Category Archives: Preservation

Culpeper Battlefields Park update – gaining acceptance, momentum

Since the start of July, several articles and editorials have appeared in area newspapers in regard to the Culpeper Civil War Battlefield Park proposal.  All voices are positive in regard to the initiative.  The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star ran an editorial on July 15 which concluded:

At a time when the nation is reassessing how to view and understand the Civil War and its symbols, the stories of sacrifice of American lives cannot be forgotten. Opening historic sites to the public at Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain is the right thing to do.

Just this weekend, the Culpeper Star-Exponent quoted Civil War Trust Policy and Communications Director, Jim Campi:

“If you have a state battlefield park here in the center of Virginia, it would be like Sailor’s Creek on steroids,” Campi said, referring to the battlefield state park in Prince Edward County. “Culpeper really is the epicenter of the Civil War; so much happened here. Even when they weren’t fighting here, they were marching across Culpeper County… all the encampments and the battles. You really can’t tell the story of the Civil War without the story of what happened in Culpeper.”

These are strong statements indicative of the support the idea has received even with the public discussion at an early stage.  For those of us who have carried, for many years, this idea for a Brandy Station and Ceder Mountain park these articles are music to our ears.  Earlier when blogging about having public discussions about a park, I had low expectations.  But the response has exceeded those by yards if not miles.  Furthermore, though I’ve been quiet about this on the blogging side, I find myself every day engaged on the “Culpeper Front” in ways large and small.

When this park comes to be (and I don’t think it is an “if” at this point, but a “when”), we will once again see how public interpretation – specifically markers – have helped build interest, awareness, and support.  Much as the comparison made to Resaca back in May.  (And I would point out the release of the Brandy Station Battle App is a further advancement along that same avenue of approach but in a digital instead of physical format).

Indeed, the Culpeper Battlefields Park, when it comes to fruition, will inherit a wealth of interpretive exhibits, most of which were written by experts on the battle and produced by the professional Virginia Civil War Trails and Civil War Trust teams.  The current interpretive system (including the soon to be in place interpretation on Fleetwood Hill) will cover nearly every need the park might want.  Well, save perhaps a few subjects – such as the USCT crossing at Kelly’s Ford at the start of the Overland Campaign and the passage of Sherman’s troops at the end of the war.  It is a fine system that any park manager would boast of on the first day of operation.

One physical element currently missing, of course, is a formal visitor center.  There are some who have mentioned the use of the Graffiti House as a new park visitor center. That would be a mistake, in my opinion. The house is not in condition to support the foot traffic that will come into the park. It would need extensive, expensive structural work. Nor is it the  place that visitors need to begin their visit (being on the wrong side of the tracks, literally). Furthermore, the real treasure of the Graffiti House is the surviving markings from the war which deserve preservation.  Needed improvements to make a visitor center would detract from that preservation. Unless something akin to what was done for Blenheim in Fairfax – a visitor center  separate from the historic structure – is completed, the graffiti would be at risk.

And such a separate visitor center would essentially mean the Graffiti House would be an exhibit and not the visitor center proper.  At that point, why place a visitor center in a place where visitors will need to traverse a busy highway in order to see what most are looking for? There are many places which could better serve as a temporary visitor center, assuming the state would prefer, as done at other battlefield parks, to build a purpose build visitor center with museum at some point in the future.  Besides, we are getting way ahead of ourselves in planning where to park the buses.

One last point I’d make, which has been voiced in the articles to date is with the operations and maintenance of the proposed park.  As the Culpeper Star-Exponent article this week mentioned, “To expedite the proposal, the [Civil War Trust] is willing to continue to manage the properties for several years after the land transfer, enabling the state to focus its energies and resources on launching the park…”

Some have alluded to the cost of running a new park as a negative in the park effort.  Indeed the Virginia State Park system, as with many across the country, is at best “just” funded in terms of operations budget.  The gracious offer by the Trust will allow some time for the state to work out the particulars to ensure the park is properly staffed and supported.

Although there are a lot of details in the air and a lot of issues to be worked out, the notion of a Culpeper Battlefields Park has gained acceptance and picking up momentum.  The reality of such a park is not far away!

Sesquicentennial Observation: The last great surge for Civil War battlefield preservation… why?

During the last four years, as I “walked and talked” the Civil War sesquicentennial, there were many observations which I rolled about at the pace of my footsteps.  A post-sesquicentennial objective of mine is to fill some of those out and share here as blog posts.  One of those is already up.  Today I’ll continue that thread with another observation “from the field,” if you will – we are experiencing the last great opportunity for Civil War battlefield preservation.

