MURFREESBORO, Tenn. Plans to construct a highway interchange on core battlefield at the Stones River National Battlefield Park has caused great concern for the future of the park among preservation groups.
The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) recently placed the Stones River site on its "Ten Most Endangered Parks List" not only because of the proposed interchange, but also because of the "constant threat from private development interests."
"This is battle day for Stones River," Don Barger, the southeast regional director of the NPCA said in a recent telephone interview. "What happens in the next few months is going to forever decide what the battlefield will be. We are at the absolute crossroads for Stones River Battlefield. It's either going to be one thing or the other."
Local developers want to establish an interchange near the park where Interstate 24 crosses Manson Pike, a two-lane road that marks the park boundary. Manson Pike was originally called Wilkinson Pike and it runs through the battlefield.
"We remain very concerned about the proposal," said Mary Ann Peckham, superintendent of Stones River. "We have yet to see the plan so it's difficult for us to say exactly what impact it will have.
From what she knows about the proposal, from media accounts and second-hand information, the proposed interchange site is part of the core battlefield that was identified in the parks general management plan as an area that needs protection. Unfortunately, Peckham said, the land falls outside the park's authorized boundary.
"If the project is completed, the area it disturbs will be gone forever," Peckham said. "Its difficult pull up fill, asphalt and concrete."
Barger said it is critically important at this point to make sure the legal review process is completed accurately.
"We want to stop the train and look in the windows before we get to much further down the track," Barger said. "At this point, we don't feel there has been any level of analysis." He said the NPCA feels there may be other alternatives rather than an interchange on core battlefield. Until very recently, the Manson Pike, I-24 interchange project wasnt even on the boards with the Tennessee Department of Transportation then, "boom, all of a sudden it's been prioritized," Barger said.
"Money and political power have pushed this thing to the top of the list," he said. "The ramifications of putting this where it's proposed are immense."
Barger said he was concerned about the encroachment of the interchange, and equally concerned about the inevitable development of the land surrounding the battlefield park that the interchange will bring.
Stones River is currently too small to interpret adequately, Barger said. Nearly 600 acres of the 4000 acres over which the three-day battle was fought, are part of the national park. Historic viewsheds and open space give battlefield visitors a sense of place and allow them to experience the stories they've heard about the locations.
"You can tell a story in a book," Barger said. "You can tell the story on a quarter-acre lot, but it is not the same as standing in an open cornfield and look across the battlefield. It puts a chill in your spine when you know what happened there."
Also expressing concern about the proposal is James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT), who said they are "watching it very closely."
Because the CWPT preserves land through purchase and easements, the trust has let the NPCA take the lead in the charge to save the site from the interchange.
In a news release from the NPCA, Barger said that development of the site would convert the parks view from farmland to commercial buildings. Additionally, the land targeted for development includes a ridge that gives a wide perspective of the protected battlefield, which is flatland.
If the Federal Highway Administration approves the plan for the interchange, then the widening of Manson Pike and the development of the historic battlefield will become more likely, according to Barger.
The NPCA would like to see the National Park Service acquire an additional 10 percent of the original battlefield.
"The service and Congress must take immediate measures to acquire this land or an important historical site will be lost to urban sprawl," Barger wrote.
NPCA President Thomas Kiernan said in the news release that "Logic tells you that national park status protects Americas priceless wild and scenic areas from human degradation, but that logic is wrong. Like liberty itself, the protection of Americas natural and historic heritage requires eternal vigilance on the part of U.S. citizens."
He added, "Historic sites like Stones River have our respect, now we have to commit to protecting them."
The City of Murfreesboro, in conjunction with the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT), recently submitted an engineering/feasibility study for the proposed interchange for review by the Federal Highway Administration (FHA).
In an April 26 letter to the FHA, Barger for the NPCA asked that the highway administration complete a full Environmental Impact Statement as required by federal law.
"The proposed interchange at Manson Pike is a major federal action that will significantly affect the quality of the human environment," Barger wrote. He called for the Federal Highway Administration to "immediately begin coordinating" with the National Park Service."
The fact that the city will heavily subsidize the project, having reportedly already committed about $3 million to it, must not cloud the review process, according to Barger. The total cost of the project is reportedly estimated at about $8.4 million. He said the interchange is controversial in the community and the justification of the proposed interchange is unclear to the public.
Barger told The Civil War News that he met with the Tennessee Department of Transportation to talk about the plan and although he was treated kindly, he said he was not invited to go "hand in hand" with the TDOT through the review process.
"We are left with the necessity of the law and we expect the law to be followed," he said, noting that the NPCA will explore all options available to protect Stones River.
And Barger said that he will hold the FHA to the same standards to abide by the law and conduct the full environmental studies needed to evaluate the project on its merits.
Barger suggests that the sites and cultural landscapes that would be potentially affected or lost due to the proposed interchange are Sills Ridge, Harding House, Brick Kiln, Slaughter Pen and Gresham House. The site that will most directly be affected by the interchange is the Jenkins House, a temporary field hospital that stood near fighting on the battlefield. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Some of the land the interchange could encroach upon is eligible for inclusion on the National Register as well.
According to press reports, city officials argue that the interchange and road widening are necessary to ease traffic congestion in Murfreesboro, a city that has grown 30 percent between 1990 and 1998.
Manson Pike is a major road leading into Murfreesboro for neighboring communities that are also expected to experience significant growth and city officials are concerned about future traffic problems along the narrow and winding road.
The Battle of Stones River (known to some as the Battle of Murfreesboro) began Dec. 31, 1862, and ended Jan. 2, 1863. It was here that repeated lines of Confederates marched against Union troops in the "Slaughter Pen" and "Hells Half Acre."
With more than 83,000 troops and 23,000 casualties, Stones River was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The battle, according to historians, was one of 45 out of 10,500 armed battles and skirmishes that had a significant effect on the outcome of the Civil War.
"We are facing a forever decision here," Barger said. "We need to make it soberly, respectfully and full of the information we need to make it."