Saving a slice of Md. history Protection: Three days before the bloodshed at Antietam, nearly 5,000 men were killed or wounded at South Mountain. Today, the state will preserve some of that land.

December 17, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

BURKITTSVILLE -- Some of the state's most hallowed ground, where thousands fell in the second-bloodiest battle ever fought on Maryland soil, will be given permanent protection from the developer's bulldozer today.

The Board of Public Works is scheduled to ratify two contracts purchasing the development rights to farmland at the site of the Battle of South Mountain, where Union forces under Maj. Gen. George McClellan clashed with Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia on Sept. 14, 1862.

By securing agricultural easements on the two properties, totaling 338 acres, the state will bring the amount of South Mountain property protected under its Program Open Space to more 1,000 acres. The land includes some of the most scenic vistas in Western Maryland, from the rolling farmland around Burkittsville in the south to the rugged mountains above Middletown in the north.

The purchases are part of an effort by state agencies and private groups to increase awareness of one of the Civil War's least-recognized major battles while preserving the rural character of western Frederick County.

Nearly 5,000 men were killed or wounded at South Mountain, but the battle is overshadowed by the fight that took place three days later at Antietam, where 23,000 fell on the single bloodiest day of the war.

"Some of these sites have never been fully recognized," said H. Grant DeHart, director of Program Open Space. "The Battle of South Mountain was extremely important to what eventually happened at Antietam."

What historians call the Battle of South Mountain was actually two battles fought simultaneously under different field commanders. Both were technically Union victories, but the engagements bought Lee precious time to concentrate his forces at Sharpsburg.

Crampton's Gap

The larger South Mountain clash took place at Turner's Gap and Fox Gap near Middletown, but the two properties to be voted on today are both about five miles south at Crampton's Gap.

The state will spend $317,440 -- matched by an equal amount in federal funds -- to purchase an easement from Melvin J. Berman on a farm on the route traversed by 18,000 Union soldiers as

they advanced through Burkittsville to the gap. The farmhouse on the property, built in 1850, was used as a hospital after the battle.

That property is regarded as essential to preserving Burkittsville, one of the most unspoiled rural villages in Maryland. "It presents a great opportunity of creating a greenbelt completely surrounding the town," DeHart said.

But to history buffs, the most exciting investment will be the $186,229 the state will pay for its 50 percent share on an easement on the 102-acre Milne family property. The parcel lies at the center of the Crampton Gap battlefield.

There, about three small regiments of about 1,000 Confederate soldiers waited behind a stone wall -- still standing today -- and watched as a Union corps under Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin moved slowly toward them.

For a small band, those 1,000 Rebels put up a fierce fight, holding up the federal advance for two hours. But when Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum tired of Franklin's dithering and ordered a head-on charge, the Rebel troops broke and ran up the slope. Hundreds fell in what is now Dr. Jerry Milne's vineyard.

"That's where 90 percent of the battle was actually fought," said Burkittsville Mayor Paul Gilligan, who prefers to call the engagement the Battle of Burkittsville. "He's got 102 acres and almost every bit was fought over."

The mayor, an ardent advocate of farmland preservation, is fighting what could be called the second Battle of Burkittsville -- this one against the encroaching development that has swallowed up 6,400 acres elsewhere in Frederick County since 1990.

Altogether, Gilligan said, about 75 percent of the farm acreage around the historic town is under some kind of protection against development. He said that with the help of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth program, he is confident that he can get the remaining 1,500 acres protected.

Toward the northern sector of the battlefield, preservation advocates are coming under more intense pressure.

Development

In once-bucolic Middletown, developments with names such as Brookridge Estates sprawl across the rolling foothills on the route the Union Army followed into battle at Turner's Gap.

"That's a wake-up call," said Bill Wilson, executive director of the Central Maryland Heritage League, as he showed a visitor the Turner's Gap area. "We've lost this little bit up here, but hopefully that's the last we'll lose."

Wilson said the league is working with Frederick County officials to stop development at Catoctin Creek, where a passer-by can see the remains of a bridge destroyed by Confederate troops.

As part of that effort, Wilson and league President George Brigham are working with state officials to persuade local farmers to join the program. Wilson, a retired telephone company executive, said league members rather than state employees usually make the first approach to farmers.

Brigham said he is encouraged because Program Open Space is more attractive to farmers than past preservation efforts.

"This is the first program that has really offered money," he said.

Costly opposition

Local land-preservation advocates said farmers are also realizing that any attempt to develop will run into long and costly opposition.

Ann Milne, co-owner of the battlefield property at Crampton's Gap, said that was part of the reason her family decided to sell an easement to the state.

"We could see the handwriting on the wall. For us to sell to a developer, we would have been the pariahs of South Mountain. Everybody would have fought."

Pub Date: 12/17/97

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