The Battle Over Virginia's Battlefields


Mr. Nelson is a director and founding member of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, one of the most successful battlefield preservation groups in the United States. He is currently the Senior Planner for the City of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

If the goal of battlefield preservation was to simply memorialize where brave men fought, the task would be fairly simple. We would merely acquire blood soaked ground and erect one or more suitable monuments. This is certainly how battlefield parks were initially developed. Places like Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Antietam, and Chickamauga are filled with memorials.

Battlefields, however, have also been places where professional soldiers as well as casual visitors could learn how the battles were fought. This latter activity requires that a suitable context be preserved so the historic events can be understood. In the early days of battlefield preservation, only the trenches and roads were preserved, while the intervening fields were left in private ownership. No one thought at the time that the agricultural landscape would ever be anything other than woods or fields. But development did come and much effort and expense has been subsequently necessary to keep these fields intact. As additional areas are identified for protection, it is critical that the overall setting be identified as well and appropriate action taken to preserve it.

To be successful in this endeavor, it is important to understand how development progresses. The roads that brought armies in contact in 1861-1865 have often become improved highways that allow people to live at great distances from their places of work. Better roads open land to more intense uses than was possible when they did not have the physical capacity to carry great volumes of traffic. The construction of new homes - and stores to serve the new residents - generates the need for more roads, which, in turn, allow more land to be developed.

A surprising number of people do not seem to understand this dynamic process. How often do we hear (or know) of homebuyers who move into a beautiful new house, in a new subdivision, who are surprised within a few years of moving in (and sometimes sooner) when the wooded or open areas around them are bulldozed to build more houses. An older generation used to call development "progress," but most of us are not inclined to call it that anymore. We know that people need a place to live, but we sometimes dread new development as a harbinger of increased traffic, fewer trees, and an inevitable need for more roads.


It is critical that those who would preserve battlefields understand this process thoroughly. Unfortunately, even professional planners and engineers do not always understand how it works. Several years ago, the Virginia Department of Transportation planned to construct a new road that would slice through the Chancellorsville battlefield. They presented the usual projected growth figures, to make the case that a new road was not only a good idea, but even an inevitable necessity. In one of the many planning sessions, a representative from the National Park Service stated that the new road would have severe long term impacts on the battlefield park. A skeptical planner asked for an example, just one, of an instance where a road had adversely affected a national park battlefield. Without missing a beat, the National Park Service representative replied: "Salem Church."

For those who are not familiar with this site, Salem Church was the scene of action on May 3, 1863, after the Confederate army had pounded the Army of the Potomac near the Chancellorsville crossroads. The Federal commander, Major General Joe Hooker, ordered the force he had left in Fredericksburg to march west, to his aid. The Union Sixth Corps, Major General John Sedgwick commanding, responded by breaking out of Fredericksburg (where the Union army had met disaster in December 1862) and marching west, out the Orange Turnpike. Confederate commander Robert E. Lee detached several brigades to intercept the Union force. These Confederates established their position on a ridge where Salem Church stood and turned back the Federal thrust.

For years, Salem Church stood in open ground, Veterans of two Union regiments erected memorials there. In time, the Baptist congregation built a new sanctuary and transferred their historic church to the National Park Service. Not too long ago, children emerging from Sunday services could still find tangible reminders of that long ago fight among the trees.

In the 1960s, though, highway builders were already extending a new north-south interstate (I-95) into Spotsylvania County. The massive new road crossed the historic, two-lane Plank Road, a little more than a mile from Salem Church. Its presence initiated an inevitable chain of events.

First came the new housing developments. Not too many at first, just nice houses among trees with easy access to the new road. Folks could live in wonderfully quiet neighborhoods, yet be at work in Quantico, Northern Virginia, or even Washington D.C. relatively quickly. More stores came, and gas stations, which provided more conveniences.

More development was drawn to the new intersection. A new motel was built, which allowed folks traveling on the interstate to stay overnight. It also allowed visitors to stay in the area longer, to visit Fredericksburg and the nearby battlefields. On another quadrant of the interchange was eventually built a new shopping mall, which, of course, provided convenient shopping opportunities to the growing number of residents as well as the local folks who appreciated the increased number of retail choices. The fast food restaurants also began to appear.

