“That battle happened so many years ago, it’s hard to tell what happened there,” said Milton Rollins, whose family has owned most of the land in the area since 1922.
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors is set to vote today on whether to allow Dallas-based Centex Homes to fill 341 acres of the property with as many as 520 19th century-style homes.
Besides a plaque on Va. 28 across from the property, there is little to reveal that among the open, rolling hills near the intersection, as many as 200 Union and Confederate soldiers died on Oct. 14, 1863 when Gen. A.P. Hill threw his troops into a costly attack of a Union position.
The 85-year-old Rollins remembers how his father, Joseph Rollins, stopped plowing a part of one field because he was turning up bones. He recalls how his family removed tombstones, placed by veterans of the 10th Alabama during the early 1900s, when relic hunters began scavenging the land.
“People were coming down Nokesville Road and taking the stones,” he said.
With Centex promising to give the remaining 127 acres to the Washington, D.C.-based Civil War Preservation Trust for use as a park, county leaders are heralding Centex’s New Bristow Village as the best way to preserve the memory of the battle.
“The company, in many ways, has set a new mark for how a developer should deal with property that is of historical and cultural significance,” said Board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton.
But local historians worry the development will destroy the graves of Confederate soldiers.
“Once the bulldozers get done, there’s not much left,” said James Burgess Jr., vice chairman of the Prince William County Historical Commission.
Burgess wants the Board of Supervisors to allow the commission more time to survey the site than the 30 days Centex is offering. Bodies would be moved to the trust’s portion of the site.
“If the developer allows us sufficient time to do the survey, that’s all we ask for,” he said.
The commission maintains that there may be as many as 500 Confederate graves on the land. Diseases such as typhoid and meningitis, Burgess says, took a toll on the Confederate garrisons stationed near the site during 1861 and 1862.
And the numbers add up. The records of the 6th North Carolina record the deaths of 21 men at the site between Aug. 20 and Sept. 30, 1861. The diaries of Union soldiers from the following year mention other burials, such as the graves of 128 troops, mostly Mississippians, and the final resting place of 74 members of the 10th Alabama.
Burgess thinks it possible that the 143 Confederates who died during the 1863 battle may be buried there as well. Individual families, he says, were ill-equipped to move their loved ones after the war.
“The Confederate government certainly didn’t have the resources to do it,” he said.
Thunderbird Archeological Associates, however, only reported a possible 40 graves on the land in December 2000. Commissioned by Centex to study the property, the Woodstock-based company picked out areas of land likely to contain graves and excavated small portions every 50 meters.
Even though the company found little evidence of graves, it entertained the possibility.
“Because the project area is located within the core area of the Bristoe Station battlefield, battlefield burials within the project area are possible,” the company’s report stated.
Annette Snapp, curator of collections at the Charlotte Museum of History in Charlotte, N.C., says it would have been easy for Thunderbird to miss grave sites on the property.
Paid by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to look at the site, Snapp and Kenner, La.-based thermographer Bob Melia used thermal imaging and a metal probe to find two more grave sites, and a possible third, on the property in May 2001.
“What Thunderbird decided to do was scan the site. But they didn’t find the three cemeteries,” Snapp said.
Since she only examined a small portion of the property, Snapp worries that there are more grave sites to be found, as does Bobby McManus, founder of Preserve Bristoe Station.
“Thirty days isn’t enough to find the bodies of the young men who fought and died there,” she said.
When asked what he thought about the time limit, Jeffrey H. Schwartz, a professor of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, said 30 days may be enough time.
“If you get together enough people who know what they’re doing scanning the area, it might work,” said Schwartz, who has led digs in Tunisia and Israel.
For his part, Connaughton is sure Centex will be more than helpful in allowing a study of the site.
“I’ve never dealt with a developer that has pretty much done everything we’ve asked it to do,” he said.
Even though houses will now sit where there are open fields, Connaughton believes that by giving land to the Civil War Preservation Trust, Centex is ensuring that the memory of the Battle of Bristoe Station will be preserved.
“When I was running for office, I was told by several groups that it was critical that we save this battlefield. I think this will do that,” he said.