Civil War  |  News

Overland Campaign Anniversary Begins with Expansion of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park

Ceremony sees nonprofit Civil War Trust transfer a 49-acre property at Saunders Field property on the Wilderness Battlefield to National Park Service

(Locust Grove, Va.) At a news conference and ceremony this morning, National Park Service (NPS) Northeast Regional Director Mike Caldwell officially accepted the transfer of 49 acres of hallowed ground into Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. The land, a portion of historic Saunders Field on the Wilderness Battlefield, was purchased by the nonprofit Civil War Trust in early 2011 with the intention that it would eventually be ceded to the park. The announcement comes on the first day of events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Overland Campaign.

"It is an honor to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Wilderness by accepting this gift on behalf of present and future generations of Americans who will visit this site to learn from past and be inspired by their sacrifice," said NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis in advance of the event.  "Today's ceremony celebrates not just the growth of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, but also the type of outstanding partnerships that enable all our national parks to thrive."

Acquisition of the 49-acre Middlebrook Tract had long been a priority for preservationists - both for the intensity of the fighting that occurred there and for its unique location, entirely surrounded by land owned and protected by the National Park Service - when the Civil War Trust announced its intentions in October 2010. Due to its desirable location with highway frontage along Route 20, the land commanded a price in excess of $1 million, which was funded entirely with private donations. For both its scope and historic significance, the project constitutes one of the greatest preservation achievements in the Trusts' history.

"Commemorating such an important anniversary by transferring such critically important battlefield land to the National Park Service perfectly encapsulates the mission of the Civil War Trust," said James Lighthizer, the organization's president.  "It is our firm belief that the perpetual protection of these hallowed grounds for the education and enjoyment of future generations will be a lasting legacy of the sesquicentennial."

Fought on May 57, 1864, the Battle of the Wilderness was the opening engagement General Ulysses S. Grant's bloody Overland Campaign.  In addition to being the first time that legendary generals Grant and his Confederate counterpart Robert E. Lee met in battle, the Wilderness also marked a significant strategic shift in the Union war effort.  After days of costly and inconclusive fighting in the tangled underbrush, rather than retreating northward, as his predecessors had done following major battles, Grant continued to push his army south toward Richmond.

Figuring heavily into the action of both May 5 and May 6, Saunders Field was one of the few large clearings on the battlefield, making combat in the area especially fierce.  For his valorous actions on the property on May 5, Lt. John Patterson of the 11th U.S. Infantry was awarded the Medal of Honor.  The following day, the area known today as the Middlebrook Tract was the scene of a dramatic counterattack that turned the tide of a major Confederate onslaught threatening to turn the Union flank.

Celebrating the news was Civil War Trust chairman emeritus John L. Nau, III, who also holds a leadership position on the board of the National Parks Foundation and previously headed the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Nau lauded the government's ongoing commitment to integrating projects of this kind into its anniversary commemorations. "From Manassas to Shiloh to the Wilderness and beyond, messages of preservation have become an integral part of the Civil War sesquicentennial. These protected and interpreted landscapes will forever testify to the vision and generosity of this generation."

The Wilderness site's evolution from homestead to national park culminated with a deed signing ceremony witnessed by Warren Middlebrook, the land's longtime owner.

"The American public is deeply indebted to Warren Middlebrook for his decades of stewardship of this remarkable resource," said Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP superintendent Lucy Lawliss. "If he had not recognized the historic significance of his land and sought its permanent protection, today's celebration would not be possible."

During the Civil War sesquicentennial anniversary period, the federal government made a commitment to transfer battlefield lands from conservation groups into the National Park Service. Nearly 1,500 acres of hallowed ground have been added to battlefield parks at Cedar Creek, Fort Donelson, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania, Gettysburg, Harpers Ferry, Manassas, Richmond and Shiloh as a tangible legacy of the sesquicentennial.

Special National Park Service programming to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House continue through May 18. The Overland Campaign anniversary will continue at Richmond National Battlefield Park and Petersburg National Battlefield in May and June.

Civil War Trust is the largest nonprofit battlefield preservation organization in the United States. Its mission is to preserve our nation's endangered Civil War battlefields and to promote appreciation of these hallowed grounds. To date, it has preserved more than 38,500 acres of battlefield land in 20 states, including 209 at the Wilderness.