A new battle being fought over Chancellorsville


CHANCELLORSVILLE, Va. - Here, where thousands fell in one of the greatest battles ever fought on American soil, a new confrontation is shaping up over the fate of the battlefield.

At the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee scored one of his greatest triumphs, defeating a larger Union army with a series of brilliant maneuvers that are still studied in military academies. But the victory came at a terrible cost, because the man Lee called "my right arm," Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, known as "Stonewall," was mortally wounded by Confederate sentries.

This year's Chancellorsville conflict may not be bloody, but it is stirring emotions on both sides. At stake is a portion of the battlefield where a developer wants to build a 788-acre "new community" complete with stores, restaurants, 2,350 homes and 2.4 million square feet of office space.

Opening volleys have been fired. A coalition of seven preservation groups has begun a campaign against the proposed development. Its first public test of strength may come at a hearing of the Spotsylvania County Planning Commission Wednesday.

This town, roughly midway between Washington and Richmond, Va., is not the only place where the fate of Civil War battlefields is being decided.

Historians and preservationists say they feel a sense of new urgency as development pressures intensify across Virginia and beyond.

'It'll be over'

"Anything that isn't saved in the next decade will be gone forever," Robert K. Krick, a former National Park Service historian who has written extensively about the Civil War, said as he paused at the crossroads where Lee and Jackson met by a campfire to plan their attack. "It'll be over."

Efforts to preserve Civil War battlefields began even before the shooting had stopped and have continued fitfully. Some 620,000 men died in uniform during the war. At the end of the 19th century, Congress voted to create the first federally administered battlefield park, in Tennessee. Since then the federal government has played the lead role in preservation.

In 1998, Congress appropriated $8 million to be used over three years to buy land at Civil War battlefields. Last year, it appropriated $11 million more for a second three-year program. The money is matched with contributions from states, local governments and private groups.

Development has all but obliterated some Civil War battlefields, including the one at Franklin, Tenn., where the spot at which Confederate Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne fell dead is marked by a stake in a parking lot between two pizza parlors.

Antietam preserved

Others have been well preserved, like the one at Antietam. State officials aggressively pursued matching funds and bought enough land and conservation easements to keep the sweep of the Antietam battlefield clear from every direction.

Chancellorsville was one of the major battles of the war, and much of the battlefield is still recognizable. Visitors can walk silently on the overgrown path along which Jackson led his column on a 12-mile march to stage their devastating surprise attack.

John Hennessy, acting superintendent of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, which includes 1,600 acres of the Chancellorsville battlefield, said the proposed development "would complete the decades-long degradation of the heart of the national park from a pastoral historic landscape to a commuter corridor dominated by pavement, signs, lights and traffic."

The land on which Dogwood Development Group of Reston, Va., wants to build its community lies outside the park. Preservationists say this piece of land, which is in private hands and currently off-limits to the public, is vital to an understanding of how the battle unfolded, and they would like to see it included in an enlarged park.

It is also a commuter's drive from Washington, and therefore highly attractive to housing developers.

Ray Smith Jr., president of Dogwood Development, said his project was an example of "smart growth." He has offered to set aside 34 acres where some heavy fighting took place.

In a recent appearance before local residents, Smith said the development would be a wholesome, pedestrian-friendly enclave where up to 10,000 people could live, work, ride bicycles and enjoy bird watching. He also asserted that it would be "friendly to history, friendly to the Civil War period."

Smith said that since the land on which the development would sit is privately owned, if his company does not develop it, the owner will arrange for someone else to do so.

Preservationists are trying to prevent that. Several plan to appear at a hearing of the planning commission this month to oppose necessary zoning changes. The Spotsylvania County Commission may vote on the project as early as October.

"We are in a prime development area, the fastest-growing county in Virginia and 13th fastest in the country," said Anthony W. Barrett, the Spotsylvania County administrator. "There's no such thing as a moratorium in Virginia, saying you can't let people build."

"There's a lot of misinformation and disinformation about this project," Barrett said. "They're waving the bloody shirt about the battlefield, but this is not on the main battlefield. It's adjacent. Not a lot happened at this site."

Dispute closely watched

The Chancellorsville dispute is being watched closely for clues about how officials in Virginia now wish to balance competing pressures for development and preservation of Civil War battlefields.

In the past, most officials have strongly favored development, but as more battlefields are lost, and the cries of preservationists become more anguished, some appear more open to compromise.

"Virginia is slowly coming around to recognizing the need to preserve battlefields," said James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust. "Four or five years ago, that wasn't the case."

Lighthizer's group issued a list earlier this year of what it considered the 10 most endangered Civil War battlefields. Chancellorsville is among them.

Others include Harpers Ferry, W.Va., which the report said is threatened by "a shortsighted proposal to build a 188-home residential development and 130-foot water tower"; Richmond, Ky., where local officials have designated much of the battlefield as a "development area"; and Bentonville, N.C., where only 240 acres of a 6,000-acre battlefield have been preserved and "proximity to Interstates 95 and 40 make it a prime candidate for residential development."

In the 1960s, pressure for commercial development around battlefields began to intensify. Highways have been built across some battlefields and strip malls have all but strangled others.

One plot of land on the outskirts of Richmond that both developers and preservationists are eyeing was the site of two battles: Gaines Mill, where in 1862 Lee won his first victory as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and Cold Harbor, where, two years later, he won one of his last. A 600-acre farm where there was fierce fighting during both battles is still in the hands of the family that owned it then.

"This is one of the most significant historical properties in private ownership in this country," said David Ruth, assistant superintendent of the Richmond National Battlefield Park.

"The family hasn't indicated that they want to sell, but if they do, we will certainly do everything in our power to come to the table with a good offer," he said. "You can't downplay the importance of these properties and say they're too costly to preserve. If we lose them to development, we're losing part of our fabric and what we stand for."

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