Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Amidst a Whirlwind: Virginia's Battlefields Face a Difficult Future 

12-09-2015 17:35

Preserving battlefields (or any national park for that matter) is, in terms of intellectual process, a fairly simple matter: define where the frontier (the boundary) between the modern and the historic is to be, then decide what that frontier will look like and how it will function.

For the last five decades, the preservation community’s attention has been squarely fixed on defining where the frontier between hallowed ground and development ought to be. The ongoing fever to define and re-define the frontier has its roots in a fundamental faulty assumption made a century ago, and repeated several times since.

Decades before partnerships became a buzzword in the preservation world, our battlefields became America’s first partnership parks. Unlike today’s alliances, those of a century ago were based not on careful planning, shared resources, and cooperative agreements. Rather, they were based on a single, seemingly immutable assumption: that the tracts adjacent to federally owned lands on battlefields would forever remain as they were then.

This assumption -- this unspoken partnership with the farmers surrounding federal lands -- allowed the government to acquire only slivers of land along old roads, unfinished railroads, and earthworks, with a famous wheat field or cornfield occasionally thrown in. This so-called “Antietam Plan” focused squarely on the physical manifestations of battle, while the broad agricultural landscapes where much of the fighting occurred were left to the perpetual care of farmers.

When Calvin Coolidge touched his hand to the brass plaque dedicating Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in 1928, neither he nor his most prescient advisors foresaw that the nation’s premier partners in battlefield preservation -- the farmers -- would die away. As the farmers faded, developers rose to prominence; farm fields turned to subdivisions; country roads transformed into commuter and commercial corridors; development started squeezing between the earthworks, sunken roads, cornfields, and house sites.

Since the centennial of the Civil War, Congress and the National Park Service have been working at a politic (i.e. not feverish) pace to fix the flaws in the now outmoded Antietam model. Congress has passed innumerable boundary adjustments at federally protected battlefields across the country, doubling -- even tripling -- the size of some units. Antietam National Battlefield has filled many of its hallowed gaps, including the famous Miller Cornfield. Two years ago Richmond National Battlefield, with its then-paltry boundary of 800 acres covering nearly a dozen major battlefields, had its boundary increased almost ten-fold. Petersburg National Battlefield, scene of the nine-month siege that ultimately vanquished Lee’s army, is presently working on a General Management Plan that contemplates adding about 5,000 acres to its current 2,460. The frontier is constantly being relocated.

The Approaching Whirlwind

Defining where the frontier between history and development should be is one thing. Determining what that frontier should look like and how it should function is another thing altogether. This issue constitutes the ominous dark cloud that hangs on the preservation horizon. Look closely and you can see it coming like a whirlwind; look in the other direction and it’s easy to pretend it’s not there at all.

Most of us have assiduously looked in the other direction.

The whirlwind poses a threat not just to unprotected land but to protected land as well -- lands and places within the boundaries of federally owned battlefields. The whirlwind has its roots in a few painful, emerging truisms:

  • All land outside the boundary of virtually all eastern battlefields will eventually be developed in some form -- a form that will be determined by local landowners and local governments.

  • What goes on outside a national park can devastate the resources and values of the lands inside a national park. Adjacent development, roads, overuse -- the impacts from all of them can reverberate into the deepest recesses of a national park.

  • Local residents perceive the value of the park differently than does the “national constituency.” To many people these battlefields are nice places at best, playgrounds, or perhaps a land bank for future road improvements. At worst they are an impediment to development. It is the local constituency that is loudest in the debate over use of protected battlefield lands; and, importantly, it is these people who largely determine what goes on beyond the park boundaries. While the National Park Service may own the places, the community is the keeper of the Sense of Place.

The forces that threaten our battlefields (and indeed our National Parks at large) are far more powerful than what the founders of these places could have conceived. The threats are not necessarily insidious. Rather they are societal -- the product of an economy and population growing to an expanse far beyond what most could have foreseen a century ago. But while strategies for developing land, building local economies, and expanding infrastructure have become far more powerful and sophisticated over the decades, the strategies for preserving battlefields have not gone much beyond the seminal step of acquiring them.

