At Gettysburg, a new battle: urban sprawl
A new list of 'endangered battlefields' reveals tensions between preservationists and developers.
Gettysburg, PA. — In 1863, Abraham Lincoln stood here and gave the speech that was to become his most famous. With brevity and eloquence he spoke of the liberty and equality upon which this country was founded. He looked forward to the Union's salvation, the end of slavery – and "a new birth of freedom."
What he couldn't have foreseen delivering the Gettysburg Address that afternoon was that a Southern colonel would one day claim this hallowed ground in the form of a KFC just beyond its gates. Or that the site of the battle's largest field hospital would be paved over. Today, a sizable chunk of Camp Letterman serves as the parking lot for Giant supermarket – a salmon slab of concrete with a few benches and two small plaques the only reminder of its historical significance.
Last year activists fought off the unthinkable: a 5,000-slot casino within a mile of the battleground. Yet Gettysburg stubbornly remains on a list of "Endangered Battlefields" compiled annually by the nonprofit Civil War Preservation Trust.
It's not just Gettysburg either. The storied sites pored over in every American History class and obsessively revisited by Civil War buffs are far from uniformly protected. From suburban sprawl to mining to a lack of funds for maintenance and repair, threats to Civil War battlefields are legion.
Many are scrambling to spruce up their grounds in time for the Civil War's 150th anniversary in 2011. Far from being diminished through the years, the significance of these battlegrounds, as a sort of collective time capsule, has only grown.
"The bonding between past and present is really the essence of understanding history," says James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian and Princeton professor, who has led his share of battlefield tours. "If these places didn't exist, we would never have the kind of connection between past and present that we do now."
Yet as soon as one preservation crisis is managed, it seems another crops up. One National Park Service administrator likened the efforts to a game of whack-a-mole:
• Sunday marked the anniversary of the illegal excavation of Harpers Ferry in West Virginia. Antsy developers trespassed onto Park Service land to dig trenches for sewer and water piping in anticipation of a nearby development.
• In Cedar Creek, Va., a mining company is petitioning the county to have more than 600 battlefield acres rezoned so it can add five more quarries to its operations.
• And from Fort Morgan, Ala., to Fort Jackson and Fort Pike in New Orleans, funds are desperately needed to restore sites in sore disrepair.
Driving through Gettysburg, the park unfolds as a patchwork of public and private land. It's the most popular of the country's military parks, with nearly 2 million visitors each year. Yet in a head-spinning equation, only about 80 percent of its 6,000 acres are under Park Service protection. The rest is privately held, its use, in part, up to the discretion of its owners.
Just as troublesome to preservationists is the property beyond the official park boundary. "We have a hard enough time trying to protect what's in the boundaries without even worrying about what's outside," says Jim Johnson, Gettysburg's acting superintendent.
Yet much of that outlying property – such as the Baltimore Pike, a strip of land southeast of Gettysburg dotted with battlegrounds and field hospitals – is of historical consequence. It's also essential to maintaining the integrity of the viewshed. Preservationists worry that instead of cotton-puff clouds, the Gettysburg vistas will be crowded with housing developments.
The movement to preserve Civil War battlefields took hold in the late 1980s with the formation of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites. In 1999, it merged with another organization to form the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT), which today has 70,000 members.
Not everyone is an enthusiastic conservationist, however. Once land comes under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, it's off the tax roll – which can be burdensome for cash-strapped towns.
But the movement is proud of its successes. The CWPT says it has helped save more than 24,000 acres in 18 states. In fact, despite the work left to be done, Professor McPherson says American Civil War sites "may be the best preserved series of battlefields anywhere in the world."
"Europeans who come here are astonished by how much battlefield land has been preserved in the national park system," he says.
For Steve Braden, a visitor from Georgia here with his family, that can only be a good thing.
"To me this is as close as you get to sacred or hallowed ground in America," he says, wearing a baseball cap with the CWPT acronym. He is a member, visiting this battlefield for the first time since his college days in the 1970s.