Posted on Sun, May. 18, 2008

Fight resumes at Civil War site

SPENCER -- It's a clash between two Southern staples -- the Civil War and racing. The dispute centers on a former textile mill and 130 acres of forest just north of this Rowan County railroad town near the Yadkin River.

Here, former Boston investment banker Dave Risdon, now of Huntersville, is clearing land to build a 2.15-mile "country club" raceway for amateur drivers of souped-up sports cars and motorcycles. The raceway would include a clubhouse and 120 townhomes lining the track.

But for preservationists, the land is sacred. They claim it as part of a Civil War battlefield where Confederates won their last victory in the Carolinas on April 12, 1865 -- three days after Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox, but two weeks before N.C. troops surrendered.

Last week, the nonprofit Civil War Preservation Trust included the site, about 45 miles north of Charlotte, among its annual list of the nation's 25 most-endangered Civil War battlefields.

"We're not anti-development, but we try to get people to take a hard look at where they're trying to build things," said the trust's Mary Koik. "You can move a school -- or in this case a racetrack -- but you can't move a battlefield."

Plans from 2005

Sides for the current skirmish were quickly drawn in 2005, when Risdon announced his track plans. The debate is over how much of his land was occupied by troops during the 1865 battle for a vital railroad bridge over the Yadkin.

Risdon's property is split by U.S. 29. To the west are 70 acres that hold remnants of the old N.C. Finishing Co. plant that was abruptly closed in 2000 during the Pillowtex downfall. To the east, sits the raceway site that was mostly trees and bramble when Risdon bought it.

Preservationist Ann Brownlee, Risdon's most vocal critic, argues that the racetrack would be "smack in the heart of the battleground. If you take out the heart, the periphery will be meaningless."

She said her assertion is backed by cannonballs and other artifacts found at the site, along with an eyewitness account of a Union cavalryman being shot off his horse there.

She's not the lone voice. Several residents have written letters to local newspapers decrying anymore destruction of the battlefield.

Risdon counters that the fighting was focused on a more compressed area: "It took place over the Yadkin River. There is no written evidence that any of the fighting took place on my land. Ms. Brownlee's assertion ... is a complete fabrication."

Battle for a bridge

Most of the fighting did take place on or near the bridge.

In the war's waning days, Union forces led by Gen. George Stoneman had stormed through Western North Carolina in what became known as "Stoneman's Raid." Early on April 12, they captured Salisbury, determined to destroy supply lines.

Stoneman liberated and burned the city's infamous Confederate prison, then turned a brigade of about 1,200 troops on the bridge.

The raiders arrived about 2 p.m. But, across the river into Davidson County, Confederate Gen. Zebulon York had spread a like number of troops -- with four or five pieces of artillery -- along a bluff that overlooked the bridge.

As the federal troops approached, the Confederates fired from "York Hill" and drove them back. After more than five hours of fighting, the Union raiders retreated to Salisbury. More than 15 had been killed or mortally wounded.

How close?

Standing last week on York Hill, Risdon looked down at U.S. 29 and pointed to where the railroad bridge once stretched.

"This is where the fighting occurred: On this hill where the Confederates were making their stand and on the bridge that the Union soldiers were trying to destroy," he said. "Our property is nowhere near the fighting."

Yet Brownlee and others argue that much of York Hill is missing, bulldozed to build U.S. 29 and nearby Interstate 85. The Confederates, they say, likely would have covered the entire bluff and Union troops would have spread out along the track site for safety.

"If I'm a Union soldier and approaching this bridge from the Rowan side, it would have been logical and typical for the force to spread out and seek cover," said Chris Hartley of Clemmons, near Winston-Salem, a Civil War author who is researching a book on Stoneman and his raiders. "They'd also want to look for ways to cross the river."

Risdon's land doesn't run along the Yadkin -- where the bridge now rots after it fell in 1890.

'Country club' tracks

Road course racetracks are a popular trend in amateur motorsports.

About 50 operate around the country -- one's in Kershaw, S.C. -- but there are only a half dozen "country club" tracks. Risdon's High Rock Raceway would be a first for North Carolina.

Townhouse owners could use the clubhouse, and the track (for 60 days a year) to drive their cars or motorcycles. Risdon has deposits on 94 units.

The track would also be used for corporate events, driver training, testing and possibly sanctioned races.

Yet after three years of controversy, not one turn has been cut into the rolling terrain. The project was slowed by two lawsuits Brownlee's group filed but ultimately dropped. The town of Spencer annexed Risdon's land, hopeful of the track's economic benefits. Last August, its zoning board gave him the go-ahead -- concluding that the land's historical significance was destroyed decades ago.

A month later, a court order stopped work after workers began grading more land than the town permit allowed. In March, Risdon got permission to clear trees and pull stumps. But until he gets an erosion control plan approved, he won't be able to grade.

Still, Brownlee knows there's little else she can do.

"I keep my eye on Mr. Risdon, but legally we're at a roadblock," she said. "I only hope he gets a sudden appreciation for history."


Brownlee stands beside historic marker

Davie Hinshaw
The Charlotte Observer/AP

Preservationist Ann Brownlee says a proposed racetrack and housing project near the Yadkin River would be built on part of a key Civil War battlefield.

Racetrack developer David Risdon

Davie Hinshaw
The Charlotte Observer/AP

Dave Risdon wants to build a "country club" racetrack on land near the Yadkin River. Preservationists say the site is part of a key battle. 


Map | Battle at Yadkin River Bridge