Paul Gilligan is standing inside a West Main Street storefront that predates the Civil War, waving a cigar and talking about a battle he says is too often overlooked.
Days before Antietam, the single deadliest day in American military history, the Battle of South Mountain unfolded around this tiny town in Western Maryland, which has a modern-day population of 160.
“Everything was a battlefield,” Gilligan explains, gesturing to a reproduction of Burkittsville, which sits in his antique shop along with a collection of lamps, cannonballs and furniture. “The whole damn thing.”
Preservationists and residents have worked with the state government in recent years to improve trails and signage in the 7,300-acre state park that includes the town and the rest of the rugged battlefield area, which weaves for 40 miles along the South Mountain Ridge from the Pennsylvania line to the Potomac River.
They say they were surprised and upset to learn in December that Republican Gov. Larry Hogan wants to give the U.S. government 2,481 acres in the park in exchange for state control of 512 acres of federal land in Prince George’s County, where Hogan hopes to convince the Washington Redskins to build their next stadium.
“There’s no net gain,” said Gilligan, owner of P.J. Gilligan’s Dry Goods and head of the Burkittsville Preservation Association. “If you give ownership to the feds, they won’t care as much about us.”
The town, which sits near the border of Frederick and Washington Counties, is surrounded by farms and best known for being the set of “The Blair Witch Project.”
A few die-hard fans occasionally come through, said Gilligan, a former Burkittsville mayor. But there are no restaurants, public bathrooms or gas stations, and the antique shop, built in 1820, is one of the only businesses.
Visitors typically come on foot from the Appalachian Trail, which runs along South Mountain, or via history-focused tours that originate in nearby Middletown and Frederick.
“My theory is that the more you keep it au naturel, the better,” Gilligan said. “We like tourism, but we don’t want to have to change . . . people want to be able to see the historical landscape as it was.”
Hogan said in December that the U.S. Interior Department “desperately wants” the land at South Mountain “for an extension of some Civil War battlefields.”
Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, a spokeswoman with the National Park Service, said “it’s impossible to speculate about future use” for the site because finalizing land swaps requires “many legal, regulatory and environmental compliance steps.” The process can take years.
But those who live in the area say they are concerned by the precedent Hogan would set by giving state land to the National Park Service, which has a $12 billion maintenance and repair backlog.
“Could the state be doing more to preserve and interpret this land? Yes,” said Nicholas Redding, executive director of Preservation Maryland, a nonprofit that works on projects across the state. “But just because the state isn’t using a resource as much as it could be doesn’t mean we should just jettison it.”
Redding said he would like Hogan to visit the town and battlefield: “Come with us for a day and if at the end of it you still think you want to trade it away, then that’s fine, but I think we’ll prove you wrong.”
Hogan’s spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said the “entire aim of the Western Maryland portion of the land swap is preservation of existing parkland and expansion of protected land.” The governor will meet in March with Maryland’s congressional delegation and Interior Department staff, she said, “to determine how best to complete the transaction.”
About 28,000 Union soldiers fought about 18,000 Confederate soldiers during the Battle of South Mountain, which played out along three remote mountain passes. Union soldiers won, according to the American Battlefield Trust. About 800 people were killed.
The memorandum of understanding that Hogan signed with then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke does not include a map of the land Hogan would give to the National Park Service in exchange for control of the Oxon Cove site.
The nonbinding agreement, obtained through a public records request, says the state agrees to work with the Park Service to acquire “2,481 acres located in South Mountain State Battlefield, Gathland State Park, and some surrounding areas.”
The two parks border each other and do not have clear boundaries or entrance facilities. Signs guide visitors to monuments such as the National War Correspondents Memorial, a huge arch dedicated to journalists who died covering the Civil War.
Reps. David Trone and Jamie Raskin, both Democrats whose districts include parts of South Mountain, have not been briefed on Hogan’s plan and said they want transparency as the process moves forward. Chasse said Hogan has spoken with Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D), whose district includes Oxon Cove Park, and that senior members of his staff have briefed Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).
“My interest is in making sure our environmental and historic preservation values are protected in Western Maryland,” Raskin said in an interview.
Hogan’s plans for a new stadium in Prince George’s face a variety of obstacles, including from Democratic leaders in the Maryland General Assembly who are skeptical about using park land for a new stadium or putting taxpayer dollars toward infrastructure improvements.
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has also spoken glowingly about having the Redskins return to their original stadium at RFK Stadium in the District.
State Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick), who Gilligan unsuccessfully ran against years ago in a race for state delegate, defended the proposed land swap and said Democrats’ opposition was politically driven. He said the federal government has more resources than the state that could go toward preserving the park.
“People are looking to give the governor a hard time,” Hough said. “I chalk this up to partisanship.”
The other state senator from Frederick, Democrat Ron Young said he does not “see any benefit of transferring” the land and questioned how much Maryland taxpayers benefit from having the Redskins’ stadium located in the state.
Audrey Scanlan-Teller lives in a house overlooking the battlefield and has two ancestors who died there. Scanlan-Teller, who is vice president of the Central Maryland Heritage League, called the proposed swap “a real shame.”