field hospitals, is 21,874 acres. The threat of development led to the founding of aggressive local groups in Gettysburg, Northern Virginia and other locales, as well as two national organizations -- the Civil War Trust and the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites -- to buy land. But their efforts were unfocused, and by the end of the 1990s, the preservation association was $7 million in debt. Lighthizer was on the board of the Civil War Trust when the two groups merged in 1999, and the new trustees asked him to serve as president. There were 24 employees at the trust when Lighthizer took office; only four remained after six months. The rest were fired or left on their own. To replace them, Lighthizer tapped a community of battlefield buffs to find young professionals who had experience running political campaigns, congressional offices or commercial real estate operations. With the help of well-connected trustees and donors, he put his lobbying skills to work in Congress and state legislatures and retired the $7 million debt.

"We never ask for outright grants. Everything, we match," he says. "I was in government. I know that when people come in with their hand out, you want them to have some skin in the game. So I say: 'Lookit. You give me a million, and I will make it two {lcub}hellip{rcub} And, by the way, I will give the land back to you, if you want it.' It's a good argument."

Membership in the trust tripled. A new direct-mail program brought in millions of dollars. And more than 20,000 acres of land at storied places -- Manassas, Fredericksburg, Shiloh, Gettysburg, Harpers Ferry, Antietam, Brandy Station, Malvern Hill -- were bought outright or saved via conservation easements, which give landowners tax breaks for giving up the right to develop their properties.

Buying property from willing sellers was one thing. It was quite another to rescue land that had already been purchased by developers and designated for high-density residential and commercial growth. Lighthizer accepted that challenge at what became known as "the second battle of Chancellorsville."

The first volleys were fired in 2002 after the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors voted to move the Zoan ridge property out of the county's rural preserve and into its "primary settlement" district, thus opening the land for high-density development. In June, the Dogwood Development Group of Reston announced plans to build a town center on the spot, with more than 2,000 homes and 2.4 million square feet of commercial space. In November, the county planning commission approved the developer's plan, dismissing the growth-related concerns of a large crowd of local residents who waited hours to testify. When Lighthizer tried to negotiate, the developer and the county government ignored him. Furious, he decided to fight the development by orchestrating public pressure and, if necessary, defeating the pro-development supervisors at the polls.

"Nothing we have ever done compares to this. Nothing," Lighthizer wrote in a fundraising letter to his membership. "If you never give another dollar to help save another battlefield, I need you to help with this one. If we succeed {lcub}hellip{rcub} not only will we save 140 essential acres at Chancellorsville, but in years to come, savvy developers {lcub}hellip{rcub} will think twice about going head to head against us {lcub}hellip{rcub} they'll go build their strip malls somewhere else."

The Coalition to Save Chancellorsville Battlefield was formed that summer. A pollster was hired to gauge community sentiment, and the results (showing that almost two-thirds of nearby residents opposed the development) were released to local news outlets. The coalition held news conferences and lured national media such as Washington Post columnist George Will and National Public Radio to report on the controversy. Volunteers conducted a petition drive, collecting 27,000 signatures from residents who opposed the development. They canvassed neighborhoods, distributed leaflets and yard signs, held candlelight vigils and attended public hearings. A Web site kept the anti-growth forces alert to fresh developments, and served as a community rallying point. There were radio ads and a direct-mail appeal.

Dogwood fought back with telemarketing and mailings of its own, dismissing the 1863 action on the Zoan ridge as a "skirmish" that could suitably be honored with a small "memorial park."

"These outsiders {lcub}hellip{rcub} think they know what's best for you," the developers' political action committee said in a mailing to area residents. "They came from places like New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania. They've never been stuck in our traffic, worried about improving our schools, or had to travel out of the county to spend their money {lcub}hellip{rcub} to shop."

But the coalition's efforts had transformed the political climate. That fall, the voters filled a vacant seat on the Board of Supervisors with a candidate endorsed by the slow-growth forces: Robert Hagan got 64 percent of the vote. In January, when they had to fill a vacancy on the board, the supervisors selected Hap Connors, one of the coalition leaders. Then, in March 2003, as hundreds of county residents sat watching, the increasingly nervous supervisors voted 6 to 0 to reject the Dogwood proposal. The revolution peaked on Election Day 2003, when five pro-preservation candidates were elected supervisors, giving the movement control of the board.

The trust found a local homebuilder, Tricord Inc., that was willing to deal. In 2005, according to the trust, Tricord purchased 227 acres of the Dogwood property for more than $12 million and immediately transferred the 140 most important acres to Lighthizer's group for $3 million. In return, the coalition forces and the supervisors agreed to let the builder put higher-density housing on the remaining 87 acres. In late 2006, the supervisors unanimously approved a second deal, along the same lines, with another builder, Toll Brothers. That $1 million sale, which closed this year, gave the trust another critical 74 acres of the battlefield.