Yes, we are witnessing the last great chance for preservation of Civil War battlefields… any additional battlefields.   I say that within the context of a comment from NPS historian John Hennessy:

For the moment, let’s focus on the 2/2 part of that tweet conversation (we’ll circle back to the first part later).  Americans have preserved MORE acres Civil War battlefield than any other nation has preserved for any other war in all of history.  An impressive statistic.  Civil War Trust lists 40,000 acres of battlefield among their accomplishments – preserved in whole or in part by that organization.  Add to that federal (small “f” as in national, not the opposite of Confederate!), state, and local parks on battlefields.  And also mention lands preserved by other means, to include the initiative of the land owners.  More land than for any other war in human history.  Let that simmer at the fore.

Why is that?

Let me offer my answer to that in “Craig Swain” fashion… as in starting with the “nuts and bolts.”  The first part to consider is how – legally and administratively – all that land went onto the “preserved” side of the sheet.  Preservation didn’t happen all at once.  It took time and came in waves.  The first great wave of preservation was by the generation which witnessed the Civil War, and driven by those veterans in the population.  Timothy B. Smith called this the “Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation.”  Very apt title, coming at the later half of the Gilded Age and conducted by veterans reaching their “golden years.”  This period produced five battlefield parks, under government management (Chickamauga-Chattanooga, Shiloh, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Vicksburg).  More important, this period provided the blueprints for additional preservation.  We talk of the “Gettysburg plan” vs. “Antietam plan” because of methods used.  And beyond that, the blueprint incorporated plans for public use.  The practical, surface use was interpretation of the battle (notably, justified as an open air classroom for military officers).  Less practical, but very much at the fore, was public use for commemoration.

The blueprint established – for both the means and uses – the next big period of preservation was also pushed from the federal level.  And it resembled that “golden age”… except for less participation of the veterans, who were passing away by that time.  Parks established from 1915 to 1938 included Richmond, Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania, Petersburg, Stones River, and Brices Cross Roads.  Also in the list of fields preserved during that period are Revolutionary War sites such as Cowpens, Moore’s Creek, and Kings Mountain.  Such indicates “federal directed” preservation had moved beyond the urgings of Civil War veterans to a broader goal embracing the wider context of American history.   Sort of a function of the period, if I may.  Though I want to steer clear of the obvious rabbit hole there, for the sake of brevity.

The preservation of these major battlefields setup the Centennial of the Civil War.  There were places for those observances to occur.  But – and let me be clear that I cannot say this from the stance of a participant – those observances seemed confined.  The Centennial period, from the perspective of preservation, comes across as entrenchment.  The focus was more toward interpretation of what was in place – those wonderful, dated guidebooks and orientation movies that have only recently been updated.   In terms of land, bookend achievements at Manassas and Monocacy epitomize the efforts of that era – small, timid efforts that appear, in hindsight, fraught with missed opportunities.

But some of those missed opportunities setup the next period of Civil War battlefield preservation.  For the first 100 years after the Civil War, major development threats to battlefields were few and far between.  Remoteness insulated many fields from disruption.  That changed in the 1970s as the vectors producing “sprawl” brought direct and indirect changes to these battlefields.  And the “uncovered” battlefield lands were often thrown into the middle of a public discussion which pitted perceived “progress” against preservation.  Typical of these episodes, Manassas battlefield faced major developments on ground which arguably should have been included in the original park’s boundaries.  Another example came from Brandy Station, where preservationists contested major development projects which would have obliterated an otherwise pristine battlefield.  While both of those sites may be listed as “successful,” other places, such as Chantilly and so many of the Atlanta Campaign sites, were not so.  This was a contentious period for preservation, to say the least.  This “contentious” period saw private individuals and advocacy groups at the fore of the dialog.  In many places, the advocates for preservation came to terms with “preserve what you can” compromises. While federal and state officials were there, it was the preservation advocates doing most of the push.  Instead of “top down” driven goals, what emerged were “grass roots” preservation advocates.

Into the 21st Century and approaching the Sesquicentennial, preservation efforts continued along the lines of the last quarter of the previous century.  Opportunities came (and still come) with the alert, “targeted ares need protection NOW before something happens.”  And these are not “the sky is falling” pleas.  The nature of the sprawling development, indicative of this age, leaves no quarter.  Such renders the old Antietam plans obsolete.  Missed opportunities from the 1960s have translated to obliterated fields.  Though at some quarters, such as at Franklin, preservationists have turned to options rehabilitating portions of the battlefield – an extreme of “preserve what you can.” The preservationists through the Sesquicentennial are faced with the question “if not now, when?”

