Industry encroaches on Maryland's Civil War battlefields

Sites at Monocacy, South Mountain highlight conflict with modern society

  • The Battle of Monocacy began here, at Worthington Farm. A waste-to-energy plant is planned for across the river.
The Battle of Monocacy began here, at Worthington Farm. A waste-to-energy… (Timothy B. Wheeler, Baltimore…)
April 25, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

FREDERICK — — Standing behind the old brick Worthington House, visitors can look down the gently sloping hillside and picture the Civil War battle that likely saved the nation's capital from capture.

Much of the farmland where Union soldiers fought that hot summer day in 1864 to delay a Confederate attack on Washington has been preserved as Monocacy National Battlefield. But the view from the Worthington farm, where the fighting began, appears fated to become less historic.

A huge waste-to-energy plant is planned just across the Monocacy River from the 1,650-acre park — a project that has sparked criticism as the nation marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the war. One hundred fifty feet tall, with a 270-foot smokestack, the facility will loom over the trees that hide areas where Confederate cavalry forded the river to assault Union infantry.

"This will be visible from the visitors center and other key parts of the battlefield," said Susan W. Trail, superintendent of the historic park on the southern outskirts of Frederick. "It will, in my view, overwhelm part of our landscape."

As history buffs begin four years of events marking the anniversary of a conflict that continues to resonate in American politics and culture today, the land over which blue- and gray-clad soldiers bled and died is coming into increasing conflict with modern society. In Maryland, both the Monocacy and South Mountain battlefields face development pressures from energy projects.

Only about 20 percent of the land nationwide on which fighting occurred is preserved, either as national, state or local parks or in private ownership, according to the Civil War Trust, a nonprofit group dedicated to saving battlefields. Even the parks face encroachment by shopping malls, highways, housing developments, cellphone towers and casinos.

"A lot of this comes down to a clash between our modern needs and our sensibilities about preserving our resources," Trail said.

Less famous and smaller than the bloodbaths that took place at nearby Antietam and Gettysburg, Pa., the Monocacy battle was noteworthy for the role historians say it played in thwarting the third Confederate invasion of the North.

On July 9, 1864, at a critical junction of roads and railroads crossing the Monocacy River, a hastily assembled Union force of 5,800 soldiers confronted a much larger Confederate army bent on attacking Washington, which at the time was lightly defended.

The South prevailed at the end of a daylong, seesaw battle that left 1,300 Union soldiers dead, wounded or missing. But the holding action bought crucial time for Union reinforcements to be rushed to the capital, and the invading army withdrew after finding its prize well-guarded.

The Monocacy park lies in the shadow of better-known Civil War clashes in the area. Authorized by Congress in the 1930s, it got no money to buy land until the 1970s and didn't open to visitors until 20 years ago. The battlefield had long since been bisected by Interstate 270, built to connect Frederick with the Capital Beltway.

"I don't think this would have happened today," Trail said last week as traffic whizzed between the two farms where fighting raged. "It makes it hard for people to get a sense of the battle."

But modern life keeps closing in: A high-tension power line from West Virginia that would have skirted the park has been put on hold — for now. Meanwhile, Frederick, the state's second-largest city, has slowly sprawled southward toward the park.

"We're this sea of green on the edge of the city," Trail said.

The land across the river from the park has long been zoned for industrial use, though most of the facilities now are hidden by the trees lining the riverbank. That's where Frederick County's commissioners have decided to put the waste-to-energy plant.

Blaine Young, president of the five-member board, said he and the other commissioners are committed to building the plant, though he wishes it could be put elsewhere.

Other sites were considered, he said, but a previous board decided to put it near the park to save the county money and time. The property is owned by the county, he said, and the plant will burn sewage sludge from the nearby wastewater treatment plant, which would otherwise have to be processed in a costly "digester" facility.

Young said Wheelabrator Technologies, the company that won the contract to build the plant, is looking at altering the facility's design and even color to try to make it less noticeable to park visitors. But Young said the chance of moving it at this point are "slim to none."

"The fact is, we're so close to Gettysburg, the Civil War heritage we have in Frederick is often overshadowed," he said.

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