Success At Antietam
By Tom Clemens
(December 2009 Civil War News - Preservation Column)

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In this season of holidays and joy I have chosen to focus on the positive news about the efforts of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation Inc. (SHAF) during our 24 years of existence.

We have had enormous success, made possible by the generous and active support of many people. The result is that not only is Antietam the best preserved battlefield in the East, and possibly in the National Park Service, but it is a model of national, state and private partnership.

That partnership has created an enormously successful effort at preserving battlefield land. Today there are nearly 8,000 acres of battlefield and surrounding landscape that will never be developed. All this success cannot be claimed solely to ourselves, but we have certainly taken a significant role in accomplishing it.

We began in 1985 as group of historians with little knowledge of land issues, and no money. A local rezoning of a historic site caused outrage, but we didn’t know what to do about it.  A few people, among them Dennis Frye, John Schildt, and myself, decided to form an organization.

Our first action was to sue our County Commissioners about the zoning. Although we won at the local level, the county appealed the ruling. Despite that, we kept going.

When I replaced Dennis Frye as President of SHAF’s Board of Directors in 1989 we were in the midst of advocating for the new General Management Plan (GMP) at Antietam, specifically the restoration of the battlefield option.

Local opposition to the plan included everything from “no more land acquisition” to those wanting the park to sell various parts of the battlefield. SHAF had also purchased a historic house in Sharpsburg, we had mortgage payments and we’d lost our suit to stop development of the Grove Farm.

Through the dedication of our board, the supportive membership and some very generous donors, things quickly improved. The GMP option we favored was passed and the park’s restoration continues to this day. We regularly support that effort through our semi-annual Work Days.

We sold the house in Sharpsburg, and it was expertly restored. We marked local buildings used as headquarters and/or hospital sites with signs that show people how many structures from the Civil War era are still extant.

In 1991 we took on our greatest challenge. A 40-acre development slated for a portion of the Stephen Grove Farm, site of the famous photograph of Lincoln and Gen. George McClellan, was in financial trouble, and the property was on the auction block.

We took out a loan from a bank and purchased the property for $315,000, with little idea where we would get the money. A state of Maryland grant and the newly formed Civil War Trust provided some funding. We also obtained a grant for $15,000 from APCWS, now merged into Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT).

Eventually we sold this property, for a huge loss, and it is now under easement forever. It took us several years to sell it, and in all those years, we never missed a payment!

In the early 1990s a very fortuitous combination of events really helped launch the preservation effort at Sharpsburg. The constant stumbling block of money to purchase easements was removed when William Donald Schaefer became Governor of Maryland and James Lighthizer, now president of CWPT, was his Secretary of Transportation.

Using a Federal Highway enhancement program these men steered the money to purchase development rights from landowners around the battlefield. Within a few years the 3,100 acres of the battlefield was surrounded by nearly 5,000 acres of protected land. SHAF played a leading role in identifying the historic sites and approaching many of these landowners.

When we sold the Grove Farm land with protective easements in 1999 we were debt-free for the first time in our history. That same year we purchased the 5-acre parcel on the Grove farm previously slated for a building site.

It now has a small Maryland Campaign Driving Tour parking lot on it so visitors may view the privately-owned Grove Farm from the same perspective as the famous photograph.

Also in 2000 SHAF purchased about five acres of the site of the famous Gardner Signal Tower photograph. The view from this historic hilltop is astounding.

We quickly established a right-of-way to it and then sold the property with easements to an adjacent landowner. We are able to visit the property and occasionally take people up the hill for historical research purposes and occasional SHAF events.

We also accepted the donation of the Sharpsburg Train Station from the Norfolk and Southern Railroad. They wanted to tear it down and we thought it should be preserved. We held it until a model railroad group was able to take over the restoration; it is now open on special occasions.

We also took title to Tolson’s Chapel in Sharpsburg. It is a very early (1867) AME church and one of the few Freedmen’s Bureau schools still standing. We recently turned over the title to the Friends of Tolson’s Chapel, who has carefully restored the building.

SHAF continually works in cooperation with the National Park Service. We have donated thousands of dollars to build new fences, stabilize the Newcomer Barn at Middle Bridge, paint the Joseph Poffenberger house, and several other projects.

Under the sure and expert guidance of Superintendent John Howard Antietam Battlefield has acquired more land and easements in the past 18 years than in its entire history to that point. Original woodlots have been replanted, buildings restored and a series of new walking trails provide access to many places previously off-limits to visitors.

In the past few years we have been happy to recognize and support a group formed to preserve the historic Shepherdstown Ford battlefield near Shepherdstown, W.Va. The Shepherd-stown Battlefield Preservation Association continues to work to preserve the area and is encouraging lawmakers on Capitol Hill to establish a national park there. SHAF has aided this new group and we hope for good news soon on this front.

We have other projects under way, but until negotiations are finalized, we cannot disclose what we’re looking at.

SHAF’s list of accomplishments is long, and we did it all with volunteer efforts. We do not have a paid staff or an office. We have always depended on the talents and energy of our board and the generous donations of our members.

Our success is due to our members and contributors and we are most grateful to them. It has been a great experience and a humbling one. It makes me realize how generous and caring many of you have been, and the importance of these battlefields, not just to us “buffs” but to all Americans. 

Our best holiday greetings to all battlefield preservationists, organizations and contributors, large or small; we wish you the same successes we have had. It’s been a wonderful experience!

Tom Clemens is a founding member of SHAF and president since 1989. He also teaches at Hagerstown Community College and will soon publish an edited version of the Ezra Carman manuscript of the Maryland Campaign of 1862. For information about SHAF go to http://shaf.org