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Civil War history center the result of a perfect storm

When Fayetteville was named as the site for an innovative $65 million Civil War history center March14, the first reaction was, "Wow!"

The second reaction: "How?"

How was the city able to quietly claim a facility that is expected to draw tens of thousands of visitors annually with a blend of history and new technology?

How was a site destroyed by Union forces in the closing weeks of the war and all but obliterated by the state highway department 25years ago able to inspire what will be a state-of-the-art learning center?

And finally, how was the city able to fend off politicians who wanted the center for their own towns?

The answer: a combination of decades of waiting, years of preparation and a few fortunate minutes of overheard conversation at a cocktail party.

The history center at the crest of Haymount Hill will replace the current Museum of the Cape Fear, which will be leveled for parking. Construction, which is not expected to begin before 2017, was kick-started by a grant of $500,000 from the Cumberland Community Foundation.

Fundraising will begin as soon as final state approval is received.

Building the museum, officials say, will require a combination of community, corporate and government support. The earliest date for completion is 2019, according to board members.

"This is a big, big project, much bigger than one city or group," said David Winslow. He is director of the Winslow Group, a consulting firm for nonprofit organizations that helped direct the history center's strategic planning.

"No one group could have made this happen," Winslow said. "This is the combined effort of several people, and a lot - and I mean a lot - of work."

Still, the campaign to create a history center at Fayetteville's Arsenal complex took nearly as long as the campaign to destroy it 150 years earlier. And, according to Fayetteville historian and foundation board member Mary Lynn Bryan, "There were certainly some battles along the way."

To understand why Fayetteville would be chosen for the state's Civil War center, it helps to know the history of the land where it will be built.

During the Civil War, the area atop Haymount Hill was dominated by one of the largest armories in the United States - an architecturally impressive brick and limestone complex called the Fayetteville Arsenal. Think of the arsenal as Fort Bragg long before Fort Bragg (named, ironically, for a Confederate general) existed.

The complex was a storehouse of weapons and ammunition in the event of foreign attack. It became a source of local pride, the site of celebrations and a gateway into the city.

After John Brown attacked the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., more than 35,000 rifles were sent to Fayetteville for safe-keeping. By the end of April 1861, those rifles, along with the arsenal itself, were in Confederate hands.

During the war, arms-making machinery was moved from Virginia to Fayetteville, allowing the arsenal to make hundreds of long-range rifles per month. Aside from Wilmington's Fort Fisher, it was considered the most important military objective in North Carolina.

The arsenal was the primary reason Gen. William T. Sherman sent his forces to Fayetteville. Upon reaching the city March 11, 1865, his orders were clear: Do not leave two bricks of the structure together.

The arsenal was razed by engineers of Sherman's army March 12 and 13, 1865. They used railroad ties to batter the walls into what one witness called "a shapeless mass of ruins."

After the war, the arsenal property was sold into private hands. All that remained of the walled structure were piles of scarred stone and an immense footprint where the walls and tower once stood.

In the late 1980s, much of that was removed, as well. The state Department of Transportation brushed aside historians' protests and carved Fayetteville's Central Business District Loop - now Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway - through the heart of the arsenal complex. The only victory won by historians was a minor deviation of the road's path that kept the remnants of the western wall intact.

On the other side of the loop, the Museum of the Cape Fear was built on what had been the northeast corner of the arsenal in 1988. Remnant chunks of the wall can still be seen along Bradford Avenue.

But unless you knew what you were looking for, Fayetteville's once-glittering landmark was long gone.

Over the years, much of the original property has been purchased by the Museum of the Cape Fear, and occasional history programs are staged there.

Members of the museum board have long pondered projects for the arsenal site. The current museum does not have enough room to host an annual Civil War trivia contest, much less an expansive arsenal project.

In 2008, the museum received a grant from the state to re-evaluate its future, thanks in part to state Sen. Tony Rand of Fayetteville.

"He was instrumental in helping us receive a planning grant," Bryan said. "The goal was to discover what was needed to enhance the Museum of the Cape Fear. We had so much potential, so much history right there. How could we best use it?"

