Protecting our history

The Baltimore Sun

Walking the peaceful paths of the Antietam battlefield invites thoughtful reflection on the history that marks this place among America's iconic landmarks as significant as Valley Forge or Fort McHenry. Antietam was the bloodiest one-day battle in the bloodiest war in American history, with an estimated 23,000 casualties. It set the stage for Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

It's painful to imagine looking up from this landscape filled with history's ghosts and seeing a 120-foot telecommunications tower looming on the horizon. A Rockville company wants to put one there disguised as a farm silo. Preservationists say the tower will dominate the view from Gen. Robert E. Lee's headquarters and other battlefield sites. They plan to fight it, and they should win.

Why? Because Civil War battlefields are a scarce and perishable resource. A housing development, commercial center or cell phone tower belong somewhere else, not here. Historic battlefields cannot be moved. They do not require expensive support facilities, and, once adequately protected, become permanent resources. Not only do they represent a tangible link to the past, but battlefields also attract visitors and provide open spaces in this era of urban sprawl.

The Civil War Preservation Trust estimates that 30 acres of battlefield land is lost every day. More than 70 Civil War battlefields - scenes of struggle that significantly influenced the course of our nation's history - have been overtaken by development. And fewer than 15 percent of the 384 battle sites identified as important in our history in a 1993 congressional study have been protected, according to the trust.

Washington County and federal officials should join preservationists in defending Antietam, one of America's most memorable and beautiful battlefields.

Beyond its value as a historical treasure, the Antietam battlefield is generating significant economic benefits. The 200,000 annual park visitors spend $10.8 million in the area, providing local jobs and $1.4 million in added state and local tax revenue, a recent trust study estimates.

Antietam is not the only Maryland battlefield under assault. At the Monocacy National Battlefield in Frederick County, preservationists are worried about a 150-foot-tall smokestack from a proposed county-operated plant that would produce energy from trash. The stack would be visible from much of the battlefield, as are a smokestack from a cement kiln and a Toys "R" Us warehouse. Preservationists lost fights in the 1960s and 1980s to keep an interstate highway from cutting up the battlefield. Interstate 270 now bisects a portion of it.

The Maryland battles were pieces of a far bloodier whole that foreshadowed the devastating conflicts of the 20th century. The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865, an estimated 620,000, is significantly more than the 380,000 American fatalities in World War I, World War II, Vietnam and Iraq combined. We can honor their memory by safeguarding the fields where fellow soldiers fought to preserve our union.

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