General Lee stands fast

July 05, 2005

ANTIETAM is the site of the bloodiest day of combat in any war in all of this nation's history. Since the awful day in 1862, the battlefield has always been treated as a solemn, ghostly place. Its monuments are modest; the prevailing aesthetic is to leave things as they were. As a result, the rolling hills have changed little in a century and a half. A visitor can walk Bloody Lane and Burnside Bridge and still imagine the intense fighting that left 23,000 men dead or wounded.

The latest conflict to visit Sharpsburg is over a fairly new arrival - a 24-foot bronze statue of Robert E. Lee sitting astride his horse. The monument became federal property last month when the Newcomer farm was purchased from William F. Chaney. Mr. Chaney, a history buff from Anne Arundel County and distant Lee relation, had the statue crafted and placed on the 45-acre property after he purchased the land in 1999.

Some of the Antietam National Battlefield's most ardent supporters aren't happy with the Lee statue, primarily because it's located on a hill that was held by Union forces during the fighting. This historical irregularity is no small matter to people who are prone to debating the proper positioning of rail fences and cornfields to best represent conditions on Sept. 17, 1862. Meanwhile, many other Civil War buffs - those whose sympathies tend to lie with the Confederacy - fear that the National Park Service will move the statue. The pro-South faction isn't happy that Antietam's Union monuments outnumber its Confederate tributes by a 99-to-6 margin.

The wisest counsel we have heard on this matter comes from John Howard, the battlefield's superintendent. He says he has no plans to transport the statue and even if he had the money to do such a thing he could think of many other projects that would merit his attention first.

Indeed, the gravest threat to Antietam is not the bickering over statues but the specter of encroaching development. The good news is that the Newcomer farm has been acquired (and it's also helpful, incidentally, that Mr. Chaney spent his own money to restore the Newcomer house, which he continues to own). But there's more to be done if the area's scenic vistas are to be preserved.

Just last month, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the battlefields along Route 15 from Pennsylvania to Virginia on the organization's annual list of endangered historic places. Officials worry that this unique corridor could soon be overwhelmed by development from the expanding Washington suburbs. We share that concern, and it's a prime reason why millions of taxpayer dollars - much of them coming from the Maryland Department of Transportation - have been spent over the past decade to preserve more of the Antietam and South Mountain environs.

Antietam today is relatively well preserved, particularly for a battlefield so close to an urban center. But the threat of tract homes and strip shopping malls is never far off. Private investors such as Mr. Chaney should be welcomed with open arms. The metallic General Lee may be curiously placed, but he's a lot more welcome than any additional examples of 21st-century suburban sprawl.

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