After 16-Year Fundraising Effort, American Battlefield Trust Declares Victory at Slaughter Pen Farm
Jim Campi, (202) 367-1861 x7205
Mary Koik, (202) 367-1861 x7231
(Fredericksburg, Va.) — Once billed as the most desirable property for industrial development in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the site that historians argue determined the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg is saved forever following a 16-year, $12-million fundraising campaign to ensure its protection. To seal the deal on the largest and most complex private battlefield preservation effort in the nation’s history, the American Battlefield Trust enlisted the participation of a preservation-friendly developer, a flexible financial lender and forward-thinking government officials, as well as tens of thousands of individual donors.
“When we began this journey, the goal was beyond audacious,” said Trust President David Duncan. “It was orders of magnitude beyond anything we had attempted, but the unparalleled historic significance of this land demanded that we stretch beyond what had then been considered possible. This is a milestone moment in the historic preservation movement.”
Although the Battle of Fredericksburg is most famous for the doomed Union assault on Marye’s Heights, the fight was won and lost further south, as troops in blue and gray struggled across an undulating farm field and toward the slopes of Prospect Hill. The intense fighting on the south end of the Fredericksburg Battlefield produced some 9,000 casualties, many of whom fell on a piece of ground dubbed the Slaughter Pen by soldiers and locals alike. Five Union soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism there. Historian Frank O’Reilly, the author of The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock, calls the Slaughter Pen Farm “the very heart and soul” of the field, “the point where the battle was won and lost.”
In the 1930s, the Confederate line along Prospect Hill was added to Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, but the open plain remained a dairy farm, becoming hemmed in by a highway, a railroad and a small airport as the decades passed. Time and again, developers came calling — including proposals for a hospital and elementary school, actively opposed by the Trust — but never struck a deal. When the longtime owner died in September 2005 at age 86, his niece made plans to sell. But she was hostile toward preservationists and Trust leaders were concerned that even a full cash offer from them might be rejected. Instead, they contacted Tricord Homes, a local firm with which they had worked to fashion a preservation-friendly development proposal on the nearby Chancellorsville Battlefield. Tricord and the Trust then worked closely together and successfully secured the property.
“Tricord Homes is built on a foundation of integrity and collaboration,” said company co-owner Mike Jones. “We are long-term members of this community and know that its rich history is part of what makes the Fredericksburg region so special. Helping protect this battlefield land was the right thing to do in 2006, and we would make the same decision today.”
The campaign to raise $12 million and protect the Slaughter Pen Farm began on March 28, 2006. Closing occurred in June thanks to the Trust’s longtime banking partner, SunTrust, now Truist, agreeing to fund the entire acquisition. It was an unusual move, since banks normally finance land purchases to develop the properties, not preserve them. But the Trust was able to reduce the loan by taking advantage of land preservation tax credits available in Virginia. The transaction created $5 million in state income tax credits that the Trust sold over the next three years to help pay down the loan. As a non-profit, the Trust also took advantage of tax-exempt financing and refinanced the balance of the original loan into a long-term bond issue.
The project received significant governmental support, including a $2 million matching grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP), which remains one of the largest awards ever made by that entity. The Commonwealth of Virginia also contributed $300,000 toward the acquisition, a process that directly led to the creation of a first-in-the-nation state matching grant program for battlefield preservation in 2006.
Ultimately, nearly half of the $12 million raised came via private funds, mostly donations from Trust members. The loan’s terms required an annual payment of $400,000, and many donors scheduled a recurring gift to help pay down the balance, knowing that until the debt was paid off, the land could not truly be classified as “saved.” The Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, an exceptional regional partner based in Fredericksburg pledged the monumental sum of $1 million, fulfilling its commitment in 2011.
“The preservation community is strongest when we work together,” said CVBT President Tom Van Winkle. “It is what allows us to take on the most meaningful work and what ensures we leave a permanent legacy.”
Since taking ownership of the property, the Trust has focused on landscape restoration and interpretive initiatives. It has gradually removed a number of derelict farm outbuildings, and, in 2009, installed an almost two-mile educational walking trail. The route is popular with locals, students of history and military units participating in staff rides to study lessons in leadership and tactics.
The Trust was on track to complete the Slaughter Pen Farm fundraising campaign in 2024, when a longtime supporter who wished to remain anonymous issued a remarkable matching challenge: If individual donors could supply the next $400,000 annual payment, he would contribute the entirety of the $800,000 then remaining on the loan, paying it off two years early. Once again, Trust members answered the call and the final payment on the debt was made to Truist in May.
With the Slaughter Pen Farm now owned free-and-clear by preservationists, the Trust and its many partners turn toward celebrating the milestone. A festive Twilight Tour is scheduled for mid-July, with a larger celebratory event planned for autumn.
“More than once I’ve said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that after the property was paid off, I’d fire a copy of our mortgage out of a cannon,” said the Trust’s Duncan. “I think they might hold me to it.”
The American Battlefield Trust is dedicated to preserving America’s hallowed battlegrounds and educating the public about what happened there and why it matters today. The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization has protected more than 55,000 acres associated with the Revolutionary War, War of 1812 and Civil War. Learn more at www.battlefields.org.