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Friday, June 03, 2005

On Vanishing Civil War Battlefields

If we learn the art of yielding what must be yielded to the changing present we can save the best of the past.
Dean Acheson, in an address to the Law Club of Chicago, January 22, 1937.

There are tens of thousands of Civil War enthusiasts around the USA trying to prevent the destruction of battlefield sites in Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and most every other state ever touched by the Blue and the Gray. They have succeeded on a small scale in far-flung - and relatively obscure - places like Fisher's Hill and Saylor's Creek. And they have failed in others - like Ox Hill and Nashville.

And, in the case of many locations in northern Virginia, they are destined to fail, in part because there are so many properties of historical value and so few dollars with which to preserve them. And then there is the inexorable growth of the metropolis.
Trust Decries Development In Three-State Historic Area
By Michael Laris, Washington Post Staff Writer

The 175-mile road trip between Gettysburg and Monticello is a sometimes traffic-clogged passage past flag-waving outlet malls and fast-emerging suburban outposts built to serve the Washington region's booming population.

But a journey through the lands near Route 15 also takes in six presidential homes, including James Madison's Montpelier, a concentration of Civil War battlefields from Antietam to Manassas, a million acres on the national historic register and the rolling Piedmont scenery that inspired the Founding Fathers.

Yesterday, Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, put the vast tri-state area on his group's annual list of the nation's most endangered historic places. Also among the 11 sites are a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Los Angeles, historic Catholic churches in Boston and decaying buildings in downtown Detroit. (link)
I admire these folks for their efforts. At the same time, I know how futile their work ultimately will be.

The problem for them is that, taking Virginia as an example, the entire area is one huge chapter in the early history of America that could, under ideal circumstances, cry out for preservation. One can't set foot in this state without trampling the past.

I live in a remote section of Southwest Virginia, about as far removed from the scene of major fighting in Northern Virginia as one can get without being called a Tennessee Volunteer. But even here, there is need for historical preservation.

Raleigh Grayson Turnpike (it was recently given this, its original name, as opposed to what we endured for years, a rural route number, thank you) runs around the perimeter of my property and up over Big Walker Mountain, into the Jefferson National Forest.

The turnpike was built, by hand as it were, in the 1830's and 1840's, allowing for the the area's settlers to travel from Raleigh County (which is now part of West Virginia) through to Wytheville and beyond to Grayson County south of here.

Officially, today, the turnpike runs only from Bland to my driveway, where it comes to an abrupt end. Unofficially, the old turnpike that worms its way up the mountain is still there, though it is showing a certain lack of maintenance these days. This portion of the turnpike was abandoned in 1972 when I-77 was completed. Only the locals and a logging company have contributed to its care.

So, why would the National Trust for Historic Preservation be interested in preserving the old turnpike?

Because it too has Civil War history, albeit a tiny one by comparison to that of the Valley Turnpike up around New Market, or the old railroad line running from Richmond through Guinea Station (where Old Stonewall was taken to die of his wounds) to Fredericksburg.

But you can walk the old turnpike here in far-removed Bland County, Virginia, as Paula and I did on Saturday, and pick up shards of pottery in the middle of the road. I made mention of this several months ago in another post .

It is because there is so much of it lying around that one gets the impression, at least it's my impression, that it was cast aside by an advancing Yankee army that passed through here in 1864. Stolen loot from nearby farmsteads that soldiers decided to discard rather than lug over the mountain. Lying where it was tossed 141 years ago.

But I don't bemoan the fact that Raleigh Grayson Turnpike - the old turnpike - is slowly being washed away by the spring thaw and summer downpours. It is inevitable.

But I know too that it'll be a part of history regardless.

And nobody will take that away from us.

Weep not the world changes - did it keep
A stable, changeless state, it were cause indeed to weep.
William Cullen Bryant, "Mutation," 1824