Mary Hadar was editor of the 10 special sections published by The Washington Post marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
Just 25 years after the Civil War, the veterans who had survived that bloody conflict persuaded Congress to preserve portions of the land where their comrades had fought and died. Their efforts resulted in the creation of national military parks we know well today: Gettysburg, Shiloh, Antietam, Vicksburg, Chickamauga.
A century would pass before other preservation attempts gained traction, and by that time suburban sprawl had devoured much of the battlefields. Distressed by the loss, a group of war buffs came together in 1987 to halt any further development on hallowed ground. Bob Zeller’s “Fighting the Second Civil War” chronicles their struggle — and astonishing success.
They were a determined lot. Several worked for the National Park Service as battlefield historians, others were Civil War scholars and authors. Their campaign started in Virginia, home of the Confederacy and the location of dozens of battle sites that were in private hands. They fought off proposals for a giant mall in Manassas, an automobile racetrack at Brandy Station, a Disney theme park in Haymarket, a Walmart at the Wilderness battlefield. They went to war with local governments eager for the jobs and income that development brings and became adept at filing lawsuits, lobbying, rallying public opinion and fundraising. Many of the fights dragged on for years.
And those conflicts were just with the developers. Much of this highly readable book is devoted to the battles among the preservationists themselves. The Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (APCWS), a grass-roots organization formed in 1987 with a focus on buying land immediately, was joined four years later by the Civil War Trust, a private foundation created at the suggestion of the interior secretary to attract corporate donations (which it failed to do).
Though they worked together on several acquisitions, the two groups were bound to clash, and they did — over who got credit for some of the big saves, over the pace at which money was disbursed, over their different cultures. When they finally merged in 1999, the board of the APCWS had to overrule its chairman to make it happen.
Zeller, who is president of the Center for Civil War Photography and editor of its journal, captures the passion as well as the pettiness of the struggle to save historic battlegrounds.
“I was crazed . . . obsessed . . . a zealot,” a preservationist admits after meeting with a developer. “I’ll go stand in front of your bulldozers if I have to.”
“They demonized me,” the trust’s president says after a disagreement with APCWS over strategy. “It’s a holy war for some of them.”
“What arrogance!” the APCWS chair writes after the trust delayed awarding money for land purchases.
The story has a happy ending. More than 45,000 acres at 132 battlefields have been saved since 1987. In 2014 the National Park Service asked the Civil War Trust to expand its mission by also preserving land from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
By Bob Zeller
Knox Press. 448 pp. $17.95 paperback