For Immediate Release: 03/18/09
Richard Dreyfuss Joins Civil War Preservation Trust to Unveil Report on Endangered Battlefields
Academy Award-Winning Actor Helps Unveil Report Identifying America’s Most Endangered Battlefields
(Washington, D.C.) - A bucolic Maryland battleground threatened by a trash incinerator’s unsightly 350-foot-tall smokestack; a verdant Virginia forest where Generals Lee and Grant first faced off, now jeopardized by a behemoth big-box retailer; and a charming Mississippi town spared from the torch but not from a highway are some of the nation’s most endangered Civil War battlefields.
At a news conference this morning, the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) unveiled its annual report on the status of the nation’s historic battlegrounds. The report, entitled History Under Siege™: A Guide to America’s Most Endangered Civil War Battlefields, identifies the most threatened Civil War sites in the United States and what can be done to save them.
“In town after town, the irreplaceable battlefields that define those communities are being marred forever,” said CWPT President James Lighthizer. “As we approach the Sesquicentennial of the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history, we need to be more aware than ever of the importance of preserving these sacred places for generations to come.”
Joining Lighthizer at the news conference announcing the report was actor Richard Dreyfuss. Best known for his roles in films like American Graffiti, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and his Academy Award-winning turn in The Goodbye Girl, Dreyfuss is also an avid student of history and has been involved in numerous documentary projects, including The Great Battles of the Civil War and Lincoln.
Of the growing need for historic preservation Dreyfuss said, “These hallowed battlegrounds should be national shrines, monuments to American valor, determination and courage. Once these irreplaceable treasures are gone, they’re gone forever.”
Also participating in the news conference was Dr. Libby O’Connell Chief Historian for History, formerly The History Channel. O’Connell developed and oversees Save Our History, the group’s campaign for historic preservation and history education. “These endangered Civil War battlefields are the places where many Americans made the greatest sacrifice for their country,” said O’Connell. “They must be protected.”
History Under Siege™: A Guide to America’s Most Endangered Civil War Battlefields is composed of two parts. The first section presents the 10 most endangered battlefields in the nation, providing a brief description of the history and preservation status of each site. The second section briefly describes the 15 additional “at risk” sites that round out the top 25 endangered Civil War battlefields in the United States.
The sites discussed in the report range from the famous to the nearly forgotten. All share a critical feature, however—at least part of each site is in danger of being lost forever. The battlefields were chosen based on geographic location, military significance, and the immediacy of current threats.
Among the sites included in the report is Monocacy, Maryland, July 9, 1864, an engagement often called the “battle that saved Washington.” Monocacy is today threatened by a planned waste-to-energy facility with a proposed 350-foot-tall smokestack, which would be visible from much of the battlefield. The $527 million facility would process trash from Frederick and Carroll counties, burning up to 1,500 tons per day. The battle at Monocacy occurred when the Confederate Army of the Valley marched down the Shenandoah Valley and into Maryland, during the third and final Confederate invasion of the North. An impromptu force of largely inexperienced soldiers moved to block the Southerners before they could threaten Washington or Baltimore. The Confederates, outnumbering their opponents nearly three to one, outflanked and overpowered the Union troops, inflicting more than 20 percent casualties before forcing their foe to retire. Although defeated, the Union stand had bought valuable time and enabled veteran troops to reinforce Washington before the Confederates arrived at its outskirts.
The Battle of the Wilderness, Virginia, May 5–7, 1864, was among the most significant engagements of the war and marked the first time two Civil War legends — Gen. Robert E. Lee and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant — faced each other in battle. Nearly 29,000 American soldiers were killed, wounded or captured in the horrendous, two-day struggle fought in scrub growth and among burning trees and earthworks. Today, preservationists in Orange County, Va., are facing an uphill battle to stop Walmart from building a new 138,000-square foot supercenter across Route 3 from the battlefield. There are already several other Walmart’s within a 20-mile radius and, if built, the new store would ensure further commercial development in the area. Preservationists have offered to fund a comprehensive planning study that would preserve the battlefield while allowing the Orange County to meet its economic development needs.
On the morning of May 1, 1863, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Union army had crossed the Mississippi River and was beginning its final push to capture Vicksburg. While 8,000 severely outnumbered Confederates fought savagely at Port Gibson, Mississippi, their sacrifice was in vain, and 800 of their number were killed, wounded or went missing that day. Grant lost slightly more men but secured a vital river crossing for his army, allowing him to press on to Vicksburg. Local lore has it that Union forces marching through Mississippi spared the town of Port Gibson from the torch because it was too beautiful to burn. Today the area retains its tree-lined streets and is home to a tourist industry centered on its quaint small-town charm and history. These very traits, however, are threatened by a proposal to widen U.S. Route 61, Church Street, through the heart of town. Local officials, including the mayor, are lobbying for a bypass to the east of town, which would skirt the battlefield more widely and avoid historic neighborhoods.
