Partners in Preservation: An Interview with Ben Brockenbrough & Robert Freis
Earlier this year, the Civil War Trust launched a fundraising campaign to save 665 crucial acres on the North Anna Battlefield — the entirety of the Jericho Mill portion of the site. The Richmond Battlefields Association (RBA) is contributing $5,000 to the effort, matching a $5,000 contribution from the Grand Army of the Cussewago (GAC). The Civil War Trust recently had the opportunity to connect with RBA president Ben Brockenbrough and GAC historian Robert Freis regarding the groups’ donations.
Civil War Trust: What about the Jericho Mill property in particular inspired such a generous gift?
Ben Brockenbrough: In spring of 2013 I led the GAC on its annual campaign and tour — in this case, two and a half days following the Union and Confederate armies from the bloody fields of Spotsylvania to Haw’s Shop in Hanover County, Va. We spent considerable time as guests of Jeff McKinney at Anchors Down Farm on the North Anna River, taking advantage of the opportunity to examine a rarely visited, privately held site. We hiked downriver to the site of the Federal pontoon bridges and stood across from the stone foundation of the old mill. We walked the military road hacked into the steep bluff by the 50th NY Engineers and made in the photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan. And we stood on the spot where the justifiably renowned “Iron Brigade” buckled, and for a critical moment, the Union V Corps was saved from destruction by one lone artillery battery. That pristine battlefield had a profound effect on all of us. It is a place where it is incredibly easy to visualize what took place, to become — in the words of Kurt Vonnegut — “unstuck in time.” That exhilarating experience was made possible by two factors. First there was the lesson that the GAC’s mentor, Jay Luvaas, taught us — that by moving hell and high water to stand on the spot where these events occurred and reading the first-hand accounts of the participants, we come as close as we possibly can to understanding what took place there. That was Jay’s gift to us. Secondly, the experience was possible thanks to the multigenerational stewardship of the McKinney family and their dedication to the dream that this historic spot would remain protected. In conversations with Jeff during late 2012 and early 2013 I learned that his family — some of them scattered in far corners of the planet — would be selling Anchors Down Farm. Jeff was hopeful that the property could be preserved but was worried about how to turn that dream into reality. I determined to do whatever I could to help Jeff save this battlefield, but, at over 600 acres, I knew the task was too big for my organization — the RBA — to accomplish on its own. We needed the depth and resources of a national organization. I immediately got on the phone with Tom Gilmore at the Civil War Trust to alert our friends there to both the imminent threat and the incredible opportunity at Jericho Ford. Sensing their interest and concern I immediately felt a tremendous sense of relief, even before contact was made with the family. I knew the situation was in the best possible hands.
Civil War Trust: Ben has referred to the GAC as a group of Civil War enthusiasts brought together by the late historian Jay Luvaas, in whose name the GAC has established a permanent preservation fund with the Civil War Trust. Please tell us a bit about Jay — and why it was important to the GAC to honor his legacy in this way.
Robert Freis: A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Jay Luvaas graduated from Allegheny College and then went to Duke University, where he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. Returning to his undergraduate alma mater, Luvaas taught for many years at Allegheny College. In 1972 he became the first holder of the visiting professorship at the U.S. Military Academy. A decade later, Luvaas moved to the U.S. Army Military History Institute’s visiting professorship. After a year in that post, he assumed a berth as Professor of Military History at the U.S. Army War College, and served in that capacity until his retirement in 1995. Luvaas published numerous books and articles, but is perhaps best known for his revival of the Staff Ride system, and together with his long-time friend and collaborator Harold W. Nelson published the U.S. Army War College Guide to Gettysburg, followed by subsequent guides to Antietam and Fredericksburg/Chancellorsville. Other historians have continued the battlefield guide series to the present day, and revised edition of the Gettysburg guide has been reissued. While a student at Duke, Luvaas made life-long friendships among other young men who enjoyed walking Civil War battlefields. An article he wrote during that period about the Battle of Bentonville, N.C., resurrected interest in that long-forgotten and unprotected historic site. Luvaas left Durham and returned to Allegheny College, but vowed to stay in touch with his North Carolina friends by gathering annually at a Civil War battlefield. That fraternal promise solidified into a group called the Army of the Cussewago, which Luvaas led until his 1996 retirement. Through 2014, its successor group, the GAC, meets each year to follow Luvaas’ traditions. Through his academic work, Luvaas revitalized an American military history study