Major land sale adds to battlefield

WINCHESTER – The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation has won a major victory over the forces of historical amnesia with the purchase of 34 acres constituting a key part of the Third Winchester Battlefield.

Officials from the battlefield foundation announced the acquisition at a news conference Wednesday at the Old Court House Civil War Museum. Keven M. Walker, CEO of the New Market-based foundation, praised the generosity of Bruce Griffin, the former owner of the property, who sold it for millions less than its assessed value.

Walker called the $2.8 million purchase the largest Civil War battlefield preservation effort in the Shenandoah Valley.

“This is a major moment for battlefield preservation nationwide,” Walker said.

The 34 acres – identified as the “West Woods” by preservationists – directly connects to the 572-acre Third Winchester Battlefield Park to the north. The site lies just off Interstate 81 and U.S. 7.

Commercial developments such as the Winchester Gateway shopping mall directly across the road have laid siege to the West Woods over the years and threatened to overrun it. John Hutchinson, who helped negotiate the deal with Griffin and other landowners who hold covenants and easements affecting the property, said he was relieved the long, uncertain acquisition process has finally succeeded.

“It was a complicated project. It’s great to get it done and get the land protected,” Hutchinson said.

The Third Battle of Winchester on Sept. 19, 1864, was one of the last of the numerous clashes that raged up and down the Shenandoah Valley since 1862. It was also the largest and bloodiest.

More than 54,000 men fought in the battle, and 8,600 were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner by the time it ended in late afternoon.

The West Woods was the scene of some of the most intense fighting and decisive moments during the battle, which began in the morning with skirmishing along the eastern edge of the site.

The outnumbered Confederates came close to winning the battle with a counterattack in the early afternoon, but reserve divisions from the Union army moved in to thwart the advance and forced the Confederates back toward Winchester.

Third Winchester and subsequent clashes at Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek solidified Union control over the Shenandoah Valley and sealed Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in November.

Walker praised the James R. Wilkins Charitable Trust for a $25,000 donation that kicked off the private fund-raising phase of the preservation effort.

Wilkins said in a written statement that the preservation of the battlefield “for future generations while recognizing the Shenandoah Valley’s legacy in the history of the United States is important enough for our involvement.”

The value of the West Woods land has been appraised at $5.1 million, which means the sale price of $2.8 million amounts to a $2.3 million donation by Griffin to the battlefield foundation’s efforts to preserve the Third Winchester site.

“Without Mr. Griffin’s vision and assistance, this would never have happened,” Walker said.

The foundation, which bought the land with a bank loan, must still raise at least $225,000 in private money by April 1. The sum will make the foundation’s purchase of the West Woods eligible for grants and other funding that will be used to pay off the remainder of the loan.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com

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