Date published: 7/5/2004

A group of Civil War preservationists is deciding which battlefields most need saving from the encroachment of modernity.

All three of Spotsylvania County’s battlefields are in danger of vanishing beneath endless miles of pavement, subdivisions and strip malls, says Jim Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust.

"What you’ve got is a confluence of extraordinary history and extraordinarily destructive growth," Lighthizer said recently. "It meets right here in good old Spotsylvania County."

To draw attention to the problem in Spotsylvania–and across the nation–the trust is accepting nominations for its 2005 list of the 10 most-endangered Civil War Battlefields.

The Chancellorsville battlefield topped this year’s list, and Lighthizer predicts it will make the Top 10 come February.

Other endangered sites listed this year include Tennessee’s Fort Donelson, the Hell Hole in Georgia and South Carolina’s Morris Island.

The Spotsylvania Court House battlefield made this year’s tally of "at-risk" sites.

Local preservationists and historical organizations submit the nominations for the most imperiled battlefields to the trust. The trust’s board of directors then chooses the 10 most endangered after consulting with numerous historians and preservation experts.

The criteria include a battle’s significance to the outcome of the Civil War and the level of danger to the site.

Trust spokesman Jim Campi says much of the threat stems from the federal government’s outdated preservation policies.

For much of the 20th century, the National Park Service protected only the roads along which the Union and Confederate armies marched, posting historical markers at key points. Meanwhile, developers snapped up the surrounding farmland on which much of the fighting occurred.

"A lot of roadways used in the war and subject to battle reports are now subject to traffic reports," Campi said.

To solve this problem, the 57,000-member-strong trust, with offices in Washington, D.C., raises money to purchase and retire battlefield land.

The group recently worked with the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust, a Fredericksburg-based organization, to add 17 acres to the Chancellorsville battlefield.

Lighthizer describes Spotsylvania’s battlefields as a "low-impact economic engine" for the county.

"A battlefield doesn’t require one extra classroom," he said. "It doesn’t require more fire and police protection."

Instead, hordes of "heritage tourists" will flock to Spotsylvania, spend their money and leave. Indeed, Lighthizer suggests Spotsylvania eventually could lure as many tourists as Gettysburg.

"Gettysburg is the Kentucky Derby of battlefields," he said. "It draws about 1.8 million visitors a year. But Spotsylvania has four Gettysburgs–if they’re preserved, interpreted and promoted. There’s substantial potential here, but it’s the 11th hour, given growth pressures."

Bob Hagan, chairman of the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors, agreed that the battlefields are assets needing protection. The county recently scheduled a series of public meetings to solicit ideas from residents on how best to promote the sites.

Hagan said the supervisors don’t want unfettered growth to wipe out Spotsylvania’s rich history.

"Our country and our county let Salem Church become a very small island of history off of Route 3–isolated by roads, homes and commercial property," he said. "We don’t want to make that kind of mistake again. "