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Battlefield plight gains national attention

March 17, 2005 1:10 am


The Wilderness battlefield in Spotsylvania and Orange counties is vulnerable to development's march, the Civil War Preservation Trust warns. Spotsylvania's Fawn Lake subdivision was built on Civil War sites. 17geographic800.jpg

Confederate re-enactors line their re-creation of the Bloody Angle's defenses during last year's re-enactment of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

Magazine adds perspective to debate over key Civil War sites in Spotsylvania

National Geographic magazine has put Spotsylvania County on the map.

In the just-released April issue, the county is featured prominently in a 23-page story about Civil War battlefields being gobbled up by sprawl.

"Civil War Battlefields: Saving the Landscapes of America's Deadliest War," by Adam Goodheart, will go to the magazine's 6.6 million-plus subscribers worldwide.

Goodheart quickly puts Spotsylvania's wartime role, and subsequent preservation challenges, in perspective.

"Places that were at the front lines 140 years ago--Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg--are at the front lines again today," he wrote.

"Exactly at a moment when Americans seem more interested than ever in finding connections to the wartime past, much of that past is in danger of being lost. Nowhere is this more true than in Spotsylvania County"

With a population topping 112,000, it is the state's third-fasted growing county.

Last summer, Goodheart donned a Confederate uniform to take part in a re-enactment of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, held at Belvedere Plantation, a farm in the county's New Post area.

He stopped at well-known local Civil War sites--Salem Church, Jackson's Flank Attack, and Chancellorsville--accompanied by John Hennessy, chief historian of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.

"I think this is one of the first times in a popular forum that Spotsylvania has been so rightly identified as the cradle of so much that was significant" during the war, Hennessy said yesterday.

"My greatest hope for an article like this is that people in the community will read it. Sometimes when you live here you don't realize what a big deal it is," Hennessy said. "All of us live in the midst of something that is incredibly significant" and disappearing.

Salem Church--where Confederates led by Gen. Robert E. Lee stopped Union army Gen. John Sedgwick's advance during the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863--is an example, and something not lost on visitors.

Goodheart saw it, noting, "The ground that Lee's men fought to defend now sits beneath a Hardee's, a Chick-fil-A, and an empty grocery store."

"The church is almost invisible now," Hennessy said, and a handsome stone monument across State Route 3 is practically lost in the traffic congestion.

Hennessy said no one--not the community, not the Park Service, not the county--realized what was happening there until it was too late.

In the case of Salem Church, "We failed to act at every step along the way and we all share the responsibility for what has emerged."

The National Geographic story includes a wartime photo of a Union camp juxtaposed with a modern aerial view of tract housing in Spotsylvania and, later, a photo of a newly restored section of the stone wall along Sunken Road in Fredericksburg with a wartime view strewn with debris and bodies.

Over the years, the National Park Service acquired 8,000 acres in four major battlefields and several other related sites here. Organizations such as the Civil War Preservation Trust and Central Virginia Battlefields Trust have also been acquiring significant parcels that come up for sale.

Chancellorsville, Hennessy said, is an example of what can be done.

The CWPT, working with the county and a developer, Tricord Inc., last year purchased 140 acres of privately owned battlefield land that will be preserved.

"That was truly one of the best examples of how to achieve preservation," Hennessy said.

Last month, the CWPT listed all of Spotsylvania on its annual list of the nation's 10 most endangered battlefields.

Four of the bloodiest battles of the war were fought in and around Spotsylvania between December 1862 and May 1864--at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House.

The trust says that without quick action, 200,000 acres of important land still in private hands across the nation will be lost to sprawl within the next two decades.

"It's a great honor being recognized by [National Geographic], said Spotsylvania Supervisor Hap Connors. "Again, it's a two-edged sword that highlights the challenges and the opportunities" facing local officials.

The county needs to continue working with both preservationists and developers "to find ways to balance growth with preserving historical lands," he said.

He noted that the county recently enacted a purchase-of-development-rights program and is looking for ways to fund it.

Also, "Preservation pays, not only by increasing land values and design standards," but by bringing in more tourists to historical sites, Connors said.

Connors and Board of Supervisors Chairman Bob Hagan attended a Capitol Hill reception yesterday hosted by preservationists and the National Geographic Society.

Jim Campi, a CWPT spokesman, said the story marks the beginning of a joint effort by the trust, National Geographic and the National Park Service to create online resources and maps for visitors to Civil War sites.

"We see this generating tourism while bringing international attention to the plight of Spotsylvania's battlefields, and how [preservation] decisions are being made locally."

To reach RUSTY DENNEN: 540/374-5431

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