Profiles in Preservation: Central Virginia Battlefields Trust

“Preserving Dirt and Grass”
David Duncan, CVBT President Tom Van Winkle and CVBT Executive Director Terry Rensel

Trust President David Duncan presents CVBT President Tom Van Winkle and CVBT Executive Director Terry Rensel with a map for the organization’s 25th anniversary, showing the properties the two organizations have saved in central Virginia.

Between 1862 and 1864, the Federal and Confederate armies clashed on multiple occasions and in momentous engagements in the Rappahannock River Valley: at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. The strategic location that drew armies to Central Virginia more than 160 years ago has also drawn residential and commercial development at a staggering pace. 

Specifically, an interchange built in the 1960s on I-95 spawned massive development along State Route 3 (the historic Orange Turnpike), which, over decades, resulted in the paving over of the site of fighting around Salem Church, where Union and Confederate forces suffered more than 9,500 casualties on May 3, 1863. The National Park Service (NPS), strapped for the cash and resources to compete with developers for historic land purchases, was all but powerless to stop it. 

In 1996, a group of concerned, “fed up,” local citizens banded together in the basement of a Fredericksburg home and created the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT). Its mission: “Preserving Dirt and Grass.” According to CVBT President Thomas Van Winkle, the organization’s initial purpose was to fill in the gaps for funding that NPS could not. That included purchasing properties that were within a park boundary, but NPS could not afford, and properties outside an NPS boundary.

From there, CVBT branched off to include saving and preserving properties associated with all four of the major battlefields in the area: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania and the Wilderness. 

With a membership of 600 from across the nation, and even the United Kingdom, the organization has saved a total of 1,700 acres of Civil War battlefield land. 

CVBT’s first success occurred at Willis Hill in 1996, where it assisted NPS in acquiring a critical 8.5-acre parcel atop Marye’s Heights, which was occupied by the famed Washington Artillery during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Today, the site is one of the most heavily visited on the battlefields around Fredericksburg. The preservation success also marked the first of many collaborative partnerships between CVBT and the American Battlefield Trust. 

In the early 2000s, when developers threatened to bulldoze the Chancellorsville Battlefield to accommodate more than 2,000 houses and 2.4 million square feet of commercial and office space, the Trust and CVBT joined together to stop them.  With resources from additional collaboration, the First Day at Chancellorsville site has been saved forever as open space. 

And in one of the most remarkable preservation efforts to date, when the price tag for Fredericksburg’s Slaughter Pen Farm rose to a seemingly insurmountable $12 million, and it seemed preservationists, including the American Battlefield Trust, would have to pass on the chance to buy the land, CVBT jump-started the effort with a gallant move. 

“Historians were all looking at the land then and trying to decide which parts of it could be saved,” Van Winkle says. “And then [notable historian] Frank O’Reilly said, ‘It should all be saved.’ Well, if anybody knows about Fredericksburg, it’s Frank O’Reilly. We took that to heart and decided to do what we could. We said, ‘What if we pledge $1 million to it?’ We decided that it was that important, as small as we are, so we raised $1 million.” 

The small organization’s big promise worked and enlivened the preservation community. Together with the American Battlefield Trust and its members and partners, the full amount was raised, and the land saved. 

Seven years later, in 2013, when CVBT invested a $770,000 state grant into the Trust’s Fleetwood Hill purchase at Brandy Station, it helped ensure the project’s success. 

CVBT has also been working with the Trust for more than 20 years to piece together the lands associated with Jackson’s Flank Attack. The organization just purchased two more properties on the Chancellorsville Battlefield and is close to completing the full goal. 

“We are one or two more properties away from putting a long stretch of that flank attack together so you can walk it without having to go around somebody’s private property,” Van Winkle says. “It’s been a long project and it’s still going, but we’re really stitching it back together.” 

The organization has recently added the Mine Run Battlefield to its preservation mission statement and is already working toward saving some parcels of land there. 

In 2007, CVBT received the Trust’s coveted Brian C. Pohanka Preservation Organization of the Year Award, alongside the Richmond Battlefields Association. Then Trust President James Lighthizer called the CVBT, “the best grassroots land preservation group in the U.S.,” and an integral part of many preservation success stories, noting that “the $1 million pledge to Slaughter Pen was an astonishing feat for a group CVBT’s size.” 

What started as an almost literal grassroots effort to preserve the area’s historic green spaces has blossomed into a preservation powerhouse saving the hallowed ground so vital to the history of the war’s years-long grip on this crossroads. 

Help Restore Six Sacred Battlefield Sites
The Opportunity At Gettysburg, at Chancellorsville, at Seven Pines, and two other hallowed battlefields of the Civil War, vacant buildings now stand...

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