Gilberts Corner Regional Park, Mt. Zion Historic Park, Aldie Mill Historic Park, Battle of Middleburg/Mt. Defiance Historic Park and the Battle of Upperville/Goose Creek Bridge Historic Park all have one thing in common: a connected history.
On the grounds of three of the properties, key battles were fought within two weeks prior to the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, and left behind the artifacts and trails to tell the tales for years to come. But about 15 years ago, it wasn’t quite as easy to access that same history.
No, it wasn’t the lack of information in textbooks, it was because all five properties were owned, operated, restored or maintained by different counties and organizations throughout Northern Virginia.
Now, NOVA Parks owns them all. And it’s calling upon the public for help in continuing to preserve the sites for years to come. In 2019, NOVA Parks launched the 1863 Fund, meant to support the parks with local donations big and small, says Paul Gilbert, executive director at NOVA Parks.
“The idea was that by creating an endowment, if we can generate enough funds in there, that [maintaining the five properties] would become self-sufficient. That way, we could generate enough return that it would help manage all of these properties, and the properties in the future,” says Gilbert.
Starting in 2006, NOVA Parks made it a mission to acquire the five locations to connect what Gilbert calls a “constellation” of historical sites. The parks association worked with those who had been stewards of the lands for years, including the American Battlefield Trust, who helped with the Battle of Upperville/Goose Creek Bridge and Mt. Defiance; the Piedmont Environmental Council, who helped with Gilberts Corner Regional Park; Loudoun County, which in 2009 transferred Mt. Zion over for ownership; as well as the Fauquier and Loudoun County Garden Club, which had also been supporting land near the Battle of Upperville/Goose Creek Bridge area.
“It’s a pretty remarkable success story,” says Gilbert. “They had all been cared for in different ways and restored or maintained, and they all helped tell the story.”
Now local residents and visitors alike can learn about the lead up to the Gettysburg Campaign, says Gilbert, where local battles took place over four days, with some of the “who’s who” of the Civil War.
“George Armstrong Cumster at the Battle of Aldie. John S. Mosby was ever-present. And if you’ve ever been to Gettysburg, the little round top there was the key hill that is often cited as the one that won the battle, and that same group of soldiers were also engaged in the local battles here, and they were the ones that wound up taking the Goose Creek Bridge,” says Gilbert.
Since the 1863 Fund launched last spring to support the parks and their eventual expansions, there have been numerous donations by local residents and history buffs who are interested, but there haven’t been any truly large contributions just yet.
“We are just starting to get into talks with larger contributors,” says Gilbert. “NOVA Parks is responsible for [the properties] and will continue to take care of them in the future, but as we raise funds, we could continue to add more and more property.”
At these sites alone, NOVA Parks is operating 181 acres of historical sites within its over 12,000 acres total throughout the region. Since there’s already so much land, one might wonder why more expansion on the historical areas is necessary, but it is, says Gilbert. NOVA Parks may have a “full box set” of history with three parks alone representing each of the key battles, but “the battles were big and the entire area of those battles is part of the study area [to expand the parks].”
So, why donate? Gilbert has an answer for that.
“There are several reasons. Certainly you should donate if you are interested in history. But if you don’t care about history at all, we have preserved some fabulously beautiful land and buildings that are iconic in our area. Even without the knowledge of the events that happened, there is natural beauty, there are tons of natural resources preserved,” says Gilbert.
“You have history, you have nature, and also, this is really part of the tourism structure of Northern Virginia. People come to our area because this is the cradle of American history, from George Washington and Native Americans, to the Revolutionary and Civil War, those stories drive tourists to the area, they will come and stay in the area, frequent restaurants, it will become a destination, which is fantastic.”
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