CW news: Ben Stein - Save what's left of scarred Civil War battlefields
- From The UsToday:
Mon Apr 8, 5:55 AM ET
Save what's left of scarred Civil War battlefields
How's this for an idea?
Let's take a sacred spot in American history, a place redolent of blood and glory, and let's make it into a Pizza Hut or a Domino's. Say we put up warehouses and car dealerships on a plot of land that has as much historical significance as Little Round Top at Gettysburg or the Sunken Road at Shiloh? Would that be a terrible idea?
Yet this is happening in Franklin, Tenn., a town just south of Nashville, where there's an amazing lack of understanding of what history and legacy are all about.
I wish I could say this is a rare example of lapsed battlefield preservation, but it is not. In Antietam, Md., site of the war's single-bloodiest fight, vital parts of the battlefield are still unprotected. In Manassas, Va., where Bull Run I and II took place, explosive suburban growth threatens the site. Outside Richmond, Va., at Cold Harbor, more sprawl threatens to obliterate a scene of a terrible siege. Everywhere battlefields are threatened by growth.
This is an insult to the bravery on both sides. Now, at least the preservation of the Franklin site -- where a battle of the war helped end slavery and shape U.S. greatness -- can still be rectified. Last week, the Williamson County Public Library Board held a meeting on the controversial proposal to move a new library onto a Civil War battlefield, without total resolution of the issue. But Williamson County and the Heritage Foundation of Franklin reportedly announced their support for moving the site, keeping the fight alive.
To understand what's in jeopardy, you have to know something about Franklin's history. Late in 1864, the Confederacy was on the ropes, and Gen. Robert E. Lee's army was penned up in Richmond. The mighty Mississippi was entirely in Union hands after the fall of Vicksburg the year before, and Gen. William T. Sherman's Union Army was marching savagely through Georgia.
In what was considered the western theater of operations, the Confederacy seized upon a bold gamble. Under the leadership of the severely wounded Gen. John Bell Hood, the Army of Tennessee marched up to capture Nashville, then hoped to march into Kentucky to disrupt Union supply lines, making Sherman withdraw from Georgia to fight them.
After a series of smaller battles, Hood's troops found themselves facing a retreating Union force under the command of Gen. John Schofield. The forces met in the town of Franklin, in a violent contest that rivaled for ferocity and loss anything Americans have ever seen in battle. The Union forces, though outnumbered, were well dug in and supported by artillery. The Confederates were short on artillery, starving, but led by some of their ablest generals, especially Gen. Patrick Cleburne, who had risen to become the so-called ''Stonewall Jackson of the West.''
In a council of war before the battle, all of the Confederate generals advised against a frontal attack. But Hood, his thinking perhaps distorted by pain medication, insisted on making the attack. The assault began the afternoon of Nov. 30, 1864. In just a few hours of fighting, about 4,500 Confederates were wounded and about 2,000 killed, including six generals, notably Cleburne, in front on the first charge.
The tenacious Union forces lost far fewer soldiers. The Confederates were left in control of the field, while Schofield withdrew to even stronger positions. The campaign ultimately was a catastrophe for the South, and led mightily to the Confederate surrender the following spring and, of course, to the freedom of the black man.
You might think that the hundreds of acres where a bloodbath of this magnitude took place would be a battlefield park or a memorial. But if you thought that, you would be wrong.
On the spot where Cleburne fell mortally wounded, there is a Pizza Hut. Across the street, where hordes of Confederates fell, is a Domino's. The fields where the rebels charged across are car repair shops, warehouses and factories. The scene of the most intense fighting is a small plot and the Carter House, where the Union Col. Emerson Opdycke's brigade made a heroic stand. The Carter House has been preserved, but it is a tiny sliver of a battlefield.
Through a series of thoughtless errors over 138 years, all that is saved about the battle is a small cemetery provided by a local family, a tiny but impressive museum, the Carter House, where the Confederate attack faltered, and an observation post outside of town. All else is suburban sprawl.
Very close to the Carter House is a private school, aptly called Battle Ground Academy, where heavy fighting took place. The school is moving, and the County of Williamson has bought the 12-acre school plot. But in an astoundingly mistaken plan, the county intends to build the library and a large asphalt parking lot on the sacred ground.
If respect for America, especially in this time of war, means anything, it means protecting and preserving the places where American heroism was put to the test and not found wanting.
When I toured Franklin a few days ago, I saw African-American children playing basketball and near them white children strolling home from school talking cheerily. Doesn't the site where a major battle took place that caused these two to live together as equals merit sacred status?
Local authorities can yet change their minds. They could allow the Battle Ground Academy to be a living library and memorial to a huge event. All it takes is consciousness of the need to preserve the great sites of this great nation and make sure generations hundreds of years hence can still see where blood was shed by the hundreds of gallons to make the America we treasure.
Ben Stein is a writer and host of Comedy Central's Win Ben Stein's Money. He also is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.