Civil War battlefield preservation – where do you start?

I'll start where many of you did, as a contributor who made up his mind to donate to the Civil War Preservation Trust. As marketers might say, it's the outfit with "mind share." Need to save a battlefield = want to contribute money = Civil War Preservation Trust. Some 50,000 people like me have already jumped to that conclusion. Stupid, sloppy thinking, but that's how too many of my own decisions get made.

Visiting the website to look for a PayPal button I can't help but read stuff. And the red flags are going up. First, they are not selling me. They are not telling me why they will use my money better than the local preservation society. Second, there is no clear mission statement. Look.

"The Civil War Preservation Trust is America's largest non-profit organization devoted to the preservation of our nation's endangered Civil War battlefields." That's the broad language found in all corporate charters – nobody manages from that.

Here they take another stab at it – "There is only one national organization working to save all of these [endangered national] battlefields: The Civil War Preservation Trust."

Not good enough. Even this nebulous statement or this one is better.

Well, there are always some press releases available, filled with aims and accomplishments.

First, the top ten endangered battlefields (the report is linked on the right).

Bad choice. The report is a disaster, an intellectually lazy, sloppy piece of work designed for journalists with no substantive or motivational content for Civil War buffs, more on which tomorrow.

Next stop, PRESIDENT’S BUDGET INCLUDES INCREASED FUNDING FOR BATTLEFIELD PRESERVATION. This is good news, but why is the Trust repackaging a federal press release? There is nothing here on what it specifically means to the Trust or its members.

Let's try CWPT ANNOUNCES RESCUE OF 2,100 ACRES OF HALLOWED BATTLEFIELD LAND IN 2003. This is going to have to work, because we're now ALREADY out of press releases.

This piece opens with a bold claim. "The Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT), the nation’s largest nonprofit battlefield preservation group, announced today that it saved 2,110 acres of hallowed ground in 2003."

We get a little smidgen of HOW: "Money donated to CWPT for land acquisition is leveraged with funding from federal, state and local conservation programs." Hmmm. Pooled resources. Okay, doesn't that mean shared glory, too? Tell me more. (There is no more.)

We get a little detail on WHAT: "Among the battlefield properties rescued by CWPT in the past twelve months were 105 acres at Fort Donelson, Tennessee; 45 acres at East Cavalry Field in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; 211 acres of battlefield land and earthworks at Hatchers Run, Virginia; 685 acres at Mine Run, Virginia; and 62 acres at Richmond, Kentucky." That's absolute language. No shared glory there. And we are a few acres short of 2,110. Where's the rest? And what are the details? Tell me more. (There is no more.)

The hunt begins.

(1) Donelson. My work is partly done here, because a reporter tracked down the Trust and asked questions:

Approximately 105 acres south of Dover was purchased in three tracts by the trust in December for about $350,000, said Jim Campi, director of policy and communications for the preservation group based in Washington, D.C. Half the money to purchase the land came from the trust; the other half came from the $50 million federal Civil War Battlefield Preservation Act, signed into law by President Bush in December. Campi said the purchase includes the 48-acre Bogard family tract east of Forge Road in Dover. ''It was where 70% of the Union casualties occurred during the battle and where Nathan Bedford Forrest broke out of the Union lines."

That's pretty clean. The Trust did what we expect it to when we donate. It bought land. It did not share the win with U.S. taxpayers in its press release, but that doesn't bother me too much. More disturbing is the reference to Forrest, because the president of the Trust is a huge Forrest fan with a picture of that general hanging over his fireplace. Public money for private agendas?

(2) East Cavalry Field. Here we have a problem: another organization claims to have saved it. "The GBPA was founded in 1959 as the first public/private partnership at Gettysburg. Over the years, the GBPA played a continuous role in purchasing endangered battlefield land. Such properties, like the Meals farm, Timbers farm, Wolf farm, Taney farm, the Colgrove tract, the Willoughby Run tract, the East Cavalry field tract, and other parcels have been saved from urban development and commercialism."

To find out what this means, we turn to the local press and locate this story: "The nonprofit group Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg worked with several other groups to secure a conservation easement on the 45-acre Shea farm, which lies east of Gettysburg and adjacent to Gettysburg National Military Park's East Cavalry Field." Suddenly we have a new manager in acombined rescue operation. "The Friends snagged the easement with help from the Land Conservancy of Adams County, the Adams County Agricultural Land Preservation Board, the Civil War Preservation Trust and the Conservation Fund, a private revenue stream for preservation projects." The Trust was a helper. It got honorable mention. Did the Trust overstate its role its own press release? What was that role? Tell me more. Please.

Mine Run. This is the goriest deal of the three I have time to examine. The details are here and I will summarize:

• The Trust bought 685 acres at "bargain prices" using federal funds (!)
• The Virginia Outdoors Foundation and the Piedmont Environmental Council bought an easement from the Trust on that 385 acres of land bought with federal money(!)
• The Trust donated another easement on other parts of the land.
• The VOF and PEC will forevermore manage these conservation easements, great Civil War societies that they are.

(Don't step on the grass please. You are disturbing the wildlife, sir.)

I used to report on third world loan syndications and I'm getting a familiar feeling. The Trust does a lot of these deals.

Where is our money supposed to work in these arrangements? What good does it do? You can turn the website upside down and shake it, you can read the Trust's reports and statements, and you will not find out.

More tomorrow.