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A New Battle for Chancellorsville, Virginia - 2002-10-04

It's been nearly 140 years since the American Civil War came to an end, and people across the United States continue to be fascinated by this conflict. Each year, hundreds of thousands of visitors travel to historic battlefields, nearly all of which are in the American South. Today, the region is one of the fastest growing in the country, and much to the dismay of historians, many of those Civil War battle fields are being lost to development. VOA's Maura Farrelly reports on the fight to save one such battlefield in Spotsylvania County, Virginia.

Route 3 is a four-lane highway running west to east across Spotsylvania County. Every day, as many as 40,000 vehicles travel this road, on their way to Interstate 95, which takes commuters south, to the Virginia state capital of Richmond, or north to Washington, DC. Route 3 was built along the old Orange Turnpike, which was a narrow, dirt road in the 1860s, used by both Northern and Southern troops.

Looking over the four lanes of traffic, National Park Service historian John Hennessy says it was here that the Battle of Chancellorsville began in May of 1863. "The hard facts about Civil War battle fields and preserving them is that all of the roads that were made famous in battle reports in 1862 and 63 are today made famous in traffic reports. They have, most of them, many of them, become major commuter corridors," he says.

The Battle of Chancellorsville was one of the most decisive encounters in the Civil War. The Southern victory enabled General Robert E. Lee to move his army north, into Pennsylvania. There, the Battle of Gettysburg took place two months later, in July of 1863, and became the only major engagement on northern soil. More than 30,000 Americans were killed or wounded in the fighting at Chancellorsville.

And Jim Hennessy says that makes this hallowed ground that ought to be protected from commercial and residential development. "You know, right now we are having conversations in this nation about September 11, and what to do with that hallowed ground. And of course the families, the survivors, have a great deal to say about how that's treated," he says. "Well, 140 years later, of course, the direct families of the Civil War veterans, and the men who gave their lives on this ground aren't really around anymore. But the value of their passing and their sacrifice is no less to this nation than those of September 11.

Members of the U.S. Congress agree. In fact, Congress recognized the significance of the land around Route 3 long before September 11, in 1927, when it set aside more than 3,300 hectares to create the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Around 460,000 visitors come to the park each year. The area includes land to the South and West of Route 3, because that's where most of the fighting took place during the five-day Battle of Chancellorsville.

But north of the highway, where the skirmish began, the land is private property. It's a corn field that was recently sold to the Dogwood Development Group.

Company president Ray Smith wants Spotsylvania County officials to re-zone the farmland for so-called "mixed-use" development, so he can build nearly 2,000 homes there, along with several restaurants, hotels, offices, and stores. It's a type of development called a 'New Town Center,' and Mr. Smith says it's meant to counteract suburban sprawl. "We're going back to the way it used to be 200 years ago, and creating real communities, with pedestrian interconnectivity, and a mix of uses, so you can walk to the school, walk to the park, walk to the grocery story from where you live," he says. "But not the sprawl development across the landscape like peanut butter, that we've been doing in the United States in a very wasteful way for the last 50 years."

Ray Smith wants the New Town Center to be like the communities that existed in Spotsylvania County at the time of the Civil War. If his rezoning request is approved, he plans to build older style homes on about 300 hectares, and set aside an additional 12 hectares for a historical theme park.

But this is a proposal that's totally unacceptable to Jim Campi, of the National Civil War Preservation Trust. "What we're really opposed to is replacing genuine history, genuine battlefields with these, you know, fake, 19th century houses, with history theme parks. These kinds of things are fine, but not on battlefields," he says. "We shouldn't be destroying hallowed ground for things like this."

Jim Campi says there are other places in Spotsylvania County where Dogwood Development could build its new town, and because of that, a coalition of preservationist groups has launched a campaign to block the re-zoning effort. The group hopes that if they're successful, Dogwood Development will sell the land, since the company won't be able to build anything there. And the preservationists want to buy it.

But Ray Smith isn't selling yet. He says the location is perfect for the New Town Center, because it's near Route 3 and Interstate 95. And besides, he says, fighting took place everywhere in the region. "During the Civil War, more of the fighting took place in this country than any one place in the United States. There was the Battle of Chancellorsville, there was the Battle of the Wilderness, there was the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, the Battle of Salem Church, and just to the east of us, there were two other major battles," he says. "So there were at least six major battles that took place here over the four or five years that encompassed the Civil War. So there wasn't one foot of ground in this whole region that wasn't involved somehow in the Civil War."

That may be the case, but in 1993, a congressional commission identified those parts of Spotsylvania County where the most crucial fighting took place, and at least a third of the area Ray Smith wants to see re-zoned was classified as a crucial, or "core" fighting area.

A recent poll commissioned by the Coalition to Save Chancellorsville found that as many as two thirds of the county's residents may be opposed to the Dogwood Development Project, though it's unclear if they're concerned about protecting Civil War history, or preventing increased traffic.

In response to that survey, elected officials delayed a public hearing, until federal authorities could consider the possible historical and environmental impacts of the project, and make a recommendation to county officials. An economic impact study commissioned earlier by the county estimated the development could generate as much as $10 million in tax revenue each year, and Ray Smith expects that fact alone will prompt officials to approve his re-zoning request.