This is not simply a failure of the localities; it is likewise a failure of the preservation community at large. We sometimes forget that national parks are supposed to be here for as long as there is an America. They are intended to be as meaningful and evocative to Americans of 3002 as they are to those of 2002. But instead of managing our battlefield landscapes toward that end, we measure and manage them against the surrounding landscape. Our goal is no longer pure preservation -- retaining the integrity of the landscape itself -- but rather the preservation of an acceptable contrast between the protected area and the developed area around it. If that is our goal we will almost always succeed, but we will also sacrifice the integrity of sensitive and profound historic resources in doing so.

Chancellorsville in the Cross Hairs

The results of this “approach” are vividly illustrated at Chancellorsville, identified by the National Trust as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1998. There, year-by-year, bit-by-bit, the intrusions accumulate. During the last 30 years, more than 100 homes have popped up within sight of park tour roads; Route 3 through the park has received new thru lanes, new turn lanes, a new traffic light, and signs galore. If the rate of intrusion and destruction over the past 30 years continues for the next 100, Chancellorsville will be a largely meaningless remnant of what it once was, and what it was intended to be.

The National Trust’s designation of Chancellorsville was highly effective in stimulating the traditional response to external threats: In the years since 1998, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park received more than $12 million for land acquisition -- money that was used to buy some of the most significant battlefield land in America. The frontier, therefore, was relocated (it needed to be).

But the National Trust’s warning that the battlefield was subject to something akin to an attack by army ants -- each taking just a little bite, but collectively taking down the beast -- has gone unheeded. No one has taken up the call to plan just how this battlefield is to be integrated into the rapidly growing residential and commercial landscape that surrounds it. That ought to be no surprise, though, because no community around any national park in Virginia has in place a plan for reconciling a battlefield with a population and economic boom on the surrounding landscape. And honestly, not many people in the preservation community have been clamoring for such plans either.

The painful reality of the absence of such a plan is about to strike Chancellorsville not with the swarming force of army ants, but with the blunt force of a rhinoceros on the run. Within the last three years, Virginia’s Commonwealth Transportation Board has voted to locate the terminus of a major new regional highway on Route 3 only 0.8 miles east of NPS lands at Chancellorsville. The county board of supervisors followed that by designating the lands around the new interchange a “regional employment zone,” with the hope that it would develop into the equivalent of a new “edge city.”

That designation led (inevitably) to a proposal by a developer: a new urban center to be located only 60 yards from the NPS boundary. The county hopes this new center will re-focus economic development away from the highly competitive city of Fredericksburg, creating a new downtown Spotsylvania. With 2,000 homes, 800,000 square feet of retail space, and more than 2,000,000 square feet of office space, the new urban center will generate 70,000 vehicles per day -- almost tripling traffic volume near Chancellorsville Battlefield (and this doesn’t include traffic from the inevitable development of lands adjacent to the new urban center).

This project is the embodiment of those distant dark clouds -- the approaching whirlwind. It reflects almost all that ails battlefields in the eastern United States: visual intrusion, overuse, and, most importantly, traffic.

Nearly everyone agrees that within a few years of the new Chancellorsville Town Center project, the community will come knocking on the Park Service door seeking to punch two or four additional lanes through the middle of Chancellorsville Battlefield on Route 3. Yet, despite repeated warnings (spanning decades) from the National Park Service, no one locally has thought this an issue worth anticipating. The question remains unasked and unanswered. Instead, a collision looms: Do we sacrifice the heart of a national park at the altar of the new Chancellorsville Town Center?

Is There an Antidote?

What has brought us to this point at Chancellorsville is a universal malaise around the battlefields of the eastern United States. Until a big project comes along, most see no need for a plan to integrate battlefields with the community. Then when that monster project arrives and the need for a plan becomes obvious, most claim there is no time to do such planning. The result at Chancellorsville and elsewhere: either devastation to a national treasure or a monstrous collision between the forces for development and the preservationists (with the inevitable antipathy that follows -- remember Manassas?).

Integrating a landscape that is intended to be preserved for centuries with a community that wishes to transform itself entirely within a decade is a physical and intellectual undertaking no one has dared tackle. (Having a planning horizon that spans a millennium is a bit of a challenge when the locality you work within has a planning horizon that doesn’t extend much beyond the next election.) No one has thus far articulated a vision that could lead to anything other than the steady consumption of virtually all of Virginia’s battlefields over the next century.

