The Battle, and Then the war

September 30, 1990|By Ernest B. Furgurson

WASHINGTON — KEN BURNS' superb Civil, War series on public television reminded us how lucky we were not to have fought in that war - but how doubly lucky we are that our great-grandfathers did, and that everything came out the way it did. Today those epic battles are being refought in courthouses and, zoning commissions, and this time history is too often the loser.

Last week in Culpeper County, Va., they reached a decision in the second battle of Brandy Station. This time, the good side lost. A few miles down the road in Hanover County, they are still fighting the second battle of Cold Harbor, and so far the bulldozers are ahead.

Where Union horsemen surprised "Jeb" Stuart and brought on the greatest cavalry fight in American history, soon there will be the greatest industrial park in Culpeper County. The developer there got permission to proceed after agreeing to set aside 248 acres of the 1,445--acre tract as a historic site. But those 248 acres are steep land where nothing much happened in 1863; the plateau where the head-on clash of cavalry took place will be unprotected.

That is the sort of one-sided compromise by which field after field of American memory is being sliced away, to leave little that reminds of who fought there, and how.

Perhaps the emotional impact of Mr. Burns' television series will raise the national consciousness about why these sites are important and create political pressure to preserve them. It is probably unrealistic to think it might soften developers driven by profit in the future rather than the glory and tragedy of our past.

Even if the series had the potential to change their minds, it came too late to protect some of the well-preserved Union and Confederate field works at Cold Harbor.

That is where U.S. Grant threw his Army of the Potomac against Robert E. Lee's trenches on June 3, 1864, a year after the battle of Brandy Station. Lee held a six-mile front, without reserves, and Grant thought Confederate morale was weak after the bloody battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse in May.

Grant sent forward 60,000 men on a 4,000-yard front, a dense sledge-hammer meant to crush Lee's dwindling force. Instead, the Rebels cut down some 5,600 Yankees in a matter of minutes. Afterward, Grant said it was the worst mistake he made in the whole war.

Those battles could tilt one way or the other in no time. Today's drag out over months and years, as is inevitable when they are fought by lawyers instead of soldiers. In some of them, more money is spent on legal fees than was spent on munitions and hardtack the first time around.

At Cold Harbor, the developer who wants to turn the critical 322 acres of the battlefield into a housing and business complex got tired of waiting for this process to play out. Park Service historians say that the other weekend, a bulldozer intentionally roared out and obliterat-ed hundreds of feet of those trenches where brave men fought and died. If a historic site is destroyed first, a developer can argue that there's nothing there to save.

Both sides of the Cold Harbor debate were heard in Hanover last week, but a ruling was put off until December 5. In the interim, lawyers are totting up more billable hours.

As in 1861-65, the war is fought on many fronts. In New Mexico, the legislature is considering preservation of the Glorieta battlefield east of Santa Fe, probably the most significant Civil War site in the West. Frances Kennedy of the Conservation Fund, which has quietly bought up key tracts to protect many other battlefield, says the fund has an option agreement on 20 acres at the heart of the battlefield. The fund also reports some success at Vicksburg, Miss., Shiloh, Tenn., and Reams Station, Va.

In Louisiana, where the first assault by black Union troops was launched at Port Hudson, development spreading from Baton Rouge threatens the battlefield. In Maryland, the Park Service is devising a plan to preserve the rural nature of Antietam. In Pennsylvania, park authorities are working, with the community to stave off intrusion by more tacky tourist enterprises.

Nationally, the bright news -- and it's just a glimmer - is the current real-estate slump. It has lessened some development pressure and made holding onto speculative land more risky by decreasing its market value. At the Wilderness near Fredericksburg, Va., a developer who already has zoning approval is now showing interest in selling that land for preservation.

But as Grant eventually proved to Lee, you can win most of the, battles and still lose the war.

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