framework called the Staff Ride. A simple yet profound methodology, the Staff Ride follows the chronology of a military campaign or battle, and reconstructs a narrative of events by using primary source documents. Luvaas was renowned for lugging a pertinent copy of the Official Records into the field, and finding a critical location described in an after-action report. By reading those accounts aloud to the group, and adding his own interpretive amplification in an authentic, on-site outdoor classroom, Luvaas brought vivid, engaging clarity to Civil War history. Nearly 20 years after Luvaas retired from professional and avocational battlefield tour leadership, his methodology continues to guide groups of Civil War enthusiasts. His technique still speaks to those ranging from life-long Civil War students and professional educators to interested novices. Today’s GAC (named, like many Northern armies, after a body of water – in this case Cussewago Creek near Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.) is Luvaas’ scion, a combination of jocular fraternity and solid Civil War scholarship. On average, 50 to 60 members and guests gather each year over an extended weekend to visit a selected campaign or battle. This group, consisting of Civil War authors, students, military officers both active and retired, and professional men from all walks of life, from the United States, Canada and overseas, is self-directed. Each year a member volunteers to lead a tour, guided with assurance by employing Jay Luvaas’ sure methodology — which basically allows Civil War participants to speak for themselves. The GAC honors its founder and the organization’s members while acknowledging a debt to historic sites through the Jay Luvaas Civil War Preservation Fund. Through GAC member contributions, the ‘Jay Fund’ financially supports national and local preservation efforts. After a half-century of walking Civil War battlefields, the disciples of Jay Luvaas understand the value of protecting these precious sites. In 2014, the ‘Jay Fund’ supported battlefield preservation at North Anna (site of the GAC’s 2013 tour), at South Mountain, Md., (2014 tour) and Stones River, Tenn. (1999 tour). Jay Luvaas died in 2006 and was buried in Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery. Yet his legacy — like those of the Civil War’s old soldiers — lives on.
Civil War Trust: The GAC’s most recent contribution to the fund was made in memory of Donald France. What was Donald’s relationship with the GAC? Did he have a personal connection to the history at North Anna?
Robert Freis: In 2014, the GAC’s Jay Luvaas Civil War Preservation Fund made its annual donations in honor and memory of a long-time and valued member, Donald D. France. Don, a Philadelphia-area native who retained his rich Main Line accent after settling in Durham, N.C., walked Civil War battlefields for many years with Jay Luvaas, and was a past president of the North Carolina Civil War Roundtable. He passed away in November 2013 at the age of 79.
Civil War Trust: This is far from the first time that the RBA, now in its thirteenth year, has partnered with the Civil War Trust on a preservation project. Is there a previous collaboration with the Trust of which the RBA is most proud?
Ben Brockenbrough: In my mind the collaboration between RBA and the Civil War Trust that has had the most impact has been the unprecedented Glendale and Frasier’s Farm preservation effort. In 2006 we loaned the Trust $80,000 to purchase the site of Randol’s Battery on the Glendale Battlefield, and when the Trust announced its subsequent purchase in 2007, preserving the bulk of that critical battlefield, the RBA donated $100,000 to the cause. But what I am proudest of is the partnership we have forged over many years and numerous battlefields. We have enjoyed a close and tremendously productive relationship with the Civil War Trust. Our founders were inspired by and participated in the early victories of the APCWS and CWPT. Without the efforts of people like Brian Pohanka and the Krick family, preservationists well known to the Trust community, there would have been no RBA. So over the years we have shared not only the same interests but in many cases the same DNA. Our very first battlefield purchase was made possible by a loan from the Civil War Trust. That was at Fort Harrison in 2002. Most recently the Trust helped the RBA to save ten acres on the Cold Harbor Battlefield, property that will soon be incorporated into Richmond National Battlefield Park. But the money only tells one part of the story. Every preservation acquisition we engage in is coordinated with the Trust. Sometimes it is just to make sure we’re not bidding on the same piece of property. More often it is because there is no one method, no one approach that works in every preservation scenario. Sometimes you need muscle and expertise, an organization that can move quickly to package a deal and stroke the big check before the opportunity slips away. Here the good folks at the Trust are the masters of the art. In other circumstances it is relationships that carry the day, sometimes forged over years of contact and friendship. That is where the local preservation groups earn their stripes. Together we accomplish a record of preservation victories that neither of us could have achieved on our own, and that is tremendously gratifying.
