Five years ago, the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation purchased a 209-acre parcel of the Third Winchester Battlefield that included the infamous Middle Field where some of the most desperate fighting had taken place. In that one phase of the battle on Sept. 19, 1864, more than 3,000 men became casualties.
Battlefields are usually purchased simply to be preserved. This one will be different. The foundation decided early on that the best preservation practices include land conservation, and made plans to return the Middle Field to its 1864 appearance. Soldiers encountered wheat stubble when they fought over the Middle Field and, if all goes well, visitors to the battlefield on its 150th anniversary next year will see the same thing.
The $80,000 project is a big undertaking because wheat hasn’t been planted on the land for almost 50 years. In its absence, a thick undergrowth of shrubs and a dense stand of non-native trees have filled in the space. All of that has to be cleared before the land can be prepared for planting, a multi-year project if done by hand or even with tractors. Instead, the foundation brought in two large mastication machines capable of tearing up trees with trunks as large as four inches and crunching the heavy undergrowth and, best of all, leaving behind mulched material.
Large oaks, cedars, red buds and dogwoods will be saved from the mechanical jaws. New tree plantings will probably include the American chestnut said Manager for Stewardship Chase Milner, who has filled a briefcase with his research into the farm and 1860s horticulture. Other plans for the Middle Field include planting an assortment of native warm-season grasses, a good habitat for wildlife.
By early May, James Madison University and the Archaeological Society of Virginia will have begun an archaeological investigation of the Middle Field, according to foundation Executive Director Denman Zirkle. He is concerned that work will attract unwanted relic hunters, and to prevent that, he said the land will be posted against trespassers and patrolled round-the-clock by a private security company working in concert with the Frederick County sheriff’s department.