Tennessean: Land sale will save Civil War battlefield in Spring Hill

GM agrees to sell Spring Hill site

Posted on September 25, 2010

SPRING HILL — Two CEO friends, a senator and a phone call were key in sparing important Civil War land from development — at a price below its appraised value.

After years of fruitless negotiations to buy key Battle of Spring Hill sites, Washington-based nonprofit Civil War Preservation Trust now has a $2 million contract to buy 84 acres adjacent to Rippavilla Plantation from its owners at General Motors. The formal announcement was made Friday at the plantation.

Zoned for possible commercial development, the land was appraised for about $4 million — out of the reach of preservationists who wanted to save the property rather than see it developed.

Enter John Nau III, chairman of the trust and CEO of Silver Eagle, one of the nation's largest beer distributors, based in Houston. Nau also has been friends with General Motors Co. Chairman Ed Whitacre since meeting him in Texas a few years ago.

"I was getting a briefing from the staff, who said, 'Here's dirt' … and picked up the phone," Nau said. "Ed (Whitacre) said, 'Let me look into it.' "

Whitacre did not attend the Friday ceremony and could not be reached for comment. John K. Blanchard, GM's executive director of worldwide real estate, also was credited in the deal.

"We are pleased that the Trust will be acquiring this property and ensuring that it will now be protected and ensuring that it will now be protected and accessible for generations to come," Blanchard said in a statement.

A $1.9 million federal grant through the National Park Service's American Battlefield Protection Program got the contract in place earlier this summer.

Trust President Jim Lighthizer will turn to the group's 55,000 members to raise the $100,000 needed to close the sale by Nov. 29. Donations already have begun coming in.

"We can have wonderful economic growth and development, and we can, at the same time, preserve part of American history," Lighthizer said.

Along U.S. 31 near GM's Spring Hill auto plant, the site is where thousands of Confederate troops camped during the Battle of Spring Hill on Nov. 29, 1864. Union forces crept by them in the night just yards away, setting the stage for the bloody and decisive Battle of Franklin a day later.

Lighthizer called Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander's advocacy of the deal significant in getting the land deal made, though Alexander downplayed his role. "I'd give General Motors and the citizens here the credit — and the taxpayers because it's
$1.9 million of taxpayer money," Alexander said. "I had more to do to bringing the plant here than the battlefield."

The sale comes on the heels of GM recently investing an additional $483 million in its Spring Hill manufacturing complex and creating more than 400 jobs.

While not the same immediate economic significance, the battlefield's preservation offers its own importance, said Spring Hill plant site manager Terri Burden.

"Both of them are a huge benefit to the community," Burden said. "Putting investment dollars and bringing jobs back to the plant is going to be good for this community and this area — same thing with this property."