Civil War Trust: What encouraged your own passion for preservation and, ultimately, led to your role with the RBA? How can others get involved?
I became involved with battlefield preservation through my participation in the GAC. Growing up in Richmond, Va., during the Civil War centennial meant I was immersed in Civil War history and reverent tales of intertwined family lore. Over time I became disaffected with the topic as I learned how much of that early indoctrination was — well, let’s call it “imprecise.” Besides, there were the usual distractions — books, music, girls. As an adult I was reintroduced to Civil War study by a friend, a journalist who had turned a chance meeting with Dr. Jay Luvaas into a long association with his study group, the Army of the Cussewago. On annual trips with its successor group, the GAC, my interest was rekindled through contact with Luvaas’ many associates from academia, the U.S. Military Academy and the Army’s other institutions of advanced study and other diverse walks of life. What animated me was partly their method, but particularly their unique combination of passion for the subject and non-partisan devotion to fact. Time spent on the battlefield with these people was life-changing. They also have a keen appreciation of the privilege they enjoy in visiting historic places and a tradition of donations to local battlefield preservation groups — of “paying it forward.” Ultimately, that same friend who renewed my interest in Civil War study cajoled me into serving as a local liaison to one of the preservation groups the GAC had supported — the newly-formed RBA. In truth, after years of moving experiences on battlefields, some publicly held but many in private hands and totally unprotected, I was easily led. There are countless ways to get involved in historic preservation. Of course money is critically important — at any level or amount — but there are so many other ways to contribute that do not require deep pockets or a master’s degree in 19th century history. In any organization there are tasks great and small that need doing — envelopes to stuff, newsletter articles to write, web sites to be maintained. Public events require someone to set up chairs, refreshments to be set out, people shown where to park. Before that there is quality time to be spent with a lawnmower, a shovel, or a paint brush. There are contacts to be made with local and state governments, grant applications to be filed, public relations campaigns to be designed and run. We need members with practical experience in law, real estate, finance and social media. And we need people who will just be vigilant, who will take a Sunday drive on a battlefield and call us when they see a “For Sale” sign or a zoning notice. Contact your local preservation association. In so many ways we are looking for someone who will say “yes.”
Civil War Trust: The Richmond area, of course, is not home to one Civil War battlefield, but many, each with its own story to tell. Beyond contributing to organizations like the RBA and the Civil War Trust, how can preservationists across the country help ensure that these sites continue to live on as “outdoor classrooms” for Americans of all ages?
Ben Brockenbrough: There is much to be learned from studying the Civil War, but without the battlefields themselves we risk limiting that study to an academic exercise. If we are going to pass on the lessons of history to future generations, we have to demonstrate that those lessons have continuing relevance. The issues that led us to war — sectionalism, the division of powers, political gridlock, and racial injustice — are all to varying degrees issues that our country still struggles with today. As important as those ideas are to our national discourse, it can be difficult for them to cut through the cultural background noise and capture public imagination. But the experience of standing on a battlefield can be transformative. By standing on a field where men have struggled and died for their ideals, by experiencing on the spot the accounts of great generals and common soldiers, we not only engage minds — we touch hearts. It takes abstract concepts and makes them visceral. That is how we will pass along the lessons of history. That is why it is so important to save our historic places.
Civil War Trust: Finally, with the Civil War sesquicentennial nearing its end, what one thing — one lesson, one reminder — do you hope Americans carry with them following the conclusion of this unique commemoration?
Ben Brockenbrough: It has been said many times — the Civil War is our great national tragedy. Its countless stories of heroism and sacrifice can mask what was, at its core, a horrific failure. It is what happens when we cease working together to solve our problems. It is what happens when we replace the civic ethic of leaders with the arrogance of chest-thumpers. We Americans look at terrible events occurring around the world and say “not here, thank God.” But it has happened here, and we need to never forget it.