In addition to Monocacy, the Wilderness and Port Gibson, History Under Siege™ includes:
Cedar Creek, Virginia, October 19, 1864: The site of a Union victory that helped propel Abraham Lincoln to reelection in 1864 is today threatened by the expansion of a limestone mining operation on core battlefield land. Heavy machinery and slag piles from existing quarries are already visible. Despite vehement opposition and the recommendation of the county planning commission, the Frederick County Board of Supervisors rezoned 394 acres, greatly increasing the size of the mine and threatening to destroy significant sections of the northern part of the battlefield. In addition, Cedar Creek is one of approximately 15 battlefields across Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia potentially impacted by a proposed network of high-voltage electric transmission lines in the eastern U.S.
Fort Gaines, Alabama, August 5–8, 1864: Despite its strategic location on Dauphin Island at the entrance to Mobile Bay and its occupation by 800 Confederate troops in August of 1864, Fort Gaines was overpowered by Union Admiral David Farragut’s fleet of 18 ships. Today, the fort faces another mighty foe: the Gulf of Mexico. Recent dredging practices have significantly hastened the erosion of Dauphin Island, threatening to cut the island in two. Some 400 feet of historic battlefield have already been erased.
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1–3, 1863: The largest and bloodiest battle of the Civil War raged for three days and claimed a horrific price — more than 50,000 killed, wounded and missing. Although it is the best-known of all Civil War battlefields, Gettysburg still faces threats to its preservation and interpretation. Many historically significant locations on the battlefield lie outside the boundaries of Gettysburg National Military Park and are vulnerable to residential or commercial development. Preservationists are eager to protect one such area, known locally as the Gettysburg Country Club, but the high asking price has thus far put it out of their reach.
New Market Heights, Virginia, September 29, 1864: Outside Richmond, north of the James River, nearly 3,000 African American soldiers in Union blue were anxious to prove themselves. In a bloody but valorous attack at New Market Heights, these United States Colored Troops lost more than 800 men in one hour. Of the 16 Medals of Honor awarded to African American troops in the Civil War, 14 were earned by soldiers fighting that day. Despite its indisputable historic significance, New Market Heights is completely at the mercy of development with no land protected by preservation organizations. Some significant potions of the battlefield have already been destroyed by a housing development, and growing traffic congestion on Virginia Route 5 will ultimately necessitate the widening of the highway, threatening approximately 75-acres of still-pristine battlefield land.
Sabine Pass, Texas, September 8, 1863: Anxious to prevent a viable Confederate trade route through Mexico, President Abraham Lincoln sent a force to capture Sabine Pass and begin the occupation of Texas. The only Confederate line of defense was a few dozen artillerists manning six cannons inside Fort Griffin. Their deadly accuracy caused one of the most lopsided victories of the war as they turned back the Union fleet and captured several hundred prisoners. The site of this struggle was closed to the public after sustaining heavy damage during Hurricane Rita in 2005 and again following Hurricane Ike in 2008.
South Mountain, Maryland, September 14, 1862: In his first invasion of the North, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee famously divided his army in the face of a superior Union army under Gen. George B. McClellan. A copy of one of his orders, detailing the vulnerability of his outnumbered forces, fell into McClellan’s hands and spurring his foes to confront Lee’s army at South Mountain. The hopelessly outnumbered Southerners fought back savagely in defense of three gaps along South Mountain. Today, the historic battleground is threatened by a $55 million natural gas compression station planned nearby.
Spring Hill, Tenn., November 29, 1864: Spring Hill, site of a famous missed opportunity for Confederate forces that led to a disastrous defeat in nearby Franklin, is located in Middle Tennessee, one of the nation’s most rapidly growing regions. General Motors is looking to sell approximately 500 acres of unused land associated with the battlefield. Initial plans call for 400 acres of high-density development including apartments, a hotel, a theater, restaurants and retail and office space adjacent to the battlefield.
Although many battlefields are endangered, CWPT is making significant progress in the fight to preserve them. In 2008, the organization rescued approximately 1,000 acres of hallowed ground at legendary battlefields such as Champion Hill, Miss.; Bentonville, N.C.; Shiloh, Tenn.; and Brandy Station, Va. Since its creation two decades ago, CWPT has protected more than 25,000 acres at more than 100 sites in 19 states. CWPT first issued its annual report on endangered battlefields in February 2001.
With 60,000 members, CWPT is the largest nonprofit battlefield preservation organization in the United States. Its mission is to preserve our nation’s endangered Civil War battlefields and to promote appreciation of these hallowed grounds. CWPT’s website is www.civilwar.org.