The New Battle of Wilsonís Creek

Battlefield prepares for the future

By: Matt Lemmon, Nixa News-Enterprise

NIXA--The late-August haze is thick over Wilson's Creek as the American soldiers make their way to a group of rocks. They sit, sip water and talk about the battle that unfolded on these grounds, and what could have been done differently.
But these aren't Civil War re-enactors, they're modern U.S. military men and women, dressed in crisp camouflage fatigues.

They're part of a Field Day program that brings trainees from Fort Leonard Wood to the battlefield to study strategy and troop movement.

It's merely one example of people learning from land that holds the blood of thousands of their countrymen. But like a column of enemy forces, rooflines are approaching Wilson's Creek. The 2,200-home Terrell Creek development that has been proposed for annexation into Republic would, under its current configuration, share a boundary with the battlefield.

Like Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, Terrell Creek would straddle the Greene-Christian county lines, and an often-bitter public outcry has erupted from many who love the battlefield or live nearby. Though annexation into Republic would mean Terrell Creek would operate on municipal sewer and water service, the traffic and overall urbanization the development would bring would irreparably alter the park's atmosphere. And though Terrell Creek is the most immediate threat, it's not the only one.

Wilson's Creek Superintendent Ted Hillmer said it's time to be worried about our nation's historical resources. "The city is coming to a park near you-and its here," Hillmer said. Fortunately, the battlefield has its own regiment of activists ready to fight for its preservation. Numerous programs are in place to not only enhance the historical integrity of the ground, but provide a buffer zone of green space between it and the inevitable rooflines.
Hillmer points to the Fort Leonard Wood trainees as examples of the park's lasting influence."It still teaches people, and they use that in their daily lives," Hillmer said. "History is very important-you have to know where you're going."

A 'Win-Win' Opportunity

The furor over Terrell Creek, accompanied by the rapid growth of nearby towns of Republic, Battlefield and Springfield, has landed Wilson's Creek on the list of America's Most Endangered Battlefields. The annual report, presented by the Civil War Preservation Trust, compiles the list based on geographic location, military significance and the immediacy of the current threats. Hillmer said Wilson's Creek has been included in years past on a secondary list, but never in the Trust's top ten. Hillmer said the designation was not something the park wanted, but it does raise the park's awareness level throughout the nation. Other battlefields on the list include Chancellorsville, Va., Fort Donelson, Tenn., and Franklin, Tenn.
In its report, the Civil War Trust calls Wilson's Creek "one of the jewels of the National Park Service," with nearly 75 percent of the battleground protected from development.

In the summer of 2003, the park completed its Final General Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement. Hillmer said the 20-year document is a comprehensive list of what the park would like to do.
"We don't want to wake up in 20 years and find we're playing catch-up," Hillmer said. The plan includes a boundary assessment, which identifies six parcels of land surrounding the battlefield as vital to the history and operations of the park. According to the Arizona Desert Act, park boundary adjustments may be recommended:

* to protect significant resources and values, or to enhance opportunities for public enjoyment related to park purposes

* to address operational and management issues, such as the need for access or the need for boundaries to correspond to logical boundary delineations such as topographic or other natural features or roads

* to otherwise protect park resources that are critical to fulfilling park purposes.

The park is currently seeking to add these parcels to their boundaries, though Wilson's Creek doesn't have the resources to purchase or maintain the land. As a compromise, the battlefield has entered the federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program with the Department of Agriculture, which would allow the owners of those historic parcels to sell the development rights to the property. In return for cash, the owners would be allowed to farm or graze livestock on those areas, but not build. The result: ensured greenspace for the battlefield, cash for the owner and, since the land stays on the tax rolls, no lost revenue for the government.
"With this we create a win-win opportunity," Hillmer said.
One 102-acre tract in Christian County has already been incorporated into the park's boundaries.
"We have a great start, and other people have come to us," Hillmer said.
A $408,000 FRPP grant, appropriated by the U.S. Congress with the help of local legislators, partially funds the program.

April McDonough, executive director for the Wilson's Creek Battlefield Foundation, said the group picked up a portion of the cost for the land, and may help with more in the future, adding that only willing landowners are made a part of the program. In a show of federal support, Wilson's Creek was chosen on Wednesday, Aug. 28, to host Deputy Secretary of the Interior Steven Griles on Founder's Day, which celebrates the birth of the National Parks System. After speaking to Republic city officials and Wilson's Creek supporters, Griles toured the battlefield. He said the department was working on reducing the maintenance backlog at the nation's parks, including water and sewer improvements. He also heralded such projects as the Ozark Greenways. "It's an example of local and state planning, not from the top down, but from the bottom up," Griles said. "They are local decisions that we can support and be a part of." He said he loves visiting Civil War battlefields, and even grew up near one in his home state of Virginia. "This type of park is important to me and the entire country," Griles said. "The Civil War is a unique period in history; we changed from a group of states to what we are today-the greatest country in the world." 'Meat on the Bones of History'
Additional legislation, still working its way through committees in Washington, would allow for the purchase of the General Sweeny Civil War Museum at the north edge of the park.

