Marietta, Ga. More than 135 years after the Civil War, battlefields from Virginia to Texas are under siege, but this time from a more modern and consuming enemy suburban sprawl. In a bitter and surging war that has pitted preservationists against developers, the South is on the verge of losing again.
Since serious efforts began more than a decade ago to protect America's battlefields, preservationists have acquired more than 11,000 acres of endangered land at 63 sites in 16 states. Yet, more than 20 percent of the 384 significant battlefields have succumbed to urban sprawl since 1993. According to preservationists, an acre of Civil War battleground land is lost to development every 10 minutes.
The loss of these battlefields has been particularly painful in the Deep South, where many vestiges of the Confederacy are disappearing. In an era of greater racial sensitivity and changing demographics, states have been forced to remove Confederate battle flags and monuments from their capitols and replace them with symbols deemed more inclusive of all citizens. The movement has embittered many white Southerners who view the lost Confederacy as part of their heritage.
The Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in American history, resulting in the deaths of 625,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians. The battlegrounds from Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in Marietta to Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, referred to by President Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address as "hallowed ground" are the most tangible reminders of the national calamity that helped shape America.
"The Civil War was the defining moment in American history. It freed 4 million slaves and made this country what it is todaythe oldest democracy in the world," said James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust. "We lost more people in that war than nearly all wars Americans have fought in combined. When we destroy the land, we destroy the memory of that sacrifice. And suburban sprawl is our biggest enemy everywhere."
Protection program efforts
Since the Department of the Interior created the American Battlefield Protection Program within the National Park Service in 1990, preservation efforts have been strong, particularly in Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky and Mississippi, states that have taken advantage of more than $20 million in U.S. Department of Transportation funds generated by oil royalties during the last decade. But other states, where local preservation groups are not as diligent, lagged behind in applying for the funds awarded for conservation efforts. After years of lobbying for more funds, preservationists last year won a major victory when Congress approved a landmark $12 billion conservation program that will benefit Civil War battlefields as well as other federal lands.
But in some cases, help has come too late.
Of the 384 battlefields identified in a congressional study as having had a significant influence on the nation's history, 70 have been entirely lost to development and 85 percent of the rest were not protected by any state, federal or local agencies and therefore threatened by encroachment.
South under siege
Some of the most serious threats are in the Deep South, where fast-growing cities are quickly approaching national park boundaries and bringing with them urban problems such as crime and traffic. The biggest assault, according to some preservationists, is taking place along the route of Gen. William Sherman's "March to Sea" from Chattanooga to Atlanta, now U.S. Highway 41, where new subdivisions and shopping centers are sprouting rapidly.
Million-dollar homes now stand on the land where Union and Confederate soldiers died in the battle for Atlanta. Deep in the forests of Kennesaw Mountain park, young people smoke crack, bikers use historic earthworks as an obstacle course and relic hunters scour the land for valuable Civil War artifacts.
Lecompton Worried about the loss of Civil War sites throughout the nation, a Kansas historian urged people to learn more about those sites that remain."We need to encourage appreciation of what we do have," said Tim Rues, curator of the Constitution Hall State Historic Site in Lecompton. "Douglas County, as are many places, is seeing sprawl, and we should try to preserve what we have."Rues mentioned a few area sites, such as Fort Titus, south of Lecompton, where in 1856 Free State forces from Lawrence fought with a pro-slavery faction led by Col. H.T. Titus. The Free-Staters burned the fort and took Titus prisoner.Similar stories of the years before, during and after the Civil War were discussed Sunday afternoon during a lecture at Constitution Hall, one of five lectures in a series about events in Kansas' territorial counties.Rues also spoke of a newly-discovered foundation where likely stood a house owned by a man named Napoleon Blanton, a Free-Stater who operated a toll bridge over the Wakarusa River south of Lawrence.Blanton's home reportedly was burned down by William Clarke Quantrill during a pre-Civil War raid, but the remnants have been discovered near a mobile home park, Rues said."You could argue that Douglas County was the birthplace of the Civil War," he said. "From 1854 to 1861, hundreds died in Bleeding Kansas. One could say we were fighting the Civil War five years early. We don't want these places to be forgotten."Sunday's lecture was about Riley County. The next, scheduled for March 11, will discuss Johnson County.
Though national parks across the country, including Yosemite and Yellowstone, have suffered from funding losses in recent years, some battlefields in Georgia and Tennessee have been particularly vulnerable to sprawl and vandalism because they are so close to large cities and have fewer rangers patrolling thousands of acres. In Tennessee, considered by some preservationists as the worst in terms of sprawl, only 14 of the 38 battlefields are protected to some degree. In Georgia, half of the 28 battlefields are protected.
