25 February 2015 by Published in: Battlefield preservation 8 comments

Some clown named Donnie Johnston (who can take someone named Donnie seriously anyway? It raises memories of Donny Osmond….) writes a regular column for the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star newspaper. He was born and raised in Culpeper County, Virginia, where numerous major engagements occurred, and where the Army of the Potomac spent the winter of 1863-1864. This unenlightened troglodyte also is a fierce opponent of battlefield preservation. He has a long track record of it.

On December 29, 2001, he declared his enmity to battlefield preservation in his column:

Avoid getting bogged down in swamp or historic land
Posted: Saturday, December 29, 2001 2:30 am | Updated: 8:47 pm, Fri Jan 30, 2015.

“Possible Civil War battlefield site,” it said.

I suppose the owner figured that this was a valid selling point, but knowing that a Civil War battle might have been fought on that property would surely have dissuaded me from investigating further.

In this day and time, there are two types of acreage the average working man should avoid like the plague–historic land and swamp land. Either can wind up costing you money and causing you grief.

Now your old pappy may have warned you to stay away from deals that involve swamp land, but I doubt that men of his generation would have put historic land in the same category.

My, how things have changed.

We live in an area so Civil War conscious that sometimes it is hard to make people believe that we actually have history that predates that conflict.

Many act as if some mysterious land bridge magically appeared in 1861 and civilization began when men wearing blue uniforms walked down from the North to confront men in gray uniforms walking up from the South.

What happened after that is considered so sacred that one historic preservation group has declared that nothing so seemingly innocent as a game of softball should be played on the hallowed Civil War battlefield ground it owns.

That’s fine for big preservation groups, but, increasingly, government wants to restrict how small landowners use their historic property, too. And a man who has his life savings invested in a few acres of ground that are declared historically significant can suddenly find himself behind the eight ball.

Now I have nothing against preserving our history, but every site on which a Civil War soldier slept cannot be kept inviolate forever.

Given the thousands of soldiers that marched through Central Virginia, there is hardly a square foot of ground between Richmond and Washington that didn’t figure in the Civil War in some way.

And every acre between the Blue Ridge Mountains and Fredericksburg was most certainly used by either one army or the other between 1861 and 1865.

It can’t all be declared hallowed ground–not if we want our children and grandchildren to build homes and continue to live in this area.

But as open land dwindles, no one can be certain which parcels will be preserved and which will not.

And if you happen to own land on which a Civil War battle was fought, you just might get caught in a costly squeeze someday and your property rights severely restricted.

Increasingly, historic land is more of a liability than an asset–especially for persons who are not wealthy.

The same holds true for swamp land, which has become an even greater liability than historic land.

No one seems to know what you CAN do with swamp land, but there are two things that you almost universally CAN’T do with it.
You can’t use it and you can’t clean it up.

And if you can’t do either of those two things, a swamp is about as useless as a pregnant chad on a Florida ballot.

So why own it? Why pay taxes on land that is absolutely no good to you?

If you are buying land that has a swamp on it, ask the seller to deduct that acreage from the parcel.

And if you own swamp land, consider deeding it to the government so you won’t be taxed on that part of your property.

Even if the government owns your swamp, you can still enjoy the beavers that flood it and the ducks that swim in it. But you won’t be responsible for that land and you won’t have to pay taxes on it.

Let the government figure out what to do with it!

A donation of “valuable wetlands” to the government should even earn you a big tax break.

If you’re rich, you might not worry about owning a few acres of unusable swamp or a battlefield site whose use might be severely restricted one day.

But if you’re just an old working Joe, you might want to look the other way when someone tries to sell you land that is either swampy or historic in nature.

And if someone tries to interest you in a marsh where a Civil War battle was fought, run for your life!

The government probably wouldn’t even let you look at property that sacred–let alone use it!

DONNIE JOHNSTON is a staff writer with The Free Lance-Star. He can be contacted by mail at The Free Lance-Star, 616 Amelia St., Fredericksburg, Va. 22401; by fax at 373-8455; or by e-mail marked to his attention at gwoolf@freelancestar.com.

