A Tale of Two Battlefields: Comparing preservation organizations

A highlight of Saturday’s seminar at Longwood was Thomas McGrath’s presentation on the Battle of Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  Although I’ve read some accounts of the battle, McGrath provided a much more detailed examination.  He also discussed ongoing efforts to preserve the battlefield.  There’s a great story of “fighting the good fight” for preservation, with a coalition of preservation organizations focused on a goal.  But as I consider the progress towards that goal, I cannot help but compare the situation to another battlefield and the state of its preservation efforts.

The Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association (SBPA) carries the banner for that battlefield.  Other organizations – Save Historic Antietam Foundation and Civil War Trust included – are on this task, but SBPA is at the front line.  Browse over to their website and read the mission statement – The SBPA is “dedicated to preserving the site of the Civil War Battle at Shepherdstown….”  The statement goes on to say, “The Association intends for the site to be preserved as a park dedicated to educating the general public of its historical significance.”

Below that mission statement are listed the officers and advisers involved with the association’s self-appointed task.  The list is a veritable “who’s who” of historians and preservationists.  Impressive as the list is, the names would appear as simply placeholders were it not for the progress chronicled on the “SBPA History” page.  Take some time to read through the summary.  Although no bullets are flying, the legal battle to preserve the battlefield appears every bit as bitter as fighting that day in September 1862.

And add to those events the news in December last year, announcing the purchase of the “Cement Mill” along the Potomac by the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission.  The purchase was made with funds from state grants and contributions from preservation organizations to include SBPA.  The purchase raised the current acreage preserved at Shepherdstown to over 100 acres.  And immediately, all involved mentioned plans to “lock in” the preservation by eventually transferring the property to the National Park Service.  Of course such a transfer would firmly cement (no pun intended) the end state mentioned in SBPA’s mission statement.

In short, SBPA is a preservation organization that stayed focused on their mission statement and is, I feel, about to turn plans into reality.

But turn for a moment to Brandy Station, Virginia and the Brandy Station Foundation (BSF).  [And for full disclosure (as many readers know) I used to be on the BSF board and was a member until events took a turn for the worse last year.]  The foundation is “…dedicated to preserving the natural and historic resources of the Brandy Station area…”  Continuing, “Our goal is to ensure the history and heritage of the area is not ‘paved over’ in our rush to progress.”

Yet the same organization issued a policy last spring which insisted that the foundation would not oppose development on historic sites on the Brandy Station battlefield.  I’ve discussed the episode at length in other posts, as have other bloggers.  Damage was done to the battlefield, and BSF stood by idle.  Indeed, President Joe McKinney told me personally that he’d known about plans to impound Flat Run at the base of Fleetwood Hill prior to the first shovel of dirt being moved.  He claimed to have consulted the BSF board (although no meeting minutes were offered and other board members indicate no discussions occurred before the work started).

But what struck me most at the time was McKinney’s broader plan for preservation.  He hoped for an agreement with the land owner so BSF could conduct walking tours over Fleetwood Hill.  Well, let’s see…. Here’s a photo of Flat Run after the “halt” order, with the dam to the right of view:

Brandy Station 25 June 11 007

I was standing on BSF property on the right bank of Flat Run when the photo was taken.  Fleetwood Hill is in the background.  I think you readers can add up two and two here.

Beyond that “hole in the ground,” if you browse the BSF website and look over the newsletters, there is a trend which emerges.  The “focus” of BSF is on a specific asset – the Graffiti House.  While efforts to uncover and preserve the wartime graffiti are laudable, the project IS the focal point of the foundation now… to include ghost tours looking for felines from the spirit world.

Another “hole” that has emerged is within the ranks of the BSF itself.  Even though the foundation is strapped for funds, they have decided to reject certain members.  Eric Wittenburg reported two weeks ago that BSF declined his membership  renewal.  Indeed a particularly vocal individual is going about Culpeper County proclaiming that BSF is now purged of the “malcontents.”  Almost as if BSF wants to bar historians and preservationists from an organization aimed at historic preservation!

And while BSF is focused on the house and purging membership rolls, key historical sites on the field are endangered.  I’ve discussed the Stevensburg road project and how that will encroach upon an important section of the battlefield.  And meanwhile… there are “For Sale” signs up around the battlefield at some significant historical sites.

So while I might optimistically predict Shepherdstown will be preserved through the efforts of SBPA and their allies, I can’t help but fear Brandy Station will slip onto the list of “lost battlefields.”  Incredibly, it appears from the evidence that BSF will actually further along the forces that will “pave over” the battlefield!

That’s a sad turn of events.  As many will note, BSF was among the first organizations in the modern “surge” of battlefield preservation.   Would be sad to watch a pioneering group in the field fade into obscurity. To prevent this, BSF seriously needs to assess its operations and goals… heeding the success of SBPA as a model.  Otherwise, I would not be surprised to see historians and preservationists throw their support behind other organizations willing to “fight the good fight” to preserve the battlefield.

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One response to “A Tale of Two Battlefields: Comparing preservation organizations

  1. Pingback: Rantings of a Civil War Historian » Craig Swain on the difference between the BSF and a REAL battlefield preservation organization