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Wilderness makes 'endangered' list

March 19, 2009 1:55 am


Actor Richard Dreyfuss (right) sits with re-enactors while listening to Civil War Preservation Trust President James Lighthizer during yesterday's Washington press conference about the nation's endangered battlefields. lo0319battlefield2.jpg

Re-enactors Theresa Saxton (left), Annette Blake (center) and Patricia Tyson chat before yesterday's wreath-laying at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington.


WASHINGTON--It shared billing with 24 other battlefields, but the Wilderness got plenty of play yesterday as preservationists spotlighted America's most endangered Civil War sites.

The battlefield in Orange and Spotsylvania counties was mentioned several times as the Civil War Preservation Trust briefed the media on its 2009 "History Under Siege" report at a National Press Club news conference headlined by Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss.

It was the first historic site that CWPT President James Lighthizer named as he released the trust's yearly top-10 list of the nation's most threatened battlefields. The trust also announced 15 "at-risk" battlefields.

Wilderness exemplifies how some national battlefield parks face grave challenges from outside their boundaries, Lighthizer said. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. proposes to build a 138,000-square-foot Supercenter on commercially zoned land within a quarter-mile of the Wilderness battle sites preserved by Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

The trust and its allies say the Wal-Mart, anchoring other retail projects, will encourage sprawl at the gateway to the park and pour heavy traffic onto State Route 20, the heart of the battlefield.

"[The Wilderness] was a horrific battle, with tremendous slaughter, and yet the Wal-Mart corporation proposes building a monstrosity of a big box on the battlefield, though it's not on National Park Service land," Lighthizer told the standing-room-only crowd. "At the very least, it's going to denigrate that battlefield. And at the very worst, it's going to destroy part of it. Something proposed even on the outside of land already preserved can be a serious threat."

Maryland's Monocacy national battlefield, threatened by a proposed waste incinerator and its 200-foot-tall smokestack, falls in the same category, Lighthizer said.

But Dreyfuss stole the show, as the trust's chief readily admitted.

"This is like a parallel universe for me because I love history as much as I love acting," Dreyfuss said. "Had I not been an actor, I would have been a history teacher, and that's that."

Best known for films such as "American Graffiti," "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," he waxed eloquent about the need for Americans to better understand their heritage--to know where they come from, and why. "I don't think there's an aspect of the war, militarily, strategically or otherwise, that doesn't fascinate me," Dreyfuss said. "I've re-created the Battle of Cedar Creek, marching in the First Virginia Infantry. And I'm a Unionist, so that was tough."

Having been involved in numerous documentaries, including "Lincoln" and the Smithsonian Institution's series "The Great Battles of the Civil War," he pitched an idea for a new one.

Dreyfuss said he'd like to make a TV documentary on the Civil War that depicts many battlefields just as they are today, consumed--or nibbled away at--by suburban sprawl and homogenous chain-store development.

"Visually, it would go from Foster's Freeze to Foster's Freeze, to Wal-Mart to Barnes & Noble, and show this is where Nathan Bedford Forrest did this and where Lee did that and where Grant did this. You'll hear it. You won't see it, because we eat our history.

"I think that would go a long way toward reminding us of how valuable it is that we do not eat--should not, ever--eat our history."

Libby O'Connell, chief historian at History, formerly The History Channel, stressed the economic benefits that heritage tourism brings to communities that save and care for historic sites. "I want to go on record here as saying the trust is not saying 'No development, everything has to stay the same.' We know that's not going to work," said O'Connell, who serves on CWPT's Board of Directors.

"What we're talking about here is smart development intelligent planning with community stakeholders, so that people can understand the long-term goal of serious preservationists is to make it work for all of us."

Culpeper County resident Zann Miner, president of the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, said the local group appreciates the trust's continued focus on the problems that large-scale commercial development pose for the historic site.

The Battle of the Wilderness, one of the Civil War's largest and most important conflicts, was the first clash between Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. The May 5-6, 1864, battle began Grant's grueling Overland Campaign, which drained both armies and eventually brought Union troops to the gates of Richmond.

Two other Virginia battlefields--New Market Heights and Cedar Creek--also made the trust's top-10 list.

At New Market Heights in Henrico County south of Richmond, new subdivisions and growing traffic congestion confront the battlefield. Despite being of national significance, no portion of the land is protected by any preservation organization.

A gutsy Union assault there by African-American troops on Sept. 29, 1864, resulted in 14 black soldiers being awarded the congressional Medal of Honor--the highest military decoration awarded by the U.S. government.

At Cedar Creek, between Middletown and Strasburg in the Shenandoah Valley, expansion of neighboring limestone quarries threatens the Oct. 19, 1864, battlefield.

After yesterday's news conference, Dreyfuss, Lighthizer and O'Connell traveled to Washington's Shaw neighborhood--named after Robert Gould Shaw, the martyred Union officer portrayed in the movie "Glory."

Visiting the African American Civil War Memorial at 10th and U streets, they joined black Civil War re-enactors to honor the courage and sacrifice of the 200,000 black troops who fought for the Union.

Frank Smith, director of the nearby African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, gave Dreyfuss a tour of the monument. Then, as dozens of students from D.C. schools looked on, the dignitaries laid a wreath at its base.


Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029


The Civil War Preservation Trust, which issued its first annual report on endangered battlefields in February 2001, named the following 10 sites yesterday as the nation's most threatened:

Cedar Creek, Va.

Fort Gaines, Ala.

Gettysburg, Pa.

Monocacy, Md.

New Market Heights, Va.

Port Gibson, Miss.

Sabine Pass, Texas

South Mountain, Md.

Spring Hill, Tenn.

Wilderness, Va.

The report also includes 15 other Civil War sites--including Hampton's Fort Monroe--as "at-risk."

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.