Jim Lighthizer, president of the American Battlefield Trust.
Dear Friend and Fellow Preservationist,
It’s not easy to put a nightmare on a piece of paper, but that is exactly what I have sent to you today.
As you look at the disturbing image of row upon row of warehouses and industrial development, depicted on the back of the map of the Battle of Fredericksburg, this is exactly the stomach-turning nightmare I saw in my imagination back in 2006. Let me tell you the story:
The farmer who owned this 208-acre property had recently passed away, and his heirs put his farm up for sale on the open real estate market. Even though it was still farmland, the land had been rezoned many times, and it was advertised as the “prime light industrial development site in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
The purchase price: $12 million.
But it wasn’t just any Virginia farm, my friend. This land, on December 13, 1862, was turned into something known forever after as “the Slaughter Pen Farm.”
Listen to what Frank O’Reilly, historian and author of the authoritative book on the battle, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock, says about this hallowed ground:
“The Slaughter Pen Farm 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.”
You may also remember this story: Robert E. Lee, scanning the carnage and chaos of the battlefield through his field glasses from his command post, was looking at the Slaughter Pen Farm sector of the battlefield, deeply moved by the thousands of dead and wounded soldiers of both sides falling, their lifeblood pouring out onto that ground, when he uttered his famous quote: “It is well that war is so terrible; we should grow too fond of it.”
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.”
But in 2006 (and just like today), we didn’t have $12 million just lying around. Not even close . . . yet if we did not take a calculated risk that was audacious, bold, and yes, perhaps just a little bit crazy, that battlefield . . . the place where the Battle of Fredericksburg was decided . . . was going to be destroyed.
That hallowed ground where 9,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured, and where acts of valor occurred that resulted in five Congressional Medals of Honor . . . that ground could have been blanketed by the kind of industrial nightmare shown in that image. And the story of the Slaughter Pen Farm would have been lost forever to all future generations.
But we took that calculated risk . . . the Board of Trustees and the members of the Trust in 2006 looked at this crisis and said “No! We cannot lose this important piece of our country’s history! We must do whatever it takes to save it – it is THAT important, and this is our mission!”
Remember, this $12 million transaction was the largest private battlefield purchase in America’s history, and remains to this day the biggest transaction the Trust has ever attempted.
We utilized federal matching funds . . . we used Virginia tax credits . . . we received $1 million from our friends at the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust . . . and of course, we received millions of dollars from generous, committed members just like you.
There is no way I can adequately express my appreciation. “Thank you” doesn’t seem like quite enough for all you have done to help save something so important.
The good news is that in thirteen years, we have already paid off nearly 75 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 in interest) and allowing us to make payments based on a 20-year repayment schedule!
And best of all, thousands of visitors have now walked in the footsteps of heroes on this amazing field, following the Trust-created interpretive trail. The land, which had been completely off-limits to the public for decades, is now telling the full story of the Battle of Fredericksburg in ways that have never been told before.
But the bad news is that until the remaining debt of $3.3 million is paid off completely, this battlefield is not truly “saved.”
What this means is that every year, we must budget for the annual loan payment $300,000 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 must be done. It is just like your mortgage on your house; if you don’t make the payments, you lose the property!
It will take another eight years to pay off the loan, 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.
But this year, I have very good news. A committed battlefield preservationist (who wishes to remain anonymous) has agreed to match – dollar for dollar – every gift made by members like you up to $150,000 toward this year’s payment!
Your gift to save this hallowed ground will be doubled!
So much of the Fredericksburg battlefield has already been lost to development. 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 remaining balance of $3.3 million is paid off.
Large swaths of contiguous open “raw” land are still in high demand by developers in the Fredericksburg area. 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.
So please, although you have already done so much to help save this land, will you help once again with your gift to save this land and make the $150,000 challenge match?
Today, I ask you to please be as generous as you can and once again help the Trust meet its annual loan obligation for the Slaughter Pen Farm.
Through your generous contribution, tell me how much this hallowed ground means to you. Make your heroic gift in honor of a parent, teacher, or friend who sparked your interest in history. Make your committed gift in honor of your own children or grandchildren. Or just make your personal gift in honor of this great country we can enjoy, because of the sacrifices made on fields like this one at Fredericksburg, and all across the nation.
Whatever the reason for your generosity today, please know that you have my deepest thanks for all you are doing to save our nation’s history. You are a hero in my book.
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 generous gift today. If you and 1,499 members answer my call for help today with a gift of $100, we will raise enough to assure the $150,000 match.
Don’t forget! There is so much more information about the Battle of Fredericksburg and this current effort on our website at www.battlefields.org/fredericksburg2019. I’m not a technology expert, but the people who are tell me that the more visitors we have on our website, the higher we rank in search engines like Google, which is important to growing our reach and even our membership base. If you have not visited the website in a while, I encourage you to do it soon! Thanks again!
Way back in 2006, battlefield preservationists went above and beyond to save the Slaughter Pen Farm from industrial development with an investment of $12 million – because the history was that important. Today, thanks to donors like you, this hallowed ground has been preserved and restored – but our work isn’t over.