At Stones River National Battleground, site of Tennessee's most significant battle, 584 acres of the 713-acre battlefield in Murfreesboro south of Nashville has been preserved. Some 400 acres bordering the park, officials said, have been zoned for commercial or industrial use and are on the market for up to $20 million, too steep for preservationists.
"In some ways things have become critical in Tennessee," said Jim Ogden, historian at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park on the Georgia-Tennessee border. "Tennessee was one of the most fought over and one of the states that saw the greatest number of military actions, but fewer of those historic areas have any measure of preservation. With the growth of Nashville and middle Tennessee, particularly in the last 15 years, more and more land has become threatened, and there is no way to protect it."
In Georgia, privately owned lots surrounding Kennesaw Mountain sell for about $150,000. Much of the private land, some of which cuts through the middle of the 2,800-acre battlefield, has been bought by developers who build highly sought-after homes with back doors that open right onto the national park.
"The value of the property here is incredible because people know their neighbor will always be a national park and not a gas station or a strip shopping center. They know the park service will fight it tooth and nail," said Kennesaw Supt. John Cissel. "The problem is that when people walk out of their houses to go for a walk, they aren't likely to stay on the designated trails, and that damages the land."
Memorial or playground?
Like many towns where battlegrounds remain, Marietta initially was a farming community 20 miles north of Atlanta that no one envisioned would become a thriving suburb. During the Civil War, Cobb County had about 14,000 residents. Today the population is approaching 600,000.
As the county grew, homes and businesses replaced trees and forests, leaving virtually no open green space. As a result, the battleground became a recreational park with about 1.2 million visitors per year.
"Everybody who needs open space for flying kites, throwing Frisbees, walking dogs, jogging and riding bikes comes here," Cissel said. "This was not created as green open space for the people of Cobb County; it was created to commemorate the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. It's one step away from a graveyard and one step away from a memorial. It was intended that these 16 miles of trail be for quiet walking and not hindered by people racing down the trail yelling, 'Biker coming through, out of my way!"'
While each park has experienced unique problems an overpopulation of deer at Gettysburg, for example relic hunters who illegally troll the grounds at night in search of belt buckles, buttons and other potentially valuable artifacts also have plundered many. Spurred by Internet trading, television documentaries and the proliferation of Civil War re-enactment and relic shows, the popularity of Civil War artifacts, particularly Confederate items, have tripled in the last decade. A bullet can sell for $500, a Confederate soldier's belt buckle for $10,000, a rare button for $15,000 or a revolver for $60,000. At a recent relics show in Dalton, Ga., a Confederate Navy flag flown on the CSS Alabama sold for $100,000.
"Private collectors are like people who buy stock. This is our investment. But it only goes one way up," said Jerry Fertitta, who owns a relics shop in Richmond, Va. "There were so fewer Confederate artifacts produced that they can double or triple in value compared to the federal items. And if the original owner can be identified, the value can quadruple."
While relic hunting is illegal at national parks, it has not deterred amateurs or professionals from looting, and in the process, damaging the land.
At Kennesaw, dirt trenches, or earthworks, built by Confederate troops to protect themselves from advancing Union soldiers, have been severely damaged or destroyed by relic seekers who dig for artifacts and motor bikers, who use the land as an obstacle course. And the park's centerpiece the marble Illinois Monument, dedicated to soldiers who died in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain is etched with graffiti.
Controlling vandalism and petty crimes such as drinking and drug usage at the park is frustrating and sometimes overwhelming for the four rangers responsible for patrolling Kennesaw's s 8-mile long area.
"It's like beating our heads against a brick wall. The Confederate battlefields are the red-headed step-children to the National Park Service," said Ranger Anthony Winegar, who oversees evidence lockers where confiscated drugs and metal detectors are stored for trial. "Even when we make arrests, it's hard to get a conviction because it's not a priority for prosecutors, and some judges don't take it that seriously.
Because of under funding, many battlegrounds are experiencing problems similar to Kennesaw's. But preservationists are hopeful things will turn around now that additional conservation funds have been set aside.
"Many of the parks have public roads going through them, so you can't put a fence around them and a gate that locks. Most of the parks are shorthanded. They don't have money for security and policing. It's a perennial problem," said James McPherson, a history professor at Princeton University and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era."
"Some places where a lot of fighting took place, such as Atlanta and Nashville, the sites are pretty much gone. The only thing that can be done maybe is put up some markers in the back yard of somebody's condominium."