The Washington Post

Waite Rawls: Have we preserved enough Civil War sites?

The Sesquicentennial is arousing a great public interest--again--in the American Civil War, much as was done two generations ago with the Centennial and one generation ago (yes, twenty years ago) with Ken Burns’ documentary series. In those last two decades, there has been a race for real estate between preservationists and developers as suburban sprawl has threatened or destroyed thousands of acres of ground that should be hallowed. In those same two decades, the public has become much more aware of several issues:

1. The land itself is important. It is indeed hallowed by blood. For over 100 years, most of it remained farm land and the battlefields were basically undisturbed. They could be studied by historians and tourists alike, who could have the “feel” of the natural terrain which dominated the scene of Americans fighting Americans.

2. If the land is developed just once, however, it is forever compromised. You can never get back to the natural roll and flow of the landscape. You cannot ever again fully understand why men defended one place or attacked another. The sites of vicious combat to the west of Fredericksburg or the north of Atlanta or the south of Nashville are all covered today with shopping malls and housing developments, denying all future generations the ability to understand fully what happened there.

3. Land preservation is a great “green” initiative. Our forefathers were smart enough to save some land for green spaces--essentially for people. Think of Central Park or the space along Lake Michigan in Chicago. Future generations could think that our time was one that celebrated an endless string of nonstop Walmarts, Home Depots and Burger Kings. We need to set aside some space in the asphalt and traffic where people can walk on grass and sit under a tree. There is no better place to do that than a spot where the land itself is important.

4. Tourism is a different shade of green--the color of money but green nevertheless. We have come to learn that preservation of important places is not a step against economic progress, but rather a step toward a different type of economic development. Here in my home state of Virginia, tourism is the second largest industry, creating jobs and generating taxes--a lot of both. Developing the historic land, therefore, destroys jobs and taxes. Local governments are only beginning to come to grips with this phenomenon.

5. Finally, the public today is very interested in having the Sesquicentennial leave a permanent legacy--the kind of permanence that easements or ownership by the National Park Service represent. If we take advantage of the heightened interest to continue to identify important land and save it from development, we will be doing a great favor to generations far into the future.


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