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Fighting for piece of history
Area battlefields brace for encroaching growth and development

 Preservation of farmland surrounding Elwood mansion in the Wilderness battlefield is a National Park Service priority.

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Date published: 1/4/2004


Area's Civil War sites surrounded by development

RELATED: More than history buffs' haven

In 1987, much of the land bordering the Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House battlefields was populated by more whitetail deer than people.

A lot has changed in the 17 years since the National Park Service adopted its general management plan for the battlefields.

Today, one of the biggest challenges is preservation in the face of relentless growth.

Dozens of subdivisions and commercial centers have sprung up within a pistol shot of the park's nearly 8,000 acres, scattered across the city and the counties of Spotsylvania, Orange, Stafford and Caroline. As the region's booming growth presses on, land with historical significance is being snapped up for homes and stores as the park areas themselves become islands of green in a sea of rooftops and asphalt.

"It's happening in a lot of places. Here, we are right on the front edge of development from a major urban area," said Russ Smith, who took over five months ago as superintendent of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He sees plenty of challenges ahead.

The clash between preservation and growth came into sharp focus last spring when the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors turned down a developer's plan to build a large retail and commercial project on John Mullins' 800-acre farm. The land, along State Route 3 just east of the battlefield park, was part of the 1863 Chancellorsville campaign.

Preservationists hailed the decision as a great victory, but it was short-lived: Mullins in October won final approval for a smaller project on 273 acres known as the Ashley-Orrock tract, part of the Lick Run Element where Gen. Robert E. Lee crossed after the battle.

"If you're standing on an important battlefield site and see townhouses in the distance, it's going to affect your feeling for that place," Smith said in a recent interview.

It's more than just aesthetics: "You have a harder time imagining what it might have been like" for the soldiers in gray and blue who fought and died here.

Shared vision

The park management plan is being updated to reflect, among other things, the realities of land use in an increasingly urban area.

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