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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Why Does the National Park Look That Way?

Part of the Jackson flank-attack area at Chancellorsville, Va. (The Free Lance-Star)

Astonishingly, until 1989, the National Park Service didn’t own a single acre in the entire area of “Stonewall” Jackson’s 1863 flank attack at Chancellorsville – the final, phenomenal act of the legendary military leader.

I was painfully reminded of this fact in recent days by Fredericksburg resident Robert K. Krick, our nation’s leading historian on the battle.

Why was this so? The answer, in brief, has everything to do with a political decision that Congress made in the early part of the 20th century that’s been dubbed the Antietam Plan.

Its name comes from the Antietam Battlefield Board that Congress created, long ago, to preserve the Maryland sites where Union Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac fought Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on the bloodiest single day of the American Civil War.

All that was necessary, a board member figured, was to preserve narrow strips of land that formed the armies’ lines of battle, maintaining Sharpsburg’s rural agricultural landscape while providing access to key historical spots.

The War Department and Congress, which was worried about the cost of more big military parks after it established Shiloh, Gettysburg and Chickamauga, quickly seized on the idea.

Congress named the Antietam Plan as the guide to be followed in preserving the battlegrounds of Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania Court House, Chancellorsville and the Wilderness.

Civil War historian Robert K. Krick, of course, says it better than I ever could:

“When the park was established in 1927, only very narrow strips were acquired — where earthworks survived, to preserve them, and thin bits on which to build roads. It was presumed that the back-country farmland would stay that way forever, and the park only needed to get visitors to spots where they could look across farm fields,” he told me on Friday.

“No one had the faint notion that countless thousands of bureaucrats would live out there and drive in modern machines to D.C. every day,” recalled the Park Service veteran, who was chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for three decades. “A map of park holdings until the early 1970s looks like a spider web, not a battlefield unit.”

So when, in 1989, Congress approved crucial changes to the park’s boundary, the Park Service owned “absolutely nothing” in the area of Jackson’s famed flank attack, Krick said.

“Having limited chips to throw into the pot, I chose the northern edge of the turnpike to add to the boundary. Because of the way the road curves, that made more sense,” he explained. “The south side is no less significant; it was one or the other under the limitations we faced.”