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Chantilly, Virginia, where in 1862 Lee and Jackson attempted to push the Federal troops out of northern Virginia, now sits beneath a suburban mall. Mansfield, Louisiana, the site of more than 4,000 Union and Confederate casualties in 1864, is being strip-mined by a lignite company. But the real crisis came in 1988, when a developer bought a large tract of privately held land at Manassas, Virginia, and unveiled plans to build a 1.2-million-square-foot shopping mall directly over the site of the Confederate lines and Lee's headquarters at the Second Battle of Manassas. The effort was defeated only at the cost of a 120-million-dollar appropriation from Congress. Clearly it was time for preservationists to take the offensive.

The tide began to turn at Antietam—just as it had for the Union Army in 1862. On our way to the battlefield one bright morning, Lighthizer keeps up a running narration as he pilots his big maroon sedan up the same road that the Federal Army took through the Maryland hills. "That farmhouse was there during the war," he says, gesturing with his unlit cigar as we pass the place. "D. H. Hill, a Confederate general, looked out that window at the Yankees coming up the hill like a long blue snake and said he felt like the loneliest guy in the world."

By the 1990s the suburbs of Washington were also creeping, snakelike, toward the battlefield. Lighthizer was then transportation secretary for the state of Maryland, a job that gave him early warning of the threat. In classic backroom fashion he found millions of dollars that had been earmarked for "highway beautification" in a federal law and started spreading the money among the local landowners—sometimes purchasing the threatened acreage outright, more often buying easements that would maintain it as farmland forever. It's a strategy he has continued at the Preservation Trust.

These days, Lighthizer says, the trust is fighting in several dozen different places, a list that reads like a regimental battle roster—Morris Island, Franklin, Gettysburg, Harpers Ferry, Gaines' Mill. But it's a war that won't last forever. "We estimate there's about 200,000 acres of privately held battlefield land left," he says. "We're losing about 10,000 acres a year, so do the math. In less than 20 years, it's over."

Capt. Tod Carter's war ended where it had begun. In the spring of 1861 the blue-eyed 21-year-old left his father's farm near Franklin, Tennessee, and enlisted in Company H of the 20th Tennessee Infantry. He served through three years of hard fighting, was captured, and escaped. In the late autumn of 1864, as the Army of Tennessee, barefoot and famished, prepared for its last major struggle against the Federal troops, the tide of war swept Carter's regiment back toward Franklin. He could see the Stars and Stripes waving on the hilltop beyond his family's house, which had been commandeered as a Union headquarters. Far to the right and left stretched long lines of blue.

Late on the afternoon of November 30th, Carter mounted his horse, drew his saber, and rallied his men to the charge. He fell in a fusillade of bullets. Early the next morning, after the fighting subsided, he was laid on an old overcoat and carried, still half-conscious, up the hillside to the house he had left three years before. Family tradition has it that he died in the back bedroom, and that his last words were "Home … home … home."

Of all the Civil War's major engagements, the Battle of Franklin is the most unjustly forgotten. It was a struggle at once magnificent and hideous. Both armies went in as though they knew it would be their last leap at glory. Some witnesses later recalled the battle flags waving along the lines, the bands playing jaunty airs in the heat of battle, the splendor of the Confederacy's full frontal attack. Others were haunted by grim visions of what followed: bodies stacked like cordwood, blood flowing ankle-deep. Nearly 9,000 men were killed, wounded, or captured in the space of just a few hours, including no fewer than 15 Confederate generals. It was perhaps the most concentrated slaughter of the entire war.

Today Tod Carter's house, still pocked with bullet holes, is a museum that sits amid a landscape of auto-muffler shops, fast-food restaurants, and low-rise shopping centers. The ground where he fell lies beneath a housing project. More than 1,700 of his rebel comrades were killed in the trenches and temporarily buried in a mass grave—now the site of a pizzeria. Many have declared Franklin a "lost" battlefield. For a long time local people resisted attempts at commemoration. When the Park Service raised the possibility of buying land there decades ago, it was rebuffed. "The battle was viewed by many as an embarrassment," says Julian Bibb, a lawyer and town planner. "People thought of it as a huge Confederate debacle." It was also a sore spot for the local African-American community, which wanted no part of nostalgia for Dixie. And so, except for a few acres preserved by local groups, the battlefield was left to be engulfed by suburban sprawl from nearby Nashville.