So we see through these five periods, preservation of all that battlefield land was not governed by a single guiding strategy or movement.  Rather the preservation efforts were a function of each generation’s initiative.  However, at the same time we can say through all the periods, the efforts focused on the land for those two core reasons – interpretation and commemoration.  Interpretation, through these periods, remained somewhat rigid for its application (in terms of how we process information, the signage of the 1890s is not far removed from the smart-phone app geo-tag of today) even while the content of the message remained fluid.  On the other hand, commemoration has defied any fixed characterization over the decades, ranging from celebration to reflection to introspection.  While we all approach the battlefields from the context of history, gaining perspective from the interpretation, what we carry away from them – the commemorative aspect – varies by individual.

And there in lies the answer to the question.  The reason we have so much Civil War battlefield space preserved is because that war was a broad, almost limitless, subject from which so much defies concrete definition.  We might start the discussion around “facts” or “sources” or such. But in the end, all devolves into “opinions” based on our own perspectives.  And the best place to reach any authoritative perspective is standing with both feet planted firmly on the ground.

We have not, as a nation, come to terms with the Civil War after 150 years.  So we should not be surprised that we have such an attachment to the ground over which it was fought.  Perhaps, the country needs those acres to serve as an unhealed wound.

Now is the time for a Culpeper Battlefields Park – Brandy Station, Cedar Mountain, and others

Back in the 1990s, I would often transit Northern Georgia on weekends.  During those trips, I would make every effort to seek out the battlefields of 1863 and 1864.  At that time, the only waymarks one could work from were a handful of state and WPA markers located along the I-75 corridor.  So one had to “work” to get any feel for the battlefields and the flow of the major campaigns that played out across those hills and streams.  One example is this marker on the Resaca battlefield:

(Photo courtesy HMDB and David Seibert.)

Located on US 41, the marker references action that took place almost, not quite, a mile ( a MILE!) west of the reader… on the other side of Camp Creek AND on the other side of I-75. At that time in the 1990s, the location referenced was simply inaccessible to all but the most persistent visitor – willing to wait for one of the rare on-site activities or coordinate with a landowner for access.

Fast forward to 2015.  If you pick up the latest copy of Blue & Gray Magazine, you’ll see a teaser line on the cover – “New Georgia Battlefield Park!”  Under David Roth’s response is the announcement that the Resaca Battlefield Park, which had faced several “roadblocks” last fall, is soon to open.  This is long in coming.  The Friends of Resaca Battlefield started the effort in 1994.  With the help of Civil War Trust and others, there are some 1,100 acres of the battlefield preserved.  Soon, we will be able to just drive over to Camp Creek and SEE the area which that marker… a mile to the east… speaks of.  (Sorta makes the marker obsolete, doesn’t it?)

We like to hear those sort of success stories.  Preservation coming to full maturity, where visitors are able to walk the field, appreciate the primary resource that the terrain is, and thus gain better understanding of the events.

With the success (and hopeful of the tentative July grand opening) at Resaca, let me turn your attention to a location here in Virginia that I’ve written about often – the battlefields and sites of Culpeper County.  Starting in the 1990s, tracks of land around Brandy Station were purchased by preservation organizations. Likewise, the Friends of Cedar Mountain, and others, have brought substantial tracts of that battlefield into the “preserved” category.  Counting those two battlefields and Kelly’s Ford, the Civil War Trust tallies over 3000 acres preserved in Culpeper County.  Though much of that acreage is in preservation easement, a sizable amount is owned by the Trust or other preservation organizations.  And beyond those three, there are a substantial number of sites where activity occurred during the war – minor battles, skirmishes, troop movements, and… yes, I mentioned it the other day… encampments.

However, there is no central point of orientation in Culpeper County for visitors.  Furthermore, the preservation organizations which currently hold title to some of those lands are charged with the maintenance and upkeep – a detraction from other preservation efforts.  But the biggest problem I see is the lack of a “center of mass” which the local community views as “the battlefield” … and from which better recognition of the historical resource would emanate.

It is no big secret that many of us have advocated for a proper battlefield park to cover Brandy Station.  The acquisition of Fleetwood Hill in 2013 served to bring those ideas to a center of mass.  Now I hear there are efforts afoot to create a state park in Culpeper County which would encompass these Civil War sites.  Such would go a long way to accomplish the goals set forward in the 1980s – made in the face of hideous development projects.  This is not to say there are not “roadblocks,” but I am confident there will be a Culpeper Battlefields State Park in our future.  Let’s hope so.

Virginians, join me in calling upon our elected representatives to make this so!