Civil War Sites Advisory Commission Report
National Park Service

Which are the Nation's Principal Civil War Battlefields?

Civil War battles tended to be fought in proximity to major transportation routes and intersections whether rail, road, or water. To a significant degree, today's pattern of surface transportation routes and associated communities follows that same mid-19th Century pattern. As a result, present-day population and community expansion often are channeled toward the same, formerly unaffected, rural landscapes that were the sites of Civil War battlefields for the past 130 years.

The recent review by The Conservation Fund of approximately 130 battlefields dramatically demonstrated first, that important sites are unprotected and disappearing, and second, that there are many important sites still to be protected beyond the relatively few in public ownership.

Unanswered, however, was the question of how many more important battlefields there might be. If the nation addressed the latest list of 130, would there then be a following list of more? Just what is the universe of American Civil War battlefields worthy of protection?

The Commission's research has attempted to identify all of the principal Civil War battlefields, evaluate their importance and condition, and determine if they face any threats to preservation. Finally, after evaluating these characteristics the Commission recommends the relative preservation priorities among these principal battlefields. Through this means, the policy debates may proceed knowing the full scope of the nation's battlefield preservation needs.

How Many Sites Are There?

There were about 10,500 Civil War armed conflicts, ranging from major battles to minor skirmishes. Using military significance criteria, the Commission identified 384 such conflicts, or 3.7 percent of the total. These sites encompass virtually all of the principal land battles that were of special strategic, tactical, or thematic importance to local operations, campaigns, theaters, or to the war as a whole.

The Commission was asked not to include the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in its study, because this would duplicate a separate National Park Service study. The Commission has included the Service's data on Shenandoah sites, however, to ensure a complete national inventory of principal battle sites.

The more than 10,000 conflict sites excluded from our inventory were relatively unimportant as individual military actions. These conflicts were the venues and actions that implemented the war between and beyond the dramatic major engagements. These sites often are important to local history and many may well be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

The 384 battles in the Commission's inventory represent all of the primary military campaigns and operations of the Civil War. Documentary research and field inspections were carried out to determine the significance of each battle, whether its site still exists, its current condition, and other circumstances. These sites are recommended as the appropriate focus of nationwide interest.

The Commission has striven to use an evaluation approach consistent with that of the only uniform nationwide historic site evaluation system, the National Register of Historic Places. National Register evaluation can deal with a much broader scope of historical significance than just military issues. The Register also includes historic properties that are significant at the state or local levels; national significance is not a requirement. Our evaluation of battlefields deals only with military significance and does not limit the potential for a site to be significant in additional thematic areas, or preclude the battlefields with less than national significance from National Register eligibility.

After the Commission's work has concluded, the inventory and other data will be maintained and further enhanced by the National Park Service's American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP). Like the National Register, ABPP will review against established criteria any appeals for reclassification of specific sites. The important matter is not whether there are differences of opinion about a battlefield -- these can be resolved. The important thing is that there now is an up-to-date overview of the "big picture" for the principal Civil War battlefields (Table 1).

How Significant Are the Sites?

The Commission ranked military importance of the 384 battles (and their associated battlefield sites) according to the relative influence each had on the outcome of its operation, campaign, or on the war. The Class A and B battlefields represent the principal strategic operations of the war. The Class C and D battlefields usually represent operations with limited tactical objectives of enforcement and occupation.

Because of their strategic character and national significance, the Class A and B sites should be an interest or responsibility of the Federal as well as state and local governments, non- profits, and other private entities. Generally, the Class C and D battlefields, representing tactical operations, were of state or local significance and should be a primary interest or responsibility of state or local governments, or of private entities.

In addition, Civil War battlefields possess important educational and interpretive dimensions that also contribute to their significance. Therefore, the Commission also classified the battlefields in terms of related areas of military, economic, and social significance and the exceptional interpretive potential that each site might have. The most frequently identified issues and topics were:

Where Are the Sites?

Many believe that Civil War sites are primarily found in the middle Atlantic and southeastern United States. In fact, the 384 battlefields are found in 25 states and the District of Columbia (Table 2). Nearly one-third of the inventory's battlefields (123) are in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The next greatest numbers of battlefields are in Tennessee (38), Missouri (29), Georgia (28), Louisiana (23), North Carolina (20), Arkansas (17), and Mississippi (16). The remaining 90 sites occur in 18 other states.

Major Civil War battlefields are not literally everywhere. Even in Virginia, which contains the largest number of principal battlefield sites, only one-third of the county-level jurisdic- tions hold any of the major Civil War battlefields. Despite this, major concentrations of sites do exist, like the 26 battlefields clustered near Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia. Similarly, Charleston County, South Carolina, contains 11 battlefields.

