In Civil War town, it's battlefield versus books

A Tennessee hamlet wrestles with whether a new library should sit on historic grounds.

In one antebellum abode here, an errant Civil War cannonball is now a doorstop where it came to rest, half buried in floorboards.

Under another antique house, a family keen to renovate found an unexpected hand-me-down: the remains of a Confederate colonel, buried below inches of dirt.

Up on Third Avenue, pockmarks in stately brick homes memorialize muzzle-loads that zinged through the streets on Nov. 30, 1864. The result was the deadliest five hours of the Civil War, when 8,600 troops – mostly Rebs – fell in and around this embattled town.

All this is a reminder that the bloody battle of Franklin will never leave the communal memory of this picturesque town on the lush bluffs south of Nashville. Yet a recent decision to build a new library on the only piece of open battlefield left in town has sparked new questions about the town's commitment to safeguard its legacy.

Indeed, the debate over how to preserve hallowed acres of battlegrounds is nowhere as intense as in small Southern communities such as Franklin.

Here, as elsewhere, the sprawl of BBQ stands, furniture discounters, and town houses has become de rigeur in the commerce of the New South, where the emphasis is not always as much on heritage and pride as on development and profits. But many in Franklin say it's gone too far: There's a Pizza Hut where General Patrick Cleland, the "Stonewall Jackson of the West," fell. A car wash and an animal hospital operate where five other Confederate generals met their ends that day.

"It seems like this commission is ready to pave every inch of ground," says Billy Adair, an advertising writer who grew up in Franklin.

Fact is, it's harder than ever for local politicians to protect old battlegrounds from becoming lucrative – and taxable – real estate. And in many parts of the South, there's also resistance to scraping up old memories.

The local government's decision to build on the last piece of battleground in the city isn't unusual in the national effort to preserve historic properties as "green space." The new Williamston County library will become a Civil War "learning center," surrounded by open battleground. But preservationists see the new library as a major setback.

Yet others aren't so convinced that history has to be preserved to the letter.

What's more, town officials, not businesses, were first to build there, creating the Battleground Academy, a private boys' school, 20 years after the war.

Town officials point out that the battle is still in the city's fiber, and acres have been saved. There are two forts, signalling stations, and a plantation house that served as a Confederate hospital, with a well-kept Rebel graveyard.

It's still possible to conjure a battle reverie from Winstead Hill, where Confederate General John Hood looked across the valley to the Union's forces.

County commission chairman Rogers Anderson, one of the 21 elected commissioners who voted to build the library, says the structure is an appropriate memorial. And it would cost another $300,000 to "re-site" the library.

"There's still a lot of scars ... all over this nation of what happened in the Civil War that none of us like to be reminded of," says Anderson. "Is that any reason not to preserve? No. But ... a lot has been done, and a lot more has been done in this town than in other places."

For Civil War buffs, simply naming a new road Battlefield Drive or a development Confederate Acres isn't quite the same thing as preserving the battlefield.

Up in Fort Granger, a Union earthworks dug on a bluff, visitor George Gigante understands the impulse to save every bit of battlefield. But he also understands that a growing city can't afford to maintain every corner how it was.

"Time marches on," Mr. Gigante says.

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