- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2008

Between May 23 and 26 of 1864 at the North Anna River in central Virginia, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee missed what many historians consider his last great opportunity to defeat Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac in the open field.

Nearly 144 years later, another battle is being fought along the North Anna River in Hanover County, this time between preservationists, local residents, county leaders and powerful economic interests, including defense contractor Martin Marietta Materials.

In early 1864, Grant traveled east to take command of the Army of the Potomac, and though Gen. George Meade remained in erstwhile command of the army, Grant as supreme commander orchestrated a series of hammer blows against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia designed to bleed the Southern cause and relentlessly push toward the Confederate capital at Richmond.

After battles at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, Lee knew his time was running short — he must defeat Grant decisively or watch the war devolve into an endless contest of attrition that he could not win.

As Grant and Meade sidestepped to the east and south, Lee found his chance at the North Anna River. The Army of the Potomac became dangerously divided and exposed; part of it even crossed the river and was surrounded by superior Southern forces.

Lee arranged his forces behind the river in a now-famous inverted “V.” At the critical moment, however, he became ill from an intestinal disorder and, probably because of that in combination with his heart trouble and general weariness, was unable to effect his normal control over the battlefield. Subordinates acting in his place were clumsy and indecisive, and the result was another bloodletting with no apparent advantage gained.

Grant and Meade sidestepped to the south and east yet again, soon to engage Lee’s forces at Cold Harbor and then later at the siege of Petersburg.

For Lee, however, the battle at the North Anna represented the last realistic chance to disable the primary enemy army in the field before the important 1864 U.S. presidential election. Given the golden opportunity he had and what followed later at Petersburg, it would remain one of the war’s great “what ifs.”

The American Battlefield Protection Program, created by Congress in 1996, has designated approximately 3.8 percent of more than 10,000 American battlefields as historically significant and worthy of preservation. The North Anna battlefield is one of those considered significant, but as of last year, just 80 acres or so of the original battlefield was formally protected. This is in the form of a small county park next to the Martin Marietta quarry operation on land the company donated in 1989. The company also provides maintenance.

That small portion of land represents less than 1 percent of the estimated 14,000-plus acres of the North Anna battlefield that are not preserved. The North Anna land is the only major battlefield of the Overland Campaign that is not significantly preserved in the form of a national park.

Earlier last year, Martin Marietta formalized plans to triple the size of its quarry operation, including expanding onto land adjacent to the current operation on the original battlefield.

This required the company to obtain and update a conditional use permit from the county and also led to concern on the part of local residents. The expansion potentially would destroy major portions of the battlefield that theoretically still can be preserved and also create more noise and potentially affect road traffic.

During negotiations in January, Martin Marrietta agreed to set aside additional acreage for the park that would more than double its size.

It is important to note, as well, that the company’s good will is the only reason the original 80 acres were donated and preserved. Still, the company’s priorities and those of local residents are bound to be in conflict over some issues.

The battlefield is at extreme risk of disappearing. The Civil War Preservation Trust has listed the North Anna battlefield as an important threatened Civil War site, categorizing it as a “major battle important to the outcome of a campaign.”

“You can’t rebuild original earthworks,” Herb Bailey, a local resident, said recently. Mr. Bailey has some of the original earthworks and trenches arrayed across the North Anna river portion of his property. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. We’re just not thinking far enough ahead.”

“What will be left are remnants of the outskirts,” said Theresa Stevenson, another local resident and member of the Friends of North Anna.

Art Taylor, a local resident and preservationist, was the most concerned about the “killing field,” an area roughly 30 acres in size where Union troops under Gen. James H. Ledlie crossed the river and were mauled by superior Confederate forces behind cover.

“We are working with Martin Marietta,” Mr. Taylor said recently, “and they have agreed in principle to [preserve] key areas of concern.”

Still, the equation is not simple. Martin Marietta and its predecessor, General Crushed Stone, are both the reason anything is preserved and the reason the entire battlefield remains threatened.

“As a taxpaying citizen,” Mr. Bailey says, “I appreciate corporate expansion and the increased county revenues that [Martin Marietta] may provide us. However, we should always strive to live in balance with our natural resources and historic lands. America is watching us now and will judge us in the future based upon our values and actions. I hope we are judged as wise citizens with a proactive government.”

The outcome of the second Battle of the North Anna is far from determined at this time.

Jack Trammell teaches and administers at Randolph-Macon College and recently wrote a Civil War novel titled “Gray.” He can be reached at jacktrammell@yahoo.com.

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