Jim Lighthizer, president of the American Battlefield Trust.
I write to you today for two reasons: The first is to say “Thank you,” and the second is to tell you some important news:
Thank you for your past support of our efforts to save the priceless Slaughter Pen Farm at Fredericksburg. Your generosity has helped preserve this incredibly important piece of hallowed ground. Without you, this irreplaceable part of our history would be covered in warehouses and asphalt now, destroyed and denied forever to future generations.
As you will recall, this June 2006 transaction was, at $12 million, the largest private battlefield purchase in America’s history, and remains the biggest transaction the Trust has ever attempted. But with your backing, we accepted the risk, and secured these 208 acres of supremely hallowed ground.
I have to say your generosity, and that of your fellow Trust members, has been nothing short of phenomenal. In eleven years, we have already paid off 70 percent of this land – ground which is as pristine today as it was on the day of the battle more than 150 years ago, when the soldiers experienced it. This is a tremendous accomplishment.
During that time, taking advantage of the ups and downs in the economy, we have also refinanced our loan, saving us several percentage points (and many tens of thousands of dollars) and allowing us to make payments based on a 20-year repayment schedule!
Already, thousands of visitors have walked in the footsteps of heroes on this amazing field, following the Trust-created interpretive trail. The land, which was completely off-limits to the general public for decades, is now telling the full story of the Battle of Fredericksburg in ways that have never been told before.
I have always had confidence that we, as an organization, could handle the annual loan payment (currently $300,000) without jeopardizing other projects.
Today, however, when many people are still cutting back both on personal spending and charitable giving . . .
. . . and when we have so many absolutely crucial battlefield preservation projects “in play” at places like Brandy Station, Fort Donelson and Cedar Creek . . .
. . . well, it’s my job as the Trust’s CEO to be concerned that we might not raise enough this year to make our required payment AND save the must-have land that is coming onto the market.
That’s where the important news comes in:
You may recall that – when we announced our effort to save the Slaughter Pen Farm in 2006 – the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust (CVBT), a great local preservation group, announced that they would commit to raising $1 million toward our $12 million purchase price. This was an enormous challenge for a group of their size.
You may also recall that we utilized $2 million in federal matching money as well, to help us make the purchase.
Well, our good friends at the CVBT were good to their word, fulfilling 100 percent on their $1 million commitment; also, the federal matching money has been spent.
What this means is that now, every year, we must budget for the annual loan payment out of our unrestricted funds, and I don’t need to tell you that there aren’t many people who view paying off a loan as “sexy” or exciting.”
But of course, it is much like your mortgage on your house; if you don’t make the payments, you don’t get to keep the property!
The Slaughter Pen Farm is off the market, and we have put perpetual historic preservation easements on the property so that it can never be developed.
But it cannot be considered truly “saved forever” until the full debt ($3.6 million) is paid off.
That will take another ten years to do, and, full disclosure, our annual payment is currently scheduled to go up to $400,000 per year beginning in 2022, until it is paid off in 2027.
Without getting into the mind-numbing, inside-baseball details and government hoops we have to jump through, our plan all along has been to work tirelessly to pay down as much of the debt as possible over the coming years.
Simultaneously, working with officials in the National Park Service and Congress, we eventually want to get this crucial hallowed ground included in the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Park, where it truly belongs. Again, this is a “long game,” and will take years to do.
In a perfect world, in a few years, Congress would approve a “boundary expansion,” and the Park might even get an appropriation to buy the battlefield from us for what we still owe. We could then turn around and use those funds to save even more hallowed ground, as we have done all across America.
But again, that is in a perfect world, and this is still earth, not heaven. As I’ve said before, you and I need to be prepared to keep paying down our debt for many years to come, before we can truly claim this battlefield is saved forever.
Right now, looking forward, the Board of Trustees and I have to make some very difficult decisions about just how much we can tackle in the rest of 2017. But there is one crucial expense that I cannot cut or put off, and that is the Trust’s annual $300,000 payment to the bank for the Slaughter Pen Farm – the decisive southern end of the battlefield – at Fredericksburg, Virginia.
The good news is that, thanks to the generosity of some long-time Civil War Trust members, we have received some much-needed funds from bequests, or gifts left to the Trust in someone’s will before they passed away.
To refresh your memory, as you look at your map of this key part of the battlefield, remember what Frank O’Reilly, historian and author of the authoritative book The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock, movingly says about this supremely hallowed ground:
“The Slaughter Pen is the very heart and soul of the Fredericksburg Battlefield. Without it, nothing makes sense. This is the point where the battle was won and lost on December 13, 1862. After Burnside’s bloody failure here, there was nothing the Union Army could do to win the Battle of Fredericksburg – or the Confederates to lose it. Correspondingly, this is where preservation ultimately will win or lose the struggle for Fredericksburg’s history.
“Standing on this unblemished historic land – christened in the blood of brave men, North and South – one touches the past, and understands the sacrifices of those men on the most decisive point of the Fredericksburg Battlefield. They fought for this land, and paid for it with their lives – for the future, for us. We need to fight for this land, too – for the past, for them, lest we forget.
“This hallowed ground means more to me than just about any other in Civil War history. If it is lost, then the whole Fredericksburg Battlefield will become meaningless and irrelevant.”
I’m sure you can picture Robert E. Lee, scanning the carnage and chaos of the battlefield through his field glasses, being deeply moved by the thousands of dead and wounded soldiers of both sides falling on this field, their lifeblood pouring out onto that ground, and uttering his famous “It is well that war is so terrible; we should grow too fond of it” phrase.
The legendary Ed Bearss, Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service and a man whose knowledge of battlefields is unsurpassed by anyone, living or dead, says this about that ground:
“To fully understand the battle and this lost Union opportunity, I would counsel that it is more important to save this land – which looks today much as it did on the day of the battle – than to try to reclaim any of the battlefield in front of Marye’s Heights. This is one of the most important pieces of battlefield land the Civil War Trust has ever attempted to save.”
Large swaths of contiguous open “raw” land are still in high demand by developers. One developer outside of Richmond recently declared that “it’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s only a matter of ‘when’” battlefield land will come under attack once again.
There’s no denying that many landowners are looking to sell, and a developer’s promise of ready cash for their land may prove too attractive for them to pass up, especially if they are unemployed, their pension is getting squeezed or other bills are piling up.
So please, although I know you have already done so much to help save this land, will you help once again with your gift to make sure we can raise the $135,000 we need to match with the $165,000 in bequest funds, fully covering the $300,000 I need to make the loan payment we owe for 2017?
That way, I can continue to work on your behalf on the many other confidential projects we have in the pipeline, including:
Building on our previous tremendous successes in Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, Maryland and Arkansas;
Some intriguing opportunities to help complete the preservation of Second Manassas;
Additional potential projects at places like Gettysburg, Franklin, and more.
So today, I ask you to please be as generous as you can – consistent with your other financial responsibilities – and once again help the Civil War Trust meet its annual loan obligation for the Slaughter Pen Farm. You have my deepest thanks for all you are doing to save our nation’s history.
Most sincerely yours,
Jim Lighthizer, President
P.S. I truly have no substitute for your generosity. I hope that you will continue to build upon your personal legacy at the Slaughter Pen Farm in Fredericksburg by making your gift today. As always, you can donate securely online. Believe me, I know how much I ask of you, but it’s only because I believe you are one of the few who truly understands the importance of this hallowed ground. I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you!