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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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Civil War Trust transfers Saunders Field land to National Park Service

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

LOCUST GROVE, Va.–The Wilderness was the last place in Virginia where one would choose to fight a battle, says James I. Robertson Jr.

But that’s what happened 150 years ago this week.

Seventy square miles of tangled woods stunted by tobacco cultivation, iron smelting and gold mining, The Wilderness was a forbidding place pierced by a few roads.

Saunders Field, Wilderness battlefield.

Saunders Field, Wilderness battlefield.

When the Union’s Army of the Potomac paused there to wait for its wagon trains to catch up, Robert E. Lee attacked, aiming to neutralize his adversary’s numerical advantage by using the terrain to his advantage.

When fighting broke out on May 5, 1864, Saunders Field was one of the few big  clearings in the woods. Combat there grew fierce.

For his valorous actions on that ground that day, Lt. John Patterson of the 11th U.S. Infantry was awarded the Medal of Honor, 33 years later.

He “picked up and carried several hundred yards to a place of safety a wounded officer of his regiment who was helpless and would otherwise have been burned in the forest” in the Battle of the Wilderness, his medal citation states.

John H. Patterson

John H. Patterson

On Saturday, the Civil War Trust ceremonially transferred its deed to 49 acres that were the scene of Patterson’s heroism to the National Park Service–a moment that had been years in the making.

At a noon news conference on the western edge of Saunders Field, Park Service Northeast Regional Director Mike Caldwell accepted the transfer into Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.

The nonprofit trust bought the land in early 2011, raising more than $1 million in record time, entirely from private donations.

Its announcement of the land transfer came on the first day of National Park Service and Spotsylvania County events commemorating the battle. Park Service events marking the Civil War’s Overland Campaign will continue locally for another 22 days, then shift south to North Anna, Richmond and Petersburg through the summer and into the fall. Follow them on Twitter at #overland150. Read and downtload schedules and other details at www.nps.gov/frsp/sesquicentennial.htm

The trust’s former property, known today as the Middlebrook Tract, was the site of a dramatic counterattack that turned a major Confederate onslaught threatening to turn the Union flank. Named for its last private owner, Orange County resident Wayne Middlebrook, the acreage is surrounded by land owned and protected by the Park Service.  Middlebrook and his wife were present to witness the transfer.

Wayne Middlebrook

Wayne Middlebrook

“The American public is deeply indebted to Warren Middlebrook for his decades of stewardship of this remarkable resource,” park Superintendent Lucy Lawliss said. “If he had not recognized the historic significance of his land and sought its permanent protection, today’s celebration would not be possible.”

The trust said it considers preserving the land one of its greatest preservation achievements.

“Commemorating such an important anniversary by transferring such critically important battlefield land to the National Park Service perfectly encapsulates the mission of the Civil War Trust,” said James Lighthizer, the organization’s president.

Fought on May 5–7, 1864, the Battle of the Wilderness opened Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s costly Overland Campaign and was the first instance in which forces led by Lee and Grant met in combat.

It also marked a big strategic shift in the Union war effort. After days of bloody stalemate, rather than retreating north as his predecessors had done after major battles, Grant pushed his army south toward Richmond.

“The American public is deeply indebted to Warren Middlebrook for his decades of stewardship of this

remarkable resource,” park Superintendent Lucy Lawliss said. “If he had not recognized the historic significance of his land and sought its permanent protection, today’s celebration would not be possible.”

During the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, conservation groups are transferring battlefield lands to the National Park Service.

Nearly 1,500 acres of hallowed ground have been added to parks at Cedar Creek, Fort Donelson, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania, Gettysburg, Harpers Ferry, Manassas, Richmond and Shiloh as a tangible legacy of the war’s sesquicentennial, the trust said Saturday.

The Civil War Trust is the largest nonprofit battlefield preservation organization in the United States. To date, it has preserved more than 38,500 acres of battlefield land in 20 states, including 209 acres at the Wilderness.

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/pastisprologue/2014/05/04/civil-war-trust-transfers-saunders-field-land-to-national-park-service/