FRANKLYWNOW - Movement Grows to Preserve Civil War Battlefields

Movement Grows to Preserve Civil War Battlefields

The nation's Civil War battlefields are surrendering to the encroachment of 21st century development, but a national organization has set out to protect those sites, including several in West Virginia. The Civil War Preservation Trust is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. Its sole purpose is to protect key Civil War battlefields from development and convert them into historical and educational destinations. Of about 10,000 battlefields nationwide, the organization has targeted 384 for historic preservation, including 15 in West Virginia, according to Jim Campi, spokesman for the preservation trust. "At some point, Congress said if we're going to get serious about battlefield preservation, we need to have a plan in place and not wait until the bulldozers start moving in," Campi said. The trust relies on public grants and private fundraising to support its preservation efforts. During the past 10 years, the group has protected 21,300 acres of land at 93 battlefield sites in 19 states. "The nation is losing just over one acre of hallowed ground every hour," said Jim Lighthizer, president of the Preservation Trust. "Every year, approximately 10,000 acres are either paved over or priced out of our reach. ... We are truly the last generation that has a chance to save these sites. In 20 years, they will be gone." The battles of Summit Point and Smithfield Crossing took place in Jefferson County in 1864. Because of the rapid population boom in the Eastern Panhandle, the Preservation Trust has determined both battlefields are currently threatened by development and could be gone within next several years. Rich Mountain The Preservation Trust has classified the Rich Mountain Battlefield in Randolph County as an at-risk battlefield. That means development has occurred in areas surrounding it, but the development has not yet encroached the battlefield itself. The Battle of Rich Mountain took place in 1861, before West Virginia had seceded from Virginia. The battle was one of the first Union victories of the war and gave the North control of the northwestern part of Virginia, which set the stage for West Virginia's secession. Hunter Lesser is a member of the Rich Mountain Battlefield Foundation, a group established in 1991 to preserve the battlefield near Beverly. The Civil War Preservation Trust has helped the foundation purchase and protect 84 acres of the battlefield so far. "Many of the early Union victories were in what is now West Virginia," Lesser said. "Those early triumphs established a Union presence in the western part of Virginia and really set the stage for the creation of West Virginia. So it's not just a big part of the country's history. It's a big part of this state's history. It would be a tragedy to lose that to make way for a subdivision." While the foundation has purchased a few tracts of land, its primary focus is interpreting the land's history. The foundation has established a visitors' center and several displays throughout the Rich Mountain area to educate visitors. Pave or Preserve? Many similar groups have formed across West Virginia to protect battlefields in local areas. But does an advantage truly exist by protecting these acres? After all, battles typically were fought on flat land, a tough commodity to come by in West Virginia. As more areas pave the way for strip malls, housing developments and industrial type businesses, that flat land can become increasingly more desirable for developers. But Civil War enthusiasts contend the battlefields are important pieces of history and would better serve their respective states as tourism destinations. "Because West Virginia has been slower to develop, we haven't been faced with the rapid loss of our battlefields. But that is why we should be careful to protect them while we can," said Henry Jernigan, a partner with the Charleston law firm Dinsmore & Shohl and an avid Civil War enthusiast. "West Virginia is so hitched to the Civil War. The history of this state was literally formed on these battlefields. I mean if not for that war, this state wouldn't be here." Jernigan said he can't count the number of battlefields he has visited throughout the years, but he knows they are popular destinations for a large number of Civil War enthusiasts like himself. "When the battlefields are preserved, walking around you get a sense of what took place there. You can imagine the battle and how these men charged into enemy fire," he said. "But to keep these places as tourist destinations, you have to preserve the integrity and their history. That means restricting development. These battlefields should never become picnic areas or playgrounds. They should look like they did during the war." Other states, including Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, have created driving tours by marking key Civil War sites on maps and placing signage in the areas. The West Virginia Division of Tourism and the state Division of Highways are joining neighboring states in their efforts. Without Borders Six interpretive markers recently were placed in Jefferson County along the West Virginia portion of the Antietam Trail. Four additional markers were placed in Martinsburg to highlight the state's role in the Gettysburg campaign. The markers include the Civil War Trails logo, which is present on markers in Virginia and Maryland. West Virginia Tourism Commissioner Betty Carver said the state will continue to develop Civil War signage for other areas as funds become available. "The increasing number of travelers who are interested in Civil War history are not concerned about state boundaries," Carver said. "They want to follow a campaign trail from place to place with interpretive signage and information that allows them to make the trip with ease." A 2003 study by the Travel Industry Association of America found U.S. travelers are showing a growing interest in cultural tourism. The study says 81 percent of Americans who traveled in 2003 are considered cultural travelers. That's as many as 118 million people. These tourists typically spend more money than the average tourist and stay in areas longer. Cultural tourists also are more apt to travel to rural areas if that's where their interests take them. "I think these areas are something we need to preserve and promote more than we do now," said Andre Nabors, tourism's heritage program coordinator. "When you consider the number of re-enactments this state has and the amount of activities centered around the Civil War, I think it's obvious there's great tourism opportunities here. You want to hold onto these battlefields because when they're gone, they're gone."

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