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Civil War battlefields: Halves & halve-nots
Don't whack federal battlefield-preservation funds

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Date published: 3/29/2012

ONE YEAR into the four-year Civil War Sesquicentennial seems a queer time to halve federal funding for Civil War battlefield acquisition. Alas, that is what a House of Representatives subcommittee proposes, limiting the ability to add history to the public store just as interest in America's definitional conflict is peaking (coming soon: Shiloh, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg).

The House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands is dominated by Western Republicans who chafe at the federal majority ownership of their states. Utah, for example, is 68 percent federally owned and home to the subcommittee chairman; the panel's second-ranking R hails from Alaska, 60 percent titled to Uncle Sam. This kind of peremptory presence by Leviathan may induce a holy-war mentality against those who eye any private property. In any case, the subcommittee proposed whacking Civil War battlefield preservation funds from the customary $10 million to $4.5 million.

This makes no sense. Groups such as the Civil War Trust aren't roaming the Yukon border, the Great Salt Lake Desert, or the Dakota Badlands in an attempt to buy historic real estate: Their focus is primarily east of the Mississippi, especially along the Atlantic Seaboard. Nor can the trust or its governmental allies take land, as by a declaration of eminent domain. Preservationists match federal dollars to state and private gifts to meet the price that landowners ultimately set. The subcommittee majority's approach--basically, "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em"--is simply lazy.

That subpanel is Virginianless, but fortunately for history-steeped Virginia, one of its own, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-1st), sits on the full House Natural Resources Committee, which will next take up the funding measure. Fourteen of Mr. Wittman's fellow committee Republicans hail from Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, South Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, or Ohio--states that took part in the Late Pleasantness and where federal land ownership averages just 4.3 percent. So Mr. Wittman should find allies on both sides of the aisle to hold off the cowboys.

Since 1999, the Civil War Battlefield Protection Program has added 17,000 acres of Civil War battlefields in 14 states to the nation's preserve. In Virginia, the program has acquired 7,500 acres, allowing Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, Brandy Station, Cedar Mountain, and other places where infantry clashed, horsemen charged, and cannon roared to tell their stories more completely.

In recent decades, America has lost some things--no need to recite the glum litany here--but there is no excuse for losing our history. Yes, times are tough. Yes, politics are unsettled. But the Republic faced a worst crisis 150 years ago, and that drama's ghost-trodden stages are worth our purchase at something better than 50 cents on the dollar.