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Jewish World Review Sept. 23, 2002 / 17 Tishrei, 5763

George Will

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Land where many fell may fall to developers | CHANCELLORSVILLE, VA. "Why did we run? Well, those who didn't run are there yet."
- an Ohio soldier

The 12-mile march on May 2, 1863, took Stonewall Jackson from the clearing in the woods where he conferred for the last time with Robert E. Lee, to a spot from which Jackson and 30,000 troops surveyed the rear of the Union forces. Those forces, led by a blowhard, Joe Hooker ("May God have mercy on General Lee, for I shall have none"), were about to experience one of the nastiest shocks of the Civil War.

Two hours before dusk, Federal soldiers were elated when deer, turkeys and rabbits came pelting out of the woods into their lines. It was not dinner but death approaching. By nightfall, Federal forces were scattered. When the fighting subsided four days later, Lee was emboldened to try to win the war with an invasion of Pennsylvania. The invasion's high-water mark came at the crossroads town of Gettysburg.

One hundred and thirty-nine years after the battle here, a more protracted struggle is under way. In 1863 the nation's survival was at stake. Today, only the nation's memory is at stake. "Only"? Without memory, the reservoir of reverence, what of the nation survives?

Hence the urgency of those opposing a proposal to build, on acreage over which the struggle surged, 2,350 houses and 2.4 million square feet of commercial and office space. This would bring a huge increase in traffic, wider highways and the further submergence of irrecoverable history into a perpetually churned present.

Northern Virginia, beginning about halfway between Richmond and Washington, is a humming marvel of energy and entrepreneurship, an urbanizing swirl of commerce and technology utterly unlike the static rural society favored by Virginia's favorite social philosopher, Jefferson. Chancellorsville is in an east-west rectangle of terrain about 15 miles long and 10 miles wide, now divided by Interstate 95, that saw four great battles - Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, the Wilderness - involving 100,000 killed, wounded or missing.

Where a slavocracy once existed, Northern dynamism prevails. But Northern Virginia has ample acreage for development, without erasing the landscapes where the Army of Northern Virginia spent its valor. As for the Federals' side, it is a scandal that the federal government's cheese-paring parsimony has prevented the purchase of historically significant land - 20,000 acres, maximum - at Civil War battlefields from Maryland to Mississippi.

Just $10 million annually for a decade - a rounding error for many Washington bureaucracies - would preserve much important battlefield land still outside National Park Service boundaries. The government's neglect can be only partially rectified by the private work of the Civil War Preservation Trust, just three years old. (You can enlist at www.civilwar. org/. Also check www.chan

CWPT's president, James Lighthizer, a temperate, grown-up realist, stresses that CWPT's members are "not whacked-out tree-huggers" who hate development and want to preserve "every piece of ground where Lee's horse pooped." But regarding commemorations, Americans today seem inclined to build where they ought not, and to not build where they should, as at the site of the World Trade Center.

In New York City, many people who are anti-growth commerce-despisers want to exploit Ground Zero for grinding their old ideological axes. They favor making all or most of the 16-acre parcel a cemetery without remains, a place of perpetual mourning - what Richard Brookhiser disapprovingly calls a "deathopolis" in the midst of urban striving.

But most who died at Ground Zero were going about their private pursuits of happiness, murdered by people who detest that American striving. The murderers crashed planes into the Twin Towers, Brookhiser says, "in the same spirit in which a brat kicks a beehive. They will be stung, and the bees will repair the hive." Let the site have new towers, teeming with renewed striving.

But a battlefield is different. It is hallowed ground because those who there gave the last full measure of devotion went there because they were devoted unto death to certain things.

Those who clashed at Chancellorsville did so in a war that arose from a clash of large ideas. Some ideas were noble, some were not. But there is ample and stirring evidence that many of the young men caught in the war's whirlwind could articulate what the fight was about, on both sides. See James M. McPherson's "For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War."

Local government here can stop misplaced development from trampling out the contours of the Confederacy's greatest victory. A Jeffersonian solution.

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