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History buff tries to save Civil War site from sewer plans

Staff Photo By Chris Seward
Late in the Civil War, Union and Confederate troops are believed to have skirmished near the William and Mary Farrell house in Morrisville. Amateur historian Ernest Dollar hopes to save such sites from development.

By KYLE YORK SPENCER, Staff Writer

MORRISVILLE -- Perched by a ravine behind Morrisville's town hall, young Ernest Dollar looks as serious as a Civil War soldier during the final weeks of the war. It's no surprise.

The 28-year-old amateur historian says the ravine is a rifle pit that was used by Confederate soldiers besieged by Unionists. And he is casing the Triangle in hopes of making sure it does not become the target of a new invasion: development. Town officials, it seems, may soon run a sewer line under the site for a development that is going up down the road.

"This is sort of a personal crusade," Dollar said this week, eyeing the spot where he says a band of soldiers -- probably wearing Scottish wool pants and carrying rusty water canteens -- protected themselves during a shootout with Union soldiers in April 1865. "Here we have a classic, juicy Civil War story."

Though it is still up in the air whether the ravine was actually dug by soldiers, found letters and artifacts suggest that several weeks before the end of the war, Morrisville was the stomping ground for Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's soldiers. Documents also suggest it was the site of a skirmish.

Whether Dollar, who grew up in Durham and lives in Carrboro, will generate enough support for his cause remains in doubt. So far, he has marched to town hall and state offices in his Doc Martins, armed with a notebook filled with documents that back up his thesis.

Morrisville Mayor Gordon Cromwell says he will look into the matter. And if it turns out that the ravine is a Civil War entrenchment, he says he'll defer to state historians. As for the property owner, Hans Stadelmaier, he too is unclear on how historic the site is. "I just don't know how important it is," he said. "And I'm not sure if it's worth saving."

Even if the water line comes in, Dollar would like to spread the word about Morrisville's role in the last days of the Civil War. He'd like to see a historic marker placed in the town to point out the sites where soldiers camped or hid in foxholes. After Raleigh fell, Dollar says, some of Sherman's soldiers headed for Morrisville. They camped on a spot where a shopping center sits at Chapel Hill Road and the Morrisville Parkway. There, they set up their tents, groomed their horses and polished their muskets.

A glass case in town hall -- displaying knapsack hooks and lantern knobs -- suggests that locals know about Morrisville's Civil War history. But people passing through, it seems, are less aware.

Officials with the North Carolina Division of Archives and History say Dollar can try to change that, although his success is doubtable. In order for Morrisville to get a Civil War marker, Dollar will have to fill out an application and his case will have to go to a committee of history professors who will determine the significance of the site. "Anyone is welcome to nominate a site or a subject for a marker," said Michael Miller, a researcher with the state. "But I made it clear to Mr. Dollar that it would not be a cinch to qualify." Miller says that's because there was not a full-fledged battle in the town. As for Dollar, he is determined to move forward, despite the odds. "The problem," he said, staring glumly at an apartment complex that is going up near where the encampment may have been, "is that the progress in Morrisville has far out-marched the preservation."

Kyle Spencer can be reached at 829-4526 or kspencer@nando.com

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