War is over, but preservation fight never ends

The 2014 Sesquicentennial observance of the Civil War in Georgia renewed people’s appreciation of the war and its significance to history today; so it’s now worth reflecting on the status of nearly 400 historic sites in the state identified with the conflict by the Georgia Civil War Commission. Most have no official protection, and many are now under growing pressure from development.

Georgia has four Civil War-related national parks: Chickamauga, Kennesaw Mountain, Andersonville and Fort Pulaski. State government protects about a dozen sites, including Pickett’s Mill in Paulding County. City and county governments protect another dozen or so, such as Fort Walker in Atlanta’s Grant Park, as well as the River Line in Cobb County and Nash Farm in Henry County. Finally, a few sites are protected by non-governmental organizations, such as the Atlanta History Center’s ownership of Gilgal Church battlefield in Cobb, and Georgia Battlefields Association’s preservation of a parcel near New Hope Church in Paulding.

This leaves over 350 sites in private hands. During the housing boom that lasted until 2008, earthworks and original terrain at many sites were damaged or destroyed. With the recent recovery of the housing market, sites are again threatened. This is especially true in the northwest Georgia corridor, where three significant campaigns occurred.

The significance of a site is no guarantee of its preservation. The 1993 National Civil War Sites Advisory Commission report characterized only two battles in Georgia as decisive: Chickamauga, a Confederate victory of September 1863 near Chattanooga; and Jonesboro, Aug. 31-Sept. 1, 1864, a Federal victory that led directly to the fall of Atlanta. The former is protected as a National Military Park, but Jonesboro has had no protection, and no semblance of this battlefield remains.

The battlefield at Resaca, on the other hand, provides a case study in cooperation among governments and private groups.

Resaca saw fighting May 13-15, 1864 as the first large battle of Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. After the war, the land was farmed, timbered and developed for houses. The greatest insult occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when I-75 was built through the battlefield. Still, readily identifiable earthworks remained. Some landowners protected the earthworks, some saw them as a nuisance, and some were unaware of their presence.

In 1998, battlefield preservation groups, both local and statewide, persuaded the state to negotiate to buy 1,200 acres of the Resaca battlefield west of I-75; but an individual with ready cash bought the land instead. In 2000, the state was able to buy 500 acres from the new landowner for slightly less than they were offering for 1,200 acres two years earlier; but plans for an access road, visitors’ center, markers, trails and other improvements fell victim to reduced state budgets during the recession that began in 2001.

When a renewed effort appeared ready to launch, another recession affected state funding beginning in late 2008. Not until 2012 did work get underway. The Resaca State Historic Site finally opened in 2014.

East of I-75, two other Resaca battlefield parcels were preserved separately. Friends of Resaca Battlefield, a local group, persuaded Gordon County to buy 60 acres containing the remnants of Fort Wayne, initially constructed by the Confederates in 1862, involved in the May 1864 battle, improved by Federal troops guarding the railroad through the summer of 1864, and involved in a stubborn defensive action in October 1864.

With the help of local volunteers, the county installed an access road and parking area, markers, walking trails and boardwalks to protect the earthworks. The Fort Wayne historic site opened to the public in June 2013.

Farther north, the Trust for Public Land bought 474 acres about to be foreclosed in late 2008. This land was the scene of heavy fighting on May 14-15, 1864 and contained a Confederate artillery position made famous when its four guns were captured and later removed under cover of darkness.

With the help of the American Battlefield Protection Program, Gordon County, Civil War Trust, Georgia Battlefields Association and Friends of Resaca, a conservation easement was put on this land in early 2011, and 51 acres — including the Confederate battery position — were bought outright in March 2012, to be protected as county property.

While Resaca provides an example of a sustained preservation effort that sometimes proceeded in fits and starts, other recent preservation victories include the purchase of 109 acres adjoining Chickamauga National Military Park, and 42 acres next to Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. We’ve also had partial victories by convincing developers to rework site plans to preserve earthworks, such as the unique Confederate forts that guarded the Chattahoochee River, though they are now surrounded by houses.

Why do we need to save these Civil War sites? First, we honor the sacrifice of people on both sides if we preserve the places where they camped and fought and died. In some cases, they are our direct ancestors; but in all cases, they helped shape the nation in which we live.

Second, the jobs that historic sites create don’t get exported. The park ranger and the maintenance crew normally live nearby, and visitors interested in history tend to stay longer and spend more than the average tourists. Third, we understand better what happened at a place if we can see why a certain hill was important, or why a steep-banked creek was such an obstacle.

Finally, these sites help make a better citizenry. If these sites — these learning tools — help us understand the greatest crisis in our nation’s history, we’ll be better prepared to help the country cope with the lesser challenges that always arise.

Charlie Crawford is president of Georgia Battlefields Association, a private, non-profit organization that helps preserve Georgia’s Civil War sites by raising public awareness as well as acquiring land. For a list of Civil War battlefields in metro Atlanta, go to: http://on-ajc.com/14umPCl

View the AJC’s coverage of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in Georgia: http://www.myajc.com/s/battleofatlanta