In early July, the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT) hired a new executive director, Terry Rensel. Terry is not only an ECWer—he serves on the blog’s editorial board—he’s been one of my best friends for thirty years. “We were in the same freshmen orientation group, so we’ve known each other since the first day of college,” he’s fond of telling people.
I’m never quite sure if he’s bragging or looking for pity.
Terry comes to CVBT after decades of working in public radio. It’s a big career shift, yet one with unexpected similarities, too. He and I sat down recently to talk about his new gig, Civil War history, and the battlefields at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. (And, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I serve on the CVBT board.)
Chris Mackowski: One of the things that strikes me as being so hard about preservation is that you have unique historical resources in a particular community, whereas development sort of encourages a homogenization that is making one area look like another area anywhere else you go in the country. But there is only one Fredericksburg battlefield, there is only one Chancellorsville, etcetera. Each one is a huge, major battlefield, but because they tend to be clustered together, it seems like an awful lot of Civil War in one spot. Maybe people tend to take that stuff for granted, even though they’re unique resources. Talk to me about what you see as that uniqueness.
Terry Rensel: In an 18-month period or so, four major battles took place, pretty much over the same geography, with a hundred thousand casualties. And Fredericksburg, Virginia, was the first city in America ever [ransacked] by American troops. Think about that for a second. Let that sink in.
These four battles and these four battlefields are spread over a very close area of land in this community. But all of them are separate battles, so should be preserved separately and have their individual stories told.
CM: Any one of these battles is big enough and significant enough just by itself that the battlefield would deserve protection.
CM: So to have all four of them clustered together, that’s a lot of opportunity.
TR: That’s exactly what I was going to say. It’s an opportunity like no other. And you know, this is a fantastic community, and it’s growing in leaps and bounds, and development is everywhere. And once this land is developed, we have lost the opportunity to preserve it. We have lost the opportunity to tell its story. And that’s why it’s important to preserve it and to do it now.
CM: And I think beyond the four battlefields, you have the Union Occupation that starts the spring of ’62, you have the Winter Encampment of ’62-’63, you have the Mine Run Campaign in late ’63—so you have all these other major events of the war that take place around here, too. There is a lot of history.
TR: There is more history than you know. Well, maybe not you, but—(laughs)
CM: I think about, you know, driving across the Salem Church Battlefield, which is a lost preservation opportunity—part of what kicked off part of the modern reservation movement—and people drive across that battlefield every day and don’t even realize that it’s a battlefield because it’s been lost.
TR: You wouldn’t even know that it’s there except for a couple of really big monuments by the road, and there is a little brown National Park Service sign that says, basically, “Take a left here.”
CM: There is a postage stamp of property with a building on it.
So, as you have been learning the job, as you have been learning the history, what’s been most exciting about it for you?
TR: So far, the just jumping right in and getting after it. I’m already working on grant applications and talking to people, and building relationships. Next week, I’ll be having my first conversation with someone about a property and our interest in it.
CM: That’s something you’ve talked about a lot. Maybe it’s just the notion that relationships are central to how you see the way you do your job.
TR: Absolutely. Yes, in today’s business world—and by business world, I mean all business: for-profit, nonprofit, anything—a lot of work gets done via e-mail and telephone. And in many cases, that’s the only way to get it done. But there is great value in building personal relationships, in meeting people face-to-face and getting to know them, and getting to know what makes them tick and helping them understand what makes you tick. Because especially with a local grassroots, nonprofit organization, and doing local preservation, it’s those relationships that will help us do our work, and do it in a collaborative fashion, where we work with people and not in opposition to them.
CM: CVBT has to be a good neighbor.
TR: Absolutely. And when you get to know somebody and build a relationship, then when they find out about something, they go, “Hey, maybe I need to let Terry know about this.” Or if they are a landowner, “Okay, I’m ready to sell. Well, I know that CVBT’s interested in this because, you know, I have had conversations with them. And it sounds like a good idea to me, the work that they do in preserving this history.” And also, it’s harder to be dismissive of people who you’ve met and built relationships with.
I spent several decades working in community-based public broadcasting. And people want to be heard, and they want to know that you heard them and that you have paid attention to what they had to say, and that you consider their position. And the same thing happens in this work. You can disagree with people, but if you take the time to build a relationship with them, even if it’s a short-term relationship based on a phone call or a face-to-face conversation, it’s harder for them to be rude to you, and you to be rude to them.
CM: That sounds like a lesson we should take to our politics—not to get too political.
In tomorrow’s segment, Terry will walk us through some of the battlefields CVBT protects and share some of his first impressions.