News Column

Fighting to find (and protect) historic battlfields

July 27, 2014

By Robert Behre, The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.

July 27--Two of America's most significant events, the Revolutionary and Civil wars, played out across what is now Charleston County, home to both pivotal battles and earthen fortifications where no shots were ever fired.

Some of these sites, such as forts Sumter and Moultrie and the James Island site of the Battle of Secessionville, have been carefully preserved and interpreted for casual visitors and history buffs alike.

But many others battlefields, batteries and forts have remained tucked away in the woods or already have been lost to development.

No one knows exactly how many of these sites exist, but that could change soon, as the S.C. Battleground Preservation Trust plans to conduct a detailed survey of Revolutionary War and Civil War sites during the coming year.

'Dangerously fragmented'

Though historic, most of the Revolutionary and Civil War battlefield sites have little or no protection, and an estimated 90 percent of them are privately owned, said Doug Bostick, the trust's executive director.

"The information about historic sites in the entire state is dangerously fragmented," he said. "So if properties are going to be developed, the likelihood of somebody understanding the historic assets that need to be studied or mitigated in some fashion is becoming less and less likely."

The trust's study is being made possible by a $74,300 federal grant -- part of $1.36 million in American Battlefield Preservation Grants that the National Park Service recently awarded to groups in 14 states.

The trust plans to conduct a comprehensive survey of sites not only of Charleston County but also Jasper County.

Those counties were chosen in part because the National Office of Atmospheric Administration has released lidar surveys of their terrain. Lidar is a mixture of radar and light sensing technology that can detect earthen fortifications.

Bostick said Beaufort, Berkeley and Colleton also have rich histories from either the Revolutionary War or Civil War era, but their lidar scans are not currently available. Ultimately, he hopes the study will produce a template for recording sites in all 46 counties.

"We picked Jasper County because there's been very little research on it," he said. "We think in both situations, we're going to be able to dramatically enhance what's known and understood historically about these counties."

Bostick said the study will pull together a database that includes the dates of any battles or construction of the fortification; what guns once stood there; tax map numbers; addresses; GPS coordinates and other information.

It also will produce a priority list of sites that the trust would like to see subjected to conservation easements, and it also will lead to nominations of other sites to the National Register of Historic Places.

"There are a number of sites that clearly qualify for the National Register, but no one has ever taken the time to record them and do that," he said. "It's too early to guess how many, but it won't be a small number."

Once it is complete, the information will be given to the S.C. Department of Archives and History. Elizabeth Johnson, deputy state historic preservation officer, wrote a letter in support of the trust's grant because the state felt the study could be very useful.

Johnson said battlefield information currently is scattered across several organizations around the state, "and this fragmentation could lead to the unintentional loss of sites through unawareness of their existence."

Threats accelerating

As he wrote the grant, Bostick said he did a cursory count of only the Civil War sites in Charleston County, and that initial tally of Union and Confederate sites came to about 160.

"As we kept digging and organizing and running through the period reports, that number has grown to about 221 sites," he said. "It's immense what happened here in Charleston County during the course of the Civil War."

Of those 221 that once existed, only about 70 have some remnants left, he said. And of those 70 sites, only 19 have permanent protection, such as public ownership or a conservation easement.

"We're interested in trying to preserve as many of the extant sites that we can," he said.

Asked which of those sites could be considered the most endangered, Bostick said, "There's a lot of competition for that title. The economy is bouncing back fairly well, and development is going strong."

For instance, Bostick said he recently learned of a land sale in southern Charleston County that includes part of the Revolutionary War battlefield of Parker's Ferry.

"These properties are starting to turn over," he said. "Now it's not investors buying these properties, it's builders buying these properties."

South Carolina's effort is part of a national push to identify and protect significant battlefields from the Civil War, Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Previous federal reports have identified 1,061 battlefields and historic sites related to those conflicts, said Jim Campi, policy and communications director with the Civil War Trust, a national nonprofit.

Campi said the South Carolina's upcoming study will make a valuable contribution.

"Unlike Civil War battlefields, there is no national nonprofit advocate for Revolutionary War battlefields," he said. "That makes it all the more important that statewide preservation groups like the S.C. Battleground Preservation Trust are empowered to preserve these endangered historic sites."

Some saved, some still unknown

The study is gearing up as the S.C. Battleground Preservation Trust has been on somewhat of a roll.

It recently acquired Battery Wilkes, a 1862 earthen fortification built to protect a strategic intersection of a road and the Charleston-Savannah railroad at Long Branch Creek.

Half of the defense work was razed about 50 years ago, when Savannah Highway was widened, but the trust has acquired the surviving 1.7 acre site -- just north of a masonry wall along the highway.

Also, the trust successfully worked with a developer D.H. Horton to ensure that Fort Palmetto in Mount Pleasant is protected as the surrounding 600 acres are turned into a new residential neighborhood. That easement was finalized in May.

Late last year, the trust received a conservation easement for almost 5 acres on Long Island between James Island and Folly Beach. These acres include Star Battery, a still intact earthen fortification once manned by the Massachusetts 55th Infantry Regiment.

And the trust also closed on Church Flats Battery, a 2-acre site on Stono River in Hollywood that the Confederacy built to prevent Union gunboats from crossing Wadmalaw Sound.

"We have had some success stories lately," Bostick said. "What concerns us is the places we're not even aware of."

For instance, Bostick said he only recently learned of three surviving Confederate fortification sites along the Toogoodoo River in southern Charleston County.

"I had no idea they even existed eight months ago," he said. "We're still finding places all the time, and what that's telling me is that a lot of time, even the property owners aren't aware of what these things are."

By the numbers

250+ Number of Revolutionary War and Civil War battlefields and associated sites in Charleston and Jasper counties.

6,000 Approximate number of acres these sites cover.

33 Approximate percentage of sites estimated to remain relatively unchanged since the battles.

21 Battlefield sites in both counties currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

7 Number of National Register battlefield sites permanently protected through either public ownership or conservation easements.

90 Percent of sites that are privately owned.

4 Percent of sites publicly owned.

6 Percent of sites owned by a nonprofit group.

Source: S.C. Battleground Preservation Trust's 2014 Battlefield Grant Application.


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