Civil War News
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7 Groups Form Coalition to Save Chancellorsville
By Deborah Fitts
September 2002

CHANCELLORSVILLE, Va. — Hoping to emulate the success of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s storied flank attack on one of the greatest battlefields of the Civil War, an alliance of preservation groups returned to that field July 31 to launch a campaign against a developer’s plans for a new town.

“When one of the three most important battlefields in the country is threatened with destruction, we have to do something about it,” said Jim Lighthizer, president of the 41,000-member Civil War Preservation Trust. He placed Chancellorsville in the pantheon with Gettysburg and Antietam.

Dogwood Development Group of Reston filed an application in June with Spotsylvania County officials seeking to rezone 788 acres adjoining the battlefield. Dogwood is proposing 2350 homes and more than 2 million square feet of retail and office space on what is now rolling farmland stretching a mile along the north side of Route 3.

In response, the Trust and its much smaller, regional counterpart, the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT), spearheaded formation of the Coalition to Save Chancellorsville Battlefield. They held their inaugural event, a press conference, behind Salem Church east of the battlefield.

The small brick church, a tiny unit of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, is all but overwhelmed by the roar of passing traffic and commercial development typical of the fast-growing county.

“If people like what happened to Salem Church, they’re going to love what’s happening down the road,” said Lighthizer, who served as emcee of the event. He warned that Dogwood’s “gargantuan” development would not only “annihilate” the site of fighting on the first day of the battle, May 1, 1863, but it would “dramatically diminish” the 1600 acres of the battlefield within the park boundary.

“The Chancellorsville battlefield is a vital and important national treasure that belongs to all the citizens of this country,” Lighthizer said.

Dogwood is proposing to set aside 34 acres to the property as a battlefield park.

Lighthizer said the Trust is interested in buying battle acreage from Dogwood, but not all 780 acres. He added that the Trust had no intention of enriching Dogwood.

“This land is agricultural and we’re willing to pay fair market value,” Lighthizer said. “We’re willing to put our money where our mouth is.” He said, however, that as the former secretary of transportation in Maryland he was familiar with developers “pumping sunshine” to elected officials. “We’re not interested in a landowner manipulating the local zoning process to artificially inflate the value and then reap a substantial windfall profit.”

CVBT President John Mitchell told reporters after the press conference that he was meeting the following day with Dogwood President Ray Smith Jr. to discuss purchasing a sizeable piece of ground — perhaps 300 acres. Mitchell could not be reached at presstime, but a CVBT board member said negotiations were ongoing.

During the press conference Mitchell, a lifelong resident of Spotsylvania, said wryly of the county’s explosive growth, “It’s all for the money.”

“The way of life in this county has been completely changed, and not for the good,” Mitchell said. “Salem Church used to be a crown jewel of the National Park Service. Now they don’t even talk about it.”

Robert Nieweg, southern field office director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, noted that his quarter-million-member organization had listed Chancellorsville in 1998 as one of America’s most threatened historic sites.

Four years later things were only worse, Nieweg said. “What they’ve done is pave over the historic resources that distinguish this place,” putting at risk the $35 million that park visitors bring to the area.

“We’re not against change,” said Nieweg, “but we’re against poorly managed, dumb growth. We ask local decision-makers: what kind of heritage do you want to leave to future generations?”

Nieweg said after the event that the National Trust will “energize” its Virginia members to write to the governor and other officials opposing the rezoning.

The National Trust also objects to the proposed route of a Fredericksburg bypass, the Outer Connector. The multi-lane highway would cross a portion of the property that is now under option to Dogwood. Sprawl development and further damage to the adjacent battlefield park would inevitably follow, Nieweg said.

Joy Oakes, Mid-Atlantic regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said tourists “will come a long way to see the real deal” — an intact battlefield landscape. She warned the county against “squandering those assets.”

Lighthizer dismissed the claim by Smith, Dogwood’s president, that the development will pump $11 million annually into the county, above the cost in services.

The commercial portion of the development, where taxes are generated, will take 10 to 30 years to reach buildout, Lighthizer said. “In the meantime those 2400 homes will be a net loss on the tax roll.” The $11 million, he said, was “fool’s gold. It ain’t going to happen.”

Also joining the coalition were the Spotsylvania Preservation Foundation, the Spotsylvania Battlefield Education Association, and Friends of Fredericksburg Area Battlefields. Reporters game for an outing in the 90-degree heat spent more than an hour before the press conference touring the battlefield with Acting Superintendent John Hen-nessy and Greg Mertz, the park’s acting chief historian.

Standing at the site of the former Chancellor House, just yards from the busy four lanes of Route 3, Hennessy noted that the Dogwood plan is projected to add another 70,000 vehicles a day to the road, bringing the volume to more than 100,000. That alone could seriously degrade the park, he said.

“What happens outside a national park boundary can have as significant an effect as what happens inside,” Hennessy said. “We accept that eventually everything outside the park will be developed. But we hope it will not destroy what’s inside the park.”

He cited “a bland assumption” that Route 3 will be increased to six or eight lanes if Dogwood is approved. But he declared that the National Park Service (NPS) will not cede park land for the highway. “It is NPS policy not to yield land to development outside the park,” he said.

After the reporters caravanned nearly a mile east along Route 3, Hennessy led the group onto the highway’s grassy median, where the picturesque farmland under option to Dogwood lay before them.

Hennessy acknowledged that the park boundary omitted the May 1 action; the closest point of the park, McLaw’s Drive, lies just across Route 3 from the western edge of the Dogwood tract.

But he said when NPS had the chance several years ago to expand the boundary at Chancellorsville, they knew they could choose either the flank-attack Route of Stonewall Jackson or the May 1 field, but not both.

“One of the realities we all deal with is that park boundaries are as much a product of politics as they are of historicity,” Hennessy said.

He and Mertz described the action across the property on May 1, when Union troops under Gen. Darius Couch clashed with Confederates and then fell back westward to near the Chancellor House.

“Loss of this ground by the Union army was one of the key turning points of this battle,” said Mertz. Hennessy added, “In many ways this was the turning point of May 1863. Hooker had the initiative, but after the clash here [on the May 1 field] he yielded it to Lee.”

Lee maintained that initiative, Hennessy said, “until July 3, 1863, at Gettysburg,” and the South’s failed attempt to shatter the Union army. Overall at Chancellorsville, 90,000 Union and 50,000 Confederates were engaged, with the men in blue incurring 17,000 casualties and the southerners 13,000.

The Spotsylvania Planning Commission was tentatively scheduled to hold a public hearing on the application Sept. 18, although a staffer said that could be delayed. If the hearing is held on the 18th and the commission votes in favor that night, the application would be forwarded to the Board of Supervisors in October.

Coalition members urged concerned supporters of the battlefield to write Chairman Benjamin Pitts, Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors, 207 Southgate Ave., Fredericksburg VA 22408; or e-mail him at

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