SHARPSBURG -- Across a landscape little changed since more than 23,000 soldiers were killed or wounded in the Civil War's bloodiest day, victory in the second Battle of Antietam is nearly at hand.
But unlike the infamous one-day clash between armies led by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Union counterpart, Gen. George B. McClellan, the triumph of preservationists to protect land surrounding the Antietam battlefield has been a drawn-out affair.
Six years ago, Antietam was labeled one of America's most endangered historic places. No such titles are attached to the site today thanks to an aggressive state effort to buy development rights to thousands of acres.
Instead, the program has won national acclaim from the same preservation groups that feared Antietam would be lost.
"We have preserved the pristine nature of this part of the world," said O. James Lighthizer, Maryland's former transportation secretary who initiated the program four years ago. "We will never in our lifetime have an opportunity like this again."
Antietam's importance in history has never been questioned. It was 134 years ago this week that the 87,000-man federal army clashed with the 40,000 Southerners commanded by Lee, who was seeking a major victory in the North.
Although both sides suffered huge losses, historians believe Lee's failure to achieve a clear win at Antietam was a critical moment in the war. It postponed Britain's recognition of the Confederate government and made it possible for President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation less than four months later.
Today, Antietam enjoys the additional distinction of being one of the nation's best-preserved major Civil War battle sites.
Established by Congress in 1890, the Antietam National Battlefield outside the tiny town of Sharpsburg, about 16 miles west of Frederick, benefited from the region's modest farm economy.
In contrast to Gettysburg, where strips of fast-food restaurants, souvenir shops and even an observation tower mar the landscape, a visitor to Antietam will see only modest signs of intrusion from the 20th century.
"People say they can feel the soldiers here," said John W. Howard, the battlefield's superintendent. "When you get so lost in the quiet, you can do that."
By the late 1980s, some farms near Antietam were beginning to be subdivided for housing development. Job growth near Frederick and along the Interstate 270 corridor from Washington suddenly gave this part of Western Maryland potential as a commuter suburb.
A proposal surfaced to build a shopping center at Grove Farm, the spot three miles south of Sharpsburg where Lincoln met McClellan and his senior officers after the battle.
The local American Legion post also wanted to build on a Grove Farm plot.
At about the same time, a Virginia developer announced plans to build a shopping mall on a Civil War battlefield in Manassas, Va., a project that provoked a national outcry and ultimately persuaded Congress to purchase the land.
"We didn't want that sort of thing at Antietam," said H. Grant Dehart, director of Program Open Space for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "We could see the pressure building for development in southern Washington County."
Enter Lighthizer, who persuaded then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer to either buy land around Antietam or purchase easements prohibiting future development of the properties.
To pay for the program, they tapped the state's transportation budget -- specifically, a federal fund for transportation-related "enhancements" authorized by Congress in 1991. Additional money came from Program Open Space, a state fund that sets aside land for public use.
$8.5 million spent
The effort has cost more than $8.5 million, preserving 3,133 acres around Antietam and at another nearby battlefield, South Mountain. State officials expect eventually to spend close to $12.8 million on the project.
"It would have been sacrilege to put this money in the alternatives -- sidewalks or sound barriers, things that have to be replaced in 50 years," said Lighthizer, a Civil War buff who taught a college course on the subject.
Sharpsburg-area landowners initially suspicious about outsiders buying land or having the government prevent them from selling their property seem satisfied with the outcome.
'Didn't feel pressured'
"We didn't feel pressured to sell. It was basically voluntary. That made all the difference," said Nancy Kefauver, who was paid tTC $242,550 for an easement on her dairy farm. "We always wanted to preserve. We never had thoughts of development."
Ann Corcoran, a Sharpsburg resident who led efforts to protect landowner rights, said much of the furor that surrounded Antietam preservation could have been avoided if the state had adopted its strategy sooner. An earlier effort by one private conservation group to quietly buy properties without disclosing its purpose triggered widespread resentment, she said.