Small Group, Large Impact
By Tom Van Winkle
(November 2011 Civil War News - Preservation Column)

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The American Civil War brought years of brutal fighting and sacrifice. The carnage was the worst our young country had ever seen. Towns laid to waste, civilians left with no homes or shelter, armies starving and marching in bare feet while still believing in their cause. In many cases brother was literally fighting against brother.

Over 600,000 casualties occurred and more than 100,000 of those were lost in some of the most fought over terrain in the Civil War, Central Virginia.

Caught dead in the center of the two opposing capitals of Washington, D.C. and Richmond the Fredericksburg area played host to four major and bloody battles. Those battles left an indelible mark on this area and its landscape. It also created a modern-day dilemma: what should be protected and what should be developed?

To students of the Civil War this is certainly not news, but what may be news to many is a small group in Fredericksburg that has been diligently and quietly working on preserving these battlefields for 15 years, The Central Virginia Battlefields Trust.

The Trust was officially formed on Nov. 4, 1996, and consisted of seven local residents who had been witnessing the accelerated destruction of the battlefields and wanted to do something about it. None of the original founding members were professional historians and none were quite sure what they were getting into, but all agreed something needed to be done.

With the aim to aid the National Park Service in acquiring battlefield land that either was not in the boundary set by Congress or had sale prices much higher than the Park Service was allowed to pay, the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust began its mission.

“To stand on a Civil War battlefield is to stand on holy ground, for these fields have been consecrated by their blood and by their bravery, and we believe quite strongly that to deface such ground is to dishonor their suffering and their sacrifice.”

These words were spoken by founding member and current Central Virginia Battlefields Trust President Dr. Mike Stevens and they are at the core of the group’s values.

Beginning in 1996 in a joint effort with the now Civil War Trust, the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust saved a portion of the Fredericksburg battlefield known as Willis Hill.

From there the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust began researching and identifying endangered battlefields in Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, saving battlefields with names such as, McLaws’ Wedge, Jackson’s Flank Attack and Pelham’s Corner.

Some of this land was within NPS boundaries and much was not. In its 15 years the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, with an all         volunteer board of directors, has preserved on its own and in partnerships over 900 acres of battlefields that would otherwise be lost forever.

Dr. Stevens’ words go on to say, “It has been said that ‘poor is the nation which has no heroes, but shameful is the nation which has them and forgets.’ By preserving the hallowed ground of a Civil War battlefield we assure that these men will not be forgotten and lost to time but will be remembered and honored forever, for who they were, for what they did, and for what they can teach us.”

“Saving Dirt and Grass” is the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust’s tag line and they have accomplished this over and over again. One would assume that with the major success it has had in 15 years and the millions of dollars spent on acquiring endangered battlefields that this once small group has now expanded and has become more complicated and heavily layered.

Well, if you think that I am happy to say you would be incorrect. The board of directors is still an all volunteer group, although it is slightly larger than seven and does have a professional historian or two. The membership level has risen to over 800 and is still growing.

The group has made one exception to the volunteer policy and hired an executive director out of necessity. He is woefully underpaid for the work he performs, but also has the mission in mind. Even with keeping this small footprint the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust has been called “the most effective regional Civil War land trust in the nation.”

With the Civil War Sesquicentennial upon us we have an opportunity to advocate battlefield preservation to a more interested public. Time is truly running out to preserve these hallowed grounds.

If you think because you are only one, or you may have only a handful of people who want to do something, and figure that’s not enough, think of Central Virginia Battlefields Trust. With just a handful of wishful thinkers and a determination to make a difference, it can be done, it must be done, and now. If we don’t preserve it, we will lose it.

“By preserving the hallowed ground of a Civil War battlefield we don’t just preserve land; we also preserve the memories and the meaning, the sacrifices and the stories, of the men who fought and fell there, men whose bond to cause and comrade and country was so strong that they were willing to die rather than to deny it.” — Dr. Mike Stevens.

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Tom Van Winkle is a founding member and five-term president of the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, former secretary of Friends of Fredericksburg Area Battlefields, current board member, webmaster and director of communications for Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, and partner, writer and director in Heritage Media LLC.