July, 2009

My friend Clark “Bud” Hall wrote the following piece for his former column that appeared in the Culpeper Star-Exponent newspaper:

Fleetwood Hill: The Famous Plateau

“The Most Marched Upon, Camped Upon, Fought Upon, Fought Over Piece of Real Estate in American History.”

As one enters Culpeper County on U.S. Highway 29 from the northeast, your vehicle proceeds about four miles and soon passes a little knoll on the right. Scooped from the flood plain of the Rappahannock River, this grassy, gentle hillock marks the southern terminus of a two and a half mile ridge that witnessed more fighting, more often, than any other piece of ground in this country—in any war.

Fleetwood Hill—geologically the beach of a primeval sea—overlooks a broad, flat, Triassic plateau that sweeps all the way to the river. “This hill commands the finest country for cavalry fighting I ever saw or fought upon,” avowed an experienced colonel.

A military commander bent on advancing his troops for attack toward Culpeper Court House from Fauquier must first ford the Rappahannock and then deploy his command on a broad front as he moves for attack. Unfortunately for the would-be attacker, this is the precise point where a serious obstacle presents itself because the aggressor soon learns (the hard way) his advance is threatened by artillery, infantry and flanking cavalry on Fleetwood Hill to his front.

A Confederate staff officer described the attacker’s dilemma: “This hill commanded the level country toward the Rappahannock and a force…must either carry the position or turn it.” A Southern horseman—he a son of Culpeper—also observed, “There was no movement of troops across the borders of Culpeper that artillery did not blaze from its summits and charging squadrons, on its slopes and around its base, did not contend for supremacy.”

Immortally characterizing Fleetwood Hill as “the famous plateau,” Jeb Stuart’s Chief of Staff penned colorful accounts of the Battle of Brandy Station. This huge cavalry action was highlighted by massive, decisive charges, concluding finally when Federal attackers were driven off Fleetwood on June 9, 1863. In fact, there were 21 separate military actions on Fleetwood Hill during the Civil War—far more than any other battle venue in this country.

Increasing its strategic import for military commanders, Fleetwood hovers above the village of Brandy Station, just a half mile away. Significantly, the ridge—and artillery thereupon—overlooks five converging road junctions in the hamlet. (An early name for the village was in fact “Crossroads.”) Of further consequence, the vital Orange & Alexandria Railroad sliced past the southern base of the hill and the village was a transport station.

The famous Carolina Road (Rt. 685), the major north-south thoroughfare of the Colonial and Civil War eras, bisects the southern terminus of the ridge—a roadway utilized dozens of times by both marching armies to shift artillery and wagons. For the convenience of passing or camping troops, “a remarkable spring,” Herring’s Spring, flowed strong and clear from the base of the hill on the north side (still does) and Flat Run marks the bottom of the southern slope.

During the winter encampment of the Army of the Potomac in 1863-1864, the entirety of the length of Fleetwood was used as a well-drained camping platform by thousands of troops. Gen. George Meade selected a spur of Fleetwood as his headquarters site and it is on Fleetwood that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Meade planned the Overland Campaign.

So the next time you are headed out on Highway 29 past Brandy Station, kindly glance up at the little knoll just west of the road and note that this unpretentious little ridge has seen more military action than any other piece of ground in American history. And you will also then smugly conclude that “Fleetwood Hill: The Famous Plateau,” provides yet another momentous historical distinction for our own Culpeper County.

Bud’s point is well-taken. There is probably no other piece of ground anywhere in North America that saw more determined fighting than did Fleetwood Hill, which was the site of FOUR different major cavalry battles between August 1862 and October 1863, and which also served as a major portion of the winter encampment of the Army of the Potomac during the winter of 1863-64.

Troilo House
Bud will be contributing more regarding the failure to preserve Fleetwood Hill and the McMansion that blights that historic ground today. Stay tuned. Thanks to Craig Swain for the picture of that hideous McMansion, which ruins the sight lines on the hill.

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30 Jul 2009, by

An Ugly Spat

The following article appeared in today’s edition of the New York Times:

Civil War Fires Up Literary Shootout

Published: July 29, 2009
LOS ANGELES — History repeats itself. But sometimes it needs a little polishing up from Hollywood.

