A New “Threat” To Brandy Station Battlefield
By G. Michael Green
(July 2011 Civil War News - Preservation Column)
As our Civil War Sesquicentennial begins, we Americans are freshly focused as to how this disastrous internecine conflict transformed our nation. And quite predictably, the 150th anniversary of our private war has fostered renewed attention to the precarious nature of threatened Civil War battlefields.
One such battlefield rests outside a small Virginia hamlet in Culpeper County, and it is a fact that the largest and bloodiest cavalry engagement of the war occurred on June 9, 1863, at Brandy Station upon pristine fields that remain largely unchanged today.
Over the past 20 years, the Brandy Station battlefield has faced nearly constant threat by commercial and residential developers. At the forefront of each battle has been the local Brandy Station Foundation (BSF).
In the past two decades, the BSF and its partner, the Civil War Trust, have successfully preserved nearly 2,000 acres of battlefield lands at Brandy Station
In the past few weeks, bulldozers again appeared on the scene at Brandy Station and quickly began to severely despoil a key tract on the battlefield — southern Fleetwood Hill, a prominent ridge that witnessed the heaviest fighting in the entire battle.
In early May, a local landowner began excavating this historic acreage for the purpose of building a recreational pond. His bulldozers scraped, dug and pushed this historic ground for several days – creating a large pond and damming up Flat Run, a perennial stream that feeds vigorously into the Rappahannock River.
Noting the destruction to Fleetwood Hill, Clark B. Hall, the former president of the Brandy Station Foundation, notified federal, state and local authorities about the devastating construction on this battlefield property — acreage that comprises a battlefield deemed eligible by federal authorities for the National Register of Historic Places.
Responding quickly, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued an immediate “cease and desist” order, while finding that the non-permitted construction violated the Clean Water Act. In response, the landowner apologized and acknowledged he would work with the Corps to restore the site.
With excavation on Fleetwood Hill now halted, one is left with a disturbing question.
Where was the Brandy Station Foundation when it became evident the battlefield was in peril? Several BSF supporters contacted the newly-installed BSF President asking for assistance and support in stopping the excavation — only to be met with obfuscation and bizarre defensiveness.
The BSF president’s curious reaction included assertions that this issue has been blown out of proportion, and that BSF could not interfere with a landowner’s private property rights.
He also disclosed knowledge of the excavation plans since late April, but yet did nothing to prevent the destruction or alert others as to its potential impact.
I visited the site on May 15 and was appalled at the destruction. How could the destruction these bulldozers inflicted on this historic hillside not sicken anyone, much less the leader of a distinguished, highly successful 20-year-old preservation organization?
In a personal communication to the president, I urged aggressive action by the BSF, but BSF did absolutely nothing.
BSF finally issued, however, a confusing and illogical statement on May 19, days after the Corps “cease and desist” order.
The statement reads: “We are mindful that landowners have certain rights with regard to the property that they own. As a result, we believe that it is generally not productive to officially oppose common property improvements, particularly when those improvements are reversible. Also, we do not oppose landowners who conduct agricultural activities on battlefield property.”
After reviewing BSF’s strange statement, here is how a preservation authority responded: “While anyone may choose to view the permit process as an issue between the landowner and the agency, the law in play here — Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act — views it VERY differently.
“The law REQUIRES the permitting agency (in this case the Corps) to seek the input of the public in its review of projects. The law is written to encourage precisely the sort of public input that BSF has apparently eschewed.
“Preservation groups have very few legal tools at hand to accomplish preservation; Section 106 is by far the most useful. The idea that a preservation organization would publicly proclaim its intent NOT to use the major legal tool at its disposal might well be unprecedented.”
And by the way, how is bulldozing historic property and building a large pond on historic battlefield property reversible? Once completed, who would reverse the damage and at what additional costs? To my knowledge, this landowner is certainly not engaged in “agricultural activities.”
Simply put, I believe the current BSF leadership cannot be trusted to preserve and protect this hallowed battlefield. The BSF’s weeks of silence and ill-conceived statement on this issue convey a level of complicity in the destructive excavation on historic Fleetwood Hill.
Nine directors have resigned from the BSF board as a protest against the current president’s anti-preservation policies. The BSF’s appeasement — if not outright support — of the landowner’s misplaced “property rights” and his efforts to destroy a key part of Fleetwood Hill should reverberate throughout the historic preservation community. And, we should not tolerate it.
G. Michael Green is a former director and chief spokesperson for the Brandy Station Foundation. He is a federal executive living in northern Virginia.