Four years ago, I had to write a heart-wrenching letter to Trust members like you, telling you how this crucial part of the battlefield was about to be lost.
If you have a moment, let me tell you the whole story . . .
Several years ago, the Trust had been in direct communication with the previous landowner – the General Electric Corporation (yes, that GE) – of these crucial acres.
GE had a manufacturing plant on the property, making things like washing machine motors. When that extensive industrial building was badly damaged in a storm, GE closed the plant, tore down the structure, and put the property up for sale for potential industrial or commercial use.
As it is in the core of the Stones River fighting, and, if preserved, would help to connect two widely separated wings of this important battlefield, we had our eyes on this land for quite some time. To reclaim this much land at such an important Civil War battlefield would be a major accomplishment.
But GE had no interest in donating the property to the Trust. Knowing this is the real world, and that “money talks,” in 2015, the Trust made an offer which would have provided GE with a generous amount of money for their unused land, plus some potentially favorable tax benefits as well.
By now, you have probably guessed the ending to this part of the story: Unfortunately, they wanted more… much more… a lot more than we could pay. In short, they turned us down flat.
So as hard as it was to accept, a major piece of hallowed ground which we had hoped to save was put out of our reach. The land stayed on the market for years before it was recently purchased by the O’Reilly Auto Parts company.
I thought, “Well, that’s that. We will never get another chance to save that ground ever again.” It broke my heart.
But to paraphrase Paul Harvey, the well-known radio personality from a few years back, now let me tell you… the rest of the story!
Fortunately, miraculous things happened. First, O’Reilly Auto Parts did not develop the property. And when we took a chance and approached them about selling it to us, they were very receptive.
Second, in recent years, the Trust has been very busy in Tennessee and, thanks to great champions in the state legislature, that state has leapt ahead of all others in America by creating a battlefield preservation matching-grant fund that – each year – has its own dedicated funding source!
What does this mean? Well, it means that in some cases, if a piece of hallowed ground is eligible for both a federal and a Tennessee matching grant, those two sources will almost cover the entire cost of a transaction.
That is the miracle that is happening at Stones River today.
The land can now be acquired and preserved at a cost of about $4.1 million! Whoa, Jim, I can hear you saying, that’s still a ton of money!
I’d be skeptical, too, if we had to pay for either the whole thing, or even half. But thanks to these two matching grant sources, we believe we already have just over $3.9 million of the $4.1 million covered, leaving us just $120,000 to raise before the end of 2019!
In other words, we have about 97 percent of the total transaction value already lined up! That’s a $33.94-to-$1 match of your donation dollar, for one of the most important battlefields in America.
Actually, O’Reilly is selling us the property – which remains a very desirable corporate site to developers and still faces a significant threat – for less than what they paid for it. So, we are very grateful to them for being such a good partner in preservation for this effort.
In fact, please join me in thanking them for working with us to save this crucial piece of America’s history by signing and returning the enclosed “Thank You” card.
I hope you will write a few words of appreciation of your own, and sign the card with your name and your city and state, so that when I deliver your card – hopefully along with thousands of others – to the leadership of O’Reilly Auto Parts, they can see that Trust members all across America are grateful to them.
For years, this tract has been one of the highest preservation priorities for the park, but until now there was never a realistic chance to save it. As so much of the Stones River battlefield was swallowed up by development many years ago, I believe we should seize any chance we get to save any significant hallowed ground there immediately, and this is the largest unprotected tract still available to preserve.
This land is absolutely historically significant to the battle, which ranks as one of the most important struggles of the entire American Civil War. Over three days of fighting, more than 23,500 men fell as casualties, making it the 7th bloodiest battle of the War, ranking between Shiloh and Antietam, and it made 1862 the bloodiest year by far in American history up to that point!
But, please understand, until this property is paid for 100%, many things can still happen, and almost all of them are bad.
Let me remind you – briefly – about the significance of this land:
Colonel George Wagner’s Union brigade spent most of December 31, 1862, in these fields stretching the Army of the Cumberland’s line from the railroad to the banks of the Stones River. The men listened to the sounds of battle raging to their right while dodging cannon fire from General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederate artillery on Wayne’s Hill and supporting Colonel William B. Hazen’s brigade by pouring a deadly flanking fire to the Confederate attacks across Hell’s Half Acre.
At 3:30 PM, the final rebel assault against the Union left spilled out of Hell’s Half Acre and into Wagner’s lines. The struggle lasted less than an hour before the gray columns were hurled back by a deadly hail of musket and cannon fire.
During this short but deadly contest, Chaplain John Whitehead of the Fifteenth Indiana Infantry moved up and down the lines providing spiritual and physical aid to the dead and dying. His efforts earned him one of eleven Medals of Honor awarded to soldiers for their actions at Stones River.
On January 2, 1863, Wagner posted a strong skirmish line in these fields in front of Battery B of the Twenty-sixth Pennsylvania spoiling any possibility for a Confederate attack along the west bank of the Stones River in concert with Breckinridge’s doomed attack.
The Battle of Stones River is without a doubt one of the most important battles of the Civil War. I think you and I can agree on that.
The bloody Union victory here set the stage for campaigns into the heart of the Confederacy, while providing a much-needed northern morale boost.
So on this very important tract, we have real history, a real threat, and a real opportunity to save hallowed ground at Stones River . . .
. . . land that just a few years ago I was convinced was lost forever!
There are a couple of heroes in this story. The first hero is O’Reilly Auto Parts: Trust me, it is very rare to find a corporation in America today that is willing to be a partner in preserving any hallowed ground anywhere. By agreeing to work with us and sell us the property for less than what they paid for it, we salute them, and I hope you will join me in thanking them by signing and returning the enclosed card.
The other hero is you.
By giving to this effort today and taking advantage of the $33.94-to-$1 match, you are preserving not only the memory of what happened at places like this, but you are also ensuring that future generations will be able to come to this hallowed place and learn from this matchless outdoor classroom. It doesn’t matter whether they come to learn about the military history, to learn about the American values that gave us the nation we have today, or even just to come to enjoy some all-too-rare open space.
Thanks to you, young and perhaps those not-so-young folks will be able to go to Stones River and scores of other battlefields like it, feel the chills that you and I so often get at a place like that, hear the distant echoes, spend some time reflecting on a different century of our history, and hopefully come away a better person.
And I do mean thanks to you! Without you and your generous support, the Trust could not tackle these types of projects, and this land would be lost forever.
I can offer you the assurance that future generations – even if they never know our name – will thank us in their heart of hearts for caring enough to save this land, just as you and I hail those who saved the hallowed ground we cherish today.
I can offer you the certainty that – by stepping up to save our country’s history and heritage when so many others turn away – you are leaving this world a better place.
And I can offer you the promise that by preserving the hallowed ground where American soldiers fought and died, you are keeping alive those ideals – honor, duty, courage, valor – which have made this the greatest nation on earth. Please let me hear back from you as soon as possible, and thank you again.
Most sincerely yours,
Jim Lighthizer, President
P.S. Again, I apologize for the urgency of this note to you today, but it cannot be helped, and I trust you understand that I see it as my duty to alert you when these opportunities arise. I had to move “with alacrity” to prevent this land at Stones River from slipping through our fingers once again! Please make you most generous gift today, and accept my thanks for doing this for the sake of those 23,500 casualties at Stones River.
P.P.S. I encourage you to visit our Stones River page on the Trust website at www.battlefields.org/stonesriver19 for even more information, and to make your personal donation to help save this hallowed piece of ground while we still can. I look forward to hearing from you, and many, many thanks.
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