Planning — April 2014

Historic Battlefields: Open Space Worth Fighting For

When it comes to this type of preservation, there's no time to waste.

By Philip Walker, AICP

Beginning when the first Europeans arrived during the 1500s and ending with the Indian wars of the late 1800s, this nation purposely and inadvertently created thousands of battlefields, and every state has them. Most are unprotected and inaccessible to the general public, but communities across the country are now learning that these untapped resources can provide tremendous benefits, including open space, environmental sustainability, heritage tourism, and economic development.

Many battlefields, however, are eventually lost to development. The Civil War Trust is the nation's largest nonprofit battlefield preservation organization and has helped to save more than 36,000 acres of battlefield lands in 20 different states. Its data on such spaces show the current situation:

  • Only about 20 percent of the actual land upon which the Civil War was fought has been preserved either by the Civil War Trust or by national, state, or local parks. The remainder is either unprotected or has already been lost.
  • At the current rates, our nation loses about one acre of Civil War battlefield grounds every hour.
  • The fate of much of the remaining unprotected land will be determined within the next five to 15 years, depending on its location.

The numbers are fuzzier for battlefields associated with wars such as the French and Indian, Revolutionary, 1812, and the various Native American conflicts, but available information suggests that those wars have lost an even greater percentage of their once existing battlefields, in part because of development pressures over time, especially in coastal regions. A 2007 National Park Service study of Revolutionary War and War of 1812 sites determined that, of the combined total of 243 battlefields identified, nearly 70 percent were located in urbanized areas and 141 were "lost or extremely fragmented."

The same study indicates that perhaps one-quarter of the identified "principal" sites (highest priority) associated with those two wars "will face injury or destruction in the next decade." Clearly, the need for battlefield protection is great, and the amount of time to act is brief.

Historian Bud Hall holds a photo of a sign announcing a proposed racetrack (successfully blocked by preservationists in the early 1990s) at the Brandy Station battlefield in Culpeper County, Virginia

Battlefields everywhere

One reason battlefields are so abundant is that a battlefield can be defined as any place where a military engagement occurred. Such an engagement might include the Civil War battle of Gettysburg, where more than 165,000 men fought, or it might include a small skirmish involving several dozen men.

The Civil War involved roughly 3.3 million combatants and resulted in about 10,500 military engagements, according to the federally appointed Civil War Advisory Commission's 1993 Report on the Nation's Civil War Battlefields. Of those engagements, only 384 (3.7 percent) were designated as "principal battles." They occurred in 25 states and the District of Columbia.

Perhaps even greater in number, though smaller in scale, were the battles between European settlers or U.S. citizens and Native Americans. According to the 1894 U.S. Bureau of the Census, "The Indian wars under the government of the United States have been more than 40 in number. They have cost the lives of about 19,000 white men, women and children, including those killed in individual combats, and the lives of about 30,000 Indians."

Why we should care

There are many advantages to a preserved battlefield — some of them the same as those derived from having any sort of open space. A preserved battlefield is good for the natural environment, it provides passive recreational opportunities, and the fiscal benefits of leaving land undeveloped typically outweigh many alterative land uses, such as residential development.

Because most planners are keenly aware of the arguments for saving open space, that topic needs no further elaboration here. However, the economic merits of battlefield preservation can go far beyond those associated with typical open spaces and are primarily tied to heritage tourism.

According to the Civil War Trust's 2012 report, Blue, Gray & Green: Economic & Tourism Benefits of Battlefield Preservation, preservation may have these benefits:

  • In five states (Missouri, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia), 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, in 2010.
  • At 20 Civil War sites from Gettysburg to Chickamauga surveyed between 2003 and 2005, out-of-town visitors added $11.7 million per year to local government tax revenues, and $21 million to state coffers.
  • Based on research in 2006, a typical family of four spent $1,000 during its battlefield visit.
  • In Virginia in 2008–2009, Civil War visitors stayed twice as long and spent twice as much as the average tourist.

