Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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150 years since the American Civil War

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

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Australian Broadcasting Corp. correspondent Lisa Millar filed this report from visiting to Frederickburg’s battlefield — both Sunken Road and Slaughter Pen Farm — during a tour hosted by the State Department’s Foreign Press Center in Washington. It aired Friday evening on the Aussies’ version of the “All Things Considered” drive-time program on America’s National Public Radio.

If you want to listen to it, click here.


STEPHEN LONG: The United States is marking an important anniversary this year; it’s 150 years since the country went to war with itself. The Civil War, between the Union and Confederate armies, lasted four years and claimed 600,000 lives, in a country with a population back then of just 18 million.

In modern-day America, vast amounts of money and time are being spent trying to salvage civil war history. This anniversary’s also notable for a fierce, ongoing debate about why the Civil War started.

North America correspondent Lisa Millar sent this story from Fredericksburg, Virginia.

FRANK O’REILLY: It’s great to have you out here. It’s nice to see that the sun is cooperating, we’re having a perfect day. I thought we’d take a little walk and experience a little part of the battlefield.

LISA MILLAR: National parks historian, Frank O’Reilly, has been walking the Fredericksburg battlefields for 25 years.

FRANK O’REILLY: We’re in a very unique place, we’re at the midpoint between the two opposing capitals in 1862. Washington DC is just 50 miles north of here. Richmond, Virginia’s just 50 miles south of here; and if you draw a straight line between the two of them you wind up right where we’re standing now.

LISA MILLAR: Both armies coveted this area and were prepared to lose thousands of lives to win it.

Walking along the road where the battles took place is quite an extraordinary experience because this area was once completely isolated, and now it’s surrounded by homes. We’re in the middle of suburbia there’s even a postie walking past right through this national park battlefield to deliver the mail.

It took Dennis Drummey by surprise. The 56-year-old civil war buff from Boston brought his wife Sandy and son Denny Junior to the site for the first time.

DENNIS DRUMMEY: I was very disappointed coming down the road that there’s this enormous mall right down the street here and this is hallowed ground, this is, this is, there was so much bloodshed here for good purpose that I think it’s wrong.

LISA MILLAR: As homes and businesses encroach on these battlefields, preserving them has become a passionate mission for people like Nicholas Redding. He’s with the Civil War Trust, a private enterprise that has recently bought Slaughter Pen Farm, a critical battlefield near Fredericksburg, for $12 million.

NICHOLAS REDDING: This was the single most expensive battlefield preservation project ever undertaken by a private group in American history.

LISA MILLAR: How hard is it to try and save these places?

NICHOLAS REDDING: Well the places have a story that is worth saving. And the value of these places is inherent, it’s undeniable and it’s not something that we can change or alter. So it’s not as if we have to try and build up these places to make the case. The cases are compelling themselves, they just need and advocate and that’s sort of where the trust comes in.

LISA MILLAR: Preserving the battlefields is just one element of this Civil War anniversary. The other is the debate over what sparked it in the first place.

RUSS SMITH: Fifty years ago during the centennial of the Civil War we didn’t say much about the causes of the war because somebody might be offended. And we were going through a great struggle with civil rights then.

LISA MILLAR: Russ Smith is the superintendent of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He’s been involved with the planning of this anniversary and the conscious decision to be blunter about history, and the role of slavery.

RUSS SMITH: Right now I think we’ve come far enough along that we can deal with these issues openly and honestly.

Frankly the National Parks Service avoided the whole issue 50 years ago during the centennial. The sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary, I think, provides us with what I call a do-over. We get a chance to get it right this time, to tell the story right.

LISA MILLAR: I stop to chat with visitors Ed Schrader and his wife Gayle.

GAYLE SCHRADER: Well we were travelling down from Maine back home and decided to come again and visit.

LISA MILLAR: I ask if they know people who still argue it wasn’t slavery but state’s rights that sparked the fight.

ED SCHRADER: There are a lot of knuckleheads that say it wasn’t about slavery at all, which is absurd, but yeah it was about slavery.

LISA MILLAR: Superintendent Russ Smith won’t tell visitors to the park they’re wrong if they try to argue against the slavery story but he will try to educate.

(Sounds of children)

And this is where it starts with dozens of young children on a summer camp.

AMELIE ARBIZA: I think it’s very good for me to learn about the Civil War.

LISA MILLAR: Amelie Arbiza is nine and it’s not her first trip. Eight-year-old Riley Cole is back again as well.

RILEY COLE: The Confederate soldiers and the Union soldiers that some people felt very bad about it.

LISA MILLAR: And do you know what the civil war was about?

RILEY COLE: Slavery.

FRANK O’REILLY: So why don’t we head on down past the parking lot here…

LISA MILLAR: Frank O’Reilly’s lost count of the number of people he’s shown through the Fredericksburg battlefields.

FRANK O’REILLY: In truth every day I learn something new about the battlefields. In 25 years I’m amazed at how much I’ve learnt, just since yesterday, much less over the years.

LISA MILLAR: The US is seeing this anniversary as a chance to learn as well, to better understand the legacy of a war that shaped a nation.

This is Lisa Millar in Fredericksburg for PM.

©2010 ABC