And so this process continued, each step enabling the next. The cycle of new houses, new stores, new restaurants, slowly but inexorably crept west, along the road once followed by the two armies, until it had literally consumed the landscape around Salem Church. Thousands of homes now dot the area south of the historic church. The intersection at State Route 3 (the old Orange Turnpike) and Salem Church Road has been widened to include two left turn lanes, to handle the traffic of people just trying to get home after work. To the north and west are offices, shopping centers, gas stations, restaurants, and acre upon acre of paved parking.

This process occurred over several decades and doesn't really stop, no matter how impassioned the opposition. In Prince William County, a coalition of national preservation organizations fought the Disney Corporation and supposedly saved the Manassas battlefield from its evil influence. Once Disney departed, though, so did many of the preservationists. Development continued to consume the area around this battlefield and rather aggressive road improvements are now in progress, cutting rather severely into the historic landscape.


Under this kind of development pressure, it is not realistic to try to preserve everything. Small areas preserved within a future sea of development may not provide a satisfactory long term result. It is important to identify sites that can be preserved within some sort of historic context. The intent is to provide a lasting legacy rather than a pathetic forlorn effort that will cause people to wonder, in 50 years: "Why did they bother to preserve that ground?" Would be preservationists who desire to be martyrs are simply wasting everyone's time.

The Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT) has gone through a strategic planning process to identify land that it absolutely must preserve at the area's four battlefields - Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House. This organization recognizes that the threat of development is relentless and that whatever is not acquired in the next 10-15 years will likely be gone forever. With this limited amount of time in which to act, it is absolutely critical that CVBT focus its efforts on the most significant land, even as other land is lost.

This is a harsh reality that forces evaluation of options and demands decisions. An organization cannot simply try to buy what comes up on the market. The overriding mission is to identify the land that must be protected and then do everything that must be done to acquire it.

CVBT is a key partner in the Coalition to Save Chancellorsville Battlefield, an informal coalition of national and local nonprofit organizations striving to protect Chancellorsville Battlefield. The coalition is currently focusing its attention on the rolling farmland in Spotsylvania County that saw fighting on May 1, 1863. This ground is still intact and its preservation will allow the Chancellorsville Campaign to be interpreted more fully. The pressure is intense, though. Coming out of Fredericksburg on State Route 3, a traveler encounters a series of ridges. Each took on military importance during the campaign, but each has succumbed (or soon will) to bulldozers.

A plateau above Hazel Run, in Fredericksburg, was the scene of action on May 4, 1863. The area has been fully developed for decades. Further west is the Salem Church ridge. This terrain was also the scene of intense combat, but, as described earlier, has been severely compromised. Still farther west is a ridge where the historic Zoan Church stood. This area has been developing at a steady pace. Instead of one church there are now two and new houses continue to be built nearby.

A half mile to the west, though, begins the open ground of the May 1 battlefield. Some of this area has already been rezoned, from agricultural uses to commercial and residential ones. The process of development is thus underway. It began with improved roads and continued with the local government's permission, through zoning, to build houses, offices, gas stations, and everything else that a growing population needs.

A mile and a half further west, is the Chancellorsville portion of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. The route of Stonewall Jackson's flank march and the scene of his flank attack, on May 2, 1863, are within the park boundaries. The scene of Lee's triumph and Hooker's humiliation, at the Chancellorsville crossroads, is similarly protected. But the area where the opening shots of the campaign were fired is not open to visitors.


The casualties on May 1, 1863 were not tremendous, compared to the next few days, but the ground is significant for the decisions that were made there. They were decisions that determined how the battle would unfold. That morning, Hooker sent out three columns from Chancellorsville. General George G. Meade took two divisions down River Road toward Banks Ford. General Henry Slocum took his corps down the Orange Plank Road. General George Sykes took a division out the Orange Turnpike.

