Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Perils of Preservation

While the nation’s attention is riveted upon the ongoing dispute over the proposed casino on the Gettysburg battlefield, another important battlefield has sat in obscurity for 145 years – the killing fields of New Market Heights.

Did you know that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the attempt to make the battlefield at New Market Heights a National Historic Landmark? The attempt was made between 1989 - 1990, led by an African American military veteran who wanted the ground where 16 USCT’s (14 African American enlisted men and two white officers) were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to be preserved and recognized. The reasons that this did not happen are illustrative of just how complicated and frustrating battlefield preservation can be.

It all started in 1989 when an organization called The Black Military History Institute of America, Inc. lobbied for preservation of the battlefield. From the records that I have copies of, the BMHIA sent two letters out on February 16, 1989. The first was to the Department of the Interior and it stated:

The deeds of these brave and valiant Black fighting men who participated in the struggle for the unity of our nation must no longer be allowed to go unrecognized. To correct this gross oversight, we are requesting that the Department of Interior, under the purview of its charter, take the following action:

a. Designate the New Market/Chaffin Farm area as a National Historic Landmark.
b. Resurrect the Dept. of Interior’s 1979 study to expand Richmond National Battlefield Park to include the New Market Heights Battlefield and Fort Gilmer Extension.
The same day a letter went out to then-Senator John Warner stating, “As we approach the 125th anniversary of the battle, prompt action is necessary if we are to demonstrate that the valiant efforts of these Black soldiers were not in vain.”

To cover their bases, the BMHIA also sent a request to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Historic Resources for a state highway marker to be placed near the battlefield.

In the meantime, local landowners began to dispute the claims that the Battle of New Market Heights was fought on their ground. Not only did they dispute the location of the battlefield, they also disputed the date of the battle. They maintained that the battle took place on Signal Hill, north of route 5 (historic New Market Road) even though a cursory examination of the maps made by the Army of the James in October of 1864 clearly shows the battlefield to be south of the road. In retrospect this seems ludicrous, but these landowners were apparently willing to twist the facts to make sure that the historic battlefield of New Market Heights would not be preserved.

To combat the claims of the local landowners, the BMHIA enlisted the help of Ed Bearss, Chief Historian of the National Park Service, writing him on October 4, 1989. However, it appears that the institute was not given a place at the table when meetings and deliberations were held concerning the NHL nomination. Still, the movie Glory had been released in December of 1989 and it was hoped that the BMHIA could capitalize on the renewed public interest in African American participation in the American Civil War

Not hearing from Senator Warner’s office, Governor Douglas Wilder received a letter on April 6, 1990.That same day the BMHIA complained that “To date, it is our opinion that efforts to resolve this controversy have not been done in an unbiased and impartial manner.”

Finally, in June of 1990 a memorandum was released that stated the following:

The NHL nomination is dead; it will not be pursued any further by the NPS because of near-unanimous owner opposition…The NPS and the county and Warner’s office are all aware that the battle happened to the south of Route 5, not on Signal Hill. Most of the land where the battle really occurred is in the hands of the opponents….
The property owners...contend that the battle really happened farther to the east and a week or so earlier than everyone else thinks, Bearss and Richard Sommers (author of Richmond Redeemed) being "everyone else."
Thus ended the battle for making New Market Heights a National Historic Landmark.

In 1993, a roadside marker was placed on Route 5 to mark the site of the battle. This was accomplished with the assistance of the BMHIA.

Thankfully, there have been renewed talks about preserving what is left of the battlefield at New Market Heights.

Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia’s Third District has requested $10,000,000 for a New Market Heights Memorial & Visitors Center, stating that "The funds will be used for land acquisition, site preparation and toward construction of a memorial and visitor’s center at New Market Heights, adjacent to the Richmond National Battlefield Park in Henrico County, Virginia." It remains to be seen what will become of this effort.

In the meantime, the portion of the battlefield where the USCTs made their charge against Confederate defenses south of Route 5 has been preserved by the County of Henrico and remains dormant and undeveloped. Part of this land was destroyed by a gravel pit that was converted into a large pond before the County purchased the land. The remainder is nearly inaccessible due to the propensity of Four Mile Creek to flood and overflow the dirt road that leads to the site. Henrico County has plans to devlop the site and erect a monument to the USCTs and on September 25th I’ll have the honor of leading a special tour of the site for the 146th anniversary of the battle.

Unfortunately, some of the land that has not been protected is about to be lost forever due to a developer who refused to listen to a local preservation group. In a sense, it seems as if the Battle of New Market Heights is still being fought. The Civil War Preservation Trust listed New Market Heights as one of America’s Top 10 most endangered battlefields (see here).

Pictured below are some of the remaining earthworks located on County property.


As the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War quickly approaches, let us hope that the protected land is turned into a place where generations of Americans can come and celebrate the courage that was shown there on September 29, 1864. In the meantime, make sure you support your local preservation group as much as possible.

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