Three decades ago, a number of concerned citizens gathered together to address the problem of urban sprawl in Northern Virginia. The focus of their attention was the fast disappearing Civil War battlefields that were being turned into housing developments and shopping malls.
This stalwart group decided the only way to save these lands before builders swallowed them up was to purchase the properties themselves. To accomplish their new mission in life, they formed an organization named the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites.
The word spread among the thousands who had an interest in the history of this country’s pivotal event. This led to an expanding membership and significant accomplishments in preserving the land over the years.
In 1991, another preservation group came on the scene, under the name Civil War Trust. For greater efficiency, eventually the two joined together, as the Civil War Preservation Trust, with Jim Lighthizer as president.
As a result, CWPT became the nation’s leading entity saving battlefields from extinction. By 2014, it had preserved 40,000 acres in a number of states, and along the way it shortened its name again to Civil War Trust.
This institution’s goal is to commemorate the struggle between North and South, and save the Civil War landscapes for our children and grandchildren. It conducts educational programs and tours to inform the public about what took place on these battlefields, and the role they played in determining the course of our nation’s history.
In 1993, Congress established an advisory commission to identify the most historically significant Civil War sites. Although there were nearly 10,000 battles and skirmishes, the report targeted 384 principle battlefields for preservation.
CWT uses two types of preservation transactions. Landowners either retain ownership through a conservation easement or engage in an actual transfer of ownership.
A conservation easement is the most efficient way to expend CWT funds, because it preserves land at lower costs. It involves an agreement with an owner restricting future activities on the land to ensure its preservation in perpetuity, thereby protecting the land from future development. The landowner gains significant tax benefits for participating in this way.
Funding for CWT transactions comes from a variety of sources. These include federal, state and non-profit organization grants; landowner donations; and contributions from members.
Battlefields that have benefitted from CWT acquisitions include well-known locations, such as Gettysburg, Pa.; Antietam, Md.; and Chancellorsville, Va. Yet, more obscure points, such as Averasborough, N.C.; Balls Bluff, Va.; and Aldie, Va., have received attention as well.
High on CWT’s recommendation list for battlefields to visit are Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Miss., and Fredericksburg, Va. Gettysburg has long been the most popular battlefield; averaging more than 1 million visitors each year.
More than 165,000 soldiers fought at Gettysburg in July 1863, and casualties totaled nearly 50,000. Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill have become iconic battlefield landmarks.
Vicksburg is touted as “one of the most brilliantly executed campaigns in the annals of military history.” There, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant solidified his reputation as a great military leader.
At Fredericksburg in December 1862, Gen. Robert E. Lee won one of his most decisive victories, and the Union army suffered a crushing defeat. CWT has preserved more than 200 acres of hallowed ground on this battlefield.
Members receive a subscription to “Hallowed Ground,” a quarterly magazine that includes articles by Civil War historians and information about CWT activities. They also receive a monthly e-newsletter with battlefield preservation information, and an invitation to an annual conference featuring tours of Civil War battlefields.
In recent years, CWT expanded its horizons to include preservation of Revolutionary War and War of 1812 sites. Because these conflicts initiated and confirmed American independence from Great Britain, the objective is to protect the remaining lands as a memorial to the patriots who established our nation.
To learn more about Civil War Trust’s mission, call 1-888-606-1400, or go online at https://www.civilwar.org/about.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books. His latest book, “Eleven Fateful Days in July 1863: Meade Tracks Lee’s Escape after Gettysburg,” is due out in 2018. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.