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Civil War sites face grave threats.

On September 1, 1862, 1,500 soldiers were wounded or killed at the Civil War battle of Chantilly, Virginia. Today, of the ground they fought on, a piece spanning less than three acres remains, wedged against a shopping mall and housing complex. The rest has been swallowed up as the suburbs of Washington, D.C., sprawl out across formerly rural lands.

Chantilly is not alone. "The nation's Civil War heritage is in grave danger," a study released this summer concluded. "It is being demolished and bulldozed at an alarming pace. It is disappearing under buildings, parking lots, and highways." Congress charged the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, which authored the report, with the first comprehensive study of Civil War battlefields in more than half a century.

"To NPCA and others who work to protect them, it had become clear that battlefields inside and outside the park system are at serious risk," said Bruce Craig, NPCA Northeast regional director. "But until this report no one has so thoroughly documented the magnitude of the problem."

Of the sites where the war's principal battles took place, "many...are lost; others are in imminent danger of fragmentation and loss as coherent historic sites. Over the next ten years, the nation could lost fully two-thirds of the major Civil War battlefields unless preventive actions are taken," the report declared.

Almost one in five of the most important battlefields has already disappeared. Another 42 percent of the major sites are seriously threatened, the commission said. It drew up a "priority" list of 50 of the most important but endangered battlefields, including many sites within the National Park System.

The Union wages three years of battles for control of Richmond, the Cofederate capital. But Richmond National Battlefield Park contains only 2 percent of the land that was fought across. The rest, Superintendent Cynthia MacLeod said, is "all vulnerable to total destruction and alternation of appearance." Henrico County has issued a permit for gravel mining of an unprotected part of the Malvern Hill battlefield, where the 1862 siege of Richmond was turned back after bloody fighting.

The location of Fredericksburg, Virginia, halfway between Washington and Richmond,. made it a focal point of the Civil War. Now the stretch of Interstate 95 that connects the two cities passes between the battlefields of Federicksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. According to census figures, Spot-sylvania County grew 110 percent in the the 1970s and 73 percent in the 1980s, making it Virginia's fastest-growing county during both decades. "It's a community that had numerous dairy farms in the 1960s that are now houses," George Church, assistant superintendent, said, "and those are right up around the park boundary." The park has also faced plans for incinerators, cellular telephone towers, and discount stores at its borders.

The area surrounding Gettysburg National Military Park "may be a rural, agricultural setting at the moment, but it is rapidly becoming a bedroom community for the Washington, Baltimore, and Harrisburg metropolitan areas," said the park's Jim Roach. While the park contains "the core battlefield," he said, "if present trends continue, in many areas of the battlefield the view will change significantly."

"The Civil War was fought when the infrastructure of the country was basically un place," said Ed Bearss, Park Service chief historian. "The major transportation corridors were in place, and in the eastern half of the United States, the industrial centers had generally already been decided on." These were the areas the armies fought to control, he said. These are also the areas from which development has radiated since, leaving the battlefields, Bearss said, "in the eye of the hurricane."

The commission called for a study of some particularly significant sites to see whether they should become part of the park system. (See page 24 for a study if the Shenandoah Valley.) To help protect the 50 priority battlefields, it proposed the 50 priority battlefields, it proposed a seven-year program of land purchases. Each year $10 million in federal funds would be matched by $10 million to be raised by states or nonprofit battlefield preservation groups.

But most battlefield land will remain in private ownership. The commission made several recommendations to encourage conservation of these lands, including adjustments in state and federal tax policies.

Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), who requested the study, said he will introduce a bill to enact at least some of the recommendations. "The commission's report will go a long way to assist Congress on how these historic sites can best be protected," Bumpers said. "I intend to do all I can to help."

But because of the present fiscal climate, the land-purchase program may find opposition in Congress. "What we need to remember," said Craig, "is that Congress requested this study because of the expense of its emergency land purchase at Manassas." In 1988, it bought battlefield land just outside the border of Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia to prevent imminent construction of a shopping mall on the site, at a cost so far of $120 million. "We can save money as well as battlefields by protecting crucial lands before crises like Manassas arise," Craig said.
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Title Annotation:United States Civil War historic sites
Publication:National Parks
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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