Sacred Ground

by Steve Meserve on November 7, 2007 · 0 comments

I spent last weekend driving over a good bit of Warren, Loudoun, Fairfax and Fauquier counties with a tour group from Michigan. We were visiting Mosby sites, from the Oakham Farm, where Mosby’s partisan career started, to Salem (Marshall), where he disbanded the command rather than surrender it to the enemy. We did walking tours of Fairfax, Middleburg and Warrenton, and paid our respects to the colonel and a number of his men in several cemeteries along the way. It was a long two days of touring; and we had a busload of tired, but happy participants by the time we got back to the Shenandoah Valley for the farewell meal at the historic Hotel Strasburg.

Every time a tour like this ends, I feel a little letdown, partly because it takes several weeks of preparation and route planning to put one together, but even more because of what I see on each new trip. I see the Loudoun sites often because I live in Loudoun County and give frequent tours of local historic sites for the County Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services; but I do not go as often to the more distant places. Every time I do, I find the suburban sprawl has taken a few more of them away or altered their appearance to an extent that describing how they looked during the war is increasingly difficult. Each new shopping center, housing development and highway interchange causes me actual pain.

I am pragmatic enough to know we can’t save all our historic sites. Let’s face it: all of Northern Virginia is one vast historic site. In a way, I envy the people of Adams County and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Gettysburg battlefield is a well-defined, relatively compact place. When someone wants to build a casino within commuting distance of the battlefield, tens of thousands of protests arise from all over the country to prevent it. When someone decides to level hillsides and build a shopping center atop Mosby’s Anker’s Shop battlefield, few people even notice. Of course, thousands of men died, and thousands more were wounded at Gettysburg, while fewer than a dozen died at Anker’s Shop. History books are filled with tales of Gettysburg while most skirmishes rarely rate a footnote.

Does it really make a difference how many men died on a given piece of real estate? Historians throw statistics around too casually: “15,000 dead; 20,000 wounded;” or “650 dead; 1,300 wounded.” Hearing such large numbers, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that every one of those men was someone’s husband, father, brother or son. Families suffered just as much whether their lost loved one was 1 of 15,000 or 1 of only 15 killed in a given action. If it had been your father, son, husband or brother killed at Anker’s Shop, February 22, 1864 would be a more important date to you than July 3, 1863. The family of Maj. J. Sewell Reed mourned him no less than did the family of Lewis Armistead. The places they died are sacred ground, made so by the blood of men who died fighting for a cause in which they believed whether they wore the blue or the gray.

I will continue to take tour groups to both large and small battle sites; but when I have my choice, I will take them to the places that have no monuments and no interpretive signage, and where commuters whiz by at the rate of thousands a day, never knowing the names of the boys whose blood once stained the sacred soil.

I will continue to lead the tours as long as the Good Lord lets me do so, but I will also continue to mourn every sacred inch of soil lost in the name of progress.

Steve Meserve

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