The first generation of battleground preservation, beginning even during the war itself and lasting until 1890, was almost a non-event in Virginia. What effort there was in the state came early, when soldiers placed three monuments on the field of the. (Only two of these monuments remain.) The federal government, in establishing national cemeteries, also inadvertently preserved portions of Virginia Civil War battlefields in the immediate post-war years. Cemeteries at Ball’s Bluff, City Point, Cold Harbor, Richmond, , Fredericksburg, and preserved some historic land late in the 1860s. This work was not central to Virginia, however. It was done in the context of establishing national cemeteries across the nation. Only at , Pennsylvania, was there a fledgling battlefield preservation effort on the local level.
The best opportunity to save Civil War battlefields came in the 1890s, when the North and the South began to reconcile after the acidic Reconstruction era (1865–1877). Civil War veterans who were still alive during this period were able to mark correct troop positions. There was also support for battlefield preservation in a veteran-dominated Congress, and the battlefields themselves had yet to be consumed by the massive urbanization and industrialization that took place early in the twentieth century. Thus, battlefields could be saved almost in their entirety, and the veterans tried to do so. Unfortunately, they had only limited success.
The five biggest and best-marked battlefields that emerged during the 1890s were at Shiloh in Tennessee; Chickamauga and Chattanooga in Georgia and Tennessee; Vicksburg in Mississippi; Antietam in Maryland; and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. The “Golden Age” passed Virginia by completely. In fact, the Western Theater, not the Eastern Theater, dominated the initiative, with three of the five parks located in the West. (Chickamauga and Chattanooga were combined into a single park.) There is no evidence, however, that veterans or Congress deemed Virginia battlefields less significant or suitable for preservation than the others. Rather, successes elsewhere were the result of powerful political support that Virginia lacked.
After a thirty-year lull, federal preservation efforts began again in the mid-1920s, but by this time there were few veterans left and many of the battlefields had been eradicated as the result of urbanization. Under these circumstances, nonetheless, five Virginia sites became federal preserves: Petersburg in 1926, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania in 1927,in 1935, Richmond in 1936, and Manassas in 1940. Virginia’s most important battlefields were now preserved, but in a more limited fashion than the earlier parks. Indeed, each of the Virginia parks contained only fractions of the original battlefields.
After a flood of preservation efforts from the 1920s until the 1940s, federal preservation initiatives slowed, with only moderate attention paid during the Civil War Centennial (1961–1965). State governments, however, worked to pick up the slack, and Virginia created state parks at Sailor’s Creek in 1934 and Staunton River in 1955, along with the Virginia Military Institute’s New Market Battlefield State Historical Park in 1967. Still, by the 1970s and 1980s, battlefield preservation nationwide was once again almost nonexistent.
A resurgence of preservation consciousness emerged in the 1990s and has continued into the twenty-first century. In this fourth generation, such entities as the National Park Service, the Conservation Fund, the Civil War Preservation Trust, and others have defeated efforts to create commercial recreational areas on non-preserved battlefield and, in so doing, saved thousands of acres for preservation. In addition, Virginia finally seems to be getting its due. According to the Civil War Preservation Trust website in 2008, nearly half of the 25,000 acres saved by that organization to date are in Virginia. By this time the federal government had also become involved again, in particular with the creation of the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park.
In this fourth generation, such entities as the National Park Service, the Conservation Fund, the Civil War Preservation Trust, and others have defeated efforts to create commercial recreational areas on battlefields and, in so doing, saved thousands of acres for preservation. In addition, according to the Civil War Preservation Trust website in 2008, nearly half of the 25,000 acres saved by that organization to date are in Virginia. By this time the federal government had also become involved again, in particular with the creation of the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park. Virginia finally seems to be getting its due.