Pamplin alumnus leads fight to protect, promote Virginia’s Civil War battlefields

Civil War history has long captivated Pamplin College of Business alumnus Denman Zirkle, who graduated in 1960. After more than 25 years in the financial services industry, Zirkle found a second career in helping to protect, manage, and interpret long-ago fighting grounds. He is the executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation. The challenges of historic preservation, he discovered, mean a constant battle for funds and against development.

The Roanoke, Va.-born Zirkle said he has always been fascinated by the Civil War -- its causes, the military brilliance of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and “how the defeat of the Confederacy has continued to define our nation, both politically and socially, through almost 150 years.” His interest in historic preservation, however, “came later in life, as I became increasingly aware of our dwindling natural and historic resources and the relentless commercial pressure to compromise them.”


Denman Zirkle is executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation. Some 14,000 acres of core Civil War battlefields have no protection against development, says Denman Zirkle, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation.

Zirkle, who also earned an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School and is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, began his career in finance in 1983, when he joined Morgan Stanley from Consolidated Rail Corp. He later moved to Lynch & Mayer, a New York investment advisory firm, where he was senior vice president in charge of marketing, and Franklin Templeton Investments, where he was executive vice president for the institutional business division. More recently, he was chief executive officer of another New York advisory firm, Carret and Co.

Appointed in April 2009 to lead the battlefields foundation, Zirkle said the organization’s work must be “ramped up, both in terms of management and interpretation of the acreage that has been protected, as well as the acquisition of remaining battlefield land.”

The foundation was incorporated in 2000 to “protect, interpret, and promote” battlefields in the newly designated Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District, created by Congress in 1996. At that time, some 2,100 acres had been protected -- core battlefield land on the 10 battlefields of the eight-county historic district. “Today, that number stands at almost 6,000 acres, thanks to initiatives by our foundation and our partners -- the commonwealth of Virginia, Civil War Trust, Lee-Jackson Educational Foundation, and others,” Zirkle said.


The ruins of the tenant house remain on the Huntsberry Farm property, which is part of the Third Winchester battlefield. The ruins of the tenant house remain on the Huntsberry Farm property, which is part of the Third Winchester battlefield.

It is an accomplishment, he said, but added that, in Virginia, approximately 14,000 acres of core battlefield remain unprotected, some of it already being encroached upon by development. “Some of our most threatened battlefields are those in Frederick County, but the same development pressure is creeping up the valley into Shenandoah and Rockingham counties. Both interstate highways and development have already significantly encroached on battlefield land in Frederick and Warren counties. We do not have long to protect the remaining acreage.”

The foundation’s biggest challenge, he said, is to continue pursuing the $2 million in land acquisition funding that Congress authorized when it passed legislation creating the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District. The funding has not been consistent, Zirkle said, noting that it was not available for 2011 and is uncertain for 2012, because of efforts to rein in federal spending. “But without it, we cannot use matching grants from the state and other sources to purchase land or even easements on land.”

The 1996 legislation also authorized up to another $2 million in matching funding for the management, interpretation, and promotion of battlefields. “We have never received any of this funding,” he said, “thus, some of our protected battlefield land lies fallow.”

The process of protecting battlefields, he said, involves identifying the individual parcels, working with interested sellers, and providing the necessary funding for purchasing the land or placing conservation easements on the land. “Without funding, it is pointless to engage in the detailed preparation work.” And after battlefields become protected, they need to be “respected,” Zirkle said, through proper maintenance and interpretation that will provide both recreational and educational experiences for the public -- all of which requires financial support.


Denman Zirkle stands at the marker for Fisher's Hill, south of Strasburg, Va. It is part of the Third Winchester battle site. Denman Zirkle stands at the marker for Fisher's Hill, south of Strasburg, Va. It is part of the Third Winchester battle site.

The sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War this year presents a timely opportunity for the foundation, he noted. “We have to tell our story to the citizens of the Shenandoah Valley and the state as well as to a larger audience across the nation. When more people are aware of our work and future challenges, I am confident of significantly more private support.”

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For Zirkle, it’s personal

Historic preservation isn’t just a professional pursuit for Denman Zirkle, it’s also a personal passion. The family farms that he helps run near Edinburg, Va., include buildings that have been recognized by inclusion on the Virginia Landmarks Register, as well as designated as National Historic Landmarks by the U.S. Department of Interior.

The property, which supports 500 to 1,000 head of cattle, includes tracts that his family has owned since the late 18th century.

Zirkle is a trustee of the Civil War Trust and a director of the Valley Conservation Council. He is also a longtime member of the Pamplin Advisory Council.

Something new for the foundation

“We are in the midst of a redirection” for the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, Denny Zirkle said.

“Our first 10 years were devoted to planning what we needed to protect and interpret. Now we must implement our plans with much-reduced federal support,” he said.

“Our needs are great, especially with the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War. We are implementing programs to partner with local businesses to increase their revenues while looking to them to assist with our battlefield interpretation and promotion efforts. We are also implementing a private and corporate development program, something new for the foundation.”

Farm to help protect battlefield site

    The 209-acre Huntsberry Farm is at the Third Winchester battle site.

Faced with a “wonderful opportunity” to protect additional land at the Third Winchester battlefield, site of one of the largest battles fought in the Shenandoah Valley, the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation purchased a 209-acre farm.

“With another property previously protected by the foundation, and a third tract protected earlier by the Civil War Trust, we now have more than 570 contiguous areas of this battlefield protected,” Denny Zirkle said.

The farm was bought in part with a $500,000 loan -- the foundation’s largest transaction ever. The loan must be repaid, he said, “but our greater challenge is to restore this land for productive farming, then develop and implement an interpretation plan for tourists and local residents and school children.”

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