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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A great Virginia battlefield that no one can see

Despite the relative length of Tuesday’s Free Lance-Star piece about historian James S. Price and his new book on the Battle of New Market Heights, a great deal was left unsaid about this incredible 1864 fight near Richmond and the men, on both sides, who participated in it. The details are fascinating, and very well told in this, the Spotsylvania County author’s first book.

But the article also didn’t go much into the most important modern-day point about this relatively little-known battlefield: its continuing risk of being consumed by the metro Richmond area’s sprawl.

Not to mention the fact that one cannot visit the battlefield where 14 African American soldiers earned the Medal of Honor–out of a total of 16 such medals awarded to Negro soldiers during the Civil War. There’s a state historical marker by a roadside that speaks of the battle, and that’s it.

The epilogue of Price’s book, titled “The Perils of Preservation,” treats the issue at length. The author traces the fuss over the battlefield’s future back to 1979, when National Park Service historian Ed Bearss wrote a memorandum on New Market Heights and to 1981, when historian Richard J. Sommers’ book “Richmond Redeemed” was published. Both works extensively treated the men of the United States Colored Troops regiments that attacked the heights along Henrico County’s New Market Road. In the late 1980s, the National Park Service was urged to designate the battlefield as a national historic landmark. But fierce opposition from landowners ground that process to a halt.

In a recent interview with the Civil War Trust, Price — who writes the blog The Sable Arm – briefly outlined the shaky state of this nationally important historic site:

CWT: Describe the preservation issues that New Market Heights has faced over the years. How much of the battlefield is currently preserved?

JP: Well, as you know, The Civil War Trust listed New Market Heights as one of America’s most endangered battlefields in 2009. Housing developers who could care less about the historic significance of the ground recently destroyed a portion of the Confederate position on New Market Heights itself and there is no reason to think that such wanton destruction of battlefield land will not continue unless someone steps in. The proposed expansion of Route 5 (the historic New Market Road) will eradicate even more of this hallowed ground. Fortunately, the County of Henrico has purchased an area south of Route 5 where the USCTs made their charge, but there is no public access to this site and much of the ground was destroyed by gravel mining before the county purchased the property. The county has planned to join with a local community college to create a “college in the park” on the site, but the mere act of building the campus and park would destroy large portions of what is left of the battlefield. In short, there has been much talk of preserving New Market Heights when it is politically expedient to those in local and national government – and very little when it is not. Let us hope that this unfortunate situation changes during our commemoration of the [Civil War] sesquicentennial.

CWT: As a longtime member and supporter of the CWT, what would be your vision for the New Market Heights battlefield?

JP: First, I’d love to see a Virginia Civil War Trails marker placed off of Route 5 to accompany the State marker that was put there in 1993. Second, I’d love to see the preserved land that is now lying dormant to be converted into battlefield park where people can come and walk the hallowed ground where so many brave soldiers – both black and white – died to ensure a new birth of freedom. Finally, I’d like to see a monument to the Medal of Honor recipients placed on the battlefield. It’s far from an impossible task to accomplish, but the window of time for this to happen is closing quickly.