CWPT Agrees To Buy 49 Acres At Wilderness,
Must Raise Over $1 M

By Scott C. Boyd
(December 2010 Civil War News)

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Warren Middlebrook bought his Wilderness Battlefield land 53 years ago and didn’t want to see it developed. CWPT President James Lighthizer gave him this newly-signed copy of James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom.

ORANGE COUNTY, Va. – The Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) has a contract to buy “49 incredibly significant, historical acres” of the Wilderness Battlefield, and a lot of money to raise in a short time, CWPT President Jim Lighthizer told an Oct. 27 news conference.

“It’s the hole in the doughnut of this part of the Wilderness Campaign. It completes this part of the Wilderness Battlefield,” Lighthizer said. The tract “is part of historic Saunders Field, which is one of the most iconic landmarks in all of Virginia’s Civil War battlefields.”

The 49 acres, known by the owner’s name as the Middlebrook Tract, are on the northern side of Route 20. This is less than two miles from the intersection of Routes 20 and 3 where a controversial Wal-mart Supercenter, the subject of a lawsuit, is proposed to be built.

The purchase price is $1,085,000. CWPT cannot receive matching money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund because the land is inside the National Park Service (NPS) boundary for the battlefield, Lighthizer explained.

This means all of the money must come from private sources. A further difficulty is that CWPT must close on the deal by Dec. 31.

Some donors have stepped up already. Long-time member John Janson of Wisconsin donated $100,000, according to a CWPT news release.

Historian James McPherson, whom Lighthizer introduced as “the premier Civil War scholar in the U.S.,” put the battle into context.

“The Battle of the Wilderness is a contender for one of the most important turning points in the Civil War, because if it had come out differently or if General Grant had made a different decision after the two bitter, vicious days of fighting May 5 and 6, 1864, here in the Wilderness, the whole course of the Civil War might have gone differently, and maybe even the whole course of American history,” according to McPherson.

“Grant had promised President Abraham Lincoln that whatever happens, there will be no turning back, and now he was proving it,” McPherson said.

“The Wilderness set a pattern for the next 11 months. Whether a battle was a Union victory, a draw or a defeat, Grant would keep moving forward until he achieved final victory at Appomattox.”

McPherson said that if Grant had not pressed ahead “maybe the Confederacy would yet today 146 years later be its own separate, independent nation, and the United States of America would have continued to be the dis-United States of America.”

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park Superintendent Russ Smith said, “It was here in Saunders Field that Lt. John Henry Patterson [11th U.S. Infantry Regiment] was awarded the Medal of Honor for dragging a wounded officer to safety.”

Smith said the exact place is not known, “but it could be on the very land that we are embarking on preserving today.”

Lt. Patterson’s medal was displayed at the press conference, courtesy of the NPS.

During his tour of Saunders Field after the news conference, NPS  historian Frank O’Reilly said, “For one brief, white-heat moment, this field and those woods were the nexus of the American Civil War on May 5, 1864. This is where the Battle of the Wilderness begins, where the first shot that brings on this huge conflagration that consumes 30,000 people, begins.”

Property owner Warren Middlebrook was personally thanked by Lighthizer during the event. Besides the selling price, there was one more thing Middlebrook wanted.

Lighthizer handed a freshly-signed copy of McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Battle Cry of Freedom, to a beaming Middlebrook.

Middlebrook later said he bought the property in 1957. Being a widower without children, he explained why he agreed to sell to CWPT.

“I didn’t want to see it paved over. I’ve taken pretty good care of it for 53 years and I know they’ll do it from now on.” He has lifetime rights to continue to live on the property.

For more information about the tract, Wilderness Battlefield and CWPT’s fundraising go to www.civilwar.org