NEW BATTLE RAGES OVER CIVIL WAR SITE Park Service's plan to buy Best Farm in Maryland draws fire in Congress ON THE POLITICAL SCENE


FREDERICK -- It was July 1864, and the enemy was marching south out of Frederick toward Washington. Along the banks of the Monocacy River, the federals dug in and tried to halt the advance.

They failed. But the battle delayed Confederate Gen. Jubal Early and his troops for a day, giving Ulysses S. Grant time to rush Union reinforcements to Washington to repel the Confederates.

Now, 129 years later, another skirmish looms at the Monocacy National Battlefield, this one over the federal government's purchase of Best Farm, where some of the fighting occurred. Since before the Civil War, the farm has been in the family of Charles McC. Mathias, who represented Maryland in the House and Senate for 26 years until retiring in 1986.

The National Park Service -- trying to halt the advance of legions of developers marching south toward Washington -- has agreed to purchase the farm for more than $12 million, a price that some people think is too high.

Last month, the park service paid $7.1 million -- money appropriated in 1992 -- for 220 of the farm's 294 acres, and in the weeks ahead Congress will decide whether to put up $5 million for the remaining 74 acres. U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland are ardent supporters of the purchase.

Value questioned

But Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, whose district includes the battlefield, has been cool to the purchase, questioning the price and the historic value of the property.

"How relevant is this extremely expensive land to telling the story of the battle?" asked the Republican freshman earlier this summer. "A lot of people think this $12 million could be better spent on developing the park," rather than paying for land "where a skirmish was fought."

Senator Mathias and his relatives are selling the farm to pay inheritance taxes, according to E. Trail Mathias, his brother and one of the nine family members with an interest in the farm. The family has had "numerous offers" for the land, he said. Working through the Trust for Public Lands, it has given the National Park Service until the end of 1994 to buy the property, according to Chrisanne Fuhrman, a trust official in New York.

Arguing that the land should be purchased before it is lost to development, Susan K. Moore, acting superintendent of the battlefield park, says, "What we do now has a major impact on future generations."

The 1,648-acre battlefield is unusual, she said, in that the fighting occurred on five farms that still exist. In addition to Best Farm, one other farm remains in private hands, said Ms. Moore.

"This battlefield is fairly pristine," she said.

Drive down the Urbana Pike (Route 355) or the Buckeystown Pike (Route 85) and you can see how the southward march of developers, spurred by construction of I-270, has transformed farmland into shopping centers, industrial parks and office buildings.

And you can see where development gives way to gently rolling pastures, fields and woodlands along the banks of the Monocacy.

On the Urbana Pike, that change occurs at the northern boundary of Best Farm, which probably looks much the same as when some of the fighting of the battle of the Monocacy took place on it.

The importance of the battle is not measured in its length, the size of opposing armies or the number of casualties, according to Civil War buffs and historians. It is important, they argue, because it saved Washington.

The first battle

General Robert E. Lee, seeking in mid-1864 to take Union pressure off his forces and the Confederate capital of Richmond, sent Early north. Hoping for a tactical surprise, Early took his troops to Frederick, where he demanded and got $200,000 from the residents by threatening to torch the town.

Alerted late to the Confederates' presence, Union General Lew Wallace rushed a much smaller force from Baltimore and dug in where he could protect the B&O; bridge and the Georgetown Pike (now Urbana Pike) bridge, both of which crossed the Monocacy at Best Farm, along with the National Pike to #i Baltimore.

Wallace's force of 5,800 men was badly outnumbered by Early's 18,000 troops and was defeated during an all-day battle. But the delay gave Union reinforcements time to get into position and turn Early back when he reached Fort Stevens in Washington, "ending the final campaign to bring the Civil War into the Northern states," according to one account.

This year, the Clinton administration budget included $5 million to buy the Mathias family's last 74 acres. Just as it had in 1992, the House interior subcommittee cut the money because, a staff member said, "We weren't that thrilled with it. It was a relatively small piece of land with a large price tag."

But the Senate Appropriations Committee, which includes Ms. Mikulski, in late July restored the money, just as it put $7 million back into the appropriations bill last year. Next week, the Senate is expected to approve the $5 million as part of a $13.3 billion spending bill for the Interior Department and related agencies.

Then, negotiators for the House and Senate will have to work out their differences. Last year, the House, after having cut all funds, went along with the Senate appropriation of $7 million, but only after a personal appeal from Mr. Sarbanes to Rep. Sidney R. Yates, the Illinois Democrat who heads the House interior subcommittee.

Speaking of the price for the land, Mr. Bartlett said land values dropped in Frederick County about three years ago. An agreement he had to sell his own 100-acre farm, southwest of the battlefield, fell through when prices dropped, he said. The government price for Best Farm is based on a Jan. 4, 1991, appraisal by a Silver Spring firm. The authors noted that the recession and "credit crunch" had "significantly diminished" demand for real estate. But, they said, they did not "discount" the valuation of the property "to account for the present economic conditions."

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