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Civil War Trust contracts to buy Brandy Station tract

BY CLINT SCHEMMER

THE FREE LANCE-STAR 

The history-minded here and abroad have been waiting to hear this news for 30 years. Fleetwood Hill, heart of Virginia’s Brandy Station battlefield, will be saved—if people step up to the plate.

That’s the Cliff Notes version of Thursday afternoon’s announcement by the Civil War Trust that it has contracted with a Culpeper County landowner to buy 61 acres at the core of that cavalry battlefield.

Late Thursday, Civil War Trust President James Lighthizer said he was pleased to confirm the agreement.

“Protection of this property at the epicenter of the Brandy Station battlefield has been a goal of the preservation community for more than three decades,” he noted in a statement.

Brandy Station, fought on June 9, 1863, opened the Army of Northern Virginia’s Gettysburg campaign and sent Union forces in pursuit of Gen. Robert E. Lee and his forces. It was the largest cavalry battle ever fought on American soil, with nearly 20,000 troopers engaged and more than 1,000 casualties.

Although happy with the agreement with landowner Tony Troilo, Lighthizer warned that “several steps remain before the transaction is completed and the property can be considered preserved—chief among them raising the $3.6 million necessary to formally purchase the land.”

The trust intends “to launch a national fundraising campaign next year with the aim of raising the money in time for the 150th anniversary of the battle,” he said.

Though a Confederate victory, Brandy Station is the battle where Union cavalry came into its own after years of being dominated by Southern horse soldiers.

Northern Neck historian Clark B. “Bud” Hall, the recognized expert on the battle’s history, said Thursday that Fleetwood Hill is “without question the most fought over, camped upon and marched-over real estate in the entire United States.”

Hall has dedicated  27 years to helping preserve portions of the battlefield, but none mean more to him than the   knoll overlooking the village of Brandy Station.

“Ten thousand troopers grappled to the death on Fleetwood Hill. Scores of men were killed, right there,” Hall said in an interview. “And as J.E.B. Stuart wrote in his report. they ‘buried them where they fell.’ ”

Stuart, who pitched his headquarters tent there, went all out to retake the crucial high ground after being surprised when Northern cavalry swept across the Rapidan River.

“Genl’ Stuart always fought the hardest when things looked looked the worst,” one trooper wrote.

Another horse soldier, George Moffett of the 12th Virginia Cavalry, recalled: Stuart was “here, there and everywhere  his black plume floating   where the battle was fiercest  ringing out the words of command: ‘Give them the sabre, boys!”

Historian Robert K. Krick of Fredericksburg, author of 20 books on the Civil War, greeted news of the land deal warmly.

“Brandy Station has come a very long way since being on the brink of destruction some years ago—when first threatened with intense massive development, and then by a proposed high-speed auto-racing track,” Krick said in an interview.

“Earlier preservation saved extensive tracts, but this new purchase covers the very core of the battlefield.”

The University of Virginia’s Gary W. Gallagher, one the nation’s most eminent Civil War historians, said he was heartened by the possibility that the site will handed down to future generations.

“Preservation of Fleetwood Hill on the Brandy Station battlefield should trigger a chorus of praise from all who care about the historic landscape of the Civil War,” Gallagher said from California, where he was visiting. “It represents the culmination of a quarter century’s tireless efforts by an array of preservationists and underscores how hard and focused work can yield the most dazzling results.

“This ground not only figured prominently in the largest cavalry battle of the war on June 9, 1863, but it also served as a major encampment for the Army of the Potomac in the winter of 1863-1864,” said Gallagher, the university’s John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War.

“Its preservation will prove a great boon to anyone who seeks to understand mounted combat during the conflict, the preliminary phase of Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the United States in June-July 1863, and the season leading up to the seismic confrontation between Lee and U. S. Grant in the Overland campaign of May 1864.”

Kathleen Kilpatrick, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Preservation, also cheered.

“In just a few years, Virginia battlefield preservation has gone from a lagging position to the front of the line, thanks to the combined efforts of generous property owners, outstanding nonprofit groups, state and federal agencies, and elected officials,” Kilpatrick said in a phone interview.

“Brandy Station, and the surrounding area, is a particularly stellar success story.”

The Civil War Trust has long been committed to protecting the battlefields in Culpeper County.  To date, it has helped preserve nearly 1,800 acres at Brandy Station—more land than at any other single battlefield in the nation.

Brandy Station has seen many high-profile preservation fights since the 1980s, when Hall and others first became involved.

First, county supervisors rezoned 1,500 acres of the battlefield to allow light industrial development. Later, a 515-acre Formula One auto racetrack was proposed for the site.

Today, the trust owns 878 acres of the Brandy Station battlefield that are open to the public. Interpretation of that property includes educational signage, walking trails and a driving tour.

Cita Suratgar, owner of Farley, a stately 1801 home on the north end of the 2-mile-long Fleetwood Hill ridge, said she was “thrilled” by news of the trust’s action.

“Fleetwood Hill is so important to our history, and has great meaning for the whole area. It’s a huge step that they’ve taken,” Suratgar said. “This couldn’t have come at a nicer time than Christmas.”

ON THE NET:

civilwar.org

Clint Schemmer:   540/368-5029

cschemmer@freelancestar.com

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