In the report, Kevin Langston, the deputy commissioner for tourism at the Georgia Department of Economic Development, notes this: "What it boils down to is blue and gray makes green."

Best practices in preservation

With so many potential community benefits, and with so many opportunities across the national landscape, how should battlefield protection occur? One of the leading entities in the battlefield protection business is the National Park Service's American Battlefield Protection Program. According to the 2009 congressional act authorizing the ABPP, the program's purpose is to "assist citizens, public and private institutions, and governments at all levels in planning, interpreting, and protecting sites where historic battles were fought on American soil during the armed conflicts that shaped the growth and development of the United States."

The ABPP had a 2013 budget of $1.1 million to provide 24 grants to government entities and nonprofit battlefield "friends groups" in 15 states and territories to conduct studies, preservation plans, interpretation, and similar projects. These figures are typical of most years. Using an ABPP grant, the Civil War Trust recently prepared a "best practices" study for those attempting to preserve battlefields. That report includes a case study of the preservation experiences of four Civil War battlefields: Brandy Station and McDowell in Virginia, Mill Springs in Kentucky, and Spring Hill in Tennessee. Among the recommendations are the following preservation planning steps:

Studying the battle The first step is to understand the battle. Who were the opposing forces, how many were there, who led them, what triggered the engagement, when did it occur, what was the battle's outcome, and what impact did the outcome have on any associated military campaign and the overall war?

Planners can appreciate that military campaigns often followed key roads, rail lines, and rivers, and that engagements often occurred at the intersection of these transportation corridors because of their strategic importance. In cases where information is readily available, preservation planners need not do primary research. When that level of work is required, though, a good information source for Civil War battles are "ORs" — the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, which are firsthand accounts written by officers and sometimes accompanied by maps.

Defining and surveying the battlefield If necessary, the battlefield's geographic boundaries can be delineated using available maps — both historic and contemporary — and fieldwork. In some cases an existing National Register application will have achieved this step.

Physical landmarks are often important, including streams, roads, rail lines, and high points of topography where artillery may have been mounted. Battlefields typically have two subareas as well. Most important is the "core" battlefield, where actual combat occurred. The peripheral or "secondary" areas served as troop staging areas, encampments, and field hospitals, and they witnessed various troop movements associated with the battle.

An approach commonly employed for analyzing military terrain and understanding the anatomy of a battlefield is referred to by the acronym KOCOA: key or decisive terrain, obstacles, cover and concealment, observation and field of fire, and avenues of approach and withdrawal.

Setting priorities for land Battlefield preservation frequently involves sorting out land ownership since the land often belongs to multiple entities or individuals. A preservation plan aims to get protections in place so the land can be preserved, made accessible, and interpreted.

Because regulatory tools are limited — you cannot zone for "battlefield" — land acquisition and conservation easements are the most common protection tools. That means setting priorities, often by means of a point system, including the following:

  • SIGNIFICANCE How historically significant were the actions that occurred on the parcel with respect to the outcome of the battle, campaign, and war?
  • INTEGRITY To what extent has the landscape been altered since the time of the battle? Would the participants of the battle recognize this site today?
  • FEATURES Physical features enhance the interpretive value of the property. Streams, earthworks, surviving roads, road traces, rail lines, buildings, and historic monuments might be considered.
  • THREATS Battlefield lands can be degraded by land-use changes and development, new transportation corridors, and visual impediments such as cell towers. Is the current zoning sympathetic to preservation? Are utilities being extended into the area to support future development?
  • FEASIBILTY Preservation feasibility considers such issues as the willingness of an owner to preserve and maintain the site, the potential costs for acquisition or easements, and ongoing maintenance and management challenges once land is secured.

It should be noted that prioritizing parcels can sometimes backfire. If a particular parcel is identified as low priority, the land owner might use that finding as an excuse for moving forward with development.