"We don't fool ourselves that the average American is a Civil War buff," says Lighthizer. "But we do know they are tired of traffic, of congestion, of homes going up everywhere."

The trust's political muscle yielded further dividends. When the last major undeveloped tract at Fredericksburg -- Slaughter Pen Farm -- went on the market in 2006, Lighthizer was alerted by his friends at Tricord, who agreed to move quickly and buy the land, then flip it without profit to the trust. The $12.5 million price tag made the 208-acre deal his organization's most ambitious and expensive purchase yet, but Lighthizer was willing to borrow to buy such a crucial piece of land. It is the only place on the battlefield where a visitor can follow in the footsteps of the Union assault from start to finish, now that land to the north and south has been developed.

Another coup occurred in 2006, when the trust rescued the 319-acre heart of another endangered tract -- the Glendale Battlefield in Henrico County, Va. -- for $4.1 million.

It was in the last days of summer in 2006, amid that string of triumphs at work, that Jim Lighthizer lost another of his three sons.

Conor Lighthizer, 28, died during a camping trip with his father high in California's Sierra Nevada mountains. Free from the demands of politics, and seared by Robert's suicide, Lighthizer had worked at spending more time with his four remaining children. During the years of late-night campaign banquets and budget sessions, weekend bull roasts and wining and dining lawmakers, "I didn't ignore my children," he says, "but if I knew -- if I was as mature as I am now -- I would have spent more time with them." The camping trips were one of his ways of compensating for that lost time.

Conor suffered from juvenile diabetes but worked hard to keep himself in shape. He had completed a marathon that year. But illness or altitude triggered a diabetes-related condition called ketoacidosis at the end of a long climb. Conor lost strength, his sight and then consciousness at their alpine campsite. A helicopter came too late to save him.

"Conor died in my arms," Lighthizer says, recounting the story in his office at the trust. His face is suddenly distorted; he is chagrined by an involuntary sob and apologizes, needlessly. "How close to the surface the emotions are," he says, startled and marveling.

Grief can be relentless. It strips from us our distractions -- ambition, creativity, desire -- and their power to charm. We confront the great lie of life, and if we are fortunate, we fall on the crumbs of a cause for which to soldier on.

"You go on because you have no choice," Lighthizer says. "You try to help the other people who are hurting, and not spend a lot of time on yourself."

But some friends wonder if, as the battle between preservation and development comes to a fierce conclusion in the next few years, Lighthizer will be able to recapture the verve and vigor he displayed in the last decade.

In 1889, an old soldier named Joshua Chamberlain returned to Gettysburg for the dedication of a monument to the 20th Maine Regiment, which he commanded during the battle. Chamberlain is one of the heroes in "The Killer Angels." He and his raw farm boys and fishermen were posted at the far end of the Union line, on the slope of a rocky height called Little Round Top, when the Confederates launched their attack. If the soldiers from Maine had given way, the federal line may well have collapsed. They knew that, and fought with fury. When they ran out of ammunition, they threw rocks and, at Chamberlain's order, charged down the hill with bayonets, stunning the rebels and saving the hill.

On the day he returned to Gettysburg, Chamberlain spoke of the wisdom of saving battlefields. "In great deeds, something abides," he said. "On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass. Bodies disappear, but spirits linger." Future generations, he predicted, "shall come to this deathless field. And lo! The shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls." It did for Michael and Jeff Shaara. It has for Jim Lighthizer, who dreams of raising $250 million -- twice what he has spent so far -- to preserve another 25,000 acres of Civil War history in the next eight years. "I could spend, conservatively in the next five years, $30-to-$50 million to save land just in Spotsylvania County," he says. At Chancellorsville, one-fourth of the core battlefield and less than one-tenth of the total ground has been protected. "Give me $10 million, and I will spend it at a fair market value to save that battlefield," Lighthizer vows.

The 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War is approaching, but federal and state plans for the 2011 Sesquicentennial are modest. None calls for the kind of investment that Lighthizer and other preservationists believe is needed to protect the places where so many died. Meanwhile, time is running out. Soon, given the pace of development in America, there likely will be no more Glendales or Slaughter Pen Farms to rescue.

"We are trying to get as much as we can done," Lighthizer says, "knowing we are not going to get most of it done." It's a glorious cause, he worries, that may be doomed to come up short.

John A. Farrell is the author of a biography of the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill and a forthcoming biography of Clarence Darrow. He lives in Montgomery County and can be reached at jaloysius1@gmail.com.

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