- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2004

Almost everyone is familiar with the most famous battles of the Civil War — such as Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shiloh — and many people have been fortunate enough to visit one or more of the national parks associated with those battles that have been preserved as historical landmarks.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln, they are “hallowed ground,” and are physical links to the study of historical events that many people consider vital to understanding who we are.

In 2004 Virginia, however, battlefields are physically disappearing with regularity. In Northern Virginia, freeway construction projects and new shopping malls have paved over ground that once was contested daily by Union and Confederate pickets.

In Hanover County, expensive subdivisions have covered hills where Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Union soldiers gave their lives in the Overland Campaign; in other parts of central Virginia, land is timbered, sold, and developed where important Civil War events took place.

For some it may seem like a minor issue. The major battlefields are already mostly preserved, protected by what seem to be appropriate laws, and maintained with the support of the federal government through the National Park Service.

For others, however, the trend of development and battlefield loss is an alarming one and represents an irretrievable cultural loss.

The questions being asked are: How much of the past is worth preserving? Who should be responsible — interested private citizens, or an active regulatory government?

Battlefield preservation in the face of such questions has become a controversial public policy issue.

The bottom line

Not long ago, President Bush unveiled his 2005 proposed budget that includes a $3 million increase in matching funds for Civil War site preservation. Nonprofit organizations such as the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) utilize such funds to buy and preserve Civil War sites that are in danger of being swallowed up by development. “It’s a substantial amount of money,” CWPT spokesman Jim Campi said of the recent proposal.

Yet critics maintain that we already have enough battlefields preserved, and that some limits have to be imposed. Budget constraints are the bottom line when deciding what is preserved and what is not.

In fact, battlefield preservation has often been a “systemic agenda,” stirring some interest, but never gaining widespread popularity as a grass-roots movement.

One difficulty stems from the question of how to put a price tag on a historic property. For example, the loss of the World Trade Center as a cultural icon in 2001 cannot easily be translated into an economic figure or hard-dollar amount. The value of the Twin Towers was more than the total amount of concrete, steel, wood, etc. used to construct it.

Even so, the issues that divide opinion on the issue of Civil War battlefield preservation stem primarily from economic questions. The key elements in contention are land use and community development, sources and amounts of preservation funding, administration of preservation efforts, and to a lesser degree the historical interpretation of the events from the war.

In the context of these variables, three case studies will illustrate the complexities that lead to heated debate: A proposed expansion of Interstate 81 in the Shenandoah Valley; a portion of the Chancellorsville battlefield at Mullins Farm coveted by developers; and a brief history of the efforts to preserve the battlefield at Manassas.

Interstate 81 corridor

A plan to expand I-81 in the Shenandoah Valley has been in the works for years. The interstate is one of the most crowded highways in the state, and the traffic volume is a safety concern.

The road parallels an important Civil War road, the old Valley Pike, and runs directly through a number of Civil War historic sites and battlefield areas, including New Market, where 247 young Virginia Military Institute cadets fought a famous battle in 1864 against Union forces.

I-81 covers the majority of the original New Market battlefield, although 260 acres are preserved on either side of the road by the VMI New Market Battlefield Park & Hall of Valor.

An expansion of I-81 could “improve the economy and quality of life,” but also, “overwhelm the area’s unique character,” the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation (SVBF) says.

The situation in the I-81 corridor illustrates the fundamental tension in all preservation debates. Accidents are occurring due to traffic volume, jobs are leaving the region when transportation breaks down and development is slowing when people can’t access resources. Yet the $6 billion expansion of the road will result in the loss of more historic areas.

“We are not opposed to transportation improvements,” a SVBF spokesman said. “We are simply asking … that its effects on the battlefields be mitigated.”

Chancellorsville skirmish

In some circles, however, the present battles are not just over preserving history. In 2002, a Reston development company proposed building roughly 2,000 new homes and 2 million square feet of office space on the Chancellorsville battlefield outside the national military park in Spotsylvania County. Many critics in the area took the opportunity to express their equally adamant displeasure over urban growth in general.

“They are tired of the traffic, sick of the sprawl, care about water shortages and schools, are worried about higher taxes, and … they’re fed up,” one resident said.

The county, despite coordinated opposition from citizen and preservation groups, permitted rezoning to help the development move forward. The following year, however, mounting pressure from activists and concerned citizens caused the initial plan to collapse.

The Civil War Preservation Trust is in negotiations (using the same matching funds mentioned earlier) with John Mullins, the owner of the 790-acre tract, to offer a fair price and preserve as much of the battlefield as possible.

Chancellorsville is considered by most historians to be one of the most important battles of the war. Confederate victory there allowed Gen. Robert E. Lee to invade Pennsylvania. Gen. Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men in Chancellorsville and died shortly afterward. “It’s really a unique treasure,” a CWPT spokesman said of the battlefield.

As at Chancellorsville, the preservation of any specific battlefield often involves a lengthy and jumbled public policy process. Not only does it require setting aside land as parks and regulating their upkeep, it also requires protecting easements (land that adjoins parks) and enacting sensible zoning regulations for nearby properties.

Fighting at Manassas

At Manassas, where two critical battles took place, formal preservation began many years ago, and yet even as recently as 1993 the Walt Disney Co. attempted to build Disney’s America (along with a myriad complex of hotels, campgrounds, subdivisions, etc.) barely three miles away.

Because of the proximity to Washington, this so-called “Third Battle of Manassas” took on a national flavor, and the Disney Co. eventually retreated.

The Manassas Battlefield, however, is a telling case study of how preservation can work in the face of many obstacles, and yet still remain a nebulous and tenuous proposition.

Between 1936 and 1991, the Manassas National Battlefield Park acquired various pieces of the battlefield in 84 separate transactions, ranging from a $130 million, 542-acre addition gained by legislative action in 1988 to a 1974 sale in which the state of Virginia sold a parcel for $1 to the park. During the same period that these transactions occurred, urban sprawl surrounded the battlefield with superhighways, shopping malls, and subdivisions.

In fact, only the intervention of Congress prevented the construction of a huge mall complex in 1988 on the very spot where Lee’s Second Manassas headquarters had been located.

Manassas also illustrates the difficulties of managing a park even when earlier preservation efforts seem to be a fait accompli.

For several years, authorities within the park administration lobbied for a new equestrian facility, even after they found that it would be potentially damaging to the archaeology of the park.

Despite growing evidence that such a project would be destructive, construction proceeded, even in the face of opposition within the park administration, and was halted only with the change in presidential administration in 1993.

Critics rightfully questioned whether an entity that could not protect what historic property it already held had any business purchasing or administering even more land.

Private vs. public

These three cases — I-81, Chancellorsville, and Manassas — illustrate most of the issues that are in play when public policy decisions have to be made. The objective observer might suggest that both private and government sectors are ill-equipped to handle efficient and meaningful preservation by themselves, even though individual exceptions can be pointed out.

Pamplin Park, for example, is primarily a private enterprise that has preserved a portion of the Petersburg Battlefield and has enjoyed commercial success with a museum and educational programs that entertain and educate thousands of area school children each year. Yet, ultimately, it appears that the best scenarios involve close cooperation between commercial and government/regulatory interests.

At Gettysburg, where the most famous battle of the war was fought (and is also the most visited battlefield in the present time), preservation is an ongoing effort, and a constant tension between private and public interests.

Since tourism is the primary industry in the region, developers are constantly looking to expand commercial enterprises near the battlefield. Preservationists, on the other hand, are always looking for ways to maintain and expand protection of the entire area.

This tension recently resulted in the demolition of a 307-foot observation tower near the battlefield. Critics maintained that the tower was an eyesore, and obstructed natural viewing of the battlefield. The tower’s owners insisted there was nothing wrong with it. The owner’s lawyer said the tower did not mar the battlefield’s completeness. “If we want to be complete, we could restore the stench of rotting flesh,” he said.

A federal judge ruled that the National Park Service could claim eminent domain and destroy the tower, and on July 3, 2000, the 137th anniversary of Pickett’s Charge, the tower came down. The NPS set aside $3 million to compensate the owners, but with 1.7 million visitors to the park annually, the revenue lost from the destruction of the tower won’t be completely replaced.

“I think that’s what makes [preservation] interesting,” said Brent Glass, a member of a historic commission. “It’s not just a good guy-bad guy situation.”

Costs and benefits

Since public policy analysis necessarily involves dealing with community issues, and since it is arguable that market forces cannot be relied upon to put preservation ahead of economic interests, the issue of battlefield preservation is a very appropriate one for legislators.

It is possible to preserve a great deal of what battlefield sites remain, and so it becomes not an issue of whether we should preserve them, but of how much it is economically feasible to preserve.

It is, again, difficult to figure the value of preservation. Dipak Gupta, professor of public administration at San Diego State University, refers to social costs and social benefits, and the arguments against preservation never seem to revolve around the legitimacy of preserving the past, but always on how much it will cost, and how much money is actually available.

Ultimately, someone must quantify the value. President Bush recently quantified it by setting aside $5 million for preservation. The NPS quantified it at Gettysburg by valuing the demolished tower at $3 million. More than 400 million visitors to national parks last year quantified the value of preservation by paying their admission fees. And no matter what course is taken, Mr. Gupta reminds that there will always be winners and losers; benefits and costs.

Critics can easily point out that we have access to almost all of the major Civil War battlefields. Preservationists, however, can respond by reminding us that it is because of efforts like their own that such is actually the case. The new “Civil War” will likely be fought for many years to come.

Jack Trammell is director of Disability Support Services at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., and writes both history and fiction.

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