BRISTOW - A majority of Prince William County's planning commissioners made exactly the right decision Feb. 7 in rejecting an application to build a "village" on the site of an important Civil War battlefield.
Now the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, with the power to override the Planning Commission's 5-3 decision, instead should support it and prevent the development from going forward.
The reason? Hundreds of Confederate soldiers, slain in that battle, are buried there. Many of their unmarked graves still haven't been located.
Imagine the havoc, not to mention the desecration, should monster bulldozers, graders and backhoes rip into the final resting places of these lost soldiers, scattering their bones almost 139 years after they were interred, many of them heaped together in trench graves.
Such excavation, if it's to occur, is for archaeologists trained in the use of spades, trowels and brushes for their meticulous research, not men operating heavy construction equipment and intent only on moving great mounds of earth from one place to another.
The developer, Centex Homes, wants to use 341 acres of the battlefield to build a New Bristow complex of 520 homes and 175,000 square feet of commercial and office space in the style of a 19th century village. To mollify some of the opposition, Centex agreed to cede 127 acres of the site to the Civil War Preservation Trust for a park commemorating the battle.
The problem is that the parkland, historic preservationists believe, would leave out many of the yet-to-be-located graves from the battle.
That bloody encounter of nearly a century and a half ago was the Battle of Bristoe Station.
Not as well known as our county's world-famous Battles of First and Second Manassas (or Bull Run, as Yankees labeled those contests), the Battle of Bristoe Station took place Oct. 14, 1863. It was the final fight of the Gettysburg Campaign, a disaster for the Confederacy and Gen. Robert E. Lee, its beloved military leader.
On that day, 100,000 blue-and-gray-clad men clashed in mortal combat for control of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, militarily important for moving troops, equipment, ammunition, horses and food. The result was a Union win and a combined 1,980 Yankee and Rebel casualties.
Union commanders quit the field when the shooting was over and, as victors, were able to use the railroad to transport their dead to Fairfax.
The Confederate dead, however, were buried over everal days where they had fallen in battle. Their graves, most of them long trenches for a number of bodies, were marked only with wooden planks that disintegrated and disappeared with the ravages of weather and time.
Also laid to rest at or near the Bristoe Station battlefield were Confederate troops (perhaps as many as 500), who died of various diseases, among them typhoid fever and meningitis, while assigned to an encampment called Camp Jones during the Rebel army's occupation of the Manassas area.
Early last year, the Civil War Preservation Trust listed the Bristoe Station battlefield as one of the top 25 endangered sites of historic significance from the War Between the States. The 36,000-member trust is due to issue another report Feb. 26 at a National Press Club news conference in Washington, D.C. The report again will identify the most threatened Civil War sites in America and what's being done to rescue them.
Far outstripping history in the Planning Commission's decision to reject Centex's application for rezoning, ironically, appears to have been mounting problems with traffic gridlock. The New Bristow development would add an inordinate number of motor vehicles to already-crowded Nokesville Road (Route 28) running through Prince William County's West End.
"In good conscience," said Billy W. Isbell, who represents the Woodbridge Magisterial District on the Planning Commission, "that was the part we just couldn't swallow - to make something already so bad much worse."
And this isn't the first time Centex Homes has wanted to build on a Civil War site.
In 1999, Fairfax County officials, in rezoning property for a Centex town house development in Centreville, were accused of ignoring a Civil War entrenchment built in 1861 for the First Battle of Manassas.
As for Centex's proposed New Bristow project, the Prince William County Board is scheduled to consider it on March 5.
In the final analysis, it'll be up to the supervisors to decide whether hundreds of Confederate graves will be plowed up in the name of development and, as some contend, continued urban sprawl.
Which way will they go?
Bill Kling, former national political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and The Washington Times, was chairman of the Prince William County Republican Party from January 1992 through March 1996. His column appears Thursdays and Sundays. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Prince William Conservation Alliance