What Was Considered a Site?

Battlefields were documented by the Commission at two levels based on careful examination of official records and other sources as well as using established survey and evaluation criteria these levels are the Study Area and Core Area.

This distinction of study and core areas is important when planning a protection and preservation plan especially for the Class B, C, and D sites. The core area is generally the part that should remain undisturbed, with less stringent and more diverse protection techniques usually appropriate for the remainder of the study area.

How Large are the Sites?

Civil War battlefields typically encompass large historic landscapes. The average size of all battlefield study areas in the Commission inventory is approximately 4,200 acres, ranging from 247 acres at Barbourville to 34,674 acres at Chickamauga.

Who Owns the Sites?

Commission representatives were able to determine types of ownership on all but 17 (four percent) of the 384 battlefields.

What is the Condition of the Sites?

There are 235 battlefields (61 percent) remaining in good or fair condition. Nineteen percent (71) of the battlefields are lost as coherent landscapes; they have changed beyond the ability of a participant in the battle to recognize the site. An additional 17 percent (64) of the battlefields are in poor condition, meaning they have been significantly modified and very little additional change will eliminate an authentic perception of a battle's setting. Sixty-one percent (235) of the principal battlefields remain in fair or good condition. Virginia, Tennessee, and Missouri have suffered the greatest losses (15, 14, and 8 battlefields, respectively). Thirteen other states have lost 1 or more battlefields (Table 2).

While some "lost" battlefields are truly obliterated (Chantilly, for example), important remnants of others still exist, such as at Nashville, Beaverdam Creek, and New Berne. Although poor and lost condition sites as a whole have become highly fragmented and to varying degrees no longer convey an authentic sense of the sweep and setting of the battle, they often retain important areas suitable for interpretation, museums, and commemoration.

This distinction is important. While its mandate emphasizes the need for preserving sites that still convey the full nature of important battles, the Commission does not wish to downplay or undercut the importance of local preservation efforts at poor condition or lost battlefields where worthwhile elements and features remain. Although parts of the battlefields at Nashville have been overtaken by urban development, important battlefield fragments still exist that can be used to tell the dramatic story of Hood's Middle Tennessee Campaign. Exceptionally worthwhile efforts are underway there by private groups and local government to protect Fort Negley and Shy's Hill as well as to develop interpretive programs and a heritage trail. Important local campaigns also are underway to save surviving elements of Beaverdam Creek, 1st Winchester, and Fort Fisher.

Protection of some poor condition or lost sites may be justified in conjunction with other community land preservation objectives such as parks, forests, wetlands, recreation areas, and other uses. In some cases, the best course of action may be to invest in detailed archeological and structural documentation of remaining battlefield features before they are completely lost.

How Many Battlefields are Threatened?

Subtracting the 71 lost and 16 sites for which threats estimates are not available, 54 percent (161) of the remaining 299 battlefields in all integrity categories are currently experiencing moderate to high levels of threat. These battlefields are expected to suffer substantial losses within the next ten years, many of them very soon (Table 1). Such a magnitude is independently reflected by the fact that a similar number of battlefields is located in U.S. Bureau of the Census Metropolitan Statistical Areas. The Commission's condition and threat evaluations are based on current circumstances; any of these conditions could turn from good to bad at any time.

By far the most common threats to Civil War battlefields are from roads and from residential and commercial development. Other impact sources were found, however, including dam construction (Fort Henry), dredging (Drewry's Bluff), quarrying (Malvern Hill, Fort Fisher), toxic waste disposal (Stones River), and water and air pollution (Wilson's Creek and Port Hudson).

Battlefield site impacts from residential or commercial construction are well-known and generally obvious. Less obvious to the public, perhaps because they are usually at or near ground level, are impacts from roads. Although the significance of a roadway as a visual detriment depends on topographic factors, high volume roadways through battlefields create a surprisingly intrusive noise disturbance as well as hazards and inconvenience for visitors. They also can constitute major distractions from the historic setting, and they divide historic sites into artificial segments.

Continuing moderate use of historic roads on battlefields can be appropriate to an authentic setting. However, allowing or expanding such roads to carry high volumes of traffic (as at Manassas and Kennesaw), or constructing interstate highways through historic battlefields (as in the Shenandoah Valley) causes major degradation of integrity, and often desecration as well.

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Creation Date: 3/14/95

Last Update 7/9/96 by TGossett