Note that he updated his angry rant on January 30 of this year, more than 13 years later.

Then, on February 21, 2015, he fired this unenlightened cheap shot.

Nothing ‘hallowed’ about war

Posted: Saturday, February 21, 2015 12:00 am
BY DONNIE JOHNSTON/THE FREE LANCE-STAR | 6 comments
DonnieJohnston
Posted on Feb 21, 2015by Donnie Johnston

I am so sick of hearing people cry about “hallowed ground” I could scream.

Everywhere a Union or Confederate soldier set his chamber pot is now declared “hallowed ground.”

You can’t build a store because there may be a Minié ball somewhere in the ground. Housing developments get axed because some farmer once plowed up a rusty bayonet in that field. You can’t construct a road because some soldier once fired a cannon from that spot.

This is all getting absurd.

Yes, the Civil War figures prominently in our country’s history, but the surrender at Appomattox was 150 years ago. Get over it and let’s get on with life.

Why people are so adamant about glorifying war—any war—is beyond me. Ask anybody who ever fought in one and they will tell you that war is indeed hell.

People kill other people in wars. They blow their heads off—literally. They disembowel fathers and sons and brothers with cannons and mortars.

Soldiers lose their arms, their legs, their feet and their hands in wars. You want to glorify that?

I’m not a fan of war and I certainly don’t celebrate killing. As Jimmy Stewart once said, the only people who win wars are the undertakers.

We talk of the soldiers who fought the Civil War as if they were holy vessels sent down by the Almighty to purify the Earth. These were people like you and me—some good, some bad.

Few fought because there was some holy cause involved. Most of the Confederates fought mostly because they resented being invaded by the Yankees. Most of the Federals fought because they wanted to teach Johnny Reb a lesson.

The Civil War began because big landowners in the South wanted to keep black people enslaved. You can sugarcoat it all you want, but slavery was what that conflict was all about. You want to glorify slavery?

Those big landowners—the aristocracy—were the political leaders of the South and they developed political policy. The average guy who had never owned a slave just got caught up in the excitement and the politics of the day.

Yes, the slaves were freed as a result of the Civil War. But then America proceeded to treat black people like dirt for another 100 years. It was only after the Civil War centennial that black children were even allowed to sit next to white children in many public schools.

Civil War soldiers killed, looted, stole and burned homes and outbuildings. If you see glory in that, you’ve got better vision than I.

Six miles from where I live, a wounded Union soldier was executed in the bed where he was convalescing—shot in the head at point-blank range—as a means of revenge. You want to glorify that?

My great-grandfather went off to war on a lark, leaving his wife and children to almost starve to death. He came home and wasted away with dysentery. That was some glorious death.

Now we want to save every inch of ground trod upon by every Federal and Confederate. Why? Well, partly so that re-enactors can line up, fire blank shells and show us what the war was like.

If these people want to show us what the war was like, let them fire real bullets and cannon and then accept only the type of medical help that was available during the Civil War.

Let us watch a few limbs being amputated with hacksaws and without anesthesia or antibiotics. Let’s see how romantic that is.

Enough is enough. We don’t glorify World War I or World War II or even the Revolutionary War, where we won our independence. It is only the Civil War that seems to excite us.

Yes, we should honor our history, but we can’t save every inch of soil that was part of the Civil War. If we did, most of Virginia would be an empty field.

As for this “hallowed ground” business, no war is a holy war. War is an atrocity, no matter which side is in the right.

We can respect the men who fought in the Civil War without stripping landowners of their rights 150 years after the fact. The re-enactors can still play soldier and have a high old time, but let the people have homes and let the roads pass.

Like we do with most everything else, Americans take history and run it into the [hallowed] ground.

The Civil War is over. Let’s move on. The good earth was put here for us to use, not to glorify because one man killed another man at some particular spot.
?
Donnie Johnston: djohnston@freelancestar.com

This ignoramus clearly doesn’t get it. Which is a tragedy.

