Safekeeping Hallowed Ground

This is how O. James Lighthizer, former Anne Arundel County Executive, feels about his current job: "It's like getting a bowl of ice cream and going to heaven."

Well, now. What sort of job might that be? Clues abound in the Lighthizer living room: There's a portrait over there of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, a bust of Abraham Lincoln on the mantel, crossed sabers over the fireplace, then a painting of Lincoln. Civil War items, certain evidence that Jim Lighthizer has found heaven as president of the Civil War Preservation Trust.

The Trust is a non-profit organization devoted to the preservation of America's Civil War battlefields. He got the job because of his experience with land acquisition and the zoning minutia that attend such endeavors. And, yes, his being a Civil War devotee certainly helped with his getting the job.

How did this Civil War thing come about?

"I was raised in a family where everyone read a lot, and I always had had a strong interest in American history. In 1983 we were getting ready to go to the beach at Nags Head and a friend recommended Killer Angels. I told him I didn't read historical novels. He insisted, 'Read it.' I did, and the rest, as they say, is history."

Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara, inspired the movie Gettysburg. The book has the principals in that battle---Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, George Pickett---talking about their battle, their war, their lives before the killing started. Their words are fiction, but they are spoken in places that are true, awfully true for the blood shed there: Little Round Top, Cemetery Ridge, Seminary Ridge, Devil's Den.

Lighthizer immediately immersed himself in the subject. "I would guess I've read 200 books on the war," he says. "I always, always have a Civil War book going." He took his knowledge to Anne Arundel Community College where he taught credit courses on the war for 12 years. Lighthizer had a serious resume at work before he came on the Civil War. He was born 56 years ago in Ashtabula, Ohio, and earned a political science degree at the University of Dayton in 1968. He attended Georgetown Law from 1971 to 1975 while working at IBM---"peddling typewriters," he says.

He practiced law in Glen Burnie and in Annapolis before serving as a House delegate to the state legislature from his Crofton district. He was elected county executive in 1982, serving eight years. He cites the acquisition and development of Quiet Waters Park as one of his proudest achievements in that office.

"I bought the land and personally supervised the design," he says. "I worked on it more than I did on any other project as a public official."

In 1991 Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed him Maryland's Secretary of Transportation. "We got along well together," Lighthizer says of his work with the governor. "We were both politicians and understood how it works. We were both results-oriented and knew that the objective was to serve people. I knew how to get things done, and Schaefer liked that."

As head of transportation he continued with his land-acquisition projects, creating a program that saved more than 4,500 acres of Civil War battlefield land in Maryland. He was also chair of the Governor's Greenways Committee, resulting in thousands of acres of land being set aside for that program.

Prior to this activity, he had five children---Jimmy, Patrice, Conor, Meaghan, and Bobby, who is deceased. Wife Gloria is a conference planner at Anne Arundel Community College. None shares his passion for the Civil War.

"By 1983 the older three were teenagers and could have cared less," he says. The others have never come on board.

He has found two relatives who fought for the Union in the war---Wade Fithin, a private shot in the hip at South Mountain in Virginia, and George Lighthizer, another private who was captured, paroled and eventually hospitalized in Philadelphia not for some glorious combat wound but for syphilis.

Lighthizer's skills at land acquisition and preservation doubtless led to his being nominated chair of the Civil War Trust's Battlefield Preservation Committee in 1997. At that time he was practicing at Miles and Stockbridge in Baltimore, one of the state's oldest law firms. In 1999 the Trust merged with the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, creating the Civil War Preservation Trust.

"They asked me to be president," he says. "I didn't say yes. I said, hell, yes. They were going to pay me to go places where I already went on vacation."

The job demands that he go places constantly, to Chancellorsville in Virginia, Corinth in Mississippi, and many other battle sites. The Civil War was a massive undertaking, with some 10,000 battles and skirmishes fought from Virginia to Colorado, from Florida to Minnesota. "A 1993 Congressional study determined that 384 of these Civil War battles were highly significant influences of the course of our nation's history," the Trust states in its literature. "More than 70 of these battlefields have already been lost forever and fewer than 15 percent have been protected. In between lie vulnerable sites, places where American soldiers gave their lives fighting for their visions of freedom, places that are now threatened by bulldozers and backhoes."

Lighthizer is charged with raising money. Sources of money include more than 42,000 members of the Trust, private donors, and state and federal governments. Part of the job means he has to work Capitol Hill---"the key to lobbying on the Hill is knowing the right staff members of the right senators." His political background aids him in this pursuit.

The other part of his job is his "passion for preserving land." He says, "This is accomplished in large part by government action, with such matters as zoning. I know how that works."

George Will acknowledged Lighthizer's efforts in a column this past fall: "CWPT's president, James Lighthizer---a temperate, grown-up realist---stresses that CWPT's members are 'not whacked-out tree-huggers' who hate development and want to preserve 'every piece of ground where Lee's horse pooped.' But regarding commemorations, Americans today seem inclined to build where they ought not, and not to build where they should, as at the site of the World Trade Center."

The Trust has acquired some 15,000 acres of battlefields at 80-plus sites in 18 states. The opportunity to secure more acreage is closing fast, says Lighthizer. "The window will close over the next 10 years," he says. "The land will be either saved or gone forever."


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