WASHINGTON – Comedy Central devotees may remember how lawyer, actor, economist and Silver Spring native Ben Stein protected his money on his game show, but Stein’s preservation efforts were not designed to bring laughs Tuesday morning.
Stein, an author as well as the star of “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” helped the Civil War Preservation Trust unveil its annual report of the 10 most endangered battlefields, including Maryland sites in the Circle Forts of Washington.
“These battlefields are sacred,” Stein said. “They’re not just beautiful, or important, they’re sacred.”
The Circle Forts of Washington, 68 bulwarks built to protect the capital from Confederate assault, made the trust’s most-endangered 10 list this year. Three of those sites — Battery Bailey, Fort Foote and the Fort Lincoln Cemetery — are in Maryland, said Benjamin Franklin Cooling, associate dean of academic programs at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces National Defense University.
At the start of the Civil War, Washington was not fortified like European capitals, Cooling said. The federal government erected the forts to successfully defend the city.
Visitors can still see the earthen structures at Battery Bailey in Chevy Chase and Fort Foote in Prince George’s County, but preservation funding is tight, Cooling said.
“Through the years, they’ve been neglected,” he said.
Stein helped draw attention to the problem of preserving these sites during a news conference Tuesday. His interest in the Civil War came naturally.
As a child in Silver Spring, Stein’s house was near former slave quarters and down the street from Montgomery Blair’s historic house on Colesville Road. Stein would find musket balls around town and noticed a mural of Confederate General Jubal Early hanging in a local restaurant.
These local reminders of America’s bloodiest war inspired Stein to preserve sites for future generations and, on Tuesday, to expound on stories of the Civil War.
On the way to Washington, General Early’s men raided Blair’s house and found a good-sized vat of alcohol, Stein recounted. The ensuing drunkenness put Early’s troops back a day and bought Union forces more time to defend the capital, he said.
“We all grew up knowing that,” he said, referring to his childhood community.
Silver Spring has developed nicely over the years, Stein said, but there is “a lot to be done” for Civil War preservation.
The trust fears that people will recognize fewer Civil War sites as commercial development and highways encroach on historic lands. A pizza restaurant stands where one general died in Franklin, Tenn., Stein said. In Gettysburg, Pa., there are plans to build a casino near the hallowed battlefield, an idea Stein called “bizarre.”
When we celebrate the fallen heroes of the Civil War, he said, we honor the American fighters of today in Iraq.
“The courage that was shown in that war was breathtaking,” he said. “We need that courage now more than ever.”
Despite the solemn tone of his remarks, Stein’s familiar wit came through more than once. For instance, he said Civil War figures built this nation and not magazine cover darlings “Nick and Jessica.”
Stein is no stranger to celebrity glitz, however. He attended Montgomery Blair High School with television anchor Connie Chung, investigative reporter Carl Bernstein and actress Goldie Hawn in the early 1960s, he said. He also attended Montgomery Hills Junior High School with actor Sylvester Stallone.
Stein’s own celebrity includes a long list of on-screen credits, including a teacher role in the 1980s cult classic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and as host of his Daytime Emmy Award-winning game show. He writes a regular column for American Spectator magazine.
Harriett Condon, of Middleburg, Va., was a member of Montgomery Blair High School’s Class of ’63 and watched Stein speak Tuesday. She said he hasn’t changed a bit.
“He was always a good wit,” she said. “He was just a good role model.”