Mike Stevens, president of the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust, which does a magnificent job of stewarding battlefield land in and around Fredericksburg, wrote this excellent letter to the editor of the Free-Lance Star that rebuts the ignoramus:

To the Editor:

Donnie Johnston’s recent column, “War shouldn’t be hallowed,” made clear his antipathy toward, and opposition to, preserving our remaining Civil War battlefields. He was direct, forthright, and pulled no punches.

I am President of our local preservation group, Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT), and would like to respond. (For a more complete picture of why we preservationists do what we do, please check the paper’s archives for my past op-ed articles.)

–We of CVBT don’t wish to preserve the ground of a Civil War battlefield in order to glorify war or to enable reenactors to “play soldier and have a high old time.” Rather, we do so in order to commemorate this most important and defining event in the history of our country, to preserve the memory and meaning of what took place on that ground, and to remember and honor the men in both blue and gray who fought and fell there, to ponder what they did and why they did it. There are lessons to be learned by having such special ground to walk upon.

–We of CVBT do not attempt to save every inch of battlefield ground where “there may be a Minie ball somewhere in the ground” or where “some farmer once plowed up a rusty bayonet in that field.” Rather, we consider the ground sanctified by the blood and bravery of thousands of Americans (ground almost certainly still containing the remains of many of those men) to be consecrated and special, to be as worthy of respect and preservation as is the consecrated and special ground of any existing cemetery.

–We of CVBT are not “stripping landowners of their rights.” We understand that a man’s property is his own, and we support this as a fundamental right of citizenship, as long as the corresponding responsibility to respect the historical stewardship of that property is taken into serious account.

–Finally, some of us might wonder about his comment that “the good earth was put here for us to use, not to glorify because one man killed another man at some particular spot.” It might be more respectful and honest to say that we are called upon to be good stewards of God’s created order, to use what we have been given not exclusively for personal profit and gain but with the acknowledgment that there are places touched by such suffering and sacrifice that they become special and Spirit-filled, worthy of being preserved forever. To us of CVBT, a Civil War battlefield is just such a place.

Mike Stevens
Fredericksburg, VA

Clark B. Hall, who has done more to preserve battlefield land in and around Johnston’s home, Culpeper County, writes:

There are many who are both shocked and surprised at Mr. Donnie Johnston’s provocative column asserting battlefield preservation is “absurd,” but as one who has labored three decades to help save Civil War battlefields in Culpeper County—from where Mr. Johnston hails—I am neither shocked nor surprised as his cynical insensitivity toward preservation is well known in Culpeper.

Back in the mid-80’s, a California developer arrived in Culpeper and deigned to build a commercial office park on the Brandy Station Battlefield. A group of local citizens—not including Mr. Johnston—directly aided by the Fredericksburg-based, Association of the Preservation of Civil War Sites, Inc. (today’s Civil War Trust)—opposed that proposal and the developer declared bankruptcy. Another developer successively purposed to build an automobile racetrack on the battlefield, but he was also beaten back by preservation advocates.

And today—directly supported by enlightened Culpeper citizens—the Civil War Trust owns, and has placed in easement, thousands of acres of historic landscape in Culpeper County. This protected, “Hallowed Ground”—a poignant term scorned by the censorious Mr. Johnston—incorporates portions of the Brandy Station, Cedar Mountain and Kelly’s Ford Battlefields.

It is a fact none of these Culpeper County battlefields would have been saved absent the direct support of Culpeper citizens. It is also a fact Culpeper County officials have inserted battlefield preservation in their “Comprehensive Plan” as a vital element the county must consider when rendering planning decisions.

And, by the way, Culpeper County now experiences a heavy visitor experience on its battlefields and Culpeper’s hotels, restaurants and stores can easily confirm “heritage tourism” directly conveys cultural and economic benefits. We can confirm, however, Mr. Johnston does not today join Culpeper student groups out on the battlefields while these young charges learn valuable lessons about the tragedy of war, along with the attendant components of courage, ultimate sacrifice, and the importance of tending our collective historical memory.

