I was asked why we should protect battlefields today. That question surprised me, as I have always taken the answer for granted—we just do. But it seemed to be a legitimate, good faith question, so I harnessed my inner smarty pants and decided to answer it seriously.
For more than twenty years now, I have been deeply involved in battlefield preservation works. I served as vice president of the Buffington Island Battlefield Preservation Foundation here in Ohio for a couple of years, but that organization was totally dysfunctional and ineffective, and the heart of the battlefield was destroyed and turned into a sand and gravel mine. It was almost enough to make one ill watching as that beautiful pristine ground vanished because the Governor of Ohio refused to take a stand to protect Ohio’s only significant Civil War battlefield. It would have required an eminent domain proceeding, and former Gov. Bob Taft had no interest in such a thing. And so, the heart of that battlefield—the spot where the heaviest fighting occurred—was forever and irreparably destroyed.
I am presently finishing my second year as a member of the board of directors of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, located in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The CVBT is a local advocacy group focused on preserving battlefields in and near Spotsylvania County, Virginia. It’s been around for more than twenty years, and it has been one of the most effective local advocacy groups working in the space. Being involved in the day-to-day business decisions and workings of the group has provided me with a great opportunity to understand how advocacy groups fund their acquisitions. Unlike the BIBPF, the CVBT gets things done, which I find enormously rewarding.
For many years now, I’ve been involved in efforts to preserve the Trevilian Station battlefield in Louisa County, Virginia. Trevilian Station was the Civil War’s largest all-cavalry battle, and when I first began working on it in 1996 or 1997, there was not a single acre of land there that was protected. Today, there are more than 2000 acres that have been preserved. I often work with the American Battlefield Trust in identifying parcels to acquire, drafting statements of historic significance to explain why those parcels should be acquired, and then I help with the fundraising efforts.
All of this is where my true passion lies. I spend a lot of time, effort, and money on my preservation work. It’s a rare day that I’m not doing something related to battlefield preservation, whether it’s the everyday business of the CVBT, or my work with the ABT.
So, why do I invest my time, effort, and money into battlefield preservation? These battlefields are hallowed ground, consecrated by the blood of those who fought, suffered, and died there. It is our responsibility—both moral and ethical—to preserve that ground for future generations. My late friend and mentor, Brian C. Pohanka—who left us way too soon—was one of the founders of the modern battlefield preservation movement in the 1980’s. As Brian profoundly said, “Some kid a hundred years from now is going to get interested in the Civil War and want to see these places. He’s going to go down there and be standing in a parking lot. I’m fighting for that kid.”
Or, as Maj. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain extremely eloquently said of the battlefield at Gettysburg:
In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls… generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.
I can’t say it better than Chamberlain did, so I won’t even try. But Chamberlain’s point is a valid one—people will always be drawn to see where their ancestors fought and died for their principles. That, alone, is reason enough.
However, there’s also the fact that once that first spade of dirt is turned at these battlefields—once the pristine ground has been disturbed—that bell can never, ever be unrung. The only way to ensure that the legacy is protected is to preserve the land.
Finally, I view these battlefields as giant outdoor classrooms. As the great military historian Carl von Clausewitz wrote in his classic study of strategy in the Napoleonic Wars, “geography and the character of the ground bear a close and ever-present relation to warfare. They have a decisive influence on the engagement, both as to its course and to its planning and exploitation.” Or, as an old friend who spent 26 years as a combat engineer likes to say, “the terrain is THE primary source.” To truly understand what happened on these battlefields, one must study and understand the interplay among strategy, tactics, and the terrain. It’s a true statement that the terrain drives the action, which is what my friend the combat engineer meant when he said that the terrain is THE primary source: if you can’t understand how the terrain played into the events in question, then you will never truly understand what happened on battlefields. If the terrain has been materially changed, you can never hope to truly understand the events that occurred on that terrain. It’s really that simple.
That’s why we preserve battlefields.