The legacy of misplaced assumptions

From John Hennessy:

Confederate trenches on the east face of the salient at Spotsylvania, in the 1930s. The wooden marker indicates where Confederate general Allegheny Johnson was captured.

It seemed like a good idea at the time–the government would own only tiny slivers of land, while the ever-present farmers would perpetually manage all else.  The underlying assumption: the farmers would be here always–the land preserved in partnership, the vistas always accessible to visitors.  In 1927, the year Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP was created, it seemed like a reasonable approach.

But, that assumption, made nearly 84 years ago, has dominated the management and evolution of the park ever since.

The park in 1936. Click to enlarge.

The original concept of the park focused almost entirely on the physical and visible remnants of battle–trench lines, house sites, and a few old road traces. It was the embodiment of what was known as the “Antietam Plan.”  With two notable exceptions, the park consisted entirely of historic roads and earthworks, or earthworks with new roads built along them (e.g. Lee Drive at Fredericksburg).

In some cases, like Lee Drive, the earthworks were built only after the fighting ended; in others, the earthworks were indeed integral to the battle, but only occasionally were the scene of actual combat.  Generally, the intervening ground between the lines where much of the combat took place was left outside the park.  Park planners adjudged that people wanted to see something other than open fields. Earthworks were visual, vivid–and thus the foundation upon which the park was built (today more than 40 miles of earthworks are preserved on the four battlefields).

As a result, virtually none of the ground covered by the Union advances at Fredericksburg was protected. The lands associated with Jackson’s flank attack (far away from Union earthworks) lay forgotten. Likewise along the Orange Plank Road in the Wilderness, huge swaths of hallowed ground were excluded in favor of the vivid and dramatic remnants of trenches. The killing fields at Laurel hill lay between NPS holdings.

The park, 1930s, likely on Lee Drive.

Only at Fairview and Hazel Grove at Chancellorsville and at the Mule Shoe Salient at Spotsylvania (where a private citizen bought and donated hundreds of acres) did the park own lands beyond the earthworks–land where substantial combat took place.

Another change in culture and expectation has helped render the philosophy of 1927 obsolete. Then, the expectation was that visitors would be happy simply to be able to view the landscapes beyond the earthworks. Today, visitors expect to have access. They want to walk the footsteps, stumble over the same terrain, to experience rather than merely calculate distances.

The presumptions that underlay the creation of the park were within two decades overawed by intensifying growth and changing expectations. Open land and farmers started to disappear, and soon land developers and builders replaced them.  As early as 1953, superintendent O.F. Northington could foresee the change.

Strategic locations are falling fast to real estate developments and other interests. Eventually this park will be composed almost entirely of boulevards for use of suburbanites…. I believe that the usefulness of [this park] is doomed; not, perhaps, in our lifetime, although new encroachments crop up every day, but certainly within that of our children.

That gloomy assessment of 57 years ago has been the foil against which every manager of the park has worked ever since. The failure was not one of will on the part of those men and women (the first woman Superintendent was Maria Burks, in the early 1990s), but rather due to the distraction of the organization and nation at large. Prior to 1974, the park was authorized to purchase whatever land it deemed significant (see our post on Salem Church for a look at the fate of that field). But, because park expansion was not a national priority and battlefields were rather sleepy and neglected national icons (though icons they certainly were), the park never had funds to acquire lands.

The park received a formal boundary in 1974–and henceforth it could only acquire lands within that boundary:

The park in 1986, after the 1974 boundary was set. Click to enlarge

Since then, the boundary has undergone one major expansion, in 1989, and it has grown from its original 2200 acres (or so) in the 1930s to 5200 in the 1980s to more than 7,000 today. (The effort is proof that parks are not created, they evolve, and the work takes generations.)

Much of this effort to acquire land has been a direct antidote to the misplaced assumption of eight decades ago. The park received substantial appropriations of land acquisition funds in the 1990s. It was then that key lands at Jackson Flank Attack at Chancellorsville and Longstreet’s Flank Attack at the Wilderness were acquired. Private partners like the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust and the Civil War Preservation Trust have also made major acquisitions when federal dollars or authorizations were not available:  the Slaughter Pen Farm at Fredericksburg, the May 1 field at Chancellorsville, additional lands at Jackson’s Flank Attack, and most recently a key parcel near Saunders Field in the Wilderness.

Still, much work remains to remedy the mis-assumption 87 years old.

One final thought on the physical evolution of the park. I’d offer that the greatest enemy to preservation of these four battlefields is their nearness to each other.  Each of these fields is comparable in import and scale to any of the major battlefields of the war: Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Manassas, Shiloh–all of them more than 3,900 acres. Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville,and Spotsylvania are each about 1,500 acres. Combined they don’t match the preserved land mass of Gettysburg, Manassas, or Chickamauga.

That Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania are managed under one administrative entity and are so close to each other renders to us a political reality with profound implications for preservation. Park boundaries are the product of a political process, and over the years something of a “norm” for the size of a military park has emerged. This park will always fall within that norm, especially given its location within one of the fastest growing regions in the nation.  If these fields were 50 rather than 15 miles apart, they’d each be their own being; they’d each embody a preserved land mass probably twice what they are today–like Shiloh, Manassas, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga. If they were 50 rather than 15 miles apart, so much important historic land would not be outside the boundary–and the controversy that surrounds the potential development of those lands would be far less.

It’s all just a reminder that we aren’t just about telling stories. A major part of our work, largely unseen, is preserving places. Many who have done much have come before us; hopefully some better than we are will follow. But all of us, for decades to come, will continue to labor to remedy an understandable, but undeniably misplaced assumption now nearly nine decades old.


7 thoughts on “The legacy of misplaced assumptions

  1. John: I’ve really enjoy your commentaries and pictures. What a wonderful treasure trove you seem to have. One small point — you mention “Longstreet’s Flank Attack” in the Wilderness. Did you mean “Gordon’s Flank Attack?”

    BTW: I am working on a subcommittee of the Lake of the Woods trying to identify how much of this battle was in LOW. We have some maps and indications that seem to show Gordon circled around Sedgwick/Warren’s troops very close to the hospital at Spotswood’s house — near our front gate. Do you have any ideas on that?

    We also are getting close to mapping the Culpeper mine Road through LOW. We will probably identify these areas. Have you considered marking the CMR as it goes through the Gordon Flank Attack Loop. There is sign #3 on the trail, but nothing where the trail re-crosses CMR. I would gladly help with this project as I am the PATC trail overseer.

    • Bob. Thanks for the comment and for reading. I did indeed mean Longstreet’s Flank Attack–the Fawn Lake parcel (“Hamilton’s thicket” it’s called, though for no apparent reason any of us know). As for Gordon’s attack, our best understanding of the event is embodied in the troop movement maps completed by Frank O’Reilly a few years ago. We are in the process of making those available through Virtual Wilderness, which I hope will be up and running soon. In the meantime, we’ll be happy to assist LOW with interpretation of anything within its bounds. John H.

  2. The Antietam concept was the government’s response to the popular desire for parks, within a context of fiscal austerity. Hmmm, sound familiar? To give it the cachet of “plan” is being generous, although we should also note that it was an idea that came out of the War Department rather than the National Park Service. The NPS at Fred-Spots has usually been quite aggressive in seeking to acquire historic terrain, but our local Park has also grown significantly through the efforts of private groups, from CW veterans through modern enthusiasts. As John Hennessy has pointed out, most undeveloped properties around the Park will probably change hands only one more time before they are developed. The time to save ground is now.

  3. I’m glad that you all are concerned about preserving the battlegrounds, but PLEASE don’t forget that someone has to maintain these lands. Having worked as a PATC volunteer in the Fredricksburg -Spotsylvania Park, I know how short of help Brian and John are. From my perspective volunteers are stretched pretty thin to maintain what we have now.

    What is worse, many of the maintenance folk are nearing retirement. When Phil Brooks leaves, the hole will be comparable to the crater at the Battle of Petersburg!

    I hate to throw cold water on these ideas, but acquiring more land without considering the maintenance end is like the elderly couple moving into a “McMansion” without realizing what it takes to pay the bills and maintain the place.

    We already have a fine place — Ellwood — that is only open a few months of the year. Having worked on the Grounds Force there, I know the entire external mowing and maintenance is performed by a bunch of old guys with 34-year old 42″ riding mowers.

    BTW: I speak to lots of visitors at the Wilderness Battlefield Shelter about where they are going to visit in the area. When I ask if they know about Ellwood, they get a glassy look in their eyes. I wonder if most of the Civil War books they are reading call the place “Lacy.” Shouldn’t the Ellwood flyer and signs say “Lacy/Ellwood House?” (The Fredericksburg map shows it correctly.)

    Consider quality over quantity. bj

    • Once battle field land falls into the hands of developers it is gone forever. So lets get control of all the land we can now and worry about maintaining it later.

    • The folks at Ellwood need to start thinking about acquiring the property that consitutes its dramatic viewshed. That land is not protected by the park and could be sold for development. If action is not taken soon, that view could become just another subdivision, compromising Ellwood’s appeal forever.

  4. I am normally one who says let development happen, but in this area it is happening fast and agree you will never get it back. You need to get as much area as you can now and let the area grow around it. They will compliment each other. The ones who know me will fall down when they read this.

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