That onslaught continues. Evan Kutzler, a 16-year-old high school student and Civil War buff, takes me one afternoon with his metal detector to hunt for relics of the battle. It's a hobby that demands the conscious erasure of the present, an ability to imagine what lies beneath. "This is where the Federal front line was," he says, pointing past a Goodyear Tire store. Nearby, in a drainage ditch next to a parking lot, he shows me where he once found a hundred bullets and a bayonet in a single afternoon. Many more artifacts are rumored to have come out of a field that's being bulldozed for a new Target.

Most of the bodies from the Southerners' mass grave were later moved to a small private cemetery at Carnton Plantation, half a mile or so away. It's a beautiful place, with neat rows of small square headstones, many with the name of a dead Confederate. The names themselves tell stories. There's a Charles Chon, for instance, a Texas infantryman born in Shanghai, China, and a Joseph Lepseits, a Jewish lieutenant from western Tennessee.

These days the graveyard hardly lends itself to quiet reverie. Just over the fence are the parking lots and tennis courts of a local country club. On the graveyard's other side lies a different landscape: the gentle lawn of Carnton, which served as a hospital during and after the fighting and has been preserved by a local group. The Confederate cemetery seems stranded between two worlds, two centuries.

But that graveyard may soon become a place of rebirth. A wealthy preservationist has bought the country club for safekeeping until funds can be raised to create a historical park. On a Saturday morning in August, I sit on the back porch of Carnton overlooking the site with a group of civic leaders who are excitedly planning for the future. Mayor Tom Miller talks about the economic potential of bringing a national tourist attraction to the town. Thomas Murdic, an African American who grew up in Franklin, says he sees an opportunity for racial healing by telling the whole story of the Civil War in the area, including the struggle of freed slaves. Robert Hicks, a Nashville music publisher turned preservationist, imagines undertaking what may prove to be "the largest battlefield reclamation project in North American history."

Why, 140 years after the Civil War's end, does it continue to stir so many hearts and rouse so many new struggles? Why are the fields of long-ended battles still stalked by so many restless ghosts? Part of the reason, no doubt, lies in the nature of the war itself, a struggle over slavery and freedom whose reverberations have continued to echo through American history, and whose consequences for African Americans have only lately begun to be honestly addressed.

Another piece of the answer comes to me when I reach Appomattox Court House. The Virginia village where Lee surrendered to Grant, in a green valley two hours' drive west of Richmond—a six-day slog for the ragged Confederates of 1865—is still a place of peace. Appomattox was preserved almost by accident, by one of those vagaries of the American economy that can leave a town stranded, high and dry as a beached ship. The railroad bypassed the town by three miles, and by the 1890s the once bustling county seat sank into obscurity.

Today Appomattox is a national park, and its remaining buildings sit amid fields of tall grass and stands of twisted old cedars. Even on a summer afternoon there are few visitors, and as I roam the village, the only sounds seem to be the hum of cicadas and the occasional sough of a logging truck that passes along Route 24. A reconstructed 1860s general store—the mini-mart of its day—displays barrels of molasses, bolts of calico, a rack of buggy whips. It seems to emphasize that this place sits above the high-water mark of 21st-century America, above the rising tide of chain stores and cardboard mansions. Perhaps not for long, for suburbia is spreading toward here too. But I realize now that the Civil War's battlefields are precious to us not just because of blood and heroism, but because they let us glimpse a vanishing, agrarian America—the very landscape in which our national identity was formed.

At long last, more and more communities are recognizing the value of this heritage. A month or so after the end of my battlefield journey, I learn that the Spotsylvania County supervisors approved a deal with the Preservation Trust that will save part of the Mullins Farm at Chancellorsville. Shortly after, word comes that the town of Franklin earmarked 2.5 million dollars in matching funds toward the purchase of the country club property. In both cases the preservation side used nimble battle tactics that might have made Lee himself proud.

Appomattox was as far as Lee got on his final, desperate retreat toward the shelter of the western mountains. On the night before the surrender, he heard the boom of cannon to the west and knew that Grant's men had outstripped him, had cut him off. Today, on a hillside above the village, the highway that Lee had hoped to follow, the old stagecoach route west from Richmond, is still visible. For a few hundred yards it has been reconstructed by the Park Service, a startling gash of earth like an open wound across the meadow. But then it dives beneath the turf again, and past the point where Lee turned back, it is visible only as a slight declivity in the earth, tufted with goldenrod and Queen Anne's lace—the merest memory of a road.

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