Friday, January 7, 2005

The Oct. 14, 1863, Confederate defeat at Bristoe Station, 40 miles southwest of Washington, marked the last time Robert E. Lee would conduct main-force operations in Prince William County. It was also a reversal so chaotic that it muddled the final resting places of the scattered fallen — and has haunted conservationist-landowner relations into the modern era.

The 137 Southern slain, most of them North Carolina soldiers, cut down by Union forces concealed behind a railroad embankment, were buried where they fell in hastily marked graves. They joined 35 comrades from the previous year’s Battle of Kettle Run and upward of 374 Confederates who had died of disease there in 1861 — all within a 1,100-acre crucible of blood-stained earth presently known as Bristow Station. And, except for the site of about 75 now-unmarked Alabaman graves, the plots of the 471-plus others are unknown.

They are, however, not forgotten and have spurred a tug-of-war — complete with landowner know-nothingism, political jockeying and suspected headstone swiping — between area land-use and slow-growth advocates until, incredibly, development giant Centex Homes came to the rescue.

In 2001, with rapid development impending, the Dallas-based developer tendered a multimillion-dollar offer for 341 acres of battlefield land — and pledged 127 acres of likely burial ground to historic preservation in return for zoning concessions on the remainder.

Landowners lined up, and the county eventually approved the deal — as long as Centex would first allow an independent archaeological survey of the commercial lot and relocate or cede any burial sites found there.

The developer agreed, bumped the survey window from 30 to 120 days and conducted its own scientific search of boundary areas. It also welcomed an archaeologist’s oversight during excavation and grading.

The independent survey — which featured thermal imaging, pedestrian inspection and even dowsing — ended in November 2003 with no new graves found. It was spearheaded by the Roanoke chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which raised money, hired an archaeologist and recruited volunteers from the North-South Skirmish Association, the local Civil War Round Table and others.

“We’re satisfied with what we looked at,” said SCV’s Robert “Red” Barbour. “[Centex] didn’t get in our way. They let us go in and do what we had to do.”

Others joined in the applause.

“This is easily our biggest and most important [preservation achievement] to date,” said Jim Campi, spokesman for the D.C.-based Civil War Preservation Trust, which took title of the donated land. “Conservation-minded developers and preservationists can work together to save historic land.”

The trust plans to turn the site into a memorial park — called Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park — this year. And Centex Homes, understandably, will market its proposed 520-residence unit, New Bristow Village, with the park in mind.

“I think this worked out well for everybody involved,” said Centex Homes Director of Land Development Dave Rettew. “And we were able to achieve [our goals] by clustering our development on the remaining 214 acres … allowing the preservation of the core battlefield area.”

Prince William County Historical Commission Vice Chairman James Burgess Jr. agreed. “[It was] a minor miracle that we were able to save this,” he said.

But not everybody is happy with the outcome.

“There were 12 engagements on that battlefield,” said former county Supervisor Bobby McManus, “and there were many graves that were not found.”

Mrs. McManus, who, before losing her seat in 1995, also actively opposed the county’s flirtation with a Disney theme park, resists any dense development of Bristow Station.

“I felt it was a very sacred, holy place,” she said, “and no one [at first] seemed to care. It kind of tugged at me.”

G.M. Corrigan is a writer who lives in Northern Virginia.

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