Preservation urged for Morrisville's Civil War battleground

jshaffer@newsobserver.comMarch 6, 2014 

  • Battle of Morrisville

    Union cavalry commanded by Gen. William T. Sherman captured Raleigh on April 13, 1865. Confederate forces retreated west along the railroad line, reaching Morrisville Station in western Wake County. Federals under Gen. Judson Kilpatrick pursued, exchanging fire at the station and firing artillery on the hill that overlooked it. Rebel forces under Gen. Joseph Wheeler returned fire long enough for a railroad car full of supplies and wounded soldiers to move on toward Greensboro.

    Later, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston sent a message to the Union troops at Morrisville, requesting armistice talks with Sherman. That message led to the largest surrender of the war, which happened at Bennett Place in Durham.

— In 1865, this tiny railroad town saw some of the Civil War’s last days – its concluding cannon blasts, the final thundering of soldiers’ feet.

If you stand in Morrisville Square – now home to a Vietnamese restaurant and an Islamic Center – you can see the forest where Confederate troops dug their rifle pits.

If you look down Morrisville-Carpenter Road past Town Hall, you can see where Union cavalry fired artillery, chasing the rebels toward surrender.

It’s an obscure chapter in the war, a minor skirmish forgotten in the pages of history.

But many in Morrisville hope the town will preserve at least part of the battleground, now threatened by development. They hope history can reshape the identity of their small and fast-growing town, best known for being next door to the airport.

“What’s more valuable?” asked Ernest Dollar, director of the City of Raleigh Museum. “More houses or a truly unique place that will drive a tourism business?”

Morrisville’s chapter in the war covered two days in April of 1865 – just after Raleigh’s fall to the Union army, just before the war’s largest surrender in Durham.

For the most part, all that remains from that battle is an 18-acre patch of woods, a hardwood forest overlooking Indian Creek. Walk through it with Dollar, who has researched Morrisville’s war days for 20 years, and he’ll point out dips in the ground that soldiers likely dug for cover.

Conflict with neighbors

For decades, the property was owned by Hans H. Stadelmaier, a professor emeritus of materials science and engineering at N.C. State University. Before he died in 2012, he helped found the Carolina chapter of the American Society of Metals, not to mention Raleigh’s “Little German Band.”

But the battleground’s future lies in doubt.

Morrisville is set to vote on a new zoning map. The 18-acre site is now zoned agricultural and would change to very low-density residential if that plan is approved.

Town Planning Director Ben Hitchings noted that both zoning designations allow the same density of housing: about one unit per acre.

But to residents, just changing the name to residential is symbolic, and it would quickly usher in home builders. Some in the nearby Savannah neighborhood have formed a group pushing for the land’s preservation and urging residents to write the Town Council by March 25.

The battlefield, they say, actually covered far more ground in Morrisville that has already been developed, and sparing this piece would also add a rare plot of forested land.

“Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to wants to see it preserved,” said Rebecca Crandall, an intellectual-property attorney who lives in Savannah. “When we were building our homes, we didn’t know that Savannah was on the same site.”

Stadelmaier had two daughters and a son, and Wake County records list daughter and executrix Christiane Stadelmaier of Boston as the owner of the property. She could not be reached.

History vs. progress

Hitchings said that the property is for sale and that the family has expressed interest in setting aside a portion of the property as a historic park in exchange for higher housing density on the rest. But the town has received no formal request, he said.

Feelings on the Town Council differ.

Morrisville recently added a Civil War exhibit inside Town Hall, including bullets, buttons and buckles unearthed from the ground. Signs link it to the Civil War Trail statewide. Dollar created a documentary about the battle which shows in the lobby.

Councilman Michael Schlink noted Durham has the better-known Bennett Place a few miles away, site of the Confederate surrender. Raleigh has the Confederate graves inside Oakwood Cemetery. He doubts Morrisville could afford the land or run it as a city park, a role usually reserved for the state or federal government.

“If we could attract more single-family housing in our town center, that would help,” he said. “That’s what we hear from the business community. They want more customers.”

But to Councilwoman Vicki Scroggins-Johnson, a town doesn’t get many chances to hold on to an undisturbed forest, let alone a battle site.

“It’s of national significance,” she said. “Although it’s not Gettysburg, it’s one of the last places that fired artillery.”

Under the Morrisville ground, the last pieces of history wait to learn how the story ends.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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