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Civil War Trust

Save 49 Acres at The Wilderness, Saunders Field

A Message from Jim Lighthizer, CWPT President

This letter is from 2010 and fundraising is closed. For current opportunities, please visit Save a Battlefield »

“We had a run for it. Staff officers yelling and calling on the men to rally and support the artillery and the men throwing away their guns and running like mad men and them Rebs a yelling as they came up on the charge with that peculiar yell they have. It sounds like a lot of school boys let loose. I thought Hell had broke loose.”

— Samuel Bradbury, Union Engineer,
In a letter home following the Battle of the Wilderness

Dear Friend,

Jim LIghthizerI write to you today to tell you about one of the greatest battlefield preservation opportunities we have ever had, even as I fully realize that – in this still-stagnant economy – it presents one of the greatest challenges we have ever faced.

After years of interest in this particular piece of hallowed ground, and after many months of intense negotiations, CWPT has just received a signed contract from a landowner who agrees to sell us the most crucial unprotected heart of the Wilderness battlefield – and he wants to close before the end of this year!

In fact, historian Gordon Rhea, our generation’s leading expert on the 1864 Virginia Overland Campaign, says of this 49-acre tract at the famed Saunders Field:

“The property witnessed some of the Wilderness’ most brutal combat. It encompasses ground north of the Orange Turnpike where Richard Ewell’s Confederate 2nd Corps repulsed elements from Gouverneur Warren’s Union 5th and John Sedgwick’s Union 6th Corps during the first day of battle. It was also here, on the second day of battle, that Confederate brigadier John Gordon discovered the Union line’s unguarded northern flank and masterminded an attack that rolled up a portion of Sedgwick’s formation and cinched the Confederate victory.

“Acquisition of this property will preserve a pristine tract that played a pivotal role in the Battle of the Wilderness. The property is also contiguous with park land and, as undeveloped land, it retains the “feel” of the original battle site, much of which has been overrun by residential and commercial projects. This is an opportunity that cannot be ignored.”

But even beyond its obviously incredible historic value, I will tell you that if we are successful in saving this key part of the Wilderness Battlefield, I would count this among my “Top 10” biggest personal achievements during my tenure as president of this organization. This piece of hallowed ground is simply that important.

I understand that in this still-tight economy, many people are stretched to the limit, and must be careful in the amount of charitable contributions they can make.

I apologize if you think I have written to you too often. But in my defense, a “silver lining” of these tough economic times is that a speed bump has also been temporarily shoved in front of many developers, giving CWPT several opportunities to save many acres of supremely significant battlefield land that might otherwise have been lost, like these acres at the Wilderness.

And to the extent you can budget your giving for the rest of this year, I hope you will agree that together you and I are making tremendous strides in achieving the mission you want to accomplish: Saving America’s most important and threatened hallowed ground.

One quick glance at the battle maps I have sent to you today should tell you as much as I could say in ten letters. This is supremely important, blood-soaked, must-have hallowed ground!

These maps show you the absolutely crucial northern part of Saunders Field, the sector where one wing of George Meade’s Union forces tried to hammer their way through Lee’s entrenched Confederates for the better part of two days, May 5th and 6th, 1864.

Ferocious fighting see-sawed back and forth across this property on the first day of the battle, leaving hundreds of dead, dying and wounded strewn across this bloody field.

At a crucial moment on the second day of the battle, Confederates under John Gordon on the far left end of the battle lines crept silently around the exposed Union flank – much as they did one year earlier on the very nearby ground at Chancellorsville – and unleashed a surprise flank attack late in the day.

For a few moments, it appeared that the results in 1864 might be the same as they had been in 1863, a dramatic rolling up of the Union line. One soldier from the 61st Georgia regiment recalled, “We fired one volley at them, raised a yell, and charged them. They fled at once, leaving their guns, blankets, knapsacks, haversacks, tents, canteens, some hats and, in fact, everything they had.”

Union General John Sedgwick rode among his men, working to organize the fugitives of his 6th Corps, swinging his sword and shouting, “Halt! For God’s sake, boys, rally! Don’t disgrace yourselves and your general in this way!”

