Education, Preservation, Dedication
Civil War Trust President James Lighthizer has made saving endangered battlefields his life’s passion
What is the biggest threat to Civil War battlefield preservation right now?
No question about it, development—the real estate land development. That’s what we face. If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t have a problem.
What strategy are you using to overcome this threat?
We know where the battlefields that need our attention are; we have them mapped out. And the idea is to go after them when we can. We’re fairly proactive, but it’s hard because there’s so much that needs to be done.
Our strategy is to, first, know what land you want to go after; second, know who owns it; third, know who affects it—and by “affect it,” I mean the governmental entity—and, fourth, raise as much money as you can as fast as you can.
The Walmart and the Wilderness situation in which the Trust is currently engaged has been very contentious. How do you feel about that?
Walmart, in my opinion, has been very difficult to deal with. What they’re doing in the Wilderness is certainly not illegal; they’re acting within their rights. But for me, for a national corporation of their stature—which is significant—not to pay attention to American heritage—and in fact to be a part of damaging, diminishing and destroying that piece of the battlefield—is really unfortunate. You would think they would do better than that.
There are plenty of cases, however, where developers are willing to work with you. Give us examples of some of the individuals and corporations with whom you have a positive relationship?
We have many. I think of Tricord Homes, which is a regional development company in Spotsylvania County [Va.]—we’re absolute partners. We did a land deal together: They took the non-historic part, we took the historic part. We shared in the cost, worked hand-in-glove together.
There’s a developer down in Richmond by the name of Andy Shields, wonderful guy to work with; he’s in the planned development business—that’s how he makes his living—but he has a real sensitivity to history….And we’ve had other corporations we’ve dealt with that have been great. It just varies on the individual or corporation. We’ve dealt with Centex Homes, a national homebuilder, and had no problems with them. We’ve done deals together, and with a 15-minute conversation were able to work things out. It can be done. The Civil War Trust is not anti-growth: Our position is, this country is big enough where you can have and should have economic growth and real estate development and, at the same time, you can have historic preservation.
The perception is out there that Virginia sites get more attention than others.
There’s no question that Virginia gets more attention than other sites, simply because there were more major preservable fights there than at other sites. You can make a strong argument for parts of Georgia, but unfortunately so much of the land down there has been paved over already. In Virginia, it’s undeniable they had the majority of significant fights in the war, with Tennessee second, so we’ve put most of our resources in those two states.
Would you have ever guessed you’d have the kind of success you’ve had?
I never really thought about it when we started doing this in 1999, but if you were to tell me that at the end of 11 years we’d have north of 30,000 acres saved and would have raised and spent $180 million, I would have told you that you were as crazy as the dickens. I never would have guessed we’d be able to do what we have.
Of all the sites the CWPT has saved, what might be your most satisfying success?
It would be the two battlefields we saved substantially down in Richmond: Malvern Hill and Glendale. Malvern Hill is 90 percent saved, and Glendale 75 percent. When we started, hardly any of them were saved, and if not for us, they’d be gone by now. Same thing for the first day at Chancellorsville; same thing for the Slaughter Pen Farm [in Fredericksburg]. There are a lot of sites, and it’s tough to prioritize. But in the case of Glendale, to be in the process of saving a whole battlefield from nothing is a big deal.
The smaller endangered sites out there do tend to get overlooked: Pichacho Peak in Arizona, for example. That site was on your list of “most endangered Civil War sites” this year, but not too many people know about it.
We do strive for geographic diversity in protecting endangered sites. We obviously could do 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 sites in Virginia alone, but this is not the Virginia Civil War Preservation Group. Being on the list of the Top 10 most endangered sites does bring needed attention to these places, no question about it. And we’ll a lot of times put sites on a list to bring attention to someplace and something that nobody’s paying any attention to—and would never pay attention to us but for us putting it on the list.
The people who are in charge of these sites, that are trying so hard to save them, they say it’s the best thing that’s happened to them because it focuses attention on them, gives them instant credibility. These are not just a bunch of crazy local preservationists trying to preserve something that’s not that important. When it gets the national spotlight, people understand that it is important.
Will the November 2010 election results complicate the Trust’s efforts, or are the main people you deal with on Capitol Hill still there for you?
We’ve always been bipartisan and have worked really hard at it, so we’ve got friends on both sides of the aisle.
No expected complications, therefore?
You never know, but I don’t think so. We work well with both Republicans and Democrats. We’ve been in this business for 11 years. There have been a couple of changes [in Congress] since then. When we came in, it was Republican, then it went to the Democrats; now it’s back to Republican again, at least in the House. But we’ll work with everybody.
What prompted you personally to get involved with battlefield preservation?
I was doing it before I had this job, when I was [Maryland] Secretary of Transportation….I’ve always been interested in, and always had an affinity for saving land, whether it was agricultural land, whether it was environmentally sensitive land, whether it was land for parks or was land for battlefields and history.
CWPT has just released an i-Phone app. Has the feedback been positive so far? There are still people out there who don’t like it when battlefields use hi-tech devices like this to enhance their education mission. They prefer to keep learning the old-fashioned way.
And they’re probably my age and rode a horse to the battlefield, too. A car’s a hell of a lot better, especially now that it’s got air conditioning in it.
No, seriously. The answer is that we’re trying to make this product as broadly appealing as possible; the more people you can get involved with it, the better. The younger generation is more attuned to technology than the older generation, and the easier it can be to make people learn or help people learn, and appreciate and become interested in, is through the best devices known. Heck, they didn’t use to have electric lights in schoolhouses—they had coal lamps—and they didn’t have air conditioning. We air condition and heat those schools now….You don’t have to use the technology. Our first obligation and emphasis is, of course, saving the battlefield, so you can go there with technology or without technology. Be my guest.
Do you have a favorite battlefield?
My favorite battlefield is Antietam—has been for years and years and years and years. One of the reasons I like it, aside from its great history, is that it’s so well preserved, as is a lot of the area around it. It still has a ways to go, but that’s my favorite battlefield.
Is this something that predated your working here?
Actually, it did predate my working here.
Did you grow up near there?
No, I grew up in Ohio, but I’ve lived all my adult life in Maryland.
Do you still remember your first visit to Antietam?
Yeah, I’ve been there 50 times over the years; it’s my favorite haunt. A lot of people say Gettysburg. I like Gettysburg, but for me Antietam’s better. It’s less commercial. The town—Sharpsburg—is just different.
The Sesquicentennial is here. Will this be a good opportunity to get more attention for some of the things you’re trying to do?
Well, hopefully it’s a better time. The thinking is that we’ll have more interest, but to what degree I don’t really know. I’m not sure it’s going to be as much as people think, but there will be a higher interest, and hopefully we can take advantage of that to save some more land and preserve some more outdoor classrooms.