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A message from Jim Lighthizer, American Battlefield Trust president

 

Jim Lighthizer Square
Jim Lighthizer, president of the American Battlefield Trust.

December 10, 2018

Dear Friend and Fellow Preservationist, 

As the year draws rapidly to a close, and as we all begin to think about happy gatherings with family and friends, I’m afraid I must be the bearer of some very bad news.

You may be writing out your holiday cards, but I must write to you today about the most significant threat to two Richmond-area Civil War battlefields that we have seen in years.

Right now, a 50-acre tract of land integral to two major battles – Gaines’ Mill in 1862 and Cold Harbor in 1864 – is under imminent threat of development.

The land is owned by Hanover County, Virginia, and the good news is that they are going to give us a chance to buy it from them and preserve it.

The bad news is that if we can’t raise $1 million price to buy the property by June 30, 2019, just a little over six months from now…

… they will develop the property into a massive “sports plex” complete with up to six soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey fields, acres of parking lots, intrusive light towers looming over the rest of the battlefield, and the exponential increase in traffic and inevitable development that will arise to support such a major facility.

And when I say they will develop the property, that is not an idle threat; the surveys have been done, the plans have been drawn up, financing has been secured. The only reason we are being given any chance at all to save this land is because we and several of the local residents raised objections to the project, and the County agreed to give us a little time to act.

This is a crisis for several reasons:

First, of course, is that this proposed “sports plex” would destroy 50 key acres of battlefield land associated with two major battles of the Eastern Theater… that would be bad enough!

But even beyond that obvious reason, this development, which would bring traveling sports teams from all over the eastern United States, would inevitably lead to hundreds of additional cars, vans, and buses choking the roads of the battlefields nearly every weekend, and even more often during the summer months.

The remaining unprotected battlefield land at Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor would become – almost overnight – even more highly desirable to developers seeking to build new homes, gas stations, convenience stores, and other sprawl nearby to cater to the crowds who would flock to this facility.

It is even likely that the currently rural roads approaching and crisscrossing through the battlefields will need to be widened to accommodate all the increased traffic, endangering even more battlefield land, including the site of the Old Cold Harbor Tavern.

But perhaps worst of all, this massive sports complex would endanger the integrity of all of the crucial preservation work you, I and the Richmond National Battlefield Park have already accomplished thus far at these two overlapping battlefields, where tens of thousands of soldiers fought and fell, some of the most significant unprotected battlefield land anywhere in America!

Plus, it would more than likely spur not only additional residential and commercial development nearby, but also drive up the prices on the remaining land that we need to preserve, costing us more in the long run!

I mentioned earlier that this is a $1 million transaction; what I didn’t tell you is that, fortunately, we believe we can secure as much as $821,000 of that amount from a collection of federal and state grants, plus some donations from a couple of dedicated preservationists.

That means that we really only need to raise $179,000 in this emergency effort to save this land, and the county will find another non-battlefield location for its “sports plex.” That’s a terrific $5.59-to-$1 match of your generosity.

Please don’t get me wrong; we here at the Trust don’t have anything against these types of sports complexes or the development they bring, in general. If they generate revenue and opportunity for a community, that’s a good thing.

But we do object to having this type of complex, development, and traffic contribute to destroying an American battlefield. That is where we have to draw the line.

It’s much like the battle we had to fight a few years ago when Walmart wanted to build a “supercenter” right next to the Wilderness Battlefield. We have nothing against Walmart, but their “complex” and the development that would have followed it would have destroyed the integrity of that hallowed ground forever.

Eventually, after a very long and public fight, Walmart agreed with us, and moved their supercenter a few miles down the road, where it is doing well. We are hoping for a similar win-win scenario here, but it all hinges on whether or not we can raise the final $179,000 to match $821,000, and buy the land. (And you should know that this was not in our budget for this year, which makes it all the more challenging.)

But I don’t want you to just take my word for it. Here is what the Richmond National Battlefield Park wrote in a letter to the County about the history and significance of the land:

“The ground in question was involved in both battles – Gaines’ Mill in 1862 and Cold Harbor in 1864.

“As the armies moved into their relative positions on the afternoon of June 27, 1862, the Cold Harbor crossroads came under the control of Gen. Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s wing of the Confederate army. He believed the Northern troops were going to be driven eastward from Mechanicsville and into his lap. So he deployed the 10,000-man division of Gen. D.H. Hill in the fields south of the Old Cold Harbor Tavern, including across every foot of the county property. [Emphasis mine – Jim]

“Those men soon came under heavy artillery fire from the south, a fact that convinced the Confederates that their foe lay to the south, not the west. While his men were being pounded by the cannon, Jackson sent batteries of his own into the flat field to retaliate. Hardaway’s Alabama battery was there first but was outgunned and overwhelmed. Later in the afternoon John Pelham’s battery of Virginia horse artillery fought a solo duel from the flat field – just two guns against 12 – a forlorn effort that nonetheless earned him compliments from an admiring Stonewall Jackson. Toward the battle’s close at least a dozen other cannon moved forward onto the county property to fire in oblique support of the climactic twilight charge west of the road.

“In 1864 the property was involved in all aspects of the two-week fight at Cold Harbor. [Emphasis added again – Jim] Federal cavalry advanced along Rock Hill Road and drove the Confederates out of their defensive perimeter north, east, and south of the Cold Harbor intersection on May 31, 1864. The following day one-third of the Union 6th Corps launched its big attack from the county property. From there it pushed across the Cold Harbor Road, from east to west, in a failed effort to break the Southern defenses. Union cannon were on the site firing in support.”

Think about that for a second, my friend. Where else in America could we save a piece of ground where – in all probability – Stonewall Jackson and JEB Stuart stood in 1862, and U.S. Grant and Phil Sheridan stood in 1864?

My friend, this will be my last letter to you this year about a battlefield preservation opportunity. I had hoped that I might not have to ask for your help once again, but this project came up suddenly, and we had to move on it.

Now, I need to know if you will consider helping to save this crucial part of two major Richmond-area battlefields with your most generous year-end gift.

I have no substitute for your support. And remember, it is not hyperbole to say that if we fail to raise the necessary $179,000 to save this land, (a fantastic $5.59-to-$1 match) the County will build that multi-field sports-plex on the battlefield.

So please, I humbly ask you, as you prepare your final year-end giving decisions, to consider making one last leadership gift to help save these 50 acres at Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor, as well as our broader preservation and education mission. I would be very grateful.

Thank you for making the Trust one of the organizations you support each year; we are grateful to “make the cut” each year, and we strive constantly to be worthy of your generosity.

This mission – this movement – this organization – could not exist without you. You and your 47,000 fellow members make all this amazing preservation of hallowed ground possible.

Thank you once again for everything, and I wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and the happiest of holiday seasons. I look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible.

Wishing you every blessing of the season.

Jim Lighthizer Signature

Jim Lighthizer
President

P.S. Please, don’t let the year run out without a visit to our fantastic website. You can donate to this appeal (and several others that still need to be funded) anytime of the day or night directly at www.battlefields.org/50acres. Thank you again, and again, and again!