Progress encroaches on hallowed ground

Battlefields: Civil War sites across the South are in danger of fading away into suburban sprawl.

April 01, 2001|By Dahleen Glanton

MARIETTA, Ga. -- More than 135 years after the Civil War, battlefields from Virginia to Texas are under siege, but this time from a more modern and consuming enemy -- suburban sprawl. In a bitter and surging war that has pitted preservationists against developers, the South is on the verge of losing again.

Since serious efforts began more than a decade ago to protect America's battlefields, preservationists have acquired more than 11,000 acres of endangered land at 63 sites in 16 states. Yet, more than 20 percent of the 384 significant battlefields have succumbed to urban sprawl since 1993. According to preservationists, an acre of Civil War battleground land is lost to development every 10 minutes.

The loss of these battlefields has been particularly painful in the Deep South, where many vestiges of the Confederacy are disappearing. In an era of greater racial sensitivity and changing demographics, states have been forced to remove Confederate battle flags and monuments from their capitols and replace them with symbols deemed more inclusive of all citizens. The movement has embittered many white Southerners who view the lost Confederacy as part of their heritage.

The Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in American history, resulting in the deaths of 625,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians. The battlegrounds -- from Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in Marietta to Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, referred to by President Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address as "hallowed ground" -- are the most tangible reminders of the national calamity that helped shape America.

"The Civil War was the defining moment in American history. It freed 4 million slaves and made this country what it is today -- the oldest democracy in the world," said James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust. "We lost more people in that war than nearly all wars Americans have fought in combined. When we destroy the land, we destroy the memory of that sacrifice. And suburban sprawl is our biggest enemy everywhere."

Since the Department of the Interior created the American Battlefield Protection Program within the National Park Service in 1990, preservation efforts have been strong, particularly in Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky and Mississippi, states that have taken advantage of more than $20 million in U.S. Department of Transportation funds generated by oil royalties during the past decade.

But other states, where local preservation groups are not as diligent, lagged behind in applying for the funds awarded for conservation efforts.

After years of lobbying for more funds, preservationists won a major victory last year when Congress approved a landmark $12 billion conservation program that will benefit Civil War battlefields as well as other federal lands.

But in some cases, help has come too late.

Of the 384 battlefields identified in a congressional study as having had a significant influence on the nation's history, 70 have been entirely lost to development and 85 percent of the rest were not protected by any state, federal or local agencies and therefore threatened by encroachment.

Georgia and Tennessee

Some of the most serious threats are in the Deep South, where fast-growing cities are quickly approaching national park boundaries and bringing with them urban problems such as crime and traffic. The biggest assault, according to some preservationists, is taking place along the route of Gen. William Sherman's "March to Sea" from Chattanooga to Atlanta, now U.S. 41, where new subdivisions and shopping centers are sprouting rapidly.

Million-dollar homes stand on the land where Union and Confederate soldiers died in the battle for Atlanta. Deep in the forests of Kennesaw Mountain park, young people smoke crack, bikers use historic earthworks as an obstacle course and relic hunters scour the land for valuable Civil War artifacts.

Though national parks across the country, including Yosemite and Yellowstone, have suffered from funding losses in recent years, some battlefields in Georgia and Tennessee have been particularly vulnerable to sprawl and vandalism because they are so close to large cities and have fewer rangers patrolling thousands of acres.

In Tennessee, considered by some preservationists as the worst in terms of sprawl, only 14 of the 38 battlefields are protected to some degree. In Georgia, half of the 28 battlefields are protected.

At Stones River National Battleground, site of Tennessee's most significant battle, 584 acres of the 713-acre battlefield in Murfreesboro have been preserved. Some 400 acres bordering the park, officials said, have been zoned for commercial or industrial use and are on the market for up to $20 million, too steep a price for preservationists.

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