The museum is owned by Dr. Tom Sweeny, a longtime Springfield physician and lifelong Civil War aficionado. Sweeny also sits on the board of the Wilson's Creek Battlefield Foundation and the Wilson's Creek Landowners' Association. He's made a lifetime of studying the war's western theater, primarily in Missouri, and says selling his nationally recognized collection to the battlefield is the best solution for all involved.

"This is the only museum that talks about the trans-Mississippi as broadly as we do," Sweeny said. The sale would include the 20 acres Sweeny and his wife, Karen, live on, their home and the museum. Though he could make more money by breaking the collection up, Sweeny said it would be tragic not to keep the collection together. Federal evaluators, including experts from Gettysburg, Harper's Ferry and Washington, D.C., agreed.
"They said if (the collection) was broken up, there would never be another chance to see it all together," Sweeny said. "We want to leave it together so people can learn from it." He said artifacts are the main tie between today's Americans and their Civil War ancestors. "People can relate to things they used back then; it means more meat on the bones of history," Sweeny said.
Hillmer said the collection is almost legendary among historians.
"The collection is just outstanding," he said. "If you're a Civil War buff, you'll know Dr. Sweeny's museum."

Perhaps the most jaw-dropping aspect of Sweeny's collection is the meticulous documentation that he has for every item. He knows where and when it was used during the war, and knows who has owned it since.
"That's what amazed (visiting) curators," Sweeny said. "They admitted their things aren't that well documented."

Sweeny said he hopes to hear in September whether the legislation passes. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Strafford, proposed the bill and Dr. Bill Piston, Southwest Missouri State University professor and author of a book on the battle, answered questions for lawmakers.

Walking In Soldiers' Footsteps

Another major part of the battlefield's comprehensive plan is a cultural landscape plan, in which vegetation will be cleared from hillsides to present the battlefield in its Civil War-era condition.
For example, visibility from Bloody Hill is almost nonexistent. Bloody Hill is the site of the most ferocious skirmish during the battle and the death of Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, the first Union General killed during the war.
This summer marked the first year in the park's history that the Ray Cornfield, which belonged to one of the landowners in the area during the battle, has been replanted with cornstalks. The crop was planted by the Republic High School FFA, which will cut the stalks and sell them this fall.
Hillmer said it's all for the visitor's historical perspective.
"We want them to know what it was like to fight in corn in August," Hillmer said.
In addition, some trails will likely be rerouted or new ones built to more accurately portray the movements of soldiers during the 1861 battle.
"When people walk the battlefield, we want them to walk in similar places to where the soldiers were," Hillmer said.
But not all of the cultural landscaping is historically motivated. The brush is being thinned to reduce the risk of a devastating wildfire, which Hillmer said was becoming a potential hazard.
"The fire (officials) told us that if there was a fire, they wouldn't be able to get in and stop it," Hillmer said. "We're basically removing fuel."
The project has begun ahead of schedule in large part because of the tornado of May 4, 2003, which tore through the southern portion of Wilson's Creek. The twister destroyed hundreds of acres of trees, mercifully sparing the historic Ray homesite, before striking the town of Battlefield. The ensuing cleanup effort made it an advantageous time to begin thinning the trees for aesthetic reasons, as well.
"Mother Nature has helped us go through that quickly," Hillmer said, adding that the timber salvage has been conducted with great care and concern for the environment.
When completed, the improvements, including the planting of another cornfield next year, will give visitors a much clearer visual idea of what happened in August of 1961.
The battle looming
As a member of the Wilson's Creek Battlefield Foundation, Dr. Sweeny has also played a vital role in a host of other projects around the park. He was president of the board in 1986, when the tour road opened, and is now active with the board and its current projects, including the renovation of the Edwards Cabin.
Foundation Executive Director McDonough said the renovation will hopefully begin in October. The project was funded by a $20,000 grant from the National Parks Service, which the foundation matched. McDonough said the foundation also agreed to pick up any additional expenses related to the cabin project.
The Foundation's biggest achievement was raising money for the Wilson's Creek research wing, which includes a large meeting room and one of the nation's biggest Civil War libraries. At more than 6,000 volumes, it's the largest Civil War library in the parks system, and is the crowning jewel in almost a half-decade of foundation involvement.
Another chief goal of the foundation, Sweeny said, is keeping things away from the park that would intrude on the park's natural landscape. Over the years the foundation helped deter a radio tower, a mining quarry and two telecommunications towers.
The latest, and by far most imposing, of those intrusions is Terrell Creek.
"You can't stop progress," Sweeny said. "But hopefully we can have some buffer area, greenspaces." He said a poorly planned development and problems it could bring would be a disaster for the city of Republic and the battlefield.
But Sweeny's involvment doesn't stop with the battlefield foundation. He's also a member of the Wilson's Creek Landowners' Association, a group that has been among the most vocal in its opposition to the Terrell Creek.
"We're not trying to tell people what to do with their land," Sweeny said. "We're just trying to get some control; there's got to be a happy medium."
Overall, Sweeny said the battlefield, to this point, is doing a fine job on its own in preserving its history, but that the friends of the park, including the Civil War Preservation Trust and the Wilson's Creek Foundation, are vital in their support, financial and otherwise.
"Wilson's Creek has done it right, but it hasn't been challenged yet," Sweeny said. "There are some very serious times ahead."

©Ozarks Newsstand 2004