And please know battlefields now saved in Culpeper County are today protected despite the acerbic obstinacy of Mr. Donnie Johnston.

Clark B. Hall

My wise old father used to say, “opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one.” Mr. Johnston apparently has two, both of which are dead wrong.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Wed 25th Feb 2015 at 4:34 pm

    Couldn’t agree more with Mike, Clark and, of course, Eric. As the old adage goes, “If you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t know where you’re headed…” Mr. Johnston obviously has no idea of his own destination, let alone our collective one, informed as it is by honoring our forebears, North and South, and their sacrifice for cause and country. Huzzah to all who help preserve that heritage!

  2. Andrew W. German
    Wed 25th Feb 2015 at 8:28 pm

    Thanks Eric!
    It was time to call out such ignorant and provocative comments. So much Civil War acreage has been sold out and paved over in the Fredericksburg area alone that his suggestion that every inch is contested and protected is simply wrong. It comes down to the American issue of rights vs. responsibility, which is an unending conversation. If I “own” something is it mine to do anything I want with it, or do I have a responsibility to modify my behavior to fit into my community? It’s sometimes simplified as Democracy vs. Socialism (an extremely simplistic and inappropriate political view). If American history offers us a model, then veneration of historic sites and a much more communitarian approach would be recognized as proper. If you want to skew American history in a libertarian perspective, then it’s your perfect right to pave the swamp and the battlefield for your own gain, and your neighbors (and nation) be damned. But that’s not an accurate reading.

  3. Kevin Campbell
    Wed 25th Feb 2015 at 11:08 pm

    Seems Donnie Johnston has indeed proven that every village does possess and idiot!

  4. Todd Berkoff
    Thu 26th Feb 2015 at 12:12 pm

    Eric, thanks for bringing this to people’s attention. This Donnie Johnston character is a fool and has absolutely no idea what he is talking about. I have never met any serious preservationist who wants to “glorify” war. We aim to commemorate the fallen and our collective history, and to preserve the past before it is all strip malls and parking lots. And yes, Donnie, we DO commemorate and remember Rev War, WWI, and WWII sites. Has he ever been to Valley Forge, Belleau Wood, or Omaha Beach?

    Donnie — go back to yelling at the neighborhood kids for whatever reason and let true historians interpret history and let real Americans help preserve it for generations to come.

  5. John Foskett
    Sat 28th Feb 2015 at 12:20 pm

    Allow me to incorporate by reference Justice Holmes’ conclusive sentence in Buck v. Bell, 274 US 200, 207 (1927). “Wendell” said it better than I ever could.

  6. v assumpta
    Thu 09th Apr 2015 at 2:02 pm

    Donnie Johnston is right on! You probably won’t post this because your site doesn’t allow anymore than the government preserved hollowed grounds.

    There is one unfortunate idea that Mr. Johnston poses. That government take ownership of historic ground. That is exactly what is happening. The Civil War Trust and others don’t accept and take care of the land. They turn it over to the government. Our countryside and towns are becoming like socialistic/communistic countries. Mostly government owned and dictated. Look at Bristow – what a mess!

  7. Thu 09th Apr 2015 at 8:50 pm

    I actually would not delete your post because you’re an ignoramus–which you are–but rather because you have violated my primary rule for comments: you must use your real name–ANONYMOUS COMMENTS ARE NOT ALLOWED. However, even ignoramuses like you are entitled to have opinions–like assholes, everyone has one, including you, who apparently has more than one of each–and I’m happy to allow your stupidity to be shared with my readership.

    However, should you ever choose to post again, if you attempt to use another idiotic made-up name to post again, your comment will be deleted.

    I trust that I have made myself abundantly clear.

  8. Dennis Graham
    Thu 23rd Apr 2015 at 4:36 pm

    The commentary provided by Donnie Johnston and v assumpta could have been used for a Floyd R. Turbo sketch.

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