Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Formation of Manassas National Battlefield Park
by Brag Bowling on Wednesday, August 3, 2011
The recent activities surrounding the Sesquicentennial of the 1st Battle of Manassas harkens back to the formation of the national park in Manassas and the role of the SCV in making it a reality. In a time when the old Confederate veterans were still alive, members of the SCV realized that the Confederate South had yet to memorialize a single battlefield. Battlefield Parks were the domain of state park systems or the Department of the Interior through the agency of the National Park Service. The SCV viewed the important historical land as “particularly neglected” since the battle.
The initial plan began with the obtaining of an option in 1920 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to purchase the Henry Farm, a 130 acre tract of land where the most famous aspects of the battle had occurred. One year later, the Manassas Battlefield Confederate Park, Inc., an SCV auxiliary, was created to raise the necessary $25,000 option purchase price.
It was the purpose of the SCV to have the park stand as a Southern battlefield memorial to the Confederate soldier. At the time, other historical projects seemed to often omit Southern soldiers, valor and their achievements. For example, much ado was made when the amphitheatre in Arlington National Cemetery omitted the Southern soldier. Education and history would be its hallmark but in no way would the Northern soldier be ignored. Monuments and memorials would be encouraged from both warring sides. Even so, the corporation had a great deal of infighting with one faction forming which wanted the word “confederate” removed from the corporate title (much like the problems today’s Museum of the Confederacy faces). There was also internal litigation over control of the property.
The SCV soon found (as did many other organizations) that raising the money to execute the deal would be difficult. Not only was the South still prostrate financially from the War Between the States, the entire nation was mired in the Great Depression. Today, the SCV has over 30,000 members. In 1939, the organization had 1753 members with a treasury of only a few thousand dollars. Also, projects such as Stone Mountain in Georgia were competing for limited Southern resources. Despite financial issues, the SCV was meeting its financial obligations and an accounting of the organization’s finances in 1938 showed they were fiscally sound (but not wealthy). Still, it seemed a nearly impossible task to reach the original goals of the Park. In 1933, conversations began with the National Park Service. The possible transfer caused a great deal of apprehension in the South who was leery of federal ownership and federal park interpretation and management.
To make a long story short, the $25,000 was raised and in 1939, an agreement was worked out with the federal government for the SCV to donate the Henry Farm to the National Park Service for the purpose of establishing a national military park.
Herein lies the rub. Despite the severe financial problems the SCV had at the time, the organization seemed equally concerned with the way the tract would be interpreted should the National Park Service obtain the Henry Farm. In the conveyance deed, the SCV stipulated that “strictest accuracy and fairness” be demanded in the erection of monuments and markers and opposed anything which would in anyway detract from the glory due to the Confederate soldier. Care was to be taken to preserve the battlefield without prejudice to either the North or South. These clauses in the deed became covenants running with the land, enforceable by a court of law.
At the time, many were concerned that The Grand Bargain struck between Union and Confederate veterans was falling apart. This unwritten truce allowed the country to heal from the war and reconcile without finger pointing or recrimination. Today, The Grand Bargain is a relic of the past. It is open season on the interpretation of Confederate history and the causes of the war. In many ways, the America of 2011 still is divided on a sectional basis. The old veterans seemed to be able to co-exist while today, the government, academia and the media are re-opening many old wounds, often demonizing the Confederate soldier and the cause for which he fought.
On February 16, 1940, the Department of the Interior accepted the deed. The Park Service remained leery of the restrictive covenants and internal memorandums and letters at the time urged caution in their interpretation lest they bring a court challenge. For $1, the Sons of Confederate Veterans generously donated the critical piece of the Manassas Battlefield, the Henry Farm and Henry House Hill where the battle was decided and where the immortal Jackson earned the most famous sobriquet in military history – “Stonewall”. Manassas was supremely important to the people of the South. Two decisive Confederate victories occurred on the plains of Manassas.
Today, the Manassas Battlefield is a wonderful attraction luring thousands of tourists every year. A bronze plaque denoting the SCV gift is exhibited prominently in the Manassas Visitors Center. The SCV surrendered much in their donation. The potential revenue of running their own Manassas Park (potentially millions) was considered at the time. Internal SCV memos were already noticing the visitation at other national parks. The Henry Farm donation would be similar to donating the Burnside Bridge at Sharpsburg, Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg, or Little Round Top at Gettysburg. The generous donation was a true act of both patriotism and national reconciliation on the part of the South and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Published in The Richmond Times Dispatch