Civil War Battlefields Now Sites of Suburban Warfare

The Civil War may define American history more than any other event since the Revolution.

But now, 137 years after the end of the Civil War, new battles are brewing between those who want to develop the areas surrounding national battlefield parks and those who want to protect them.

"That conflict is going on all over country, but particularly in the eastern part of the United States where the Civil War was fought," said Jim Lighthizer of the Civil War Preservation Trust at Antietam Battlefield in Maryland, site of the bloodiest battle in U.S. history.

Nowhere is the present-day battle more pitched than at Chancellorsville Battlefield near Fredricksburg, Va. That's the site where rebel commander Robert E. Lee defeated Union Gen. Joseph Hooker. Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson also died here, accidentally shot by his own troops.

But significant parts of the battle were fought outside the national park on what are now privately owned lands. Developers have big plans for that property, namely a small town that includes 2.4 million square feet of office space and more than 2,300 homes.

Chancellorsville historian Bob Krick opposes the development.

"This is a place where part of the American character was formed. It's really a place that is hallowed ground and deserves to be protected for that reason," Krick said.

Developer Ray Smith is urging county officials to rezone the large farm near the national park to fit his plan. He intends to preserve 34 out of 790 acres. And he is irritated at the hoopla generated by historians.

"There were 250 square miles involved in the battle of Chancellorsville. You can't save 250 square miles," Davis, of Dogwood Development in Reston, Va., argued.

In one poll, two thirds of area residents said they are against the development. The final decision lies with the County Board of Supervisors, of which at least one member says that they also must consider the rights of the landowner, who wants to sell.

"As his property is presently zoned, he has a right to develop it," said Spotsylvania County Supervisor Patricia Lenwell.

The new Civil War battle — the rights of landowners and desires of developers versus outraged historians — will be decided this time not with guns but by politicians.