Then, as panic-stricken officers and men poured back from the front, one of the most famous moments of the Civil War occurred. As historian Gordon Rhea writes in his tremendous The Battle of The Wilderness: May 5-6 1864:

“At the height of the excitement, an officer rushed to Grant and urgently volunteered advice. ‘General Grant, this is a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously,’ he warned. ‘I know Lee’s method’s well by past experience; he will throw his own army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.’ Grant stood, pulled the cigar out of his mouth, and spoke his mind. ‘Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do,’ he roared back with unaccustomed heat at the startled officer. ‘Some of you seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think about what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.’”

In a way, my friend, I can sympathize with General Grant.

For years now, I have heard people saying, “the developers are too powerful, matching funds are too hard to come by, you can’t raise any money in this environment, you should cut back and not buy so much hallowed ground, you can’t beat Walmart” and so on.

Well, I too stand up and say, “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about the developers and anyone else who thinks they are going to stop us from saving America’s hallowed Civil War battlefields. Instead, let’s focus on what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what these people are going to do to us!”

Case in point: These exceptionally important 49 acres at the Wilderness – surrounded by land owned by the National Park Service, with development crushing in from all sides – will cost $1,085,000. That’s a lot of money, no question about it, but it is actually a fair price for real estate in that part of Virginia.

However, because this land is wholly contained within the boundaries of the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park, it is unfortunately NOT eligible for any federal matching funds. There are no state matching funds available, either. We’ve got to pay for it all on our own.

If that was not enough of a challenge, the landowner wants to go to closing before the end of this year, now less than 90 days away. If we don’t close on the property by December, we can get a six-month extension on the contract, but the price goes up by another $36,000!

If we don’t buy this land, it could very easily get carved up for a small subdivision of big houses. Imagine that – a subdivision of houses on the bloody hallowed ground of Saunders Field!

Plus, if we are forced to retreat from this transaction, Walmart will likely step up their attacks on us, saying, “See? Those crazy preservationists only care about getting headlines, not actually saving battlefield land at the Wilderness.”

But as General Grant coolly stood up in the face of his crumbling line near Saunders Field and said, “We’re going to stay and fight,” so will I. As Grant put his faith in the front-line men fighting under him, so, too, do I put my faith in you, the front-line member of the Civil War Preservation Trust.

This is a lot of money for hard-pressed CWPT members to come up with, I know. Believe me, my staff and I are working harder than ever to convince some major donor “angels” to help us reach our goal. There is even the remote chance that the Park Service will be able to come up with some money in future years to buy this tract from us – they want this part of Saunders Field in the national military park, and I do, too! But that is not money in the bank; for now, we’ve got take matters into our own hands.

If every one of CWPT’s 55,000 members sent a gift of just $20 today, we would hit our goal.

But the harsh reality is that tens of thousands of your fellow members can’t – or, for a thousand different reasons, simply won’t – respond to this urgent plea for help today.

But I pray that you will be able to respond, with whatever amount you believe this irreplaceable part of America’s history is worth, be it $20, $200 or even $2,000.

Every gift gets us that much closer to ultimate victory. This is one of those very rare chances to do something that we can be proud tell our grandchildren about . . . something that will live on forever.

Here’s one final thought: While we are working so hard to save these important places that mean so much to our nation, perhaps these places are saving us at the same time.

Now, I place the future of this “Top 10” hallowed battlefield in your hands. Look at the maps I have sent, and please go to our website at www.civilwar.org/wilderness10 for more detailed information on this transaction, one of the most important we have ever attempted . . .

. . . but even more than all of this, decide today that you want to add Saunders Field at the Wilderness to your personal battlefield preservation legacy.

I hope that you just chose to join in CWPT’s historic, unprecedented and absolutely necessary effort to save this key part of the Wilderness battlefield. Please let me hear back from you today. Thank you.

With unbounded gratitude and appreciation, your friend,

Jim Lighthizer
President

P.S. tAgain, before you make your final decision to support this crucial campaign, I hope you will investigate the tremendous amount of information on our website at www.civilwar.org/wilderness10. Detailed maps, photos of the land we are saving, and much more, describing the historic significance of this hallowed ground. I urge you to learn all about this historic transaction, then make your donation now, either on-line or by mailing back your gift. Many thanks.

P.P.S. Let me say it again: I understand that each person is doing what they can financially. I just pray that you will be able to help once again today, so we can continue this unprecedented run of success. I am so proud to be engaged in this crucial work with you, and of all we have achieved together, for the good of our nation. I can only hope that you are proud to be a member of CWPT. Thank you and God bless you.

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