Saving Fredericksburg's Slaughter Pen Farm
Hallowed Ground Magazine, Winter 2012
“The Slaughter Pen is the very heart and soul of the Fredericksburg Battlefield. Without it, nothing makes sense. This is the point where the battle was won and lost on December 13, 1862. After Burnside’s bloody failure here, there was nothing the Union army could do to win the Battle of Fredericksburg — or the Confederates to lose it. Correspondingly, this is where preservation ultimately will win or lose the struggle for Fredericksburg’s history.
“Standing on this unblemished historic land — christened in the blood of brave men, North and South — one touches the past, and understands the sacrifices of those men on the most decisive point of the Fredericksburg Battlefield. They fought for this land, and paid for it with their lives. We need to fight for this land, too — for the past, for them, lest we forget."
— Frank O’Reilly, author of "The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock"
In March 2006, the Civil War Trust announced the most ambitious private battlefield acquisition project in American history — a $12 million fundraising campaign to purchase the 208-acre Slaughter Pen Farm on the southern end of the Fredericksburg Battlefield.
Until that time, the Slaughter Pen Farm was the largest remaining unprotected part of the Fredericksburg Battlefield and remains the only place where a visitor can still follow the Union assault on that bloody day from beginning to end. Nearly all the other land associated with Union attacks at Fredericksburg — either on the southern end of the battlefield or in front of Marye's Heights — has been destroyed by development.
The struggle for the Slaughter Pen Farm was among the most intense in Civil War history. More than 5,000 casualties were inflicted on the farm during the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862. Five Congressional Medals of Honor for valor were awarded for actions taken on the site that day. According to Ed Bearss, chief historian emeritus of the National Park Service, the farm was "without a doubt the most significant part of the battlefield at Fredericksburg that is not protected. Its acquisition will provide an opportunity to permit visitors to walk in the footsteps of history."
For years, the fate of the Slaughter Pen Farm, located along historic Tidewater Trail (U.S. Route 2) in an area that witnessed tremendous industrial and commercial growth in recent decades, had hung in the balance. The property was zoned for industrial use, and sat immediately adjacent to a major north-south rail line, making it extremely attractive to developers. When the property was put on the market in December 2005, the listing agent described it as "one of the best industrial sites in the Commonwealth of Virginia." Under the circumstances, preservation of the farm seemed a long shot at best.
Once the Slaughter Pen Farm was placed on the market, preservationists were in a race against time. Fortunately, the Trust was able to secure the assistance of Tricord, Inc., a local family-owned development company that had previously cooperated with preservationists to save the 140-acre First Day at Chancellorsville Battlefield. Tricord brought to the table financial resources, a comprehensive knowledge of the area and the wherewithal to move quickly to take the property off the market. Tricord negotiated with the land owners on the Trust’s behalf, placing the property under contract in an agreement that turned the land over to preservationists with no strings attached.
At the time, Russ Smith, superintendent of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, remarked: "We view this as a rebirth of the Fredericksburg Battlefield. Preservationists had long ago given up on maintaining a vista from Union to Confederate lines, but the Civil War Trust and Tricord have given this historic landscape a second chance."
Next began the hard work of raising the unprecedented purchase price of this historic property. "The veterans themselves referred to the farm as ‘the slaughter pen' because of the enormous amount of blood that was shed there,” said Trust President James Lighthizer. “Despite the price tag, we simply could not sit idly by and watch this irreplaceable battleground become an industrial park. We will raise the money needed to save this historic treasure — because we must.”
Once the property was off the market, no longer destined to be sold for commercial development, the Trust began working with SunTrust Bank, which provided a loan package that enabled the organization to embark on a lengthy fundraising campaign. The first big break for the effort came when the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT), one of the most effective local battlefield preservation organizations in the nation, committed $1 million toward the project — a monumental sum for a group of its size. According to CVBT President Mike Stevens, "Standing on that last unblemished landscape, where so many men gave their lives, it is clear that such sacrifice and valor must be preserved to inspire future generations.” At the 2012 Civil War Trust Annual Conference, CVBT representatives honored their commitment, presenting the final installment of their payment and received a standing ovation from the grateful attendees.
In October 2006, the Trust held the first public event at the Slaughter Pen Farm, a news conference in which then-Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced that the project would receive a $2 million federal matching grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program — a sum that remains among the largest awards in that program’s history. The Commonwealth of Virginia also contributed $300,000 toward the project through its Civil War Sites Preservation Fund, the only state-level matching grant program for battlefield preservation. Efforts to purchase and protect the Slaughter Pen Farm were among the driving forces behind creation of the program. The Trust’s generous members also responded to the call for donations with enthusiasm
Since the Slaughter Pen Farm is located outside the currently authorized boundary of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, the Trust will not be able to immediately transfer it to the National Park Service once the full cost is paid. However, the true reason to preserve a historic property like this is to open it for public education and appreciation. Knowing this, the Trust opened a 13-stop interpretive trail at the site in 2008. Moreover, the Slaughter Pen Farm is one of the four tours included in the Trust’s Fredericksburg Battle App, which debuted in 2011. This GPS-enabled mobile battlefield tour utilizes the latest technology, including historian video and maps, to help visitors interpret the land under their feet.
To date, the Trust has raised more than 60 percent of the purchase price for the Slaughter Pen Farm; however, work remains to be done before this incredible part of our nation’s history is fully set aside for posterity. Learn more about the work that remains and how you can help at www.civilwar.org/fredericksburg.