Instead, we have tried to shield these places on a project-by-project basis -- an undertaking that has obviously failed both tactically and strategically. In the case of Chancellorsville -- and most other places as well -- simply stopping the big project would solve little. Someone or something else will always fill the vacuum, either on the old site or just down the road, either in one fell swoop or by increments. At Chancellorsville, the request to widen Route 3 will come with or without the urban center project; the urban center will only accelerate the request. Fighting and defeating the project might buy time, but the underlying problem will remain.

The only solution at Chancellorsville and virtually every other battlefield area in the East is to do exactly what we have avoided: Plan. Plan big, and plan early. These planning efforts need to go well beyond the typical NPS General Management Plan. Rather they must be joint efforts, involving local government, state departments of transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, other federal and national organizations such as the National Trust, and even congressional delegations, who will inevitably have a role in making real the components of any plan.

Plans for Perpetuity

These plans need to address at least three things: design (landscape, site, and building), land use, and transportation planning. Of these, design is the easiest and most discussed. Developers (and sometimes even some preservation professionals) love to hustle the conversation in the direction of design. It’s visual, it can be fun, and the positive results can be pointed out to visiting relatives and friends as you speed by on the way to visit your local national park. But design is also an effective red herring, oft used by developers. Rather than focusing the conversation on whether the big box store ought to be there at all, the dash to discuss design puts everyone’s focus on just how many Bradford pear trees or how many dormers that big box store should have to make it fit into the surrounding landscape. Design is important and needs to be addressed, but only in its due order: last.

Land use and roads are by far the most significant issues for America’s battlefield parks, and by far the most difficult (the two issues are inextricably linked but rarely discussed in tandem). Tools for creatively managing land use to minimize visual impacts and concentrate open space along park boundaries are well known and documented (the recommendations of the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission [1993] and the Natural Lands Trust in their work for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park include most of the wise nuggets any visionary community or park could need.) They are also little used. Instead of waxing theoretical about such things, we must find ways to inspire localities to put them to use on the ground. So far we have largely failed on that account.

But even with creative schemes to minimize visual impact, adjacent or nearby developments will still generate traffic. Roads and traffic represent the gravest of all threats to protected battlefield areas. All over Virginia and Maryland, roads made famous in battle are now famous on morning traffic reports: Route 29 through Manassas, Route 3 through Chancellorsville, Route 355 through Monocacy, Route 5 near Richmond. These routes and others carry the great toxin of explosive development (traffic) to the very heart of our national parks. All these roads and many others eventually will need to be widened to accommodate the boom. Do we simply allow the expansion of these roads in place? Or do we seek another alternative?

This question represents a new era of battlefield preservation far more complex than the seminal phase of acquisition that has lasted for more than a century. Having acquired the lands, will we as a society make the additional investments necessary to ensure that those lands continue to function as the profoundly significant places they have been for the last century? Is it worth $30 million or $50 million or $80 million (far more than the land cost in the first place) to relocate a major highway corridor in order to preserve the interior of a national park?

These are profound questions of public policy and societal values -- ones whose answers will ultimately reside with Congress. There is no telling what the answers will be. But until aggressive multi-agency, multi-disciplinary planning efforts focused on the complex relationship between land use, roads, and national parks are initiated at the local level, the possible answers cannot even be intelligently articulated. We must make it public policy to initiate that planning at each NPS battlefield unit or other protected site. And we must do it soon (at Chancellorsville, we needed to do it 10 years ago).

The forces in our society that work against preservation are immense and sophisticated. Within the next 30 years, virtually every battlefield in every populous state will face a crisis begotten of surrounding land use and traffic. Many battlefields face such a crisis already. Resolving those issues will require an immense and sophisticated response. The preservation community must lead nothing short of a systemic intellectual mobilization -- an effort that will measure (and one hopes illustrates) our national commitment to the perpetual preservation of America’s hallowed places.

Publication Date: Summer 2002

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Author(s):John J. Hennessy