Over the last few weeks, the writers of a pair of Civil War-era histories about the anti-Confederate inhabitants of Jones County, Miss., have been trading barbs in an unusual public spat. It began when the author of one book, rights to which had been sold to Universal Pictures and the filmmaker Gary Ross, discovered that Mr. Ross had spurred the publication of a new and somewhat sexier work on the same subject.

The encounter has created unexpected bad blood over incidents that occurred — or not — more than 100 years ago. And it offers a glimpse of the way that show business and its values have become entwined with the academic book world and its decision-making process.

On June 23 Doubleday published “The State of Jones: The Small Southern County That Seceded From the Confederacy,” a narrative history by the Harvard scholar John Stauffer and the Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins. The book, which on Monday was ranked No. 83 on Amazon’s best-seller list, presented Newton Knight, the leader of the renegade county, as a morally driven hero in the mold of John Brown — but whose appeal was enhanced by his romance with an ex-slave who, in the book’s account, became the love of his life as relations with his white wife cooled.

In the book’s acknowledgments, the authors thanked Mr. Ross, who they said had brought the idea to their editor, Phyllis Grann at Doubleday, and whose screenplay had served as “our impetus and our inspiration.”

This all came as a surprise to Victoria Bynum, a history professor at Texas State University, San Marcos. Her own book on the subject —“The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War” — had been published eight years earlier by the University of North Carolina Press, which sold the film rights to Universal as material for Mr. Ross’s project in 2007.

On June 27 Ms. Bynum got a copy of the new book. The next day, in an e-mail message to academic friends and colleagues at universities across the country, she wrote: “I am appalled at the manner in which these authors have written what is touted as a scholarly work. I am also deeply hurt by the manner in which they have appropriated, then denigrated, my work.”

In a three-part review posted on the Renegade South blog,, Ms. Bynum lit into the Doubleday book. She particularly objected to what she saw as the new book’s tendency to romanticize Mr. Knight and his love life, its insistence on the idea that Jones County actually seceded and its attempt to place Mr. Knight at the Battle of Vicksburg — touches that do not hurt the story’s cinematic potential.

“If they had said this was a historical novel, I could understand it,” Ms. Bynum said in a telephone interview this week, referring specifically to the portrayal of Mr. Knight’s relationship with his mistress, Rachel Knight. Ms. Bynum, in her review, pointed to evidence that what she called Mr. Knight’s “philandering” also led him to father four or more children by Rachel’s own daughter.

Mr. Stauffer and Ms. Jenkins struck back. In a detailed defense of their research, also posted on Renegade South, they concluded that “Bynum sees scholarship as a form of turf warfare, with only one valid interpretation of the past, which effectively renders history useless.”

Speaking by phone this week, Ms. Jenkins strongly challenged any notion that she and Mr. Stauffer had written their narrative to match the beats of a screenplay that was already written by Mr. Ross, based on extensive research by himself, Mr. Stauffer and others.

“That the genesis of the book was a Gary Ross movie project shouldn’t disqualify it as history,” Ms. Jenkins said.

Speaking separately, Mr. Stauffer said his job from the beginning had been to keep the screenplay as real as possible. “Gary wanted the story for the screenplay to be grounded in the past,” said Mr. Stauffer, who has also written books on abolitionists and a twin biography of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. “Even though the screenplay is fiction, does it ring true to the past?” he said of his mission.

Ms. Bynum did not claim plagiarism, as her work was openly cited in the book by Ms. Jenkins and Mr. Stauffer, but criticized only the way that it had been used. Still, the new history’s origins were unconventional, even in an era when Hollywood producers and screenwriters routinely gin up a graphic novel or write a piece of fiction as bait for a planned script. (The producer Lionel Wigram joined with the artist John Watkiss in creating a Sherlock Holmes comic that laid groundwork for the “Sherlock Holmes” film due from Warner Brothers on Christmas Day, with Robert Downey Jr. in the lead.)

David Paletz, a professor of political science at Duke University, pointed out that run-ins between Hollywood and the academy are nothing new. In “The Bad and the Beautiful,” a melodrama about the film world released in 1953, one of the lead characters, played by Dick Powell, was a college professor who found trouble when he tried to adapt his own hit book for the screen.

