Manassas was where today’s battlefield preservation efforts began, with an assist from Fredericksburg. 

By CLINT SCHEMMER

 

A hundred and fifty years ago Thursday near this railroad junction, terrible bloodshed occurred.

Millions know the event today as the First Battle of Manassas (or Bull Run in the North). A year later, a second fight was waged on some of the same ground–the Second Battle of Manassas. Both were Confederate victories, each profound in its impact.

Fewer people have heard of the 1980s Third Battle of Manassas or know that its efforts were also profound, in very different, and less warlike, ways.

The third battle, fought here and in the halls of Congress over a shopping mall and mixed-use development nearly built on part of the Second Manassas battlefield, fostered a national preservation movement that continues today.

It is on the minds of many people in and around Manassas now as thousands mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s first big battle. In encounters and interviews here this week, the topic came up time and again.

It was just so for historian Joan M. Zenzen, author of “Battling for Manassas,” who was at Henry Hill–heart of Manassas National Battlefield Park–on Thursday to give a talk to visitors and sign copies of her book.

Her work chronicles the battle over the William Center project in western Prince William, next to the park, and all that it led to.

Acquiring that tract, through a legislative taking, cost the nation $134 million. It made advocates and government officials realize there had to be a better way to save Civil War sites and avert messy spats.

A. Wilson Greene, then a historian in Fredericksburg, was one. A Manassas-like “eleventh-hour-and-fifty-ninth-minute rescue operation, at a cost that is so astronomical, is simply not a blueprint” for preservation, he told Zenzen.

FREDERICKSBURG SPARK

In June 1987, Greene and some 30 others met in Fredericksburg to size up events at Manassas and also-threatened battlefields at Brandy Station in Culpeper County and Chantilly in Fairfax County.

They formed the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, based in Fredericksburg. The nonprofit mapped 75 battlefields to identify land to be saved, raised money and bought thousands of acres. In 1999, the APCWS merged with the Civil War Trust, which carries on its work today.

“The preservation controversies at Manassas gave birth to the modern battlefield preservation movement,” said Jim Campi, the trust’s policy and communications director.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, led by Richard Moe, and the National Parks and Conservation Association were other key players in the Manassas fights, Zenzen said. The two groups remain active in preservation today, recently in the Wilderness Walmart flap in Orange County.

Fresh off the heels of the William Center mess, Spotsylvania Countyopted to support preserving part of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet’s flank-attack site at Fawn Lake.

“Officials were saying, ‘Let’s do this, because we don’t want another Manassas mall [controversy],'” Zenzen said.

Manassas also spawned a bunch of local battlefield-advocacy groups that are critical to efforts today, she said.

“They have their fingers on the pulse, rally the troops early, get funding from local people and know the local politics, which is ultimately very, very important,” Zenzen said.

She pointed out the work, in the Fredericksburg area, of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust.

In Washington, the Manassas spectacle prompted Congress to charter the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, whose study remains the bible for battlefield preservation, and to create the American Battlefield Protection Program, a small agency that continues the commission’s work and provides matching-dollar grants for land acquisition.

SAVING DEEP CUT

One measure of how far things have come since 1987 could be seen Wednesday at Brawner Farm, a part of Manassas National Battlefield Park that is a stone’s throw from the spot where the Manassas battle re-enactments will be held today and tomorrow.

State and federal officials and Civil War Trust members gathered at Brawner’s 19th-century farmhouse to herald a land deal stitching together pieces of Deep Cut, where the Second Battle of Manassas was decided.

They announced that 54 private acres within the park’s congressionally authorized boundary–an inholding or so-called “doughnut hole”–were being donated to the trust by Service Corporation International of Houston and conserved by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Douglas Domenech, Virginia’s secretary of natural resources, called the news the latest example of the “great strides” the state has made in battlefield preservation.

Such efforts are good, Domenech said, for what he called “the three E’s”–education, the environment and the economy.

“The great number of tourists, spectators and re-enactors coming to Manassas to witness the anniversary events this week is proof positive that a well-preserved battlefield is an economic boon for the community and the commonwealth,” he said.

The Civil War sesquicentennial gives fresh urgency to preserving battlefields, said Domenech and Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service.

But government, Jarvis said, usually steps in late in the game: “The preservation of these places has always been driven by the citizenry, by individuals and organizations like the Civil War Trust. It really isn’t driven by government.”

Jarvis said that Ken Burns discovered that truism while researching his recent PBS documentary “America’s Best Idea,” on the creation of the national parks.

“It has always been up to individual people who stepped up at critical times and devoted their lives to the protection of these places,” he said.

THREATS WON’T GO AWAY

On Thursday, as the Battle of Manassas’ 150th-anniversary hoopla swirled around her, Zenzen independently echoed that idea.

Vigilance will always be essential, she said, no matter how many battlefield acres nonprofits and government agencies are able to save.

“You have to constantly remind people what’s the value of these landscapes and of the battlefield parks–why is it that we don’t want to widen Lee Highway right next to the Stone House at Manassas and don’t want to have 10 cellphone towers on the horizon from Henry Hill, or high-rises right next to the Wilderness battlefield,” Zenzen said.

“If you don’t keep talking that talk and trying to persuade people to retain the character of these places, people won’t be able to take their kids and walk across them and feel like they’re touching that history.”

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029
Email: cschemmer@freelancestar.com

 

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