Civil War Trust’s Silver Anniversary
By James Lighthizer
(January 2012 Civil War News - Preservation Column)

Bookmark and Share

As the calendar turns to 2012 and we continue to mark the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, contemplating its legacies and evolving memory, those of us who value the protection of the landscapes where that conflict was decided have another milestone to mark: 25 years since the beginning of the modern battlefield preservation movement.

Certainly, this is not to say that the appropriate commemoration of these hallowed grounds only began a quarter-century ago — those who lived through the battles began the process nearly as soon as the smoke cleared.

At Gettysburg, local attorney David McConaughy began purchasing land within months of the battle, and a formal memorial association was founded in April 1864. Once the conflict’s final outcome was decided, returning Union soldiers dedicated a monument on Henry Hill at First Manassas in 1865.

Historian Timothy B. Smith, in his engaging book tracing the origin of the nation’s first five military parks, called the 1890s the “golden age” of battlefield preservation.

The young men of the 1860s had become the established leaders of their communities, and their sincere desire to honor fallen comrades and generate a sense of national unity were embraced alongside similar efforts to protect the breathtaking beauty of the American west for posterity.

As the decades passed, the veterans who had spurred this drive to set aside the bloodied landscapes of their youth faded into memory, and popular efforts dwindled, rekindling around major anniversaries but never reaching their previous heights.

As successful and important as those efforts of the past were, I would argue that today, we are in the midst of second preservation renaissance. But the resurgence in battlefield preservation that began in 1987, with the formation of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, was driven by a much different force than that of a century before.

No veterans sought to mark the places where their comrades fell; no wartime culture motivated remembrance; no anniversary reunion prompted study.

Our era of preservation began as a reaction to rampant unchecked growth — development spreading like weeds around the fringes of existing parks or threatening to overwhelm sites not set aside by previous preservation-minded generations.

We found our genesis in a group of historians, both amateur and professional, joining forces. Together, we have changed the very nature of battlefield preservation, taking it from solely the realm and mission of government bodies and providing individual Americans with the opportunity to contribute and make a tangible difference regarding the future of this hallowed ground.

And what a difference we have made: in the years since 1987, the members of the Civil War Trust have come together to contribute toward the protection of more than 32,000 acres of irreplaceable Civil War history.

Prior to our beginning, groups had focused on the protection of a particular battlefield or region. But an entity pursuing a national approach to preservation, spreading its attentions across the map, was entirely new.

And while early federal protection efforts were arranged so that preserved battlefields would be representative of a single major strategic initiative or army — notably, only one of the first five parks marked a Confederate victory — the projects we have undertaken were chosen without such agenda.

To date, the Civil War Trust and its predecessor organizations have worked to set aside land at 111 individual historic sites in 20 states.

The emergence of a successful national movement on behalf of historic sites reinvigorated local preservationists by providing them with a partner who could advise in their efforts and assist by drawing attention to their work on a larger scale. This renewed energy and broader base of led to the establishment of new local battlefield protection groups, further fueling momentum for the battlefield preservation cause.

Perhaps even more significantly, this modern era has revolutionized the business of battlefield preservation.

In the late 1980s, when confronted with a proposal for a 1.2-million-square-foot regional shopping mall, office and residential park on a 550-acre portion of the Second Manassas Battlefield, the federal government was forced into a legislative taking of the land at a cost to the government of roughly $220,000 per acre.

In the wake of that incident, Congress issued a call for a study to investigate a more cost effective alternative for preserving our Civil War battlefields.

The findings of the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, which include assessments of both historic significance and preservation status, form the backbone of current battlefield land protection strategy.

The ultimate report, issued in 1993, included a recommendation for the creation of a $10 million-per-year “emergency fund” for battlefield protection — an intent that has today evolved into the phenomenally successful federal Civil War Battlefield Preservation Program.

Since its inception, this matching grant program has allowed for the protection of 17,000 acres of hallowed ground at an average cost to the government of less $3,300 per acre, leveraged against individual donations and other grant funding. The efficiency of this preservation model has made it a poster-child for public-private cooperation in the conservation industry.

In fact, since 2000, the Civil War Trust has been involved in saving four times more Civil War battlefield land that the National Park Service (NPS) was able to protect independently during the same period.

This organization, which began so humbly 25 years ago, is now the number one entity saving battlefield land in America today. Still, we recognize that there is much work to be done if we are to secure a legacy of adequate protection for these priceless resources.

Despite all our achievements, these sites are still being lost at far too fast a rate, and we must move quickly, before the opportunity to set them aside for future generations is lost to us forever.

To help the Civil War Trust mark both the sesquicentennial and our own “silver anniversary” in the business of preservation, we are in the midst of an ambitious campaign that, if successful, will see us permanently protect a grand total of 50,000 acres of hallowed ground by the close of 2015.

Moreover, as a part of this project, which we are calling Campaign 150: Our Time, Our Legacy, we are redoubling our commitment toward educational programs designed to benefit students of all ages — both inside the classroom and out on the battlefield.

Among the new and expanded offerings done in conjunction with the effort are regional educator workshops and the growing series of GPS-enabled mobile battlefield tours.

With Campaign 150, the Trust will build on its 25-year reputation for success, efficiency and integrity. If you too believe that in order to understand the Civil War’s history and legacy, there is no substitute for walking its battlefields without the intrusions and encumbrances of modern life, I hope you will support the Civil War Trust’s Campaign 150 initiative.

Together we have the ability to create our own legacy that will stand the test of time. To learn more about this capital campaign, its goals and how you can help make this vision a reality, please visit


James Lighthizer is president of the Civil War Trust. Prior to taking the helm at the Trust, he served two terms as County Executive of Anne Arundel County, Md., and served as Maryland Secretary of Transportation.