Preservation strategies Fee-simple purchase is most commonly used to preserve battlefield lands, but conservation easements are fairly widespread as well. With a conservation easement, the land owners can continue to enjoy the land but not develop it. Conservation easements, and the corresponding state and federal income tax benefits for owners, are tied directly to area development pressures.

Easements on land at Virginia's Brandy Station Battlefield reduced the land value from about $5,000 an acre to $500 an acre now. In contrast, easements had little effect on land values at the McDowell Battlefield, located in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia's least populous county (Highland County), because of the weak development market.

As long-time battlefield preservationist Jack Ackerly says of McDowell's protection, "Most of the credit goes to God for making the McDowell Battlefield so inaccessible."

Interpretive plan Many people feel it is pointless to preserve a battlefield without making it accessible and telling its story. Interpretation is crucial to attracting visitors — and is therefore important if a battlefield is to reach its full economic and fiscal potential. An interpretive plan should determine what stories are told, and today's approaches need to go far beyond names and dates associated with purely military matters.

These days there is much greater focus on the common soldier as well as civilians, women, and African Americans — an approach that also broadens the market appeal of the battlefield. For example, in December 2013 the local friends group for the Brices Crossroads Battlefield in Baldwyn, Mississippi, developed a concept plan for a new battlefield tour stop to interpret the little-known but critical role played by the United States Colored Troops in that Civil War battle. (The Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance paid for the concept plan.)

In addition to offering stories, the interpretive plan for a battlefield should recommend the means for conveying those stories, such as interpretive centers and wayside exhibits, although interactive technology and telecommunications are playing an expanding role.

Broader implications

How does battlefield preservation relate to the broader context of city planning? A standalone battlefield preservation plan is just like any other issue-specific or area-specific plan. It is created, adopted, and implemented in a similar fashion. When communitywide comprehensive planning and zoning is conducted, existing battlefield lands should be factored in — so they can be protected to the extent that the local political climate and relevant land-use laws allow.

Many local governments are now treating battlefield lands more sympathetically because of a growing recognition of the lands' value in furthering multiple community objectives. The Culpeper County, Virginia, comprehensive plan once proposed industrial uses for much of the Brandy Station Battlefield area, scene of the largest cavalry engagement ever fought in North America, but the "green infrastructure" element of the county's 2010 comprehensive plan proposed land preservation.

The corresponding zoning for the area is agricultural (A-1), with a minimum parcel size of five acres; however, it is unlikely that more preservation-specific policies will be applied. Although Virginia passed legislation a few years ago to allow local governments to adopt transfer of development programs, TDR will probably not be used in Culpeper County anytime soon because it is complex to implement and local developers must be receptive to buying and selling development credits.

"We are a rural county with a planning staff of five," says John Egertson, AICP, the county's planning director. "The burden of administration of a TDR program, especially with the limitations imposed by the enabling legislation, would present significant challenges."

Still, if the policy, staffing, and development dynamics change in the future and preservation advocates push for TDR and related tools, it would certainly not be the first time a fight has occurred over those hallowed grounds.

Philip Walker is the principal of The Walker Collaborative, a planning firm based in Nashville, Tennessee. He has prepared numerous battlefield preservation plans and recently completed a "best practices" study for the Civil War Trust that was funded by the National Park Service's American Battlefields Protection Program.


Image: Historian Bud Hall holds a photo of a sign announcing a proposed racetrack (successfully blocked by preservationists in the early 1990s) at the Brandy Station battlefield in Culpeper County, Virginia. Photo courtesy Civil War Trust,

Report to Congress on the Historic Preservation of Revolutionary War and War of 1812 Sites in the United States:

Civil War Advisory Commission's 1993 Report on the Nation's Civil War Battlefields:

Civil War Trust: Blue, Gray & Green: Economic & Tourism Benefits of Battlefield Preservation, 2012:

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion: