I’ve gotten a lot of questions of late, for good reason, about Fleetwood Hill. Last year, the Civil War Trust purchased a 56-acre section on the crest of the hill. That property was not just any old part of the hill, but one of the most heavily contested 56-acres of the Civil War – in terms of number of engagements fought. For modern visitors, this has been the view of that hill:
Now the land is locked in as “preserved.” So when can you walk that most important Civil War site? The next step towards opening this very historic site up to the public is some “restoration” work. The Trust posted a press release on this earlier in the week:
Site of the largest cavalry battle on American soil will return to its wartime appearance
(Brandy Station, Va.) – The Civil War Trust, America’s largest nonprofit battlefield preservation organization, has begun work to restore a 56-acre property on the crest of Fleetwood Hill at Brandy Station, to its wartime appearance. The project is among the Trust’s most ambitious restoration projects to date and focuses on land acquired in August 2013, following a $3.6 million fundraising campaign. The purchase was financed through private donations and matching grants from the federal Civil War Land Acquisition Grant Program (administered by the American Battlefield Protection Program) and the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Civil War Sites Preservation Fund. The Battle of Brandy Station, fought June 9, 1863, was the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War. …
So this structure….
And a few others have to come down.
The Trust goes on to provide some details of the project:
The demolition plan, approved by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which holds a conservation easement on the property, begins with the removal of all modern structures on the property, including two houses, a detached garage, two in-ground pools and a pool house. The Trust worked closely with the seller, who vacated this summer after a negotiated period of tenancy, to find ways of reusing elements of the modern buildings where possible. An aluminum barn on the property, for example, has already been removed for use by the local 4-H club….
The site will be closed to the public during the demolition process, with details on future public access to be announced upon the project’s completion. The Trust is already in the process of developing a multi-stop interpretive walking trail on the property, augmenting our existing educational offerings elsewhere on the battlefield, with a probable installation date of Spring 2015. Longer term landscape restoration plans include the replanting of trees on the hill’s crest to resemble the wartime appearance. The agricultural plan for the property includes a five-year agricultural lease, excluding the visitor area on the crest of the hill.
Consider the fine points of that last paragraph. I’ve heard some grumblings from Culpeper County (from the usual crowd, you might say) that the Trust didn’t have to go to all this trouble. Some have suggested the house could have served as a museum… or a visitor center… or some other useful purpose. Well first off, one structure on the property will be re-utilized, as noted, for a good cause.
But what about that big old mansion? Let’s think on this for a bit. When built, it was not setup for use as a museum. To re-purpose the structure for such, the Trust would have to sink more money into the effort. The people making such suggestions have no background in these matters. And even if with great expenditure the house was transformed, there would still be a glaring problem – its location. The same problem ultimately brought about the demise of the old Gettysburg Visitor Center and Cyclorama. The same problem will bring about the relocation of the visitor center at Antietam at some point in the near future. Putting a visitor center smack in the middle of a battlefield might have sounded fine in the 1960s. But we have 50 years of hindsight that speak to the error of such thinking. Retaining that mansion, even as some sort of visitor center, would be contradictory to the notion of preserving the ground.
And if that reasoning falls on deaf ears, consider the other part of that paragraph. The Trust plans to open the hill up for all the public (not some super-exclusive set, as some organization I will not mention here proposed doing not too long ago). If the public is going to roam that hill, then those structures pose a hazard. Particularly that pool, but also the multi-story house. It’s a safety issue and a liability. Again, those are added costs pulling funds that would be better spent on other preservation efforts.
And when that hill is opened to the public (all the public), the view will please all. Up until now, we’ve had to interpret the final stages of Brandy Station from afar. Soon we can stand at that ground and consider views such as this:
And from here speak of Colonel Sir Percy Wyndham’s approach on June 8, 1863.
We will look to the north and consider the Confederate race from St. James Church to Fleetwood Hill. And we will also be able to consider the vicious actions were the two sides fought over this spot of ground.
And we will place those movements in the perspective of the terrain…. because we can walk it!
And… on a clear day… we can look far to the south and consider Pony Mountain in the distance and think about those long months in the winter of 1864, where the Army of the Potomac prepared for a campaign to end the war.
Fleetwood Hill has many important stories to tell. Activity in motion as you read this will allow, finally, that hill to tell its story. Mind you, that story is not JUST limited to events 150 years ago. The newer pages in the book – those about preservation efforts at Brandy Station – are just as important. Fifty years from now, Civil War Bicentennialists will be grateful our sesquicentennialist efforts didn’t stop down there at Flat Run.