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Suburbia Marches on Civil War Battlefield

Preservationists defend Chancellorsville, Va., where the South won an improbable victory.

October 20, 2002|Ellen Gamerman | The Baltimore Sun

CHANCELLORSVILLE, Va. — There are no shops here. No hotels, no restaurants, no malls. Around one of the Civil War's most historically significant battlefields, there is no road to a frappuccino or Victoria's Secret.

But suburbia is banging on this battlefield's door.

A national fight over just how much development can bump up against Civil War battlegrounds is erupting here, on the land where Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson died, where one of history's most famous surprise attacks occurred, where Robert E. Lee's troops scored a stunning and improbable victory.

Plans to build what one developer calls the new "town of Chancellorsville" near the historic killing ground promises to bring in roughly 6,000 residents, several big-box stores, four hotels, a library, a skating rink, a movie theater and more.

And with those plans, laid out on colorful story boards and awaiting action this month by the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors, comes what preservationists call the biggest threat to any Civil War battlefield today -- to destroy the land where one of Virginia's bloodiest battles took place.

"We've got to fight this one to the death," said James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust, a national nonprofit organization.

"There's plenty of other places to put these gargantuan developments -- not here," he added, gazing from the ridge that Union troops fled in May 1863. He predicted an onslaught of traffic and sprawl if the new town is approved.

The fight to protect Chancellorsville, just west of Fredericksburg and almost midway between Washington and Richmond, is part of a national effort to preserve battlefield land.

And for that there is no better testing ground than Spotsylvania County and its environs, where 100,000 men died in four major battles during the war: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse.

Some local officials, noting that Spotsylvania is one of Virginia's fastest-growing counties, argue that if they tiptoed around all the land that Civil War armies fought over, none of the property in the county would be developed.

"Somewhere or another, an army passed through Spotsylvania County and people died," said the county's administrator, Anthony Barrett.

The controversial development would be built on a dairy farm up for sale -- land adjacent to the Chancellorsville battlefield, of which 1,600 acres are federally protected as a national military park.

Although combat occurred on a piece of the farm's 790 acres, preservationists place greater value on what did not happen there: The absence of development on the land since the Civil War has indirectly helped preserve the battlefield's sight lines and rural character.

Now the county is considering rezoning the property to allow for 10 times the houses that could otherwise be built there and four times the business development: That's 2,350 homes and 2.4 million square feet of commercial space.

Ray Smith, a northern Virginia developer who hopes to build the new town, argues that if the land were so important, preservationists would have bought it two years ago when its owner, undertaker John Mullins, put it up for sale.

Preservationists contend that they were not given enough time to assemble a bid for the property, which they say carried an $18-million price tag. Now they are trying to persuade local officials to deny the new zoning or, better yet, persuade the federal government to buy the land and make it part of the park.

So far, the state government is sitting on the sidelines.

Smith, noting that a four-lane highway already runs by the Chancellorsville battlefield, insists that, like it or not, a tide of development is coming.

"You can't just take away people's property rights," argued Smith, whose Dogwood Development Group holds an option on the property. "This is still America. That's one of the freedoms people fought for in that Civil War."

The three-day Battle of Chancellorsville is known to historians for a maneuver so bold that Winston Churchill came to study it, military students still analyze it and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf called it a model for his Gulf War tactics.

Although the North outnumbered the South more than 2-to-1 at Chancellorsville, Stonewall Jackson, under Lee's command, gambled and led his men on a 12-mile march along largely hidden wooded trails, sneaking up on the North's right flank and routing the unsuspecting Union troops.

About 7,500 men died -- including Jackson, who was mistakenly shot by Confederate sentries.

Lee saw his victory at Chancellorsville as evidence of the Confederacy's might: Two months after that battle, in what some historians view as a fatal miscalculation, an emboldened Lee pushed into Union territory, moving through Maryland and into Pennsylvania only to suffer defeat at Gettysburg. The Confederacy never recovered.

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