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Cedar Creek Battlefield: Ruined Forever?

A serious dispute between the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation and nearby Belle Grove Plantation broke out at a May 28 meeting of the Frederick County, Va., Board of Supervisors, where a 4-3 vote was taken to support the application by a Belgium mining conglomerate locally known as Chemstone to expand its mining operation in Middletown. That followed an April 23 public meeting before the same board where a coalition of citizens and organizations who were strongly opposed to the expansion testified. The CCBF representative surprised attendees by changing the CCBF stance of being opposed to the application to one of neutrality, leading some to believe their move swayed the supervisors’ vote.

In June word got out the foundation had secretly signed a private agreement with Chemstone in April, just prior to the meeting with supervisors. That led to the CCBF’s change in position at the April meeting.

Under that agreement, Chemstone will give the foundation a historically significant eight-acre tract and an adjacent parcel, maybe as large as 20 acres, after an archaeological survey has been completed. Chemstone will pay for the survey using experts selected by the foundation, and all artifacts found will be – come the property of the foundation. Chemstone also agreed to better screen its operations from the battlefield.

At the May meeting Chemstone told the supervisors that it had reduced the number of acres it wanted rezoned from about 640 to about 390. It also agreed to limit the number of truck trips to 86 a day.

CCBF Director Suzanne Chilson said, in part, “in summary, [we have] at all times acted honestly, responsibly and in a manner believed to be keeping with the Foundation’s mission statement….Our actions were intentionally designed to ensure that the preservation efforts of the past are enhanced, additional battlefield land is immediately secured, and strategies are implemented that will lead to future battlefield and artifact protection.”

The National Trust for Historic preservation, the owner of Belle Grove, announced its land would not be available for this year’s battle reenactment and that it was suspending its “relationship with the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation because of the Foundation’s sudden re versal on the mining issue….The Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation’s conduct has undermined generations of work to protect the historic plantation and battlefield and has strained the [national park’s] public-private partnership.”

Sunken Blockade Runner Found

Kate Dale carried Confederate cotton to Cuba and beyond, returning to Tampa with rum, medicine and food until Unionists burned the ship, owned by Tampa’s James McKay, on October 17, 1863. Now archaeologists working for the Florida Aquarium have discovered the vessel in the alligator-infested Hillsborough River. Aquarium spokesman Tom Wagner said there are no plans to move the ship.

McKay established an export-import business in Tampa around 1855. When war came he turned several schooners into blockade runners, Kate Dale among them. Imprisoned by Federals in October 1861, he was later released, perhaps after pledging to support the Union. Locals suspected his ships were often allowed to pass through the blockade in exchange for secret service to the North. Wagner commented, “I’d say James McKay fits the bill of a Rhett Butler, playing both sides of the field.”

Builders Lay Siege to ‘Freedom’s Fortress’

Fort Monroe has seen plenty of action in its 200-year existence, but in the aftermath of the U.S. Army’s closing its 570-acre base on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, another battle is shaping up. The opponents? Preservationists vs. local developers, eager to build on adjacent waterfront land.

The six-sided stone structure, surrounded by a moat, is one of four permanent forts in the South that were never taken by the Rebels during the war. Monroe was nicknamed “Freedom’s Fortess” after Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, then headquartered at the fort, announced that escaping slaves who reached Union lines there would not be returned to bondage. Several major operations were launched from the fortification, including the 1861 Battle of Big Bethel, the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 and the 1863 siege of Suffolk. It is also where former Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned for two years after the war; the cell he occupied is now part of the fort’s Casemate Museum.

Now the Fort Monroe Federal Area Development Authority is trying to determine the fate of the site and specify what, if any, development will take place after its transfer to the Commonwealth in 2011. A draft agreement divides the base into five zones with different rules governing demolition and construction, but allows for public commentary before the agreement becomes official. Meanwhile a local citizens’ group, Create Fort Monroe National Park, is pushing hard to preserve the site, which it calls “a national historic, cultural and recreational treasure.” The group claims the city of Hampton is mobilizing to lobby for massive development there. For more information, go to www.CreateFort

Gettysburg to Sell RR Depot

Gettysburg’s elected officials have decided to opt out of the museum business, voting to sell the town’s train station, home to a museum run by the National Trust for Historic Gettysburg for the past year, to the National Park Service.

The station was deeded to the borough a decade ago by the family of local businessman George Olinger, on the condition that it be restored and turned into a museum. But since its July 2007 opening, the site hasn’t attracted many visitors, prompting the borough to sell it. Some council members have worried that if it were sold to an individual it might be used to market trashy souvenirs, detracting from the station’s historic nature. Last June they voted to sell the depot to the NPS for a minimum price of $722,000, the amount invested in its restoration.

The Park Service has indicated it’s interested in the purchase, but the federal government must still get its own appraisal done of the structure’s market value. After that, Congress would have to vote to include it within Gettysburg National Military Park boundaries. That means the train station’s transfer to new owners could still be a long way down the line.

Davis in Granite and Bronze

A granite memorial bearing Jefferson Davis’ image was recently stolen. Originally placed at Vancouver, Ore., by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1939, the monument has disappeared before. According to Brent Jacobs, Oregon camp commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), “It kept ending up in a shed on a gravel road somewhere.” Finally the SCV built a park in Ridgefield, installing the monument. Only three weeks after its dedication in April, vandals again absconded with Davis, dumping it in a stream. Jacobs plans to reinstall the monument and light the area at night, to discourage vandals.

Meanwhile in Richmond, the SCV’s Virginia Division has commissioned a $100,000 sculpture of Davis—flanked by his son Joe and Jim Limber, a black orphan rescued by Varina Davis and her husband— for the American Civil War Museum at the Tredegar Iron Works. Created by Gary Casteel, the work is currently nearing completion.

But now museum officials are concerned that the Davis statue may stir controvery. After all, an Abraham Lincoln sculpture installed there five years ago started an uproar, since many locals said it had no place in Richmond. The SVC stresses the educational nature of Casteel’s work, since most people don’t know the Davises took Limber into their family, and believes it will provide a new tourist attraction during the Davis bicentennial. No decision by the museum is expected for some months.

A Risky Shell Game

Just because a shell is 147 years old, don’t assume it’s no longer dangerous. A Chester, Va., man might be alive today if he had heeded that warning, and a relic-hunter in Petersburg could have avoided big trouble.

Sam White’s longtime hobby was collecting Civil War artillery shells, and he was presumably a master at handling them. But this past February 18 he was killed while trying to disarm a cannonball in the driveway of his Chester home. The blast cratered his drive, also sending shrapnel through one neighbor’s house and prompting the evacuation of his neighborhood.

Following that tragic accident, tighter regulations regarding ordnance were implemented. When Timothy Cleary was seen prying a Hotchkiss shell out of the second floor of an empty Petersburg row house, Chesterfield County Police arrested him and seized the shell—which was later destroyed.


Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.