What has changed, Mr. Paletz said, is that the Internet has made the current dispute instantly public. “Without the Internet, where does she go?” Mr. Paletz said of Ms. Bynum and her objections. “Maybe she writes a letter to a historical journal.”

According to Mr. Ross, who spoke by phone this week, “The State of Jones” was actually born from lunch-time table talk between Ms. Grann, the editor, and Kathleen Kennedy, a producer with whom Mr. Ross had worked on “Seabiscuit,” which he wrote, directed and helped to produce in 2003.

By Mr. Ross’s account, Ms. Kennedy told Ms. Grann of his plans for Newton Knight, around whom he was trying to build a movie even before he acquired Ms. Bynum’s book in a deal with two less-seasoned producers, Bruce Nachbar and T. G. Herrington, who had already optioned it for film.

Ms. Grann saw potential for a more popular book in all the work that had already been done for the script. So Mr. Stauffer, one of several scholars with whom Mr. Ross had been in touch, wrote the proposal and offered to add Mr. Ross’s name to the project as a co-author, Mr. Ross said.

Mr. Ross declined. Ms. Grann then recruited Ms. Jenkins, a writer with whom she had worked in the past — and whose book about Lance Armstrong, “It’s Not About the Bike,” is being adapted for the screen by Ms. Kennedy and her producing partner Frank Marshall, with script work by Mr. Ross.

So “The State of Jones” was born with a near-perfect Hollywood pedigree — though no one is prepared to shoot the movie. Hollywood has been wary of period dramas since pictures like Universal’s “Frost/Nixon” and the Paramount film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” did better on the awards circuit than at the box office last year.

(Oddly enough, Universal has already made a version of this story: Its “Tap Roots,” released in 1948, included a fictionalized account of the events in Jones County.)

A Doubleday spokesman, Todd Doughty, said Ms. Grann was on vacation and not available for an interview.

“Why wouldn’t I want another book written about Newt Knight, especially a potentially popular one?” Mr. Ross, who holds film rights to the new book, said of the go-round. “Why would I discourage that?”

At the moment, Mr. Ross is working on the script for “Spider-Man 4.” But he would like to get back to Mr. Knight.

“I hope and I pray the time comes again when people can make serious period movies in Hollywood,” he said.

Prof. Bynum’s review of the new book may be found here. Prof. Stauffer and Ms. Jenkins responded on Kevin Levin’s blog.

This is an ugly, ugly spat. We have enough competition and unpleasantness in the world of Civil War history that we don’t need to be at each other’s throats. I understand both sides of this situation, and deeply regret that this had to happen, because we certainly don’t need to be airing our collective dirty laundry in public. Now that it’s hit the New York Times, there’s no turning back.

I can only hope that Profs. Bynum and Stauffer, and Ms. Jenkins can find a way to make peace amongst themselves.

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Regular reader Art Fox left me this comment:

Hi Eric,

I read your blog almost daily. Am amazed at how you can manage so many book projects, magazine articles, appearances, in addition to a law practice. I am a semi-retired university professor, and have had only two books published in the past 6 years: Our Honored Dead Allegheny Co.PA in the American Civil War (2008,2009), and Pittsburgh During the American Civil War, 1860-1865 (2002,2004,2009), and will probably be working on my present project – They Served with Honor, Allegheny county Soldiers at The Battle of Gettysburg, a 150 Anniversary Commemoration – for the next 3 years. My question to you brother – Is how do you do it, what is your secret – Congratulations in what you have added to Civil War History.

Art fox, Pittsburgh

I thought I would answer his question.

Art, first, let me say thanks for your kind words. I appreciate them very much.

How do I do what I do? Hmmmm….good question. Some background will give you some insight.

First, and foremost, while I am good at my day job, I often do not find it rewarding and often find myself asking what the hell I was thinking getting into the legal business in the first place. The practice of law can be very frustrating and very stressful, and I welcome having an escape for a couple of hours each night when I am in serious writing mode. Being able to lose myself in events that happened 140+ years ago is a great release for me.

Second, I haven’t got children to chase after. While my friends are going hither and yon hauling kids to activities–time consuming and often exhausting–I don’t have that particular encumbrance. My kids have four legs, and if I play with them for 15-20 minutes, they’re happy and good for the evening. That means I have plenty of time to write and not a lot in the way of distractions.

I also have a very short attention span. I find it nearly impossible to just sit and do nothing, and I likewise find it nearly impossible to just sit and watch TV. I need to have something to do pretty much all the time (the truth is that I think I have a pretty bad case of ADD, but they didn’t really know what it was when I was a kid in school), and it usually needs to be something that keeps my mind active, or else I go totally bonkers. What better way than writing?

My short attention span also means that I have to finish a project and move on. That stems, in part, from how I have to write at work. I write all day, every day, at work. Consequently, I’ve learned to be efficient in my writing. I’ve never been one to labor over a single sentence for hours on end. I would rather get it down on paper and then work on it.

Researching and writing is how I really learn something. If I want to really learn about something, I research it and I write about it; doing so forces me to really learn it. That’s why nearly all of my projects start out as things that interest me; if others find them interesting, all the better, but most of what I write about is to satisfy my own curiosity about things.

I am also very fortunate indeed to have a spouse who not only understands this compulsion of mine, but who supports it wholeheartedly. There is simply no way that I could get done what I get done without Susan’s unflinching support. She understands and appreciates my compulsive need to write, and she supports it. She understands the expenditures involved in doing the research, and she supports them. She understands the investment of time and the level of intensity that’s involved with my writing, and she not only supports it, there are times when she reminds me that I’m not being as productive as I should be. Bottom line: without Susan’s unwavering support, none of this would be possible. She just wishes that the venture was more profitable and that we got a better return on the financial investment.

Finally, I have a great deal of inflexible personal discipline. When I am in writing mode, I write at least 2 hours per night, at least three nights per week. If I do that, the results just flow. That’s part of my compulsion to get things finished and then to move on to the next project.

Some might think I’m nuts. Perhaps I am. But this work is how I relax after a long day at the office, and being able to immerse myself in events of the past is how I keep whatever semblance of sanity that remains….

Thanks again for writing, Art. I hope this little stream-of-consciousness rambling of mine has given you the insight you were looking for.

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Kevin Levin has a post on his blog today about a new book that looks like a finalist for 2009 Neo-Confederate grand champion. Thanks to Kevin for bringing this prize to my attention.

The reasons why this is both preposterous and shockingly offensive ought to be obvious. Then again, Pelican is known for publishing garbage (as this little gem proves), so it doesn’t come as a huge surprise.

So far, this is my leading candidate for 2009’s grand champion.

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Dan Hoisington of Edinborough Publishing, the publisher of my Ulric Dahlgren bio, informed me today that the books have arrived at the distributor’s warehouse and will ship to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. this week, so for those of you who have been awaiting its release as impatiently as I have, your patience is about to be rewarded. They should have books to sell by the end of the week.

I am also advised that I should have my copies by the end of the week, too. This, much like my history of Rush’s Lancers, was a real labor of love for me, and I have a lot of my heart and soul invested in it, just as I did with the Lancers. Consequently, I really can’t wait to see what the final product looks like.

Thank you for being patient, waiting for this book to be released.

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After the favorable response that my post on Henry Washington Sawyer of last week, I realized that this story was so compelling that I had to tell in full detail. Consequently, I have proposed to Dana Shoaf, the editor of both America’s Civil War and Civil War Times, an article that tells the story in detail. I spent most of the afternoon working on it today, and think that the full version is a very compelling story.

I will keep you posted as to progress. Hopefully, Dana will like it and will want to run it in one of the two magazines.

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A reader left me a comment today, and I figured I would answer his question. Reader Robert Alton left this comment:

Mr. Wittenberg, you have a very nice blog site. I like the template & graphics layout you are using. Very well done. I am interested in starting my own and was wondering if you could give me a synopsis/101 on how you got started, cost, etc… VR/Robert

First, thank you for the kind words, Robert. I just changed the template last week. I do so periodically when I get bored with the existing one, and after about a year, it was time for a change.

Now, to the substance of your question.

The answer is that it’s possible to blog without paying a dime. Now, I have my own domain for this blog, so I pay for web hosting for it, at the tune of $9.95 per month because of the volume of traffic that this site receives. I also pay about $10 per year for the domain registration. Those are the costs. The Word Press blogging software that I use is free. It’s also relatively user friendly, although I still have not figured out how to insert images. My wife usually does it for me.

I also maintain a Philadelphia sports blog on Blog Spot. Blog Spot is completely free, so it costs you nothing to maintain a blog there. It’s also very easy to use–even I know how to insert images there. There are also a couple of other similar options out there, and I suggest that you check them out and see which one you like. Pick a name for you blog, and off you go.

On Word Press, you can categorize your posts. I chose categories that seemed most logical to the topc that I blog about, but I have added new ones from time to time over the years. I have yet to figure out how to do the same thing on the Blogger software, and frankly, that’s the thing that I like the least about the Blogger platform.

The challenge, quite candidly, is in (a) finding the self-discipline and time to make regular posts, and (b) finding things to post about. Fortunately, there is enough going on in my world that I rarely find myself without something interesting to write about. Tons of people start blogging and do well for a while, but quickly run out of gas. This blog has been around since September 2005, and I am closing in on 1000 posts. It you had asked me whether I would still be doing this nearly four years and nearly 1000 posts later, I would have told you that you were insane, but blogging–and maintaining the realtionships with my readers–has become an important part of my daily routine. Those relationships–many of them purely virtual–mean a great deal to me.

All I can say is that if you think you will enjoy blogging, then by all means, dip your toe in the water and see if you like it. If you don’t, then nothing ventured, nothing gained. If you do like it, hopefully, you will take the pleasure from it that I take.

Good luck, and happy blogging.

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Dan Hoisington, the owner of Edinborough Press , which is the publisher of my Dahlgren bio, informed me today that the books finally shipped from the printer yesterday. That means that some time next week, I will FINALLY have books in hand. The printer’s screw-up means that the book is being released a month later than it was supposed to. But, it’s all good now that it’s finally out.

Stay tuned.

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19 Jul 2009, by

New Project

I just signed a contract with The History Press for a second installment its Civil War Sesquicentennial Series. The first, of course, is my Brandy Station project, which is just about finished. The manuscript is pretty much done, subject to some feedback from old friend Clark B. “Bud” Hall. I had a nearly finished manuscript that was looking for a publisher when I signed that contract.

This project, however, is completely different. This one starts from scratch, and will be titled The Battle of Yellow Tavern: Jeb Stuart’s Last Battle, and will be a study of Phil Sheridan’s May 1864 raid on Richmond, with particular focus on the May 11, 1864 Battle of Yellow Tavern, where Jeb Stuart received his mortal wound. It will cover the raid, including Beaver Dam Station, Yellow Tavern, and the fight at Meadow Bridges on May 12. It will also address Stuart’s death, funeral, and burial at Richmond’s famous Hollywood Cemetery, and will include a driving tour.

The problem with Yellow Tavern is that the entire battlefield has been obliterated. An Interstate highway cuts right through the middle of battlefield, and that which was not destroyed by the freeway is now either a commercial development or a couple of different residential subdivisions. The monument to Stuart’s wounding is stuck between houses and looks like it’s actually in someone’s yard (which it is, to be honest). The tavern itself is long gone. The only part of the original battlefield that remains intact is the intersection of the Mountain and Telegraph Roads. It’s a testament to what happens when no foresight at all is exercised and a battlefield is permitted to be obliterated. Perhaps it can provide a lesson to all of us of the importance of foresight with respect to battlefield preservation.

I have already undertaken gathering primary source material, and will keep you all posted as to the progress of the project as my research proceeds. This is another of those projects that I have always wanted to tackle, so this is another of those labors of love for me.

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Some good news today in the fight to prevent Wal-Mart from building a superstore on the threshold of the Wilderness battlefield. The Civil War Preservation Trust issued the following press release today:

July 15, 2009

For more information, contact:
Jim Campi (Civil War Preservation Trust), 202-367-1861 ext. 205
Nord Wennerstrom (National Trust for Historic Preservation), 202-588-6380
Beth Newburger (Epoch Communications), 571-436-0887


In bipartisan letter to the Orange County Board of Supervisors, Virginia’s top officials urge county to reconsider proposal to locate a Wal-Mart superstore on Wilderness Battlefield

(Richmond, Va.) – In a bipartisan letter to the Orange County Board of Supervisors, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine (D) and House of Delegates Speaker William Howell (R) jointly urged the county to reconsider plans to locate a Walmart supercenter on the Wilderness Battlefield.

