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Civil War Battlefields

By Adam Goodheart Photographs by Michael Melford

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A few miles farther on we reach the site of one of the most famous battle maneuvers of the Civil War: Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson's brilliant flank attack in which he divided his troops from the rest of Lee's army and caught the much larger Union force completely by surprise—a move that won the victory at Chancellorsville, but cost Jackson his life. The battlefield here appears still much as it did in May 1863, with rolling pastures dotted here and there with a stand of oak trees or an old farmhouse. But just down the road, the owner of an 800-acre farm has been trying for several years to get county approval for a large-scale housing development. I sat in on a contentious meeting of the county's board of supervisors when it took public comments on the plan. The motley crowd of citizens in the packed hall reflected the changing character of Spotsylvania County, and of many places in America: sunburned farmers and well-heeled suburbanites, Sons of Confederate Veterans and kids in Cub Scout uniforms. The landowner, a local mortician named John Mullins, was on hand as well. For each person who spoke, the Mullins farm seemed to stand for a different and essential concern: property rights, highway traffic, the influx of outsiders, the future of tourism, the memory of the Civil War dead.

Afterward, in the parking lot, I fell into conversation with one of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans, a lean, gray-uniformed man—a sign painter in civilian life—named John Martin. I asked him why he'd come to the meeting. "Every Virginian needs to take a stand against losing these parcels of ground," he replied. "This is hallowed ground to us."

"Sounds a lot like 1861, doesn't it?" I asked. Martin thought for a moment, then laughed. "It sure does," he said.

If the romantic and perhaps doomed cause of saving America's Civil War battlefields can be said to have its own Robert E. Lee—a strategist who time and again snatched victory from the jaws of defeat—he is a man named James Lighthizer. The only catch is that in person Lighthizer seems better to resemble Ulysses S. Grant, a hard-driving, cigar-chomping politico straight off the pages of a gilded age broadsheet. As president of the Civil War Preservation Trust, Lighthizer has become adept at fighting many foes on many fronts all at once.

The trust is a private group, which surprises those who think of Civil War battlefields as a national inheritance. Indeed, the federal government did start preserving battlefields as long ago as the 1890s, purchasing land at a number of major sites to create the first national military parks. Its efforts have continued, sporadically, throughout the century since. But Congress never appropriated enough money to buy an entire battlefield—understandably, since no one in decades past imagined that places like central Pennsylvania or the Virginia Piedmont would ever require much protection from development. And so, slowly, some battlefields were lost.

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.


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