Preserve what you can: Five Mile Fork earthworks

On Saturday, while returning from a terrific hike out on the Fredericksburg battlefield, I drove down the “Plank Road,” better known as Virginia Highway 3 now days. As the city began to turn into suburb, I made a stop in the Five Mile Fork area at the Harrison Crossing shopping complex… for what else? Markers.

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We’ve had these markers in HMDB for some time. And I’ve visited the location before. But I always like to check on the markers and any look for any new interpretation on site.

These are part of a set of five which interpret a string of trenches attributed to the Confederates in the opening phases of the Chancellorsville campaign. The works crown a spot of high ground just north of the highway. The works are inside the tall trees in the far center of this view:

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The trenches are access from a short hairpin trail up the rise in the left center of view. The earthworks themselves are not impressive. The sort of trenches constructed in haste, and often eroding rapidly with time.

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But they are there today, perhaps a figment of what was built in anticipation of a clash of arms. These would be easy to overlook, if you didn’t know to look for them.

While there, I turned around to look back down the trail towards the highway.

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I started thinking again about the back-and-forth between preservation and development. Some might substitute “progress” for development. But we can take that in several directions. Preservation is progress from one – my – perspective. From that of others, development is progress. Progress is subjective, so let’s opt for a neutral description.

I don’t know the full story of how this all worked out at Five Mile Fork’s Harrison Crossing shopping complex. But I can guess at the story line. With attention drawn to the earthworks at the site, a developer opted to set aside a portion of land – an easement – to preserve the works. Maybe the preservation was in the face of some pressure from preservationists. Or maybe the developer was simply sympathetic to the notion of preserving the works (UPDATE: Which was the case.  See John Hennessy’s comment below). Or maybe there were incentives, such as tax breaks, offered. Result is the same. A ribbon of ground left undeveloped with some interpretation and the ubiquitous snake rail fence.

But the ground around ends up disturbed. The lay of the land is cut through with the need to level out parking areas and building foundations.

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What artifacts not found by the metal detector armed “diggers” have long since departed for some fill pit. One wonders what earthwork remains might have extended beyond, either across what is now parking lot or to the other side on the grounds of Riverbend High School.

What happened at this site in 1863? If the interpretation is correct (no “if” involved – see comment below), Confederate troops constructed hasty works and then sat waiting for a fight. That fight would not occur here, but rather a few miles west. The big story line did not play out here, but rather there.

So what happened on this site in 2006 (guessing when the development took place)? Someone opted to set aside a small section of ground upon which a small, somewhat boring, portion of the Civil War occurred. The site was marked with interpretation to engage and educate visitors.

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A section, if not the whole, of the works are there for consideration. Few visitors to the nearby stores will venture up to the trenches. But how many would visit if there were no hard-packed trail, parking spots, and interpretive signage? How many of those are then drawn to consider the bigger story just a few miles down the road?

Can we call this a “preserve what you can” solution?