Posted on Sat, Oct. 02, 2004
REPUBLIC, Mo. – Ted Hillmer fears restaurants, stores and rows of houses may be soon mar the view from one of the nation’s few relatively untouched Civil War battlefields.
It’s the reason the superintendent of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield is leading the fight to protect the site where the first major battle west of the Mississippi River was fought and the first Union general was killed in combat.
"I think it’s a crime that we don’t preserve these areas for the soldiers," Hillmer said. "Whatever side you were on, these people gave the ultimate sacrifice so we can learn from our past."
Concern for the battlefield, about 10 miles southwest of Springfield, are well-founded.
A proposal is on the table that would take 2,300 acres of pristine pastures on the western edge of Wilson’s Creek for 2,500 homes. The development prompted Republic School District to buy 148 acres along a road leading into the park for future school construction.
Hillmer also recently lost an effort to block a water tower that will be within sight of the ridge where Union and Confederate troops clashed.
"We have these resources that people read about and discuss in the classroom, and then they can come out and physically walk on the areas that they have read about," Hillmer said. "To me, that puts you in better contact with history."
Wilson’s Creek takes in 1,750 acres, but only 75 percent of the actual combat areas are within its boundaries.
Missouri’s Rep. Roy Blunt and Sen. Jim Talent have joined in by pushing legislation authorizing the acquisition of 615 acres. The six parcels would return the battlefield to its original acreage.
The bill has passed the House and was expected to win Senate approval before Congress adjourns.
"Our legislation would protect the field on which the battle was fought so that the full story of the first major Civil War battle west of the Mississippi can be preserved for generations to come," Talent said.
Civil War Preservation Trust views the threat of urban sprawl so great that it placed Wilson’s Creek on its list of top 10 endangered battlefields.
The Trust, a nonprofit organization with 63,000 members, has offered its muscle and resources to save Wilson’s Creek.
It cites a 1993 congressional survey that declared 384 of the battles fought across the country "significant influences on the course of our nation’s history." Fewer than 15 percent of those sites have been protected from developers and other commercial interests.
The Trust and its backers have had some success in thwarting development. It won two victories at Chancellorsville, Va., recognized as General Robert E. Lee’s greatest battle success and the scene of one of the most high-profile preservation fights to date. They were able to defeat a 2,000-house development planned for the battlefield. They also convinced the regional transportation authority to reject a proposed bypass through the battlefield.
Subdivisions and shopping developments can be built practically anywhere, Trust spokesman Jim Campi said.
Battlefields are nonrenewable resources, he said.
"Wilson’s Creek is one of the few battlefields that really does look as it did at the time of the Civil War," Campi said.
The Battle of Wilson’s Creek, on Aug. 10, 1861, marked the beginning of the Civil War in Missouri. It was one of the most fiercely contested of the war, as 5,400 Union troops and 12,000 Confederates struggled for control of the state.
The battle raged on the crest of a ridge subsequently called "Bloody Hill" for six hours. Among the casualties was Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, who became the first Union general to die in battle during the war.
The Confederate Army won, but it set the stage for other major battles. When the war ended, Missouri had become the third most fought-over state in the nation.
Hillmer recognizes the lure of being able to sale land with an agricultural value of about $1,000 an acre to a developer for about $11,000 an acre.
Some owners, however, have expressed interest in following in the footsteps of beef farmer Bill Kary, who became the first farmer in Missouri to participate in a federal farmland protection program.
Kary received $816,000, considered fair market value, in exchange for agreeing to forever preserve 102 acres of farmland adjoining Wilson’s Creek.
"I may have made more building houses out here on this property, but building houses and making more money is not always the answer," Kary said.