Saving a battlefield at South Mountain

Help: A bill to establish a state park on ground where the 1862 Civil War battle was fought and to protect remaining undeveloped land is moving through the General Assembly.

March 15, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

TURNER'S GAP -- Just over the ridge, a stone wall -- which a brigade of Alabamians used for cover as a division of Pennsylvanians advanced on them during the Battle of South Mountain -- has become a facade of an imposing brick house overlooking the Middleton Valley.

To the east, a rocky field -- where the Union I Corps won its nickname, "The Iron Brigade," as it assaulted Confederate positions at Fox's Gap -- was on the verge of becoming a subdivision a few years ago until Central Maryland Heritage League scraped together the money to buy it.

Now, a bill to establish a state park at the South Mountain Civil War Battlefield and make it easier to protect much of the remaining land that hasn't been developed is making its way through the General Assembly.

The measure -- the first of its kind in Maryland -- has received preliminary approval in the House of Delegates and has gained support from Senate leaders.

"I'm ecstatic," says Del. Louise V. Snodgrass, a Frederick County Republican and co-sponsor of the bill. "I was getting concerned we were going to lose it."

Some legislators raised questions about the source of the park's proposed $500,000 annual operating budget, but sponsors of the bill came up with a plan to allow park managers to charge fees to cover the budget -- a move that saved the bill.

The measure represents nearly a decade of work by groups of Civil War history buffs in Frederick and Washington counties to give the battle, long overshadowed by the horrific carnage along Antietam Creek three days later, more recognition.

The fierce fighting at three gaps in the mountain about seven miles apart -- Turner's, Fox's and Crampton's -- turned back Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's first foray into the North and led to the clash at Antietam.

"Without South Mountain, there wouldn't have been an Antietam," says Al Preston, assistant manager of the state's South Mountain Recreation Area, who knows the story of the battle backward and forward. "Or at least an Antietam as we know it."

After those battles, Lee's hope of help from Europe evaporated as he retreated across the Potomac River.

The Central Maryland Heritage League, a nonprofit land trust, has been acquiring small parcels of the battlefield since it was formed in 1989.

Last year, the General Assembly established a task force to look into creating a battlefield park.

In January, the task force recommended creating the park and proposed the $500,000 annual operating budget as well as spending $733,000 over the next three years for landscaping, upgrading facilities and building exhibits describing the battle. That led to Snodgrass' bill.

The task force did not include land acquisition figures because Maryland owns about 2,500 acres on South Mountain between Washington Monument State Park and Gathland State Park. It also has preservation easements on about 80 percent of the rest of the properties in what is roughly a triangle formed by those parks and Middletown.

"We would like to continue being aggressive with willing sellers," says Gene Piotrowski, director of resource planning for Maryland's state parks. But more important, Piotrowski adds, is the "heightened awareness" the designation creates among potential visitors "who are following Civil War battlefields from the Southern states into Pennsylvania."

"This elevates [South Mountain] in its importance, recognizing its pivotal role in the Civil War," he says.

Flush with his second victory at Manassas, Va., in August 1862, Lee crossed the Potomac into Maryland, hoping a Confederate victory on Union soil would break the will of the North, where popular opinion was running against the war, and bring help from Europe.

Instead, Union Gen. George B. McClellan found out about Lee's plans and marched his army along what now is Alternate U.S. 40 to meet the Confederates at the gaps in the mountain.

Confederate Gen. D. H. Hill, manning Lee's rear guard, saw McClellan coming from miles off and called it the "most grand and glorious sight" he had ever seen. Hill was standing in what is now the parking lot of the Old South Mountain Inn.

Preston says the state isn't interested in acquiring more land -- unless, of course, someone wants to sell. It's aiming to acquire more easements and money for historians and markers and maybe a museum.

"I'm all for preservation," he says. "But preservation isn't enough. We need interpreters to help people understand what they're seeing. And by getting the name of the battlefield, we get additional funding for that."

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