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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House Passes Wittman Bill to Preserve Battlefields

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell lauds a $4 million federal grant to preserve about 320 acres at Richmond National Battlefield Park in 2012, flanked by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar (right) and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis (left), at Glendale National Cemetery in Henrico County. (STEVE HELBER/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

A bipartisan bill that would provide competitive matching grants to preserve battlefields from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War cleared the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday night.

Sponsored by Virginia Rep. Rob Wittman, R–Montross, and Rep. Rush Holt, D–N.J., H.R. 1033 would re-authorize the American Battlefield Protection Program and expand it beyond the American Civil War to include historic sites from the nation’s war for independence and its second, early 19th-century fight against the British.

A companion bill will now be considered by the U.S. Senate.

Wittman, who took to the House floor late Tuesday afternoon to speak for the legislation, later expressed pleasure at the legislation’s passage.

“As Virginians, we can especially appreciate this legislation, as it will continue to preserve important hallowed ground from the battles for our nation’s independence and the Civil War,” the 1st District congressman said Tuesday evening after the 283-to-122 vote. ”Preserving battlefields honors those who fought for freedom, protects important places from our nation’s past, and also contributes economically to local businesses and historic communities.”

“Today, I’m grateful to see the House support the preservation and protection of historical battlefields through the American Battlefield Protection Act.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Republican who represents Virginia’s 7th District, also voted for the resolution.

No area of the country has benefitted more greatly from the battlefield protection program than Central Virginia, said Jim Campi, policy and communications director at the nonprofit Civil War Trust in Washington.

“The program has provided $8.8 million in grants to save 2,100 acres in Central Virginia, including the Brandy Station and Remington Station battlefields, and the Wilderness, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Cedar Mountain,” he said.

It is funded by the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which taps fees paid by companies drilling for oil and gas.

Nearly 60 percent of the money awarded through the program has been spent in the Old Dominion.  As a result, more than 8,800 acres of battleground have been preserved at Appomattox, Cedar Creek, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Manassas, Petersburg and Richmond.

The tourism results from that preservation is good for state and local economies, advocates say.

According to the Virginia Tourism Corp., visitors to the state’s Civil War sites stay longer and spend more than twice as much as the average visitor to the commonwealth.

One recent tourism study found that at 20 Civil War sites from Gettysburg to Chickamauga, visitors added $11.7 million per year to local government tax revenues, and $21 million to state coffers.

In five states—Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Missouri—15.8 million visitors to 15 National Park Service Civil War battlefields and historic sites spent nearly $442 million in local communities, supporting 5,150 local jobs.

Nationally, since 1999, the program has helped to save more than 19,000 battlefield acres in 16 states.

H.R. 1033 would reauthorize it and create an identical effort to preserve battlefields from the Revolutionary War and War of 1812.

“With every year that goes by, this legislation grows more urgent,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Hackett Fischer, author of “Washington’s Crossing,” testified to Congress in support of the bill. “Sites now presently endangered include some of the most important events in the history of the American Revolution.”

The legislation is supported by many organizations, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Civil War Trust, the Crossroads of the American Revolution Association, and the National Parks Conservation Association.

“Our nation was not only shaped on the battlefields of the 1860s—and this measure will help encourage the protection and appreciation of the full scope of our history,” said James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Trust.

Of 825 nationally significant battlefields and sites from the Revolution and War of 1812, 107 have been lost, 245 are fragmented, and 222 are in danger of being destroyed in the next decades, according to a Park Service study.

The battlefield program acquires property only from willing sellers at fair market value, and excludes land that already lies within the congressionally authorized boundary of a national park. It leverages matching grants with money from private groups and state and local governments.

“Sprawl and commercial development are threatening the historic sites where our nation was forged and shaped,” Rep. Holt said.  “Each time a historic battlefield is replaced with a parking lot, a chapter of American history is obscured, and future generations lose an important window onto their heritage.”