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PRESERVING THE LAND & THE STORIES

December 9, 2012 12:11 am

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The Civil War Preservation Trust bought Slaughter Pen Farm, named for the bloody fighting there during the Battle of Fredericksburg. edstev09a.jpg.jpg

Battles of a different sort have been waged over the development of land on or near Civil War battlefields.

WHAT IS IT about a Civil War battlefield that makes it so special? After all, the Civil War was fought 150 years ago--it's been over for years, it's history, and the ground is just sitting there, waiting to be put to use, waiting to be built upon, waiting to be profited from. Keep it as a battlefield and all you've done is create a lost profit opportunity, a lost tax base, an underutilized economic and social wasteland: What is it with those preservationists? What's their source of passion to save these fields?

Preservationists, such as the members of the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust, look at the overwhelming percentage of Americans who couldn't care less about battlefield preservation, and they, in turn, look at us across a great gulf of meaning and memory. The Civil War [is] arguably the defining event of our country. The great issues involved--freedom and liberty, rights and responsibilities--were ones about which Americans were willing to fight and to die, and issues whose resolution profoundly transformed and redefined the country. The emotions aroused by the war continue to shape attitudes and events even today.

Consider that 2 percent of the American population of 1860 was killed in the war; if the U.S. were to suffer the same proportion of deaths in a war fought now, the number of American war dead would well exceed 5 million.

And consider that our area is also among the fastest-growing regions in the state, and its battlefields--fields "watered with the blood of heroes"--are being destroyed at an ever-accelerating pace. Such a pace of development and destruction is agonizing, but has proved to be galvanizing. In 1996 eight of us local folks decided it was time to stand up to the destruction and to form a historic lands trust for Central Virginia: the non-profit CVBT. Its two missions are to purchase significant battlefields so as to save them forever, and to be advocates for battlefield preservation at local, state, and national levels.

BATTLEFIELD ACREAGE

Battlefields are a national treasure, handed down from one generation to the next, to which no monetary value could ever be assigned. They are also viewed simply as land, as a continuing stream of cash. Acreage out of circulation as a preserved battlefield does indeed cost something in lost taxes and regional gross product, but it also contributes to the economy of the community.

More than a thousand jobs in this region are supported by tourism dollars and National Park Service expenditures, with the overall impact of the national military park on our area's economy being nearly $50 million annually. Our local national military park is the single largest tourist magnet in the Fredericksburg area, with 35 percent of tourists giving Civil War history as their primary reason for visiting the area.

Statewide, nearly 75 percent of first-time visitors and more than a third of all visitors to Virginia are historic preservation visitors, with 25 percent of all Virginia visitors stopping at Civil War sites. These visitors, on average, go to twice as many places as do other tourists, stay longer than do other visitors, and spend more than two times the money of other visitors.

Preservation of these battlefields and landmarks brings visitors to our community and their dollars into our economy, proving themselves a reliable, cost-effective alternative to the large outlays of tax dollars for roads, utilities, and public services demanded by residential, commercial, and industrial development. And just think: No new battlefield sites have been created since 1865. Once one is destroyed it can never be resurrected.

Ask visitors what they like about America and they will often say, "National parks, open spaces, wilderness areas." We humans have an innate desire for open space, for areas of green, of quiet, of peacefulness. This need is addressed by preserving battlefields. When you next visit one, close your eyes and listen to the silence. That's going to become more precious as the years go by.

TEACHING TOOLS

Battlefields offer a national military training asset and should be preserved as laboratories for future generations of American combat leaders. They are unparalleled teaching tools, far more effective in chronicling the drama and history of war than textbooks. More importantly, our children's education must be taken into account; what happened on these fields is always one generation away from being forgotten. Historian David McCullough has said, "I don't think there is any question that students in our institutions of higher learning have less grasp, less understanding of, and less respect for American history than ever before."

This illiteracy is significant because knowledge of our history as a country and people brings with it a sense of continuity, cause and effect, perspective, and ofwhat it means to be an American. A preserved battlefield is a wonderful and effective place for this to occur, a place where past is always present, where kids can be made aware that something important happened here, something that America would not allow forgotten. It's a striking reminder that history is important, that we as a country cannot know where we are or where we're going if we don't know where we've been.

For CVBT, the primary reason to save these grounds is reflected in Genesis 4:10: "What has thou done? The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground." With some paraphrasing, and apologies to the Bible, it is the men who fought and died on these fields who motivate us and sustain our passion. We hear their voices across time, the voices of men dead for 150 years who nonetheless look to us, the living, to protect their memories and stories.

What would these men have wanted of us? To those of us involved with CVBT, the answer is obvious: The men who fought and fell on these fields would have wanted and expected their sacrifice and suffering to be honored and defended, acknowledged and respected. "Never forget, nor dishonor," would have been their counsel and prayer.

To stand on a Civil War battlefield is to stand on holy ground, for these fields have been consecrated by their blood and bravery. We of CVBT believe strongly that to deface such ground is to dishonor their memory. Their valor and sacrifice are too significant to be dug up and discarded. Many of them died leaving us no letters or personal effects; many didn't even leave us their names. The ground is all we have left to remember them by.

By and large these were not professional soldiers: They were ordinary men and boys, with moms and dads and wives and children, with hopes and dreams, with futures filled with bright promise and possibility. But these ordinary men and boys, when faced with ultimate truth as they saw it, did what needed to be done; more than 620,000 of them paid the ultimate price for having done so.

WE FAVOR DEVELOPMENT

We understand that development is inevitable, and we favor it as long as what the ground to be destroyed means to our country is taken into account. We understand that a man's property is his own, and we support this as a fundamental right of citizenship, as long as the corresponding responsibility to respect the historical stewardship of that property is taken into serious account.

We understand that private interests must always be respected, as long as the public good is not ignored. We understand that we can't save every inch of hallowed ground. But we understand, too, that the character of a community can be identified by what its residents choose to protect and hand on.

We understand that it is the responsibility of those of us who live in this community, as individuals and through our elected representatives, to reflect upon mutual obligations that bind us to develop and maintain a sense of place. We believe it is possible to protect these fields and support economic development. It is not an either-or situation. Preservation is not an alternative to economic growth but a key component of it.

CVBT believes that battlefield preservation is a sacred trust. Are we worthy of the sacrifice of the dead? Are we wise stewards of the legacy they have left us? They paid the ultimate price: Shall that purchase price be forgotten or ignored?




PRESERVING THE LAND & THE STORIES

Michael Stevens is a local dermatologist and president of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust. This column is excerpted from a speech he gave about preservation.




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