Battlefield preservation is never far from the mind of the dedicated Civil War student, but it usually takes on an entirely new sense of tangibility—and urgency—when you find yourself standing on endangered ground. It certainly did for me last November as I enjoyed a relatively rare opportunity to walk across the Pierson tract at Fredericksburg, Virginia—better known to history as the Slaughter Pen Farm. As usual, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park historian Frank O’Reilly was doing a masterful job of re-creating the chaos of combat that swirled through this area on December 13, 1862—which resulted in close to 5,000 casualties in a few hours’ time. But the words that hit me the hardest that day came when O’Reilly observed that we might be one of the last groups to ever be able to walk that ground in its unspoiled state.
It was then I learned that John Pierson, the former owner of the property, had died in August—and that members of his family were already talking seriously about selling the 205-acre tract to developers in what is one of the most rapidly expanding areas of the state, if not the country. On top of the broader development pressures that Fredericksburg faces, the property sits in a prime location, with a major road, U.S. Route 2 (the Bowling Green Road during the war), running along one of its borders, major railroad access nearby and even a local airport next-door. All this meant it was going to be highly attractive to commercial developers, which obviously meant the asking price was going to be steep. It didn’t take long for the inevitable to materialize—by last December, the bar had been set at an eye-popping $12.3 million, or $60,000 an acre.
But it also didn’t take long for preservation groups to rally to the cause, led by the Civil War Preservation Trust and the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust. James Lighthizer, president of CWPT, puts this project in perspective: “This is the most ambitious nonprofit battlefield acquisition in American history. The veterans themselves referred to the farm as ‘the slaughter pen’ because of the enormous amount of blood that was shed there. Despite the price tag, we simply could not sit idly by and watch this irreplaceable battleground become an industrial park. We will raise the money needed to save this historic treasure—because we must.” CVBT’s president, Mike Stevens, points out that “this is our last chance to save an irreplaceable portion of the Fredericksburg battlefield. Standing on that last unblemished landscape, where so many men gave their lives on a cold winter day, it is clear that such sacrifice and valor must be preserved to inspire future generations.”
Both men describe the Slaughter Pen Farm as irreplaceable for good reason. The fighting in this sector may not enjoy the same fame as that which took place farther to the north in front of Marye’s Heights, but its role in the outcome of the battle—an overwhelming Confederate victory—was all the more important. A vigorous artillery barrage on the morning of the 13th preceded an attack on Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s lines by two Federal divisions under Brig. Gen. John Gibbon and Maj. Gen. George Meade. Both were initially successful— and brought the Army of the Potomac as close as it would come to victory at Fredericksburg. Meade’s men temporarily broke through on the left, while on the right Gibbon’s men engaged in bloody fighting with Confederates from Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Division along the railroad cut (the southwestern edge of the farm today). Confederate counterattacks ultimately drove both Union divisions back. A spirited pursuit of the retreating Federals by Georgians of Colonel E.N. Atkinson’s Brigade ran headlong into Brig. Gen. John Robinson’s brigade and other III Corps elements, igniting the vicious close range fighting that gave the Slaughter Pen its name. By the time the dust settled, the opposing sides had inflicted more than 9,000 casualties on one another on the southern part of the battlefield—more than half of which occurred on what is now the Slaughter Pen Farm. O’Reilly describes this sector as “the very heart and soul of the Fredericksburg battlefield,” adding, “This is the point where the battle was won and lost.” In his mind, this fighting “can rightfully be called the true Battle of Fredericksburg.”
The farm is vitally important to the Fredericksburg battlefield even beyond the significance of the fighting there. It provides opportunities that don’t exist elsewhere in the area—such as the ability to follow a major Union attack from beginning to end without being disrupted by modern intrusions. Anyone who has looked out across the farm’s wide expanse of open ground knows what a devastating impact commercial development would have on sightlines, tactical conceptualizations and the simple aesthetic beauty of the park. This is one of the few areas of Fredericksburg battleground—and undoubtedly the largest— that still has a look and feel similar to what it had during the war.
A few short months after the highly discouraging news that the property had gone on the market for $12.3 million came the highly encouraging news that CWPT and Tricord Inc., a local development company that has played a significant role in past preservation efforts, had reached an agreement with the sellers that would take the property off the market and move the process of purchasing it forward. The farm would eventually be turned over to CWPT to be preserved in its entirety, and ultimately may be granted to the National Park Service.
Despite the tremendous effort that raising the necessary funding for this project will require, Lighthizer remains optimistic. “We anticipate an unprecedented response for this fundraising effort from our members and all those who care about this great nation,” he says. Federal, state and local governments will be asked to provide matching grants, but much of the success of the campaign hinges on private sector donations from other conservation groups, corporations and, most important, members of CWPT and the Civil War community.
That, of course, is where we come in. I ask you to join me in contributing whatever you can to this project so that the strength in numbers theory can be applied once again to a vitally important cause. The knowledge that the Slaughter Pen Farm will not only remain protected but also that the opportunity to walk its hallowed ground may eventually be available to all of Fredericksburg’s visitors is immensely satisfying—and a battle worth winning no matter the cost.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.