Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Battlefields at risk

A week ago the Civil War Preservation Trust issued its annual report of endangered Civil War battlefields, titled History Under Siege. It identifies 10 "sites" (sometimes including more than one physical site) at imminent risk of being lost to developers, or nature. An additional 15 are identified as being in danger. These 25 do not cover all the battlefields that may be lost, and some 15% of Civil War battlefields have been totally lost to history.

The CNN article is here: http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/03/14/

The Civil War Preservation Trust's report is here: http://www.civilwar.org/news/topten2007/

The irony is that over the weekend The Scotsman published a story about the historic Bannockburn battlefield being at risk to a gravel quarry. This underlines the fact that battlefield preservation is not just an American problem.

The Bannockburn article is here: http://news.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=420822007

The biggest threat is from "population pressure". As big city populations grow, the need for housing increases. Developers are more interested in plopping houses on land than they are in preserving the significance of that land. This is a big problem in Virginia and Georgia. The Manassas, Chancellorsville and Petersburg battlefields in Virginia are at great risk due to population pressure. Fredericksburg has been largely lost.

"Population pressure" comes in many forms. A casino near Gettysburg was defeated, but on the edge of the battlefield there are plans for a housing development. In Franklin, TN a series of city councils have let the Franklin battlefield be eaten up, bit by bit. It was only when a library was built on a significant portion of the battlefield — with the ground from the site protected from inspection, presumably so that no one could see the relics and/or remains dug up — that the council was replaced by a preservation-friendly group. Expansion of Nashville still threatens the site.

A close second to population pressure is the threat of industrial encroachment. The Mansfield battlefield in Louisiana is at risk from a lignite mine in a tug of war that puts at risk all but 15 of the battlefield's 6,000 acres. In Scotland, a quarry is eating away at Gillies Hill on the Bannockburn battlefield. This battlefield was the site of Scotland's greatest military victory, against the English force in 1314, which led to Scottish independence. Camp followers and untrained peasants swarmed over Gillies Hill, panicking a tired English army into thinking reinforcements were upon them. The English battle line broke. Amazingly, in 1982 the local town council allowed the quarry to dig into the back of the hill, putting the whole feature at risk.

Even when laws exist to preserve an area, some unscrupulous folk have simply ignored the law. From the Civil War Preservation Trust site:

On August 19, 2006, a consortium of Jefferson County, W. Va. developers crossed onto National Park Service (NPS) property along School House Ridge and dug two 1,900-foot-long trenches for water and sewer piping. They did so without receiving any permit from NPS or notifying Park authorities of their intent. Despite repeated requests to cease and desist, the developers refused, leaving nearly two acres of taxpayer-owned hallowed ground seriously compromised. After the incident, NPS officials discovered archaeological artifacts among the rubble. To make the story even more heartbreaking, the property had only become part of the Park in May 2005, after CWPT members contributed $300,000 toward its protection.

Currently the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Justice are considering charges against the developers, who could be tried under both civil and criminal law.

So much for "hallowed ground".

Nature will wear away at a site if it isn't kept up. Lack of staff and maintenance threaten the future of Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay, Alabama.

Personally heartbreaking is the fate of the forts in southern Louisiana. I visited Fort Jackson in February, 2005. It was relatively well preserved by Plaquemines Parish, one of the state's poorer parishes. Then came Katrina. For over 6 weeks the fort was submerged under water. It's empty now, but there was a great deal of damage to the structure. Although the report doesn't mention it, Fort St. Philip might be safer. It's across the river from Fort Jackson in almost inaccessible ground. It was heavily filled with silt and was only visited prior to Katrina by the intrepid with access to a boat. I suspect that the silt might have protected the fort from the worst ravages of the hurricane. Not so lucky was the third fort, Fort Pike, northeast of New Orleans (actually within the city limits of New Orleans, just south of Slidell). It was occupied during the Civil War but no shots were fired in anger at or from the fort. It has needed work for years, but Katrina tore several horrid cracks in the outer wall. The fort is currently closed to the public. (I'm glad I went to Fort Jackson in 2005, but wished I'd made it to Fort Pike, too.) Forts Jackson and Pike are eligible for federal funds for rebuilding, but the Civil War Preservation Trust is worried that the money and the repairs will come too late, that the damage will be irreparable by then.

Here is a Wikipedia picture showing the damage:

Click on the picture for a bigger version. The image is found on this web page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

I could go on about the importance in preserving a nation's history, but you've probably heard it all before. Seeing the interest and wonder in Logan's eyes as we walked the battlefield of Chickamauga proved to me the importance of protecting these locations. Hiking several miles through the Port Hudson battlefield with Logan in a stroller when he was younger, and sitting with friends on Little Round Top at sundown years before then showed me that these places are gifts to younger generations. It would be a terrible shame if they were plowed under to make room for yet another Super Target.

No comments: