Virginia’s Petersburg National Battlefield is on track to become America’s largest Civil War park after a vote Thursday in the U.S. Senate to enlarge its boundary.

The measure is part of the National Defense Authorization Act. If enacted, the provision will fulfill a long-held dream of park advocates. Starting with Rep. Randy Forbes, a Republican, and Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat, the battlefield bill has been backed by a bipartisan group of Virginia members of Congress.

No property immediately will be added to the park, but the provision will authorize the National Park Service to incorporate battlefield land—up to 7,238 acres—that is now unprotected outside the park boundary. Over time, such additions could make Petersburg one of the largest historical parks in the nation.

Already, the national battlefield commemorates 18 separate battlegrounds figuring in the longest blockade in U.S. military history. Petersburg’s seesawing, hard-fought actions comprise one of the Civil War’s most complex struggles.

“We are extremely excited about this new opportunity to join with the battlefield community to save our national treasures,” park Superintendent Lewis Rogers said late Thursday. “Nowhere else in our nation’s history have so many Americans fought and died for ideas they so strongly believed in—some even against their own families.”

U.S. Sen Mark Warner, who cosponsored the legislation with Sen. Tim Kaine, expressed pleasure Thursday that the defense bill is on its way to President Obama’s desk.

“Petersburg National Battlefield bore witness to the longest sustained siege in our nation’s military history and draws visitors from all across the country, injecting millions of dollars into the local economy every year,” Warner said.

Reps. Bobby Scott and Randy Forbes sponsored the measure in the House of Representatives; it passed the House on Dec. 2.

Expanding the park will encourage more regional tourism, Warner said. It already bring more than $10 million a year in tourism revenue.

“This hallowed ground bears witness to one of the longest, hardest and most decisive contests of the Civil War,’ Kaine said. “The stories of all the combatants—including more than 16,000 African-American troops—will now be more accessible to the current generation.”

The nonprofit Civil War Trust has helped protect more than 2,500 acres associated with the siege of Petersburg, nearly 2,000 of which couldn’t be transferred to the Park Service until now. With the boundary expansion, the trust lands—along with properties protected by other conservation organizations—can be integrated into the park. That will improve visitors’ experiences and learning opportunities, it said.

“We are grateful to the lawmakers and partner organizations who recognized the critical importance of preserving this historic Virginia landscape,” Trust President James Lighthizer said. “These battlefields are living monuments—not just to the 70,000 men in blue and gray whose blood hallowed this ground—but to all of America’s veterans.”

Among the sites the bill benefits are some of the war’s most pivotal battlefields, including Five Forks, Peebles’ Farm, Ream’s Station, the Crater (where the Federals exploded a mine in an attempt to blow a hole in Confederate defenses), and the Petersburg Breakthrough (where a decisive Union assault led to the fall of the Confederate capital at Richmond).

A landmark 1993 study on the status of the nation’s Civil War battlefields commissioned by Congress recognized those sites as nationally significant historic resources. The study was updated by the National Park Service in 2010.

Petersburg National Battlefield now comprises about 2,700 acres. It includes places such as Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters at City Point in Hopewell, as well as other land in Dinwiddie County and the city of Petersburg, such as Poplar Grove National Cemetery.

“We are looking forward to the opportunity to open up new places for our children to learn about their heritage and enjoy ‘America’s best idea,’ its national parks,” Rogers said. “We want to invite everyone to come find your park. What a great Christmas gift for our present and future generations.”

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