PETERSBURG, Va. (AP) — Virginia's Petersburg National Battlefield, a climactic site in the collapse of the Confederacy in the Civil War, has been cleared for a huge expansion under a new law that would authorize it to become the nation's largest protected battlefield.
The park commemorates sites in the war's longest battlefield conflict, marked by bursts of bloody trench warfare spanning some ten months between 1864 and 1865. Legislation signed days ago by President Barack Obama authorizes, but does not pay for, the addition of more than 7,000 acres to the existing 2,700 acres of rolling hills, earthworks and siege lines already under protection at Petersburg.
Expansion has been a longtime priority of park advocates and comes amid a push to bolster and protect battlefields around the country this decade as the nation marked the 150th anniversary of the war. Supporters say the larger boundary would not only protect historic sites from commercial development but also give park visitors a more comprehensive understanding of the Petersburg campaign, which left tens of thousands of men dead.
"We're finally moving forward. ... We're looking at the park and looking at the story in a whole new way," said Lewis Rogers, the park's superintendent, who joked that the weeks of waiting for the president's signature had left him in misery.
Miles south of the former Confederate capital of Richmond, the Petersburg area became the crucible of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 10-month Union siege that broke the back of the Confederacy and precipitated the surrender of the South's Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Virginia.
Grant prized Petersburg, with its rail connections, as key to taking Richmond. But Lee's forces dashed any Union hopes of swiftly seizing the gateway city. In July 1864, the Union detonated powerful explosives beneath a Confederate line, creating an enormous blast crater, but the ensuing Union attack failed, and it wasn't until April 1865 that the Union finally smashed through.
The park draws about 200,000 visitors a year according to National Park Service figures, far fewer than such higher-profile sites as Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, with more than 1 million tourists annually. Still, the Petersburg park is key to the area economy, bringing in some $10 million a year, and officials hope expanding the battlefield's protected footprint would reap even more visitors.
Although the legislation, which was included in a defense policy bill Congress passed in recent weeks, would not include any new funding, some land is already in the hands of preservation groups that plan to transfer it to the National Park Service.
"Our goal is to create a seamless visitor experience so that they can see the story from start to finish," said Jim Campi, a spokesman for the Civil War Trust, which owns about 1,800 acres of boundary expansion land.
Among the new properties the park could acquire is about 5,000 acres in Dinwiddie County where several decisive battles took place, Rogers said. Battlefields that would benefit include Five Forks, known as the "Waterloo of the Confederacy," and the Petersburg Breakthrough, where the advancing Union Army forced Lee to urge the Confederate government to evacuate Richmond.
Rogers said the first priority will be acquiring property that is privately owned and most vulnerable to commercial development that could endanger battle sites.
As for the funding, "the word there is creativity," Rogers said.
The possible changes come as the city of Petersburg, now grappling with nearly $19 million in unpaid obligations, could sorely use an influx of cash. City workers' pay has been cut and firefighting equipment repossessed as part of the financial difficulties.
Rogers acknowledged that changes could take years but said preserving the land and telling the soldiers' stories is worth the effort.
"There's something ... spiritual about that," he said. "Something people find very compelling. There's something about standing on the ground where something happened and understanding with clarity what happened that gives you a special connection."