Civil War Trust: Preserving America's Hallowed Grounds
Fort Lee near Petersburg, Virginia, where the longest siege in American history occurred between Generals Lee and Grant, was my first assignment as an Army private. Getting to know the locals, I was told that a Union Army fort, Fort Sedgwick, better known as Fort Hell, which was located on Crater Road, was a place where they could walk through tunnels, bombproofs and actual fortifications that were erected during the War. It was still in existence for over 100 years until the property owners sold the land. In 1967, just ten years before my arrival, bulldozers came in and destroyed the last vestiges of Fort Sedgwick. A department store and a parking lot were built on the grounds.
Disturbed by this loss, I realized the need to preserve our nations historic battlegrounds for future generations, and the impetus for my membership in the Civil War Trust. Civil War Trust is a non-profit organization consisting of donors like me who care about preserving these historic sites where AmericansYankees and Rebelsshed their lifes blood. I originally joined the Association for Preserving Civil War Sites (APCWS) which merged in 1997 with the likeminded organization, Civil War Trust, to form the Civil War Preservation Trust. The name was shortened in 1999 to Civil War Trust. Since its formation, Civil War Trust has grown to over 55,000 members and has saved over 32,000 acres of hallowed ground in twenty states from being consumed by urban sprawl, commercial businesses, and industrial development.
Fort Hell is not the only place lost. The battlefields near Atlanta have long ago been swallowed up by the city with only upright markers to mark the location where significant events occurred. In Chantilly, Virginia, where Lee and Jackson pushed Gen. Popes Union Army out of north Virginia, a shopping mall exists. The site where Gen. Sedgwicks Corps clashed with Lees forces east of Chancellorsville near the bullet riddled Salem Church is now dotted with fast food establishments and businesses.
The US government did purchase land at many battlefields beginning in the 1890s, i.e. Chickamauga, to create our first national military parks, but continuing efforts have been piecemeal at best, and Congress has never appropriated sufficient funds to purchase an entire battlefield. Moreover, no one in the 20th century could ever imagine that the rural areas on which many of the battles were fought would be threatened with development.
Utilizing donated funds; the CWT acquires battlefield land by either purchasing it from private sector parties at fair market value or by donation. Often the CWT will increase its purchasing power via federal and state programs that offer matching grants designed to increase preservation of historic properties. The primary source of federal support for the preservation of battlefields is the Civil War Battlefield Protection Program (CWBPP). If an owner wishes to retain ownership of battlefield lands, the CWT will arrange for a conservation easement to insure the property remains free from future development.
Once land is acquired, the CWT is responsible for its stewardship and interpretation often with assistance from local preservation groups or government entities. When possible, the land is transferred to the National Park System or to the respective state park system.
Besides acquiring land, the CWT is involved in a grassroots effort to prevent the building of casinos at Gettysburg, the Wilderness Wal-Mart, rezoning at Chancellorsville, and development of Morris Island, SC where the 54th Massachusetts Infantry made history. Recently, the organization has been reclaiming seemingly lost battlefield land at Franklin, Tennessee where a Pizza Hut was demolished on the site where Gen. Patrick Cleburne was mortally wounded.
The present president of the CWT is O. James Lighthizer, a former Maryland state official and Secretary of Transportation, who periodically sends the members request for donations detailing the historical importance of purchasable battlefield land, the cost of its acquisition, and colorful battle maps suitable for future exploration. In the past, members have been enticed to donate with the promise of ball caps, address labels, books, pins and the placement of their names on plaques on battlefields. Noteworthy donors are given the moniker, Colorbearers, with differing levels of giving.
Besides land acquisition, the CWT has its own web site, www. civilwar.org, publishes a quarterly newsletter, Hallowed Ground, and participates in teacher-student programs and an annual Park Day where volunteers clean up park sites. Educational projects include GPS enabled battlefield touring apps, a Civil War Discovery Trail, and battlefield interpretation.
Civil War Trust may not be able to restore Fort Sedgwick or reclaim Atlanta's battlefields, but it's leading the charge to defend America's battlefields from the likes of Dollar General and Colonel Sanders.
Dr. Arnold Huskins