Saving Civil War battlefields

July 20, 1993

Sitting astride a looping curlicue of the Potomac River, nothing could seem more peaceful than the picture postcard town of Sharpsburg, Md. Yet it was there, on September 17, 1862, that the first great turning point of the Civil War took place. The Battle of Antietam, which pitted the Army of the Potomac against the Army of Northern Virginia, --ed the South's hopes of quick victory in a furious battle that left 25,000 Union and Confederate casualties after the bloodiest single day of combat ever fought on American soil.

More than a century and a quarter later, the area still looks much as it did on that fateful day. Visitors can still see the white Dunker church, the cornfield where Gen. Joseph Hooker launched his furious assault on Lee's left flank, the stone bridge over Antietam Creek, where Confederate snipers picked off Gen. Ambrose Burnside's men, and the meandering cow path soldiers called "Bloody Lane."

Antietam has remained, almost by accident, the best-preserved Civil War battlefield in the East. But other important Civil War sites have not fared nearly so well. Many, like the historic battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa., have been been threatened for years by encroaching development. In 1988, plans to build a shopping mall next to Manassas Battlefield National Park in Virginia, site of the first Battle of Bull Run, were averted only after Congress agreed to purchase the land for $100 million.

Now a government commission is proposing that Congress spend $93 million over the next seven years to preserve about 100 historic Civil War battlefield sites for future generations. "The nation's Civil War heritage is in grave danger," the commission's report declared. "It is being demolished and bulldozed at an alarming rate. It is disappearing under new building, parking lots and highways."

The commission also proposed spending $17.5 million to pay private property owners for restoration and easements on historic battlefield sites, and suggested giving the Resolution Trust Corp. authority to deed over historically significant property obtained from the takeover of failed S & Ls.

In an era of soaring deficits and pressing domestic needs, lawmakers are understandably reluctant to commit large sums to historic preservation. Yet the effort should be made. The Civil War remains a decisive event in U.S. history. Preserving the most important sites of that tragic conflict is an important way of educating Americans about their history and a small price to pay for passing on a priceless legacy to posterity.

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