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The Civil War Trust

Making the past a sensory experience

Created date

June 21st, 2011

In 1987, historians and Civil War reenactors gathered in Northern Virginia and watched with horror as a steamroller pressed blacktop into earth once soaked with the blood of 2,100 soldiers. The project was to make way for a shopping center on the site of the Battle of Chantilly, where, in 1862, military greats the likes of Thomas Stonewall Jackson and Philip Kearny fought for control of the recently proclaimed Confederate land. Those who looked on couldn t help but feel as though they had witnessed an assault on the past a crime in which developers bulldozed sacrifice in the name of profit. The act pushed the spectators to the brink. They were determined to do everything in their power to stop it from happening again. Their conviction was the driving force behind the Civil War Trust.

30,000 acres preserved

Over the next two and a half decades, the nonprofit headquartered in Washington, D.C., tirelessly preserved 30,000 acres of battlefields, known in Civil War circles as hallowed ground. Placed in a larger context, that s 5,000 acres more than all of Manhattan Island. Such a mammoth figure is a personal milestone for the organization. It s also a testament to the value that Americans place on protecting the memory of the bloodiest conflict fought between citizens of the same republic. To James Lighthizer, president of the Trust, there s no better way to learn about these battles than to visit the places where they happened. Anyone who s read about a particular battle and later visited that battlefield will usually describe the experience as inspiring, he says. It s tactile in almost every conceivable way. They re monuments to ordinary men who did extraordinary things. When you reflect on that, you gain a new perspective on the past. Accomplishing this depends largely on willing sellers. Many of the 10,000 sites on which the Civil War s engagements occurred are, to this day, family homesteads and farms indeed, the very families that owned them at the time of the conflict. After negotiations between owners and the Trust, lawyers hammer out deals that entail either the outright purchase of land or sometimes a rider that dictates specific limitations on development. Most recently, they completed a $1.1 million deal for 49 acres of the Wilderness battlefield in Virginia. In some cases, a rider or easement is the best solution because the field is part of privately held ground, says Mary Koik, the Trust s deputy director of communications. In other cases, it s preferable to purchase the land and, when we can, transfer ownership to the National Park Service, which we ve done at key sites such as Gettysburg and Harpers Ferry. The end result is always the same, and that s keeping these battlefields around for future generations to learn from and enjoy. Of course, education and culture, while important, are not the only benefits to preservation. According to the Trust s 2006Blue, Gray, and Green Report, premier sites like Antietam, Gettysburg, Shiloh, and 17 other locations support upwards of 5,700 jobs. These same battlefields have generated a total of $21 million in state government revenue. Gettysburg alone brought in $11.8 million for the state of Pennsylvania and $5.2 million for the local government. Civil War tourists are some of the best ones out there, Koik remarks. They not only comb every inch of the battlefields, they come into your community and shop in your stores, eat in your restaurants, sleep in your hotels, and then leave. They bring money in without consuming resources and public services.

2% of the population

But the preservation of those sites where 2% of America s population (roughly 600,000 people) died to settle the questions of secession and slavery is still the most persuasive justification for the Trust s work. Civil War battlefields are compelling destinations, especially at a time when our demand for interactivity is greater than ever. To climb the same hills as Union and Confederate soldiers, to walk the same fields and gaze upon the same tree lines as Grant and Lee, is to make the past a sentient experience. Saving battlefields is no different than saving Independence Hall, Mount Vernon, or Monticello, says Lighthizer. When you go to these places, you touch the things that these people touched and you stand in the places that they stood. Battlefields make you think about the sacrifice and valor that occurred on these tracts of land. I ve never read a book that could achieve that. You can visit the Civil War Trust online at '