Civil War buff stands his ground as Antietam proposal draws fire

Sharpsburg residents oppose plans for museum, monuments

September 24, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

SHARPSBURG - Here it is, the latest battle at Antietam.

William Chaney is on one side. The Civil War buff and businessman from Anne Arundel County owns a historic farmhouse and plot of land just off the national battlefield. And now he's moving on a plan to restore the building to its wartime appearance, open a museum and put up three Confederate monuments.

Arrayed against him are local Civil War enthusiasts and town officials in nearby Sharpsburg. They argue that Chaney's plan crosses a line. It would, they say, open the door for anybody to march in, snatch land at will and establish a business on the site of the bloodiest day of the Civil War.

"Putting a gift shop in a historic house, putting up monuments with no context in the particular part of the battlefield, is not historic preservation," says Tom Clemens, president of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation, which protects land around the battlefield from development. "If anyone asks me what his monuments are for, all I can say is, `One man's ego.'"

Chaney is winning. Not only has he gotten a zoning exception from Washington County, but he has the blessing of the National Park Service, which lost a bidding war to Chaney last year to buy the farmhouse and the surrounding 101 acres. The plot sits squarely between Antietam Creek and "Bloody Lane," a country road where a four-hour confrontation on Sept. 17, 1862, resulted in more than 5,000 Union and Confederate casualties.

"In the best-case scenario, how would it have turned out? We'd own the property," says John Howard, superintendent of the Antietam National Battlefield.

"What they're doing down there in terms of restoring [the house] to its 1862 appearance is no different than what we would have done - though we probably wouldn't have been able to do it as quickly."

The forces opposing Chaney aren't all fighting for the same reasons. In Sharpsburg, a town of 800 that savors its quietude, residents have turned scrutinizing outside developers into a pastime. Town officials are worried less about Chaney's plans than about the possibility that the museum and monuments might draw more tourists to the area.

This community has chosen to follow a different path than that of Gettysburg, Pa., a town drowned in commercialism with its hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. In Sharpsburg, only a mile or so from the battlefield visitors center, visitors will find little more than an ice cream shop, two bars and a small gas station.

"We don't want tourism down here," says Sharpsburg Town Council member Denise Troxell, who adds that visitors looking for motels or fast food are directed 12 miles north to Hagerstown.

"Everyone will give them directions," she says.

Sharpsburg is so suspicious of tourism that it initially resisted endorsing the Maryland Historical Trust's plans for a "Civil War Heritage Area" encompassing portions of Washington, Frederick and Carroll counties. The tourism project could mean state grants for local governments trying to preserve historic sites. Sharpsburg has since signed on.

The Town Council has postponed its Oct. 2 meeting so members can attend a county planning meeting that night in which Chaney's plans could receive final approval. According to a senior planner for the county, Stephen Goodrich, a vote on the proposal might be moved back until November.

Troxell says she and other town officials will be there to protest.

The Washington County Historic District Commission is also reviewing Chaney's plans, but neither body is expected to block his museum, which is scheduled to open in the spring.

Chaney, 54, says he had no idea of the climate that awaited him when he purchased his acreage from a farmer in February for $300,000. Chaney, distantly related to Robert E. Lee, says it bothered him to see a property so close to the battlefield in disrepair.

"The house was literally falling down, it had abandoned cars all around it, and nobody seemed to mind then," he says.

The property, along Route 34 one mile east of Sharpsburg - and in full view of the majority of motorists approaching the battlefield - is within the boundaries of Antietam drawn by Congress.

But, like roughly half of the 3,200 acres within those boundaries, it's not federally owned. The park service has an easement on Chaney's property, though, which holds that new construction must be in a style suitable to the area and gives it condemnation powers.

"If this was a hamburger stand," Howard says of Chaney's plans, "I would have executed condemnation rights."

The park service owns about 20 historic houses across the battlefield and often struggles with how to use them. One is a bed-and-breakfast, and a few others under renovation will become classrooms and administrative offices.

Chaney is negotiating with the park service to sell it half his property. He has also modified his designs for the three monuments - likenesses of Lee, J.E.B. Stuart and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson - to suit the park service's wishes.

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