The Confederates responded on the Orange Plank Road and the Orange Turnpike, initially unaware that Meade was to the north. Though sufficient Confederate strength had not yet mustered on the Zoan Church ridge, Stonewall ordered an attack. He was determined to deny the Federals the open terrain rather that would allow them to deploy their powerful artillery where it could dominate the battlefield. He needed to knock the advancing Federals back into the trees of the Spotsylvania Wilderness. In the tangled woods, Confederate weaknesses would be masked, Union strength would be compromised, and the Confederates could possibly maneuver without being detected.

Jackson's aggressiveness, consistent with Lee's orders, brought on a fight along the Orange Turnpike. Another Confederate advance on the Orange Plank Road confronted the slow moving Slocum and allowed a Confederate force to attack north, toward the Orange Turnpike and into the flank of the Federals there.

General Sykes, the Union commander on the Turnpike, knew he held favorable terrain, but Hooker lost his nerve when his elaborate plan appeared to be falling apart. Rather than opportunity, he saw danger and hurriedly recalled his three columns. His subordinates were astonished at this blunder, but the orders were peremptory. The Army of the Potomac thus relinquished the high ground to the Confederates.

The army that held the May 1 battlefield ultimately won the battle of Chancellorsville. The decisions made by the army commanders that day proved decisive. This ground MUST be preserved to tell the full story of Chancellorsville. Imagine traveling to Gettysburg and not being able to see the sites related to the first day's fighting there. The events of the subsequent two days tell the story of that pivotal encounter in Pennsylvania, but something would be missing and a visitor would come away with an incomplete understanding of how that battle developed. Without being able to see the May 1 battlefield at Chancellorsville, a visitor would be similarly deprived.

Current development plans include the construction of nearly 2,000 homes and 1.2 million square feet of commercial and office space. Additional ground would be consumed for roads and parking lots. The developer has offered to preserve 34 acres where advance elements of the two armies collided, but the more significant ground is to the west. The proffered acreage is certainly a place where shots were exchanged. Men bled there, but battlefield preservation entails more than just emphasizing blood soaked ground. The terrain itself is key to understanding the tactical (not political) objectives.


There is much emphasis on battlefields as hallowed ground, characterizing them as cemeteries. But the soldiers did not simply stumble into one another and begin shooting. They were directed by men who needed to fulfill their respective missions within an overall plan of action. Geographic areas beyond the battleground brought on the fighting as each side sought to seize or deny these places to the other. The high ground at the western edge of the May 1 battleground was the prize for both armies that day. A Union line there would control the open ground and ensure that subsequent fighting would occur where Federal artillery could prove decisive. Confederate control of this hill would force the Union army back into the woods where they would be at a disadvantage.

Battlefield ground needs to be preserved within its tactical context in order to be of value. It is therefore critical that preservationists pay strict attention to acquiring ground that will fulfill this goal, even if other, secondary sites must be lost.

For more information, please visit the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust online at The Coalition to Save Chancellorsville Battlefield website is located at

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More Comments:

hippi - 5/16/2003

why is this so damn long?

SUMMARIZE IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

John G. Fought - 11/21/2002

Amen. For me, that moment came at Gettysburg, and the core of it was standing at the 1st. Minnesota memorial, looking out over
the ground they advanced across to buy a few minutes so the line behind them could be restored. I was an adult, fairly well read in military history, but none of that prepared me for the impact of standing on THAT piece of ground and imagining the thoughts of a veteran regiment as they stepped out against a larger force that they could see advancing toward them ("Do you see those colors? Go and take them!"). Also, over and over at Gettysburg you see people slowly walking up that open sloping field in the steps of Pickett's troops. Anyone who needs to know why great battlefields deserve everlasting protection should carefully read the Gettysburg Address.
There's another good reason too: battlefields are still important learning tools for professional soldiers, as well as a kind of original document for historians. You have to actually see and move around on the ground to better understand what the soldiers and officers there could have seen and when. A fine book that shows this on page after page is John Mosier's _The Myth of the Great War_ (2001).

Jim March - 11/5/2002

One of the seminal events in my life was standing just outside of Hastings Castle in England, looking out over where William's mercenary cavalry charged uphill while standing behind where Harald's lines were, at age 12.

You had to see the layout to understand.