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Save Yorktown: 50 Acres of Priceless American History

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A message from Jim Lighthizer, American Battlefield Trust president

 

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

June 15, 2018

Dear Friend and Fellow Preservationist, 

Over the years, I have written to you many times about saving priceless Civil War battlefield land from destruction. 

On a few occasions, I have written to you about one part of a battlefield that may have seen action during two Civil War battles, such as at Gaines’s Mill and Cold Harbor. 

Since 2014, I have also written to you about saving irreplaceable battlefield land from the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. 

Today, however, is the first time I have ever written to you about one piece of highly threatened hallowed ground that was significant to both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War! 

The place: Yorktown, Virginia. The action: Two sieges, separated in time by 81 years. The people: Two very different generals named “George.” 

In October 1781, General George Washington, with the aid of the French fleet and French soldiers, bottled up British General Charles Lord Cornwallis in his defenses at Yorktown. Aided by Rochambeau and Lafayette, Washington’s siege eventually forced Cornwallis to surrender, effectively ending the Revolutionary War. 

In April and May 1862, Union General George B. McClellan, inched up the Virginia peninsula and attempted a siege of the Confederate forces at Yorktown in his quest to capture Richmond. This time, however, there was no surrender, and the war continued for another three years. 

Today, in June of 2018, you and I have the chance to save 50 acres of land associated with both of these key moments in our country’s history, something that we have never done before. 

And not only do we have the chance to save land at a battlefield associated with two of the biggest wars ever fought on American soil, we can do it with one of the largest-ever-matching-grant opportunities in battlefield preservation history – an astounding $76-to-$1 match of your donation dollar! 

Please take a look at the battle maps I have prepared for you, along with the sobering plat map I have also sent to you, showing the potential fate of this property. 

As you can see on the Revolutionary War map, this land – surrounded by the existing Yorktown battlefield as preserved in the Colonial National Historical Park – has already been zoned and platted for a subdivision of 100 houses, putting it in dire threat of destruction. 

Called “Battlefield Bluffs,” (and isn’t it sad when developments that ruin a battlefield are named after it?) this enormous 100-unit subdivision would completely destroy the integrity of this sector of the battlefield – which was part of the camps of our French allies during the 1781 siege. 

What’s more, archaeological fieldwork has only been conducted on a very small portion of the parcel, meaning that important 18th-century artifacts and the stories they tell lie hidden beneath the undisturbed soil. Experts tell us that based on what is known of other sites in the area, it is highly likely that the archaeological integrity of this area is intact. 

If the bulldozers and road graders were ever to roll over these tracts, you can forget about those artifacts ever being discovered, and those stories will be lost forever. 

Using period maps, we do know that French regiments under Rochambeau, who were key allies in General George Washington’s Continental Army, were encamped at this land, and would have moved across this parcel to take their respective positions during the siege. 

Day by day, the Americans and the French, in their trenches and traverses, tightened the siege lines around Cornwallis’ British army, which, let’s not forget, represented the greatest military power of the age. Finally, white flags of surrender fluttered along the lines, and on October 19, more than 8,000 British soldiers stacked arms as their bands played “The World Turned Upside Down.” 

And let us also not forget . . . Yorktown was the battle that culminated more than six years of fighting – starting with Lexington and Concord in 1775, running through the equally important Northern and Southern Campaigns – which made the ringing words of the Declaration of Independence a reality, creating our nation. That alone would make this land worthy of preservation. But there’s even more to this amazing story. 

Let’s fast-forward 81 years to April 1862, when the American Civil War was one year old. General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac marched out of Fort Monroe and encountered Confederate General John Bankhead Magruder’s small Army of the Peninsula at Yorktown. 

Magruder, who liked to stage amateur theater productions, completely deceived McClellan by brazenly marching small numbers of troops past the same position multiple times, giving the appearance of a much larger force. He shifted his artillery around and fired whenever he had a target. This ruse fooled McClellan, who mistakenly believed he was vastly outnumbered anyway, and delayed movement of his army for weeks. 

McClellan finally rolled up his siege guns and planned for a massive bombardment to begin at dawn on May 4, but the Confederate army slipped away in the night toward Williamsburg, unharmed. 

As you can see on the Civil War map, this 50-acre tract is immediately behind the Confederate earthworks, where Confederate soldiers doubtless traversed this land. A soldier of the 4th North Carolina wrote, “We are exactly on the battle ground of Washington and Cornwallis, but all that remains to be seen are the old breastworks of the British, which lie immediately behind ours. The Yankees hold the same position that Washington did.” 

