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Defining 'Core'

By David Lowe

September 2006

I have seen statements in the pages of Civil War News that go something like, "We purchased a parcel of land in the core area of the battlefield." As "core area" has passed into common usage in the battlefield preservation community, I think it appropriate to offer a brief history of the concept and a frank discussion of its limitations.

In 1988, I undertook a survey of 15 Civil War battlefields in the Shenandoah Valley for the National Park Service. Searching the literature for a methodology for documenting battlefield landscapes, I was surprised to learn that there was none.

I searched the National Register of Historic Places, our nation's list of historic resources deemed worthy of preservation, to see what others had done before me. The only battlefields I found in the files were of national parks, and the Register boundaries of these battlefields were identical to the park boundaries.

In other words, anything outside the existing boundaries was not recognized by the Register as part of the battlefield. Almost every battlefield extends beyond the parcels of land we have been able to protect. Even our flagship national battlefield parks "" Shiloh, Chickamauga and Gettysburg "" do not protect all of the significant ground.

Buildings and architectural history long dominated the National Register and historic preservation in general. I found examples of listed battlefield structures where the battle was used to justify the structure's significance, yet the battlefield itself was relegated to so much scenery from the porch.

Looking at a battlefield landscape, rather than a building, required a different mindset.

I adopted a "defining features" methodology for the Shenandoah Valley study. I treated every mention of a location in battle accounts or on historic maps as a contributing resource "" roads, streams, fords, hills, churches, farms, fences and fortifications "" and put as many of these features on a current map as I could identify. This resulted in a systematic inventory of potential resources.

I then used the mapped features to help define the extent of the battlefield. I drew two boundaries (and I used the term loosely) to enclose the features. One boundary, called the "study area," defined the larger area of interest "" the armies' starting points, corridors of movement, minor skirmishing, logistical areas, field hospitals and other contributing resources.

Inside the study area, a "core area" was drawn to define the ground where the armies grappled. As a working definition, any ground where soldiers delivered fire or received it was to be included in the core area.

These boundaries were based entirely on the history of the battle, regardless of the integrity of the landscape, whether a pristine rural setting or an industrial park. The report was published in 1992 (

The defining features methodology carried over into the battlefield surveys conducted by the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission (CWSAC) and is described in the commission's 1993 report (

The CWSAC's surveyors visited 384 principal battlefields but often had only a brief time on the ground for a windshield survey to locate defining features, note land use, and take photographs. The surveyors' core areas were intended to shine a spotlight on a battlefield, not to provide a definitive battlefield boundary based on existing property lines.

A spot of light has fuzzy edges. It is a tribute to the surveyors and their methodology that over the years most CWSAC core areas have held up well as identifying the heart of a battlefield. The commissioners assumed that research would continue and that core and study areas would change over time as others built upon their surveyors' work.

The commission, however, disbanded before implementing a process for updating boundaries with new information. The CWSAC core and study areas were in danger of being set in stone.

Bob Krick Jr. is fond of reminding me that "core area" has been applied in ways for which it was not intended, and he is right. Recent legislation has restricted Richmond National Battlefield Park to accepting only properties that were within the core areas as defined by the CWSAC in 1993.

A state department of transportation agreed to consider the impact of projects on battlefields but only inside the "official" CWSAC core areas. Squabbling has erupted in various places over significant battlefield parcels that a surveyor left out of a core area because of incomplete knowledge at the time.

The concept of core area was intended to encourage research and focus preservation, not restrict it.

Core and study areas will be revised. In 2005, Congress asked the American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP) to revisit the commission's 384 battlefields and assess changes that have occurred since 1993. Preliminary survey work has been edging forward although on a tight budget.

I was not surprised to learn from the sample thus far that surveyors have revised the study and core areas based on new information for almost every battlefield that has been resurveyed. This is what the commissioners had envisioned.

Although undoubtedly improved, these boundaries, nonetheless, will remain blurry by design. The program does not have or desire access to private property parcel information.

The challenge for battlefield preservation groups is to move from an abstract core area to something concrete. One way to do this is to seek consensus. I am assigned Richmond's battlefields, and the historians there have agreed to review and approve my revised core areas before they are released to the public and become ossified for another 10 years.

A related project in Loudoun Valley, Virginia, solicited the input of a panel of historians who approved the radically revised study and core areas for the battlefields of Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville. This effective process ( could be replicated on other battlefields as a continuation of the work of the ABPP surveyors.

Another viable alternative is to produce a battlefield preservation plan that identifies specific land parcels for protection. A preservation plan stakes a communal claim on surviving resources, establishes priorities for purchase or easements, and offers a preservation group clear guidance for accomplishing its fundraising and protection goals.

With this approach, preservation efforts begin inside the core area and grow outward parcel by parcel. The ABPP can provide examples of successful preservation plans.

In a favorable political climate, preservationists should consider compiling a National Register nomination for the limited protection it affords.

Since my first foray into its files, the Register has published methodologies for documenting rural and historic landscapes (, and numerous battlefields have been listed. Arkansas leads the way with 13 listed battlefields, with Kentucky a close second.

The Register maintains a high standard of historic research, requires a listed property to have integrity, and demands a precise (legal) boundary that excludes intrusions. Federal agencies or state agencies using federal monies are required to conduct a Section 106 process to determine the impact of any project, such as highway construction, that might affect a National Register property.

Moving from an abstract battlefield to a concrete one can be a difficult transition. It takes more than an appreciation for the history and significance of the ground. It requires many decisions, some painful, based on opportunity, local politics and available finances. The battlefield core area is only a place to begin.

David Lowe is a military historian and geographic information systems specialist for the National Park Service. He served on the staff of the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission.

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