Private Treasures at Antietam

Jo Ann Frobouck is co-founder and former editor of Land Rights Letter, a national newsletter focusing on private property rights issues. She lived for six years in Sharpsburg, Maryland, near Antietam Battlefield, where she became interested in battlefield preservation issues. She currently lives in Middletown, Virginia.

The 1990 PBS documentary “The Civil War” stirred our emotions and sparked a renewed interest in the battlefields of the war. Newsweek noted that 14 million Americans—more than the entire population of the Confederacy—viewed the series, “rekindling old partisan passions” and raising questions about the meaning and memories of war. Literally overnight, legions of converts joined the ranks of preservationists answering the call to “save hallowed ground.”

Nowhere is this pressure felt more keenly than in Sharpsburg, Maryland, where 23,000 soldiers fell on September 17, 1862, making the Battle of Antietam the war’s bloodiest day. The creation of a national cemetery in 1867 at Sharpsburg, coupled with 1890 legislation establishing the Antietam National Battlefield Site, made Antietam a model for land-protection strategies. Long before PBS brought the war into our living rooms, Antietam was under the preservation microscope.

Since 1988, the National Park Service (NPS), working in concert with preservation organizations, has been developing a new general management plan at Antietam that will govern the management, use, and interpretation of park resources. The plan reviews changing land-use patterns to determine if they threaten the “integrity” (original character) of the battlefield. It calls for a public takeover of some privately held lands within Antietam’s 3,245-acre boundary to restore the historic scene and provide for tourist use of planned “interpretive plazas.”

The private landowners who have been Antietam’s faithful stewards, some for generations, are viewed by the NPS as impediments to the planned restoration. Their reward for preserving Antietam’s pristine setting, virtually unchanged since the Civil War, may be the loss of their land and their heritage—a heritage that goes back 200 years, long before the Civil War.

The NPS plan prescribes land-use sanctions for other tracts along the perimeter that provide a visual backdrop for the park. To preserve the view from a central point, forced scenic easements will prohibit the erection of new farm structures such as barns, sheds, and silos.

Some farmers may be subjected to public right-of-way easements across their land, jeopardizing farming operations. The NPS plan, by endorsing such sanctions and controls, would reduce the viability of farming—which it is supposed to protect.

In 1990, the Conservation Fund, a private land trust, quietly bought a working farm inside the park boundary. Even though the Park Service has eminent-domain authority to protect land within the park, the NPS urged the purchase to save “blood-spilled” ground from exploitation. With great pomp and circumstance, the land was donated to the federal government last year.

The land, which was not imperiled, will not be any more protected: The only thing that changed is the name on the deed. The American public becomes the caretaker, footing the bill for maintenance and management.

Many landowners in and around the park are descendants of the families who lived there at the time of the battle. These fourth and fifth generation farmers feel they know something about historic preservation.

 

The Kefauver Farm

Millard and Nancy Kefauver, who own and operate a 280-acre dairy farm inside the northern edge of the park, worry about pressure for Federal acquisition of private land. Since the day in 1978 when they were informed by registered letter that their land was inside an expanded park boundary, the Kefauvers have been living with uncertainty about their future.

This uncertainty is fueled by Park Service studies to determine where Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, nursed while at Antietam. The NPS has concluded that Barton used the Kefauver house as her headquarters, even though two other NPS studies concluded that she nursed at other farmhouses. The Kefauvers are certain the NPS picked the third study as a rationale for including their land in the expanded boundary.

The Kefauver farm has been in the family for four generations, since 1862. They have seen park superintendents come and go, as well as new management plans for the park, each time wondering if their land will be condemned.

While the Park Service claims that private lands are vulnerable, the Kefauvers—like many other farmers in the area—have preserved the agricultural and historical character of the region. Their incentive is pride of ownership and a unique heritage to pass on to their children.

Private stewardship has not gone entirely unnoticed at Antietam. Recognizing the pride of the people in their community and their resistance to the commercialism that characterizes many other battlefields, the National Trust for Historic Preservation paid tribute to local preservation efforts. A 1991 letter to residents concerned about public acquisition stated: “. . . we commend the stewardship that local landowners have demonstrated at Antietam and view continued farming operations as appropriate to the historic character of the battlefield and its vicinity.”

Perhaps the most ambitious plan put together by the NPS and preservationists to seize private land is called “Preserving Richmond’s Battlefields,” released in early 1991. The plan proposes “green-lining” (targeting for preservation) 250,000 acres on the outskirts of Richmond, 95 percent of which is privately owned.

In the works since 1987, the plan recommends designation of potential areas for NPS acquisition, and Federal review of construction plans on remaining private lands. Much like Antietam’s master plan, the Richmond plan would intensify tourist amenities through the construction of “heritage interpretive sites.”

 

Is Public Ownership the Solution?

Contrary to NPS rhetoric about the vulnerability of privately owned historic property, historic structures under the aegis of the NPS do not bear out that public ownership is the solution. At Antietam, the farmhouses under park management (many of which are on the National Register of Historic Places) are in such disrepair that they are literally falling into the historic ground upon which they sit.

A 1991 report of the National Parks and Conservation Association, a private foundation and NPS lobbyist, concluded that the NPS is unable to maintain and operate the facilities it already owns nationwide. The report, A Race Against Time: Five Threats That Endanger America’s National Parks and the Solutions to Avert Them, estimated a maintenance backlog of $2 billion and a major repairs backlog of $5 billion.

Despite maintenance backlogs and groaning Federal budgets, the NPS has appropriated $500,000 for still more land acquisition at Antietam this year. The funds will be used to purchase 93 acres of farmland, taking more private land off county tax rolls and putting the burden of its upkeep on the public. Year after year, this wasteful scenario is repeated, tearing away at the vestiges of privately owned land inside the battlefield. Before the ink dries on a newly acquired deed, plans are being laid to get the next piece of land.

Private landowners have been the uncelebrated protectors of Antietam’s rich history. They have preserved the region, so well, in fact, that historians call it a “time capsule” battlefield. When preservationists recognize the invaluable role of private owners, and seize upon the mutuality of their goals, the rural landscape that is an integral part of Antietam’s legacy will be preserved for the enjoyment and enrichment of future generations.