Again, this is remarkable history! But until now, I have only hinted at the extraordinary opportunity we have today to save this land, associated with not only two battles, but two wars, while multiplying the power of every $1 you give into $76! 

How is this possible? Well, the value of this transaction is $5,645,000 including the property and estimated closing costs! You read that correctly, more than five-and-half-million dollars. 

Before you accuse me of biting off more than we can chew, I’m pleased to tell you that through a combination of extraordinary state, local, and federal matching grants, we have $5,571,000 of that amount – fully 98.7 percent – either applied for or already lined up! 

This means that if you and I can raise just the final $74,000 – just 1.3 percent of the transaction’s total value – we will prevent the loss and destruction of this crucial land at Yorktown! 

A $76-to-$1 match is like you buying $150 worth of groceries for $1.97 . . . it’s like buying a $25,000 car for $328.95 . . . or a $300,000 house for just $3,947.37! It’s almost like you and I have gone back in time and are able to buy this land today at the Colonial-era currency exchange rate! 

I have been in the battlefield preservation business for more than twenty years, and I honestly cannot recall an opportunity like this: first, to save a piece of ground associated with two of our nation’s most important wars (let alone one that hosted both French and Confederate soldiers!), and second, to save crucial land while stretching the value of your donation dollar by $76-to-$1. This simply does not happen very often, so I believe we need to act now while we can. 

And while you are thinking about this effort at Yorktown, please let me remind you about the big news we unveiled last month, that we have created a new umbrella organization called the American Battlefield Trust. 

The Board of Trustees and I – along with many members like you who have anticipated this direction for some time now – firmly believe that the creation of the American Battlefield Trust will take our cause to a much higher level. 

As our mission has expanded over the past four years to include saving battlefield land from “America’s First Century,” it became clear to me that our name no longer accurately described what we do, which is to preserve hallowed ground from the Revolutionary War (such as this part of Yorktown), the War of 1812, and the Civil War, and to educate the public about those three conflicts. 

This new structure, with the American Battlefield Trust acting as the umbrella organization, and the Civil War Trust and the Revolutionary War Trust (formerly “Campaign 1776”) operating as its main divisions, gives us the flexibility we need to be even more successful in the years to come. 

But to get to the next level of success – in this dangerous era of rapidly increasing development, skyrocketing land prices, and plummeting appreciation for our nation’s history and its heroes – and to protect the next 50,000 acres of hallowed ground that must be saved, I believe we must have a name that reflects our overall mission. 

The bottom line: We have a new name, we have a new look, but our mission remains exactly the same. And the good news is that, from the comments we have received so far, your fellow members overwhelmingly support this change! 

Today, I ask you to please consider making your most generous gift to this inaugural effort of the newly-named Revolutionary War Trust and help take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to save 50 acres at Yorktown, associated with both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. 

Remember, just $74,000 will help secure this land, a transaction with a total value of $5.645 million dollars! Let me put it another way – every dollar you send today will increase by a mind-boggling 7,628% immediately! Is there any other investment in the world today where you can see that kind of growth? If you know of one, I hope you will contact me! 

But it’s not just the incredible multiplier effect of your generosity, as important as that is. The most important part of this effort is the chance to save something so significant for our country, to tell the story of our history, and to leave an amazing gift like this for future generations, so that they might learn how we became the greatest nation in the history of the world. 

That’s really what you are doing with your generous support today . . . you are helping to teach everyone – young, old, and those yet to be born – about the sacrifices that were made to secure the freedoms we enjoy today. 

That’s why I ask you to be as generous as you can today, knowing that every dollar you can send turns into $76 to preserve this land at Yorktown! That means a $50 gift turns into $3,800 of transaction value, $100 becomes $7,600, a $500 gift becomes worth an amazing $38,000! I just had to double-check those numbers on my calculator, because, even as good as we are at securing matching grants, we are not used to seeing numbers this high! 

Please don’t let this opportunity pass you by, and please be as generous as you can. I thank you for all you do for this cause of saving the most important places where our country’s history was made. 

Very sincerely yours,

Jim Lighthizer Signature

Jim Lighthizer
President

P.S. A $76-to-$1 match to save 50 acres of core battlefield land associated with both the Revolutionary War and Civil War battles and sieges of Yorktown . . . land that was slated to be a 100-unit residential development. My friend, an opportunity like this has never happened before, and may never happen again! Please visit our website right now at www.battlefields.org/Yorktown2018 for more information, and to make your gift securely online today! I thank you in advance for your help in saving this crucial part of our history!