A final Civil War campaign with tourism as the prize

October 30, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

Civil War battlefields mean big -- and growing -- tourism bucks in parts of Pennsylvania and Virginia, but by comparison Maryland's capitalization on its few war sites has been generally low-key and understated.

That's not supposed to continue, though, given an array of projects moving forward in Frederick and Washington counties and in neighboring areas on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

Picture this: a comprehensive tour of key Civil War sites, all within about an hour's drive of a central location, with hotels, restaurants and related services all convenient to several interstate highways.

Sharpsburg could become that central place -- just outside Antietam National Battlefield, the best known of Maryland's sites.

From there, you could easily get to Frederick and a new Civil War medicine museum, Hagerstown and its proposed national museum of the Civil War, not to mention Harpers Ferry, Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, and key sites in Virginia, such as Bull Run (or Manassas), The Wilderness, Cedar Creek and the Shenandoah Valley.

"We're playing up the Civil War because it's our strength," said state Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Washington County Democrat. "What we want to do is make this area a destination instead of a place to drive through. We were a crossroads during the Civil War."

Having a Civil War tourism center in Sharpsburg is the brainchild of officials from a strip of four counties in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland who meet periodically to discuss regional issues.

"One of the things that ties these four states together is the Civil War," said Bob O'Connor, director of the Washington County Convention and Visitor Bureau. "It is the thread that can bring people to one state and get them to visit the surrounding area, too."

Sharpsburg hub

Its central location makes Sharpsburg ideal for such a venture, which is under study by a group of state and federal lawmakers. The center would feature interactive displays and other exhibits. The town is nine miles south of Interstate 70 and 12 miles from Interstate 81, which runs through the Shenandoah Valley, site of a key campaign during the war as well as a route followed by troops of both sides.

"We've got it all here -- the Union, the Confederacy, a border state -- all the passion and drama of the war," Mr. Poole said. "And it's all within an hour or so drive of Sharpsburg."

It also would mean playing up Maryland battles and attractions.

Besides Antietam, the other two significant battles fought here were South Mountain, in which Confederates tried to delay pursuing Union troops, setting the stage for Antietam; and Monocacy, an 1864 battle in which Union troops defeated the Confederates and thwarted their plans to attack Washington.

The area also was the scene of skirmishes, fleeting Confederate invasions, shelling and military camps, and today remains the final resting place of Confederate and Union soldiers. Some 4,776 Union soldiers are buried at Antietam National Cemetery and 2,500 Confederate soldiers are buried at cemeteries in Frederick and Hagerstown.

Beyond battlefields

The fact that Maryland has been chosen for a tourism center doesn't bother officials in the other states.

"We want to promote the area as a region and not just as separate counties," said Terry Punt, a Republican Pennsylvania senator whose district includes Gettysburg. "The area has a lot to offer, and all within an hour and 15 minutes' drive."

Susan Stone, director of the Jefferson County (W. Va.) Visitors Bureau, agreed: "A tourism center there would open up this whole area. It would be tremendously beneficial to all of us. I always mention Antietam in my brochures. We have to be regional."

These counties are looking for a piece of the lucrative Civil War tourism market. They're hoping to entice vacationers to expand their visits beyond one battlefield to spend a night or two in local motels and inns and money in restaurants and shops.

It's a growing market.

About 1.5 million visitors toured the highly publicized Gettysburg battlefield last year. The number of visitors this year is 20 percent higher than at this time last year.

At Antietam, site of the war's bloodiest battle, 180,000 visitors came last year. The number of visitors this year is 10 percent higher than at this time last year. At Monocacy Battlefield, a new National Park Service area near Frederick, attendance is up about 5 percent, too, but the park still draws lightly.

Virginia tourism officials estimate that 3.9 million people have visited Civil War attractions in the state this year -- up about 8 percent over this time last year.

A. Wilson Greene, president of the Association for Preservation of Civil War Sites, said he doesn't expect interest in the Civil War to wane soon. Hollywood movies and the 1990 Public Broadcasting Service series on the Civil War, as well as a plethora of good history books, have heightened interest in the conflict, he said.

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