Activists Battle for Civil War Sites

$90 million federal outlay requested to spare battlefields from developers

MORE than 230 Civil War battlefields in the United States are intact enough to be saved through the purchase and preservation of thousands of acres of land - land that could otherwise fall prey to the developer's bulldozer.

The questions are: Will an already-pinched federal government find a way to devote $90 million to this task? Are private contributors ready to chip in enough to take up any slack left by the government? Has Civil War preservation gone far enough without any additional expenditures?

The members of the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission would reply with two hopeful "yeses" and one definite "no." After more than two years of field work, the commission, set up by Congress in 1990, recently released a report emphasizing that a third of the 384 battlefield sites it surveyed were already lost to development. Sites are vanishing

The report cautioned that unless preservation efforts are vigorously pushed ahead in the next 10 years, another third will vanish beneath housing tracts and malls.

The commission wants Congress to appropriate $90 million over the next seven years, most of which would go toward helping state and local governments protect historic battlefields. Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas, a major congressional backer of the project, has agreed to introduce a bill authorizing this money, but its passage is hardly a sure thing.

"We're hopeful, but it won't be easy," says Howard Coffin, a commission member from Vermont who is about to publish a book on his state's involvement in the Civil War. He sees a revival of interest in that epochal conflict, generated largely by the Ken Burns 1990 TV documentary on PBS. At the local level, Mr. Coffin says, commission members found that "every battlefield had its friends."

Another commission member, historian William Cooper of Louisiana State University, notes that three things struck him as he visited sites around the country: (1) the enthusiasm for preservation among local people, (2) the professionalism of those (such as state park rangers) already working to preserve historical sites and interpret them for the public, and (3) the amount of historical landscape that still exists in relatively unspoiled condition.

The commission devised a way of prioritizing the sites by taking into account the historical importance of a battlefield (the war included 10,500 battles and skirmishes and cost 620,000 lives), how much of each area is salvageable, and the degree of threat from development.

While the panel's work has strong backers in Washington and around the country, it also has outspoken critics. "Since the commission is made up of Civil War enthusiasts, it's no surprise their report should be out on one extreme," says Myron Ebell, an official with the National Inholders Association, a group that represents the interests of people who own land in or near national parks and other public reserves. `Coercive machinery'?

Mr. Ebell says the commission envisions a massive purchase of private property. Even if the commission's guideline of "a willing seller and a willing buyer" is followed, he asserts, the government will come up against some landowners who don't want to sell, and then its coercive machinery - such as the condemning of land - will kick in.

That, in Professor Cooper's opinion, is an exaggerated concern. "There's nothing in the report that in any way implies that we urge any governmental entity to take anybody's land," he says. "We do urge people who own property to consider possible ways of preserving it, but there's nothing in there threatening." Cooper adds that the commission explored the possibility of tax measures and changes in inheritance law that might help people opt for preservation.

Critics also charge that Civil War sites are already well-represented in the national and state park systems. What about other underrepresented historical themes, Ebell asks, like black history, or women's suffrage, or industrial expansion?

It's probably true that more Civil War sites are already preserved than those associated with any other event in American history, Cooper admits. "But on the other hand," he says, "the Civil War is the defining moment in our history. It made us what we are." If you accept that, argues the historian, "I don't see where there's an argument on the other side."

People like Mark Stevens, who works with the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, based in Fredericksburg, Va., certainly accept that line of reasoning. His organization recently committed itself to purchasing 750 contiguous acres of the Malvern Hill and Glendale battlefields, near Richmond, Va. Mr. Stevens estimates that the final cost will be $2.3 million. He is counting on contributions from his association's 5,000 members and on matching grants from foundations and corporations. An economic plus

Stevens says that if his group's efforts succeed, some 80 percent to 90 percent of the engagement area of the Malvern Hill battlefield will be saved from impending development, adding to the 130 acres already preserved.

Private efforts like that will play a "huge part" in protecting the battlefields, Coffin says. While reverence for history remains a prime motive behind preservation, he suggests that more and more people are recognizing that battlefield preservation can be an economic plus, boosting tourism and the desirability of their communities.

"We found that this is a realization people are beginning to come to," he says.

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