An Interview with the Trust’s 2 Millionth Donor!
American Battlefield Trust: You may have given the Trust our two millionth gift, which is a huge milestone, but it was hardly your first donation to the organization. How did you first learn about the trust?
William B. Bristor, Jr.: You know, I thought about that and I'm not 100% sure! For the last 15 years or so, my wife and I have gone on the Historic Virginia Garden Tour, and maybe we picked something up down on one of the tours or whatever. It could have been a magazine, like Civil War Monitor. But I know I sent away for the magazine and all that stuff and I've been a member ever since.
When you found out what we do – preserving battlefield land and history education – what specifically resonated with you about that? What made you think, "I want to support this organization"?
Well, I knew the land is being developed, and I've gone by Antietam where they've got the solar farm down a ways, which is just ugly as anything. Antietam was the first Civil War battlefield I think I ever went to — in 1955 with my dad and mom. Of course, I guess I was 11 or 12, and my dad stopped at a farmer's market on the side. And the farmer had just plowed up a Civil War musket. I think my dad bought it for next to nothing, took it home and cleaned it up. It was on our wall forever. My dad's gone now, a good 12 years, and I just sold the musket to an antiques dealer. Pretty sure it was a Confederate musket. It was still loaded, no ramrod in it so I guess the guy got killed before he could use it. But that was at Antietam and it kind of whet my appetite. My dad was a big history buff; he was a WW2 B-17 pilot, and my uncle was a B-24 navigator. They stressed upon me the importance of history and I guess the acorn didn't fall far from the tree.
Were they the ones who really sparked your interest in history gradually, or was there a specific moment or experience that you can remember when you thought, "Wow, history is really fascinating"?
Yeah, a little bit of both. My best subject in junior high and high school and college was history. I always got an A in that, and that was rare for me — so I guess that was part of it. Then I had an ancestor that served on the CSS Virginia. His name was Robert Benthall, and my middle name is Benthall. He was pardoned to Baltimore, and I guess that's why I've come to be. [Editor’s Note: Bristor’s family has remained close to Baltimore; he lives in Ellicott City, Md.] He was a great, great granddaddy, I guess.
You're a veteran yourself of the US military. Do you want to talk a little bit about your service?
Four years in the Marine Corps, the last year of which, '66-'67, was in Vietnam. It was life-changing a little bit. But I survived and came home, hopefully a better person.
Do you feel like your service has impacted the way that you view historic battlefields and the soldiers who fought on them? Has that changed your experience when you go to Antietam or another battlefield and you're there and you're thinking about it?
Exactly. You could almost feel it. I donate to Mount Vernon and Monticello and the Poplar Forest, a lot of other history organizations, too. Every time I'm at Mount Vernon I get a sense that George Washington is right there. I feel it with the battlefields, especially with Antietam. I also like the South Mountain Battlefield, Fox’s Gap and the other gaps there.
I hiked the Appalachian trail, and the AT goes right through there, right above Antietam, which is kind of nice. The same feeling has rubbed off on me and with Gettysburg, Petersburg, Fredericksburg…. I like historic markers. They're like a magnet to me; I'll stop and read it.
Do you feel a sense of connection to the soldiers who fought on those battlefields as fellow US military veterans?
I really do. Really do. Most of my family was from the South. In fact, I just accidentally sold a letter from Robert E. Lee from one of my ancestors. They wrote him asking about a relative that was killed on a blockade run. But Robert E. Lee wrote back that he didn't know about the Navy. You know, he was all strictly army.
You've talked a lot about Antietam. Is that your favorite battlefield or is there another one that you're particularly passionate about preserving?
Well, Antietam is ... I guess it's the closest to where I live, and it's the first one I went to. They've really changed it now, really expanded the museum and all that stuff. We used to be able to walk around with nobody looking over our shoulders — no Rangers or anything, and looking for — bullets and stuff like that. In fact, nowadays the farmer that my dad bought the musket from would probably be locked up. You know, I don't know, but that's a long time ago.
What would you hope that future generations are able to take away when they visit battlefields and the ground that you've helped us preserve with your generous donation? Other young William Bristors who might go to Antietam with their families at 12 years old.
Well, would you believe, I'm William Benthall Bristor Jr. I've got William Benthall Bristor, the third, the fourth, and I now have a great grandson, the fifth. I've already taken him around, and hopefully I instill a little bit …My confidence is not high that future generations will feel the way I do.
Do you hope visiting battlefields would help inspire young people who maybe don't feel like they have a connection to history? If they are able to have a similar experience to what you had when you got to go see Antietam with your family and feel connected to the history?
I still remember crawling around the monuments that were there at the time. You know, being an 11- or 12-year-old kid and I had two younger brothers. Yeah, we probably raised Cain. I don't think we did any major destruction to the monuments and we didn't sign our name or anything. But, yes, I do. I really do. That's why I donate, why I'm doing my bit.