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Hearing showed strong support for preservation

By Staff | Jun 10, 2011

A public hearing held recently by the Jefferson County Commission about spending county money on the purchase of what is called the “cement mill” property drew about 40 citizens, capacity for the commission’s meeting room in Charles Town.

About 20 people (I included) spoke in favor of the effort. Only one person spoke against it. I talked with several people who did not speak and all of them said they supported the effort. A couple of years ago the commission voted to put $100,000 toward the effort. Now one of the five commissioners wants the county to back away from the deal and two others have indicated they are considering that position.

The state of West Virginia has contributed two grants of $100,000 each toward purchase of the property. These grants are from federal money distributed by the state Department of Transportation (DOT). The Civil War Preservation Trust has contributed $100,000. The owner is asking $400,000.

However, the appraisal for the property is $339,000. Will the owner agree to lower the price? If so, the Commission would not have to pay the full $100,000. The DOT’s approval of the appraisal does not mean that the purchase price cannot exceed $339,000. It just means that the state’s contribution may not exceed that figure.

Actually, the Commission would not have to pay the full $400,000 anyway. The Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association has committed $5,000 and I have committed at least $25,000 from the money provided for “community participation projects” (CPPs). All of that can count toward the required local “match.”

A certain amount of CPP money is assigned each year to each member of the legislature to allocate as he or she wishes. That money can go to just about anything as long as it isn’t used to pay salaries. In the past I have allocated it to parks, day care centers, historic preservation and myriad other local endeavors. No local entity gets an ongoing stream of money. Each year’s CPP money is allocated that year.

So, now we’re down to $70,000 for which the County Commission would be responsible even if the purchase price were to remain at $400,000 (which nobody expects). Also, the Save Historic Antietam Foundation indicated at the public hearing that it might be amenable to helping financially. The purpose of buying the property would be to hold it until it could be made part of either Antietam Battlefield National Historic Park or Harpers Ferry National Historic Park.

I worked very hard to get the two state DOT grants because I firmly believe that the site of the Battle of Shepherdstown must be preserved for posterity. The “cement mill” property is part, but not all, of the site of that historic Civil War battle.

When I spoke at the hearing I said I looked forward to the property someday being part of the Antietam park. I personally think that makes more sense than making it part of Harpers Ferry since Antietam is much closer. However, I would be quite happy to see it become part of Harpers Ferry as well. And Harpers Ferry makes some sense because that park isn’t just about the Civil War. The Harpers Ferry park also has industrial history as part of its mission, and the cement mills at the Shepherdstown Battlefield site are historic in their own right.

A few people seem to confuse the question of the cement mill property with that of the so-called “tobacco warehouse,” which is in the town of Shepherdstown (the cement mill is a mile downriver). These are entirely separate issues.

The National Park Service (NPS) is presently having a study done by a group of historians. That group will recommend to the NPS whether or not the property should be made part of the national park system and, if so, into which which park it should be incorporated. That recommendation is expected sometime this fall.

Technically, the deadline set by the West Virginia DOT for concluding this deal is July 1. The county commission had planned to vote on the question June 23. But DOT took several months longer than expected to analyze and approve the appraisal (as this is being written the paperwork had still not been put in the mail from Charleston). So DOT has told me that it will not hold Jefferson County to that July 1 deadline. The commission will have several months beyond July 1 to decide. That’s good, because we can await the NPS historians’ recommendation.

The one person who testified against preserving the Shepherdstown Battlefield site said that no tax money should go this sort of thing. Well, our tax money already goes to this sort of thing elsewhere in West Virginia.

The Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park, on the Greenbrier/Pocahontas county line, gets operating money of about $140,000 each year from the state treasury. Droop Mountain was a significant early battle of the Civil War in that it was a major reason the Confederacy gave up on trying to keep what was then western Virginia from federal hands. Otherwise the state of West Virginia most likely would not have been created.

But Shepherdstown, by “cementing” (pun intended) the Union victory at Antietam, also had much to do with enabling the founding of our state. That also helped President Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. And Shepherdstown was bloodier than Droop Mountain. In fact, Shepherdstown had more casualties than any other battle fought on the soil of what is now West Virginia. Our tax money should go to Droop Mountain but not to Shepherdstown? Please.

A few deniers still argue that nothing of consequence happened at the Battle of Shepherdstown. Indeed, when I was growing up in Charles Town in the 1950s and attending Shepherd University in the 1960s, nobody knew much about the Battle of Shepherdstown. Not until recently have folks begun to pay attention to Civil War historians (some of whom have been screaming at us for years that this site is very important).

I asked Dr. Mark Snell, director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University (and one of those historians who has been trying to get our attention) why Shepherdstown had been overlooked. His answer: “Simple. It happened the day after Antietam.” The 23,000 casualties in one day there put the entire nation into a state of collective shock.

It’s about time we remembered.