If the modern preservation movement has taught us anything, it’s that we understand our history less well than we think we do. If we really understood the action at Fredericksburg, for instance, the Slaughter Pen Farm would have been included in the original battlefield park; instead, preservationists had to save it from near destruction more than 130 years after the battle took place, only after historians really figured out what happened there and why it was important. We could swap countless other examples where we’ve had to preserve ground after the fact because only later did we really understand what had happened there.
For that reason, we shouldn’t take battlefields for granted. And for that reason, we should all pay particular attention to what’s happening—and what could happen—for the battlefields at Kettle Run and Bristoe Station.
Kettle Run and Bristoe Station occupy overlapping pieces of ground in Prince William County in an area now awash with development. Kettle Run was an Aug. 27, 1862 engagement during the Second Manassas Campaign. Bristoe Station was an Oct. 14, 1863 engagement in the cat-and-mouse autumn between Meade and Lee.
As development pressures have increased in the area, so too has research on the history of the battles and their place in the larger narrative of the war. Recently, the National Park Service awarded Prince William County a grant through its American Battlefield Protection Program to study the battlefields and develop a comprehensive study of the terrain.
“The plan will also develop preservation strategies for parcels with the battlefield study area and define still existent features of the battlefield,” one county official explained to me.
Currently, Prince William County protects 140 acres within the Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park, thanks in large part to aggressive preservation efforts by the Civil War Trust. As elsewhere, preservationists have worked doggedly to patch together parcels of hallowed ground into a coherent whole.
However, the current 140-acre park represents only 20 percent of the entire battlefield. “That’s why it’s important to have strategies to preserve the other 80 percent,” the county official said.
And here’s where things get really interesting—and really cool.
The new study, conducted by the Commonwealth Heritage Group, provides a proactive opportunity to materially affect the overall shape and scope of the battlefield. In the lingo of professional planners, it’s a “master plan” of sorts. It identifies current usage, key areas, priorities for acquiring parcels, and all sorts of other puzzle pieces.
For instance, here’s a look at the defining features of the battlefields’ terrain, as viewed through the lens of the study.
Here’s a glimpse at the land parcels and the priority for acquiring them. You can see the current battlefield park with all the diagonal lines in it, as well as the high-density housing division spooned right up to it (all those #4’s).
Few opportunities have existed in recent memory for Civil War buffs to see first-hand how a battlefield gets made. Yet that’s what we’re now getting the chance to see in Prince William County.
Of course, a plan is just a plan, and there are plenty of stakeholders who’ll have an impact on how that plan gets implemented—if it gets implemented. And not all of those stakeholders are preservation friendly.
But this isn’t just yet another preservation fight. Believe it or not, it’s a conversation—one you can take part in, if you want.
On Wednesday, May 25, at 7:00 p.m., Prince William County is holding a public meeting at the Nokesville Volunteer Fire Department to discuss the results of the study. Based on what they hear, county officials will begin to figure out just what to do with those results. What might the battlefield eventually look like? How will they shape it? Why will they shape it? What considerations do they need to keep in mind?
People who can’t attend the meeting are encouraged to submit their thoughts via email—so regardless of where you are, if you’re interested in this process, you can take a moment to make your voice heard. Email email@example.com. For more information on the planning process, visit the planning commission’s website.
The Bristoe Station Battlefield is part of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, the Mosby Heritage Area, and has been identified as the “Bristoe Station Historical Area” in the Prince William County Comprehensive Plan. (And of course, it’s the subject of the ECWS book A Want of Vigilance: The Bristoe Campaign, October 1863 by Rob Orrison and Bill Backus.)
Kettle Run and Bristoe Station, as a shared battlefield, are very much works in progress. We get to see that progress in action and, if we want, we can even be part of it. What a fantastic opportunity to see how a battlefield gets shaped, preserved, and grown.