“How do I get to Ball’s Bluff—the Civil War site?” I ask a docent at the visitors’ center in Leesburg, Virginia. “Oh, it’s easy,” she replies with a wave of her hand. “You just drive past all the housing until you can’t go any farther.”
Leesburg, until the late 1980s a sleepy village some 40 miles outside Washington, D.C., has nearly tripled in population—to 36,000—since 1990. I park at the end of a street called Battlefield Parkway, lined with gated communities, and continue on foot down a small dirt track. The trail peters out at a wooded hillside known as the Bluff, site of a little-known but crucial battle. Here, in October 1861, Union troops approached a high bank overlooking the Potomac and stumbled upon a Confederate contingent, 1,709 men strong. Rebel soldiers slaughtered the Union force as they fled over the cliff edge; the corpses, floating downriver to Washington, shocked the North, which had anticipated a short, decisive war.
At Ball’s Bluff, less than half a mile from suburbia, the path leads under a canopy of maples near the spot where Union soldiers met their deaths. I sit beneath the trees, the woods around me so quiet I can hear—well before I see—a fawn in the underbrush.
Throughout the mid-Atlantic, places freighted with the nation’s history—from legendary sites such as southern Pennsylvania’s Gettysburg Battlefield to now-obscure locations like Ball’s Bluff—are increasingly threatened by development. Loudoun County, Virginia, home to Leesburg and other expanding Washington, D.C. suburbs, ranks as the nation’s fastest-growing county. In nearby Pennsylvania, a proposal calls for construction of a casino and resort complex just outside the Gettysburg battleground.
In 1996, Cate Magennis Wyatt, a former developer who lives in the historic Loudoun County village of Waterford, organized a coalition of politicians, conservationists and businesspeople to save a 175-mile stretch of routes 15 and 20, known as the Old Carolina Road, between Gettysburg and Monticello in Virginia. Preservationists have designated travel along the corridor—containing an extraordinary concentration of Revolutionary War, Civil War, African-American, Native American and presidential history—as a “Journey Through Hallowed Ground.”
Almost every step of the way, Wyatt tells me, connects with our past. Near Thurmont in northern Maryland, for example, “the site of the furnace where they were making cannonballs for [the Revolutionary War battle of] Yorktown” can be found right along the road. Richard Moe, head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, believes this landscape holds more history “than in any comparable space in America.”
Last summer, the National Trust placed Hallowed Ground on its list of America’s most endangered places. “History is in plain sight,” Wyatt says. “Just drive [the route] and you’ll feel the same way.”
Although Gettysburg Battlefield draws more than one and a half million visitors annually, the town itself still seems like a quaint village. Across from a sprawling museum devoted to the decisive engagement fought here in July 1863—the Union victory is considered the turning point of the war—lies Soldiers National Cemetery, its rolling hills containing the bodies of more than 3,500 soldiers, roughly a third of those killed on both sides. It was at the dedication of this cemetery on November 19, 1863, of course, that Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address.
“You feel the great crush of souls here, a residual energy,” says Mark Nesbitt, a former National Park Service employee and author of several books on the ghosts of Gettysburg. “There are between 800 and 1,500 bodies unaccounted for here.” He fears for the park. “There’s no time when there is no traffic. Everyone is using Route 15 as a commuter route.”
“It seems hard to believe now, but Frederick [pop. 57,000] was the frontier,” says historian John Fieseler, of Maryland’s second-largest city. “During the French and Indian War, it was the last point you could go west and still be safe.” The town was at the junction of a major route leading west from Baltimore and a north-south trade artery that would become Route 15. Skirmishes between Colonials and Native Americans, in addition to brigands and deadly diseases, posed constant threats. The area, one traveler wrote, was “a wilderness region infested by a semi-barbarian population.”