WASHINGTON – Benjamin Cooling has paced the streets of downtown Silver Spring, searching for the spot where Confederate troops torched Union Postmaster General Frances Blair’s estate before marching to Fort Stevens to fight a decisive Civil War battle.
But Cooling had only his knowledge of history to guide him to the now-mythic spot: No signposts stand as a memorial of the action, he said.
Now, the professor of military strategy at the National Defense University in Washington wants to make sure the same fate does not befall South Mountain, a Maryland battlefield identified Tuesday by the Civil War Preservation Trust as one of the nation’s 10 most-endangered battlefields.
The trust said South Mountain, particularly the eastern side near Burkittsville, has become a “bedroom community” for Washington commuters. That makes the area a hotspot for development, and key portions of the mountain are not protected.
South Mountain, straddling Washington and Frederick counties, was home to three Civil War battles, but might vanish unless federal and state governments step up preservation efforts, the trust said.
Although it said Maryland has generally done “a laudable job” preserving acreage at Antietam, Monocacy, Turner’s Gap and even portions of South Mountain, much is left to be done.
Army Col. Don Harrington, who grew up in Silver Spring, had some of his most formative childhood experiences during trips with his father to battlefield sites. The trips filled him with an intense patriotism that inspired him to join the Army.
But Harrington worries that, without historical preservation, his two sons might not feel so strongly.
“They might not have the same benefit of walking those fields and won’t get the same sense of sacrifice,” he said.
Cooling, who spoke Tuesday, said that sense has already been lost at the Silver Spring site he scouted.
Most people do not know about the fire at Blair’s estate and do not notice the tiny Battleground National Cemetery nearby at Fort Stevens in Washington, where 41 Union soldiers who died during the battle are buried.
“It’s gone,” he said.
Cooling calls battlefields “outdoor classrooms” that give visitors a spiritual connection to the land and a sense of national identity that cannot be felt by consulting history books, photographs or the Internet.
“You can stand where Lincoln stood (at Fort Stevens), but you cannot gain any perspective staring across a sea of apartment houses and dwellings, commercial enterprises and a crisscross of residential streets, walkways and major traffic snarls,” he said.
Cooling wants to be sure that the battles at South Mountain and other endangered sites throughout the country remain in the public memory for good. The only way to do that is through preservation, he said.
But not enough is being done to preserve the past, according to the trust.
A congressional survey of Civil War sites in 1993 found that 384 important battlefields were in danger of disappearing. By the time Congress issued a report on its survey, 20 percent of those battlefields were gone, said trust President James Lighthizer, in a prepared statement.
Each year, 4 to 5 percent of that land, or as much as 10,000 acres, is lost. By contrast, the trust manages to save about 1 percent per year, or 3,000 acres at most, Lighthizer said.
Since 1987, the trust has saved more than 18,000 acres at 87 battlefields across the country with private donations, state and federal grants and conservation easements, which permanently transfer portions of land from an owner to a preservation trust.
The reasons for preserving the battlefields are not just emotional, Harrington said: He got military training at Antietam and Gettysburg, among other Civil War battlefields where the military often brings soldiers for leadership and combat exercises. The tradition gives troops the chance to put themselves in historical situations and decide what they would have done in similar circumstances.
“We walk on the shoulders of the past, you know,” Harrington said.
Jay Winik, who wrote the best-selling “April 1865: The Month That Saved America,” spoke Tuesday about Americans’ fascination with military history.
“People are hungering to know who we are and how we got here,” he said. Nothing can satisfy that hunger like a visit to a battlefield, Winik said.
“It’s a living breathing monument that speaks to us, that sings to us, that helps us understand,” he said.
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