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Ox Hill/Chantilly Battlefield Proponents Angry About Lack Of Funding
By Deborah Fitts


FAIRFAX, Va. - Supporters of Ox Hill (Chantilly) Battlefield Park are incensed that wealthy Fairfax County has only small change in its pockets when it comes to restoring the county's only preserved battlefield. "They're spending money like there's no tomorrow on all this other stuff," said Ed Wenzel, referring to the county's recent multi-million-dollar open-space buying spree. "This park has been on hold since 1987. Give us a break."

Wenzel, the leading authority on Ox Hill and a Civil War preservationist who played a principal role in the successful 1988 struggle to save part of the Manassas battlefield, is fed up with the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Plans to restore and interpret the little 5-acre plot that is all that remains of the Ox Hill battlefield have been delayed for years. And now it seems that the Authority will provide only $50,000 for the work - less than half the amount set aside several years ago and probably far short of what is needed, Wenzel said.

Wenzel and Civil War historian and preservationist Brian Pohanka, co-founders of the Chantilly Battlefield Association, rallied a group of supporters to the park in early August and rapped the Park Authority for dodging its responsibilities.
A letter drafted by Wenzel cited 45 years of efforts to protect the battlefield, whose focal point is a small fenced plot with stone monuments erected in 1915 to the two Union generals who died there - Philip Kearny and Isaac Stevens.

"At first it was buck passing, finger pointing, and bureaucratic shuffling as developers besieged the battlefield," Wenzel wrote. Now, he said, it is the Park Authority's failure to fund the improvements.

"We think it is most unfair and unjustified to shortchange the long-delayed Ox Hill Battlefield Park to pay for new parks that weren't even on the radar screen a few short years ago."

Other signatories to the letter included John McAnaw, president of the Bull Run Civil War Round Table; history professor Joseph Harsh of George Mason University; and top officials from local historical societies, the VFW, and American Legion.

Wenzel and Pohanka were recently appointed two of the six trustees who own the 50-by-100-foot monument plot, replacing two who had died since the last appointments, in 1961. Also named were Kearny authority William Styple and Barbara Dempsey, both of New Jersey. Dempsey is the widow of a former trustee.

In 1987, as part of its major development project on the battlefield, Centennial Development Corp. proffered 2.4 acres adjoining the monument plot, plus $110,000 "for use in construction of amenities and improvements to the historic park to commemorate the battle of Ox Hill."

In 1994, however, the Board of Supervisors used the money towards the $688,000 that was needed to purchase - out of the jaws of development - 2.5 acres abutting the tiny park, doubling its size to today's 5 acres.

Wenzel stressed that battlefield supporters were "most thankful and appreciative" that the county had purchased the extra land, and fully supported using the $110,000 at the time.

But he said his understanding was that the money would be recovered at a later date for completing the park, which in Wenzel's 1998 conceptual plan includes an access drive, parking area and interpretive shelter. His proposal also calls for clear-cutting the overgrown remnant of a 30-acre cornfield that figured prominently in the battle, and installing a 500-foot snake fence along a historic fenceline.

But now the Park Authority is suggesting that most of the $110,000 may be gone for good. It has allocated $50,000 for "master planning," scheduled to get under way next spring. At the same time, in the last two years the county has spent $32.5 million to buy new park land, expanding their holdings by 5000 acres.

Michael Ryerson, support services manager for the Park Authority, said the fate of the $110,000 was "being reviewed" by the staff. But he said that figure in any case represents "half what we need, at a minimum." And he said that no matter how much the improvements cost, the Park Authority is "committed to preserving and developing the property appropriately."

The Park Authority board can allocate whatever amount they choose for Ox Hill, Ryerson explained. He admitted to being "surprised that we haven't moved ahead" with the project. But he said the board simply is focusing on other priorities. One priority is major land acquisition, with open space rapidly vanishing in Fairfax. The other is building new athletic fields, due to extreme pressure from youth soccer, lacrosse and other interests.

"When you go into these [Park Authority] meetings and see 250 people arrive for youth athletics, you're only seeing the tip of the iceberg," he said. "A thousand more people write letters."

While he cautioned that Wenzel and Pohanka should want to work in a constructive "partnership" with the Authority, he suggested that their publicity campaign may also be successful: stories in the press and letters from battlefield supporters "will cause decision-makers to see what we can do," he said.

Standing in the shade of trees that partly screen the park from the hundreds of townhouses, high-rise office buildings, shopping centers and four- and six-lane highways that surround Ox Hill, Pohanka said it was "rather ironic that here is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, and it's almost as if they begrudge every nickel spent on a place like this - a place that's important not only to the county but the nation. "Let's show some respect. People poured out their blood here. They've already destroyed 90 percent of the battle-field. Let's treat this little piece with dignity and honor."

Wenzel recently oversaw installation of two new Virginia historical highway markers detailing the plot's Civil War history, including the battle of Ox Hill Sept. 1, 1862. The vicious fight culminated in the early darkness of an evening made additionally memorable in soldiers' recollections by a terrific thunderstorm.

Gen. Stevens was killed when he seized the flag of the 79th New York Highlanders after five color-bearers had fallen and led the men up a slope to where Confederates under Stonewall Jackson were waiting behind the snake fence. Gen. Kearny was killed later when, reconnoitering nearby on horseback in the dusky cornfield, he stumbled upon a Confederate force.

Pohanka called Wenzel "a hero" and "a great American" for his relentless fight to save Ox Hill.

"If it wasn't for Ed Wenzel, where we're standing right now would be just one more office building or shopping mall," Pohanka said. "What more powerfully heart-wrenching and inspirational thing can there be than to think of General Stevens, just over 5 feet tall, coming over this ground with the stars and stripes in his hands, knowingly and willingly going to his death? People should care about that."

Pohanka said those wishing to voice support for Ox Hill may contact Katherine Hanley, Chairman, Board of Supervisors, 12000 Government Center Parkway, Fairfax, Va., 22035.

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