ONE hundred twenty-five years ago this summer, the Civil War had finally ended. At long last the American landscape was enjoying a summer of peace. After four years of doing their worst to each other, soldiers blue and gray were returning to the green fields of home. The nation has rather quietly marked the 125th anniversary of the most devastating of its wars. There have been some seminars, historic encampments, and battle reenactments, but the celebration has been far more subdued than that marking the Civil War's centennial in 1961-65. Yet this summer's commemoration could have a more lasting impact than the 100th anniversary. This year, at long last, a determined effort is under way to save what remains of the Civil War's battlefields.
During the past four years the nation has awakened to the imminent destruction of many of the battlefields of the Civil War. Several organizations, most prominently the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, headquartered in the old battlefield town of Fredericksburg, Va., are working energetically to protect battlefield lands. Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan has said battlefield preservation is one of his priorities.
Many of the better-known battlefields have long been at least partially protected, thanks to the creation of national battlefield parks. They include the Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, Chancellorsville, Shiloh, and Chickamauga sites. But others like Cedar Mountain and Brandy Station are almost entirely in private ownership, and they are fast falling victim to commercial development. Gone forever are such major battlefields as Salem Church, Savage Station, Fair Oaks, and Chantilly.
But hope is building. Recently the Mellon Foundation gave to the nation a the Farmer Miller's Cornfield site, a key piece of the Antietam Battlefield at Sharpsburg, Md. More Americans fell at Antietam than in any single day in the nation's long military history, fighting a battle that brought forth the Emancipation Proclamation from Abraham Lincoln. Gen. Joseph Hooker, who saw much of the Civil War's worst destruction, said nothing equaled the carnage he encountered in the Miller Cornfield.
Following the Mellon gift, most of the Antietam Battlefield is in public hands and forever protected. It is, today, a place as utterly peaceful and lovely as it once was war-torn and ugly - as are most Civil War battlefields spared from commercial development by design or happy accident.
The awakening of the nation's concerns about battlefield preservation began early in the 125th anniversary with a successful effort to save an important piece of the Second Manassas field, the hill where Robert E. Lee located his headquarters. Congress eventually bought some 500 acres to stop a massive commercial development. Everyone agrees that the price, which may reach $50 million, was far too high.
Though preservation of Manassas was a success, it taught the valuable lesson that battlefields must be saved before the price becomes too high. To that end, a bill now before Congress - that has grown out of a resolution passed by the Vermont Legislature - would create in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley the nation's largest battlefield park. The park would embrace 10 battlefields, including those of Stonewall Jackson's legendary Valley Campaign of 1862.
But daily bulldozers and builders are turning new earth on old and famous fields like The Wilderness, Five Forks, Mine Run, Cold Harbor, and Cedar Creek.
In fast developing Virginia, where many of the largest and most important fields are located, best estimates hold that even the most pristine sites not in public ownership will be gone within five years unless protected. At stake are such fields as Piedmont, Yellow Tavern, Fisher's Hill, Cross Keys, Front Royal, Kernstown, and Bristow Station - names as American and appealing as their quiet rural appearances of today.
Now is the 11th hour of Civil War preservation. This is the nation's last chance to rescue what remains of its Civil War battlefield heritage.
Abraham Lincoln perhaps spoke for all the battlefields when he declared the killing fields of Gettysburg to be ``hallowed ground.'' If such truly special components of our nation's heritage as the historic and beautiful Civil War battlefields cannot be saved, what hope is there of protecting other irreplaceable lands from the relentless march of development in the century ahead?