During discussions with a handful of consultants, a suggestion was made: Why not do something with the arsenal? For people long used to the gap carved by a highway 30 years earlier, the idea resonated like a blast of a cannon.

"We were sitting on this marvelous site but doing nothing with it," Bryan said. "Our focus shifted to the Civil War - not just the battle itself, but everything.

"We had a chance to examine the Civil War and what it meant to this state of North Carolina. No matter who you are, if you're from North Carolina, this is our shared history."

In spring 2011, Winslow was chatting over cocktails with clients in Wilmington when he heard about the project. With nearly 30years of experience working with nonprofit groups, he was intrigued by the possibilities.

"You have an opportunity," he said. "You're not thinking outside the box. You're rebuilding the box from the beginning."

Rather than create another museum full of uniforms, scabbards and rusty cannon balls, Winslow tapped into the group's greater goals - to tell the war's story, before, during and after - in ways that had not been done before.

"There are already some excellent museums in this state dealing with the war itself," Winslow said. "We didn't want to repeat their work."

Instead, Winslow took board members to "next generation" museums that are more interactive and rely on technology as much as artifacts: Gettysburg, the Marine Museum at Quantico, Va., the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

"Good museums tell good stories, even with the most difficult subject matter," he said. "The Civil War is perhaps the most difficult story in our nation's history. You can't tell that story in a vacuum. It's not just battles."

The group discussed how to present the war as more than exhibits and artifacts. It tapped historians, politicians, psychologists and professors for ideas.

One point came back clearly: Such a center should reflect the war's effects on all groups in the state. Age, race, gender, economic level, geography all had a part in the story.

"Obviously, the foundation of what has become Fayetteville State University is part of the war's history," said FSU Chancellor James Anderson, a consultant for the project. "There are so many ways our community and our state were affected.

"But it was important to make sure it was grounded in scholarship," he said. "That foundation will give the center a firm footing in the future."

An architectural firm, Vines Architecture of Charlotte, was brought in. Using suggestions from these sources and designing along the remnants of the arsenal, Victor Vines designed a 60,000-square-foot contemporary center dedicated to telling the story with an eye on evolving technology. Learning centers in the building will connect via the Internet to other centers across the state.

"There are artifacts, of course, and those are important in telling the story," Vines said. "But the idea is to go beyond the normal idea of a museum."

Bertha Miller, another board member and history professor at FSU, agreed that looking at the war as a collection of conquests limits the lingering changes it created in America.

"Society, medicine, communication, economic, there are so many changes that can be traced back to the Civil War," she said.

That's the major reason the center has never been called "museum."

"We disciplined ourselves to not name the group," Winslow said. "We just called ourselves 'the board' until we got where we were going.

"If we had gone into this with the idea of being a museum, this isn't where we would have come out."

The real struggle, board members say, was not in developing the center's vision.

The hard part was convincing people in other parts of the state that Fayetteville might be the best location.

"We knew it was," Winslow said. "But once people got an idea just how special such a center would be, they also began wondering ... 'Why not Raleigh?' 'Why not Wilmington?' What made Fayetteville the logical place to put this?"

Ironically, one major plus was the fact that nothing had been done with the arsenal grounds in decades. It offered a historic setting, plenty of room and property that was already in hand.

"No one else could offer such a significant location immediately available," said Winslow. "And while major battles were fought elsewhere, we weren't about battles.

"In fact, having this center might steer even more guests to places like Fort Fisher, Bentonville, Averasboro. We don't want to take people away from there. We want to offer a more complete understanding of what the war meant to everyone in the state."

In addition, the presence of the center should increase guests at Fayetteville's other two major tourist stops: the Airborne & Special Operations Museum and Cape Fear Botanical Garden.

A series of quiet community meetings confirmed enthusiasm in Fayetteville for such a center. When the Cumberland Community Foundation approved a half-million-dollar grant to help get the center off the ground, state leaders were convinced.

The board was told that once complete, the North Carolina Civil War History Center would be maintained as part of the state museum system.

"Folks in Raleigh are really excited to get this built," Winslow said. "There's a lot of excitement, and the sooner we get going, the sooner we can share it with everyone."

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