The Second Battle of the Wilderness – Wal-Mart vs.the Battlefield

May 22, 2010
Kathy Warnes

Wal-Mart argues that building a Super Center close to the Wilderness Battlefield site won’t interfere with history. Historical preservationists disagree.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) announced at a news conference on May 19, 2010, that Virginia’s Wilderness Battlefield is on its annual list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) also included the Wilderness Battlefield in its annual “History Under Siege” report that it announced on May 13 2010 at the National Press Club.

Protecting the First Wilderness Battle Site

James Lighthizer, CWPTA president, said that the dual recognition emphasizes that the historical preservationist community is united in its efforts to protect the Wilderness Battlefield. He said “It also underscores that ‘endangered’ does not mean ‘lost’ and that these organizations are committed to fighting for the protection of this and other hallowed grounds across America.”

The Battle of the Wilderness was first battle of Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Virginia Overland Campaign against General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

Wal-Mart Proposes a Super Center near Wilderness Battlefield

Wal-Mart plans to build a Super Center within sight of the Wilderness Battlefield and adjacent to the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. The proposed 240,000 square foot store would be located at the intersection of Route 3 and Route 20, one-quarter mile from the main entrance to Wilderness Battlefield National Park. Wal-Mart’s 51 acre development site would include a Super Center store and other chain stores.

In August 2009, Wal-Mart submitted plans for the development to the Orange County Board of Supervisors, and the supervisors approved them despite the opposition of the National Park Service, the governor of Virginia, local and national heritage groups,250 historians, and thousands of individual Americans.

Preservationists File Suit Against Orange County

In September 2009, Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield and a group of citizen co-plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against Orange County to block the development. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Wilderness Battlefield Coalition, and other preservationists believe that Wal-Mart should relocate its development to other sites in Orange County, but Wal-Mart to date, has rejected several offers of alternative sites.

According to Catharine Gilliam of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) , her organization “..has actively participated and offered constructive suggestions to find alternatives that would protect the neighboring national park and allow a Wal-Mart to be built on less sensitive land. It is not necessary to desecrate the land where a horrific battle took place more than 150 years ago in pursuit of profit and pavement.”

The Battle of The Wilderness Was Brutal and Fiery

More than 150 years ago, on May 5 and 6, 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee were in pursuit of each other instead of profit and pavement. Union troops had marched south along the old Orange Turnpike and clashed with Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Their clash is called the Battle of the Wilderness, a brutal battle involving over 170,000 men with nearly 30,000 of them dead, dying, or wounded.

The Wilderness refers to the nearly impassable scrub growth of over 70 square miles in the Spotsylvania and Orange County region. Added to the normal battlefield horrors, the sparks from cannon and muskets caught the scrub on fire, cremating hundreds of wounded soldiers stranded between the opposing armies. Both armies endured heavy casualties, but the Battle of the Wilderness was tactically inconclusive, because General Grant withdrew and continued his offensive moves against General Lee’s Army and eventually the Confederate capital, Richmond ,Virginia.

Wal-Mart Makes Strategic Moves

Wal-Mart’s plans for the Wilderness Battlefield location began when its executives who are more skillful at identifying strategic locations than some Civil War generals, saw what they thought was a retail opportunity at the intersection of Routes 3 and 20, and the Orange County Board of supervisors helped them secure the site with a 4-1 vote to approve Wal-Mart’s plans.

The preservationist’s legal complaint charged that the Orange County Board of Supervisors in approving Wal-Marts development failed to follow state law or the county’s own guidelines for the protection of historically important land. They accused the Board of questionable approval practices, including insufficient notice of meetings.

Orange County Defends Itself

In its defense, Orange County argued that the National Trust and the other plaintiffs lost a political argument and that the Board gave the preservationists a fair hearing even though it did not agree with their arguments. They argued that Virginia law gives local officials much latitude in decisions about land use and that the plaintiffs won’t suffer direct harm from the Wal-Mart development, which is a prerequisite for any lawsuit. The opening session of the lawsuit took place in February 2010, in the chambers of Orange County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Bouton. According to Orange County Attorney Sharon Pandak, the plantiff’s complaint simply opposed the Supervisor’s vote and the lawsuit should be dismissed.

Robert Rosenbaum, an attorney with the Washington D.C. firm of Arnold & Porter, argued that a “reasonable board” wouldn’t ignore the advice of 250 historians, state and federal officials, and public and private experts. He contended that the National Trust’s congressional mandate included suing to preserve historical treasures and that the mandate