10 September 2009 by Published in: Battlefield preservation 6 comments

Here’s a sane voice regarding the Wilderness Wal-Mart debate that appeared in today’s issue of The Washington Post:

Wal-Mart’s Rueful Victory at the Battle Of the Wilderness

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, September 10, 2009

In the hierarchy of Civil War engagements, the Battle of the Wilderness doesn’t quite make the A-list. Although it ranks in the top 10 by the grisly measure of total casualties, it doesn’t enjoy the fame of Gettysburg or Antietam. Wilderness doesn’t even get top billing in its own national park, which includes four major battlefields and is named for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania.

Wal-Mart and the Battlefield: How Close?

Given such shaky status, it’s little surprise that Wilderness has lost to Wal-Mart Stores in the latest encounter in the nation’s conflict between developers and the robust Civil War preservationist community. Unless final appeals soften its corporate heart, Wal-Mart will build a Supercenter right at the edge of the densely thicketed area in Virginia, 60 miles south of Washington, where 160,000 Americans fought for two bloody days in 1864.

That’s frustrating, because a reasonable compromise has long been within reach. The preservationists say it’s fine with them if Wal-Mart builds the store a few miles up the road. It would be a hassle, and costly, to find another piece of land and get it rezoned. But there’s lots of empty forest there, and the company and authorities in Orange County should do it.

Otherwise, the new store and the additional development it will attract will destroy the mostly woodsy ambience at a crossroads once defended by Union troops where most visitors now enter the battlefield. Wal-Mart and its supporters make some good arguments but can’t justify permanently defacing the entrance to a historic national site.

“Our main concern is what happens to that gateway,” said Russ Smith, superintendent of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. “We’re hoping that Wal-Mart will show itself a good corporate citizen” by moving the site, he said.

The struggle between strip malls and hallowed ground crops up regularly in our region, the richest in the nation in Civil War history. The debate over Wilderness has been shaped significantly by preservation guidelines issued in 1993 amid bitter tussles over development around the two battlefields in Manassas.

At Wilderness, as elsewhere, the tug of war pits property rights against community rights. The Orange County supervisors, who voted 4 to 1 last month to approve the store, stressed that the 50-acre site had been zoned commercial for decades. That means the owner, an outside investor, has been paying higher taxes than if the site were zoned for homes or farming, so supervisors said he should have the right now to cash in. They also say the county needs the jobs, close-to-home shopping and half-million dollars in annual tax revenue that the project will generate.

The larger community also has rights, though, and in this case the community is the entire nation. In two years, the United States will mark the 150th anniversary of the nation’s bloodiest conflict, whose impact we still feel today. Before the Civil War, most Americans the race of our current president were slaves. We should honor that history by making extra efforts to preserve the places that trigger memories of the brutal price paid for national unity and the end of slavery.

Wal-Mart and its supporters dismiss such opposition as exaggerated, because the store would not sit directly on parkland or on what is known as the core battlefield, where the most intense fighting took place. Instead, the site is in what was the Union rear. They point out that a Sheetz gasoline station and McDonald’s are already at the intersection and that Wal-Mart has promised to take steps to minimize the store’s visibility, such as leaving some trees between it and the road.

That’s not quite the full story. The Wal-Mart would be well inside the battlefield’s “historic boundary,” according to historians chartered by Congress in 1993 to make such distinctions. That means it’s an area that doesn’t need absolute protection but should be treated with sensitivity. More important, though, the site would be four times the size of the commercial development that’s already there and is universally expected to attract still more stores.

Teri Pace, the only supervisor who voted against Wal-Mart, called the store “a huge economic mistake,” adding, “If you want to capitalize on tourism, you don’t do that by building the kind of commercial retail that people are trying to escape.”

Most outsiders have agreed. A bipartisan roster of Virginia’s top politicians expressed opposition to the plan before the supervisors’ vote. The list included Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and both candidates for governor. More than 250 prominent Civil War historians signed a letter of protest. The supervisors have received more than 3,500 e-mails urging them to put the store somewhere else.

Although it is little remembered and ended in a draw, Wilderness has the distinction of being the first encounter between the war’s two best-known generals, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. It was also the first battle in the 11-month Union campaign that ultimately captured Richmond and ended the war. Wal-Mart should move up the road. It has lots of stores. There’s only one Wilderness.

He’s right, of course. The problem is that Wal-Mart is not a good corporate citizen and has shown no inclination but to do what it always does, which is to do whatever it wants to do wherever it wants to do it, with no regard for public opinion. Mix in the fact that the county supervisors are idiots who went along with it, and a mess is what you get….

In spite of it all, I hold out hope….

Scridb filter


  1. Phil LeDuc
    Thu 10th Sep 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Good article. Thanks for pointing it out.

    As Mr. McCartney, the CWPT, you, and others have pointed out, it’s not just the presence of the Wal-Mart store in and of itself that creates the problem.
    It’s only a matter of time before another big-box store like Home Depot also shows up. And then there are the numerous smaller stores that make their appearance like remoras. And all of these will require additional parking lots, access roads and lanes, etc.

  2. Alton
    Thu 10th Sep 2009 at 3:33 pm

    I traveled through the are a couple years ago on the way to a reenactment and I have to agree with Phil and I don’t hold out much hope. There were For Sale signs on every open spot it seemed. They already let a housing development get built on the battlefield so its obvious Orange county doesnt care.

  3. Thu 10th Sep 2009 at 4:42 pm

    GREAT article. Thanks for posting Eric.

  4. Kent Dorr
    Fri 11th Sep 2009 at 7:34 pm

    Whats really sad is that the preservation community is at least 50 years behind in trying to save what is now being threatened. I have always wondered why during the CW Cenntenial in the 1960s there wasnt a bigger push to get these areas protected for future generations? Sure nobody ever thought these areas would be developed, but it might’ve prevented some of what is being faced now. Keep supporting CWPT so they can save what they can.

  5. Coly Hope
    Sat 12th Sep 2009 at 12:28 am

    Its all about the money. We should think about changing our flag to the dollar bill and our motto could be “Greed is Good.”

  6. Sun 13th Sep 2009 at 9:41 pm

    That and a lot of people simply don’t care about history, even in those areas. I wish there was something I can do. I’ve never been able to stomach being an activist, to be honest, but if there’s one issue I could really get involved with, it’s battlefield preservation.

    If I lived anywhere near a battlefield, that is.

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