The letter, addressed to Orange County Board Chairman Lee Frame and dated July 13, 2009, emphasizes the Commonwealth’s commitment to historic preservation and the need to bring all interests together to resolve the controversy.

The heart of the message states: “[W]e strongly encourage your Board to work closely with Wal-Mart to find an appropriate alternative site for the proposed retail center in the vicinity of the proposed site yet situated outside the boundaries of Wilderness Battlefield and out of the view of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.”

Further, the Governor and Speaker offer the services of the state to help forge a compromise, writing: “[W]e stand ready to offer the technical service of any and all state agencies that could be of help to the County and Wal-Mart….” The letter goes on to reference those agencies: the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, the Department of Transportation, the Virginia Department of Health, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Department of Historic Resources.

The letter acknowledges that the ultimate decision to build a Wal-Mart at this location ultimately rests with the county board of supervisors. However, the letter also notes: “[E]very acre of battlefield land that is destroyed means a loss of open space and missed tourism opportunities, and it closes one more window for future generations to better understand our national story.”

The Wilderness Battlefield Coalition, an organization of national, regional and local preservation groups, indicated support for the announcement by the Governor and Speaker, noting that the Coalition first proposed a similar solution in January of this year. “We firmly believe that encouraging Wal-Mart to move to an alternative location is in the best interests of both the National Park and Orange County residents. We are prepared to work with the Commonwealth, the county, Wal-Mart and local citizens to find an alternative location that benefits all.”

For more information about the Wilderness Walmart controversy, please visit:

Here is the letter from Governor Kaine and Speaker Howell:

July 13, 2009

The Honorable Lee Frame
Orange County Board of Supervisors
112 West Main Street
Orange, Virginia 22960

RE: Wal-Mart Development Proposal, Orange County

Dear Chairman Frame:

As Virginia and the nation prepare to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, we write to express our concern over the proposed Wal-Mart retail center at the gateway to Wilderness Battlefield in Orange County.

As you well know, Virginia’s Civil War battlefields are considered the most significant ones in the nation, and the Wilderness Battlefield itself ranks supremely important. As Virginia’s population and economy continue to expand, many of our battlefields are being negatively impacted by development. Every acre of battlefield land that is destroyed means a loss of open space and missed tourism opportunities, and it closes one more window for future generations to better understand our national story. For these reasons, among others, we have worked over the past few years to partner with a number of battlefield preservation organizations to save nearly 2,000 acres on 24 tracts on 16 different battlefields.

We believe strongly that land-use decision must remain within the purview of local governments, and we understand the challenges local governments face when trying to balance competing interests. Nowhere are these pressures and challenges better illustrated than in the controversy over Wal-Mart’s proposed development at Wilderness Battlefield in Orange County. We believe that the Wal-Mart project presents a unique opportunity to bring the interests of battlefield preservation and smart development effectively into balance. Fully respecting the authority of the Orange County Board of Supervisors to approve or deny Wal-Mart’s proposal, and appreciating the Board’s commitment to both the economic and cultural well-being of Orange County and the Commonwealth, we strongly encourage your Board to work closely with Wal-Mart to find an appropriate alternate site for the proposed retail center in the vicinity of the proposed site yet situated outside the boundaries of Wilderness Battlefield and out of view from Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

If you and your Board are amenable to this, we stand ready to offer the technical services of any and all state agencies that could be of help to the County and Wal-Mart, including those of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, the Department of Transportation, the Virginia Department of Health, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Department of Historic Resources.

Thank you for your consideration, and please let us know how you and your colleagues believe we can best assist you.

Very truly yours,

/Tim Kaine/ /Jim Howell/

Let’s hope that hearing it from high-ranking state officials persuades the Orange County supervisors to be reasonable about this; once this land is developed, that bell can never be un-rung. It would be a tragedy if that happens.

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