Civil War battle still echoes - and calls forth civic pride

First they beat back a Disney theme park. Now, residents of a Virginia town are depleting their nest eggs to preserve the site of an 1862 fight.

The old Wilkins Farm up near Sudley Mountain is now almost impenetrably overgrown, a forlorn outpost of wood and scrub on the farthest fringes of suburbia. But Brad Bradshaw was willing to mortgage a good part of his future to buy it.

After all, it was on this spot some 138 years ago that thousands of Confederate soldiers, their ranks broken, fell as they mounted a counterattack.

Not far away, where the lush Virginia farmland rolls to the bluish bulk of the Bull Run Mountains, the ground is protected - part of the Manassas National Battlefield Park. Here, this scrubby parcel of the same battleground was up for the highest bidder.

Together with about 40 friends and neighbors, Mr. Bradshaw - the grandson of a Confederate soldier and himself an Air Force veteran - cobbled together the $600,000 needed to buy the 136-acre farm. Some offered to mortgage their homes. Others threw in what they could - as much as $20,000.

Where so many towns have failed to save precious fields and landmarks from suburbia's sprawl, Manassas, Va., has chosen heritage over Home Depots - not once, but twice. It also fended off an effort by Disney to build a historical theme park nearby.

Many residents gave beyond their means to save what's now called the Davis Tract, and they say they feel better for it. "We're not a rich neighborhood," says Bob Moler, the president of the Sudley Mountain/Stony Ridge Civic Association. "Many of the people here gave what their children and grandchildren would have inherited. But the point is, this is the inheritance."

Bradshaw has perhaps the most personal reason for, in his words, "spending my wife's inheritance."

Born only a few years after his grandfather's death, he grew up hearing stories that living Civil War veterans told about his ancestor, a well-known Rebel sharpshooter who had fought in Company F of the 61st Virginia Infantry at Gettysburg.

At least partly due to such stories, Bradshaw himself became a fighter, flying 155 missions over Vietnam. Today, he's a county magistrate, but as a former lieutenant colonel, he feels a connection to the land where many of his grandfather's compatriots died.

"All of us in the warrior class especially appreciate these old battlegrounds," he says.

And, while the war is now largely remembered as a contest over the abhorrent practice of slavery, to many in the South it evokes memories of military gallantry, the cause of states' rights, and the honor of men like Robert E. Lee. For Northerners, too, while they may call the two battles here Bull Run rather than Manassas, the weight of a solemn history is palpable.

Despite the near-silence of the stands of broad-shouldered white oak that today dot the hillsides, the visitor here can still picture Stonewall Jackson's infantry clashing with Ulysses Grant's fortified North Country boys in 1862, practically in the back 40 of the capital.

As Grant's troops broke through the line and chased the Rebels back onto the Davis Tract, soldiers scrambled along an unfinished railroad grade, reportedly throwing rocks after they ran out of powder and ball. Perhaps as many as 2,000 died there - making it the most important corner of the battlefield that lacked protection as a landmark.

More than 11,000 acres of Civil War battlegrounds have been bought and safeguarded in the past 13 years. But the rescue of the Davis Tract is one of the most unusual and historically significant, historians agree.

"This is one of the most interesting deals we've done so far," says Jim Campi of the Civil War Preservation Trust in Washington, which pitched in $300,000. The land is expected to merge into the large battlefield park.

Some local philanthropists worried more about the effects of sprawl than long-ago skirmishes. But the land's past touched nearly everyone involved, says Noah Mehrkam, the Civil War Preservation Trust's liaison to the neighborhood. "Most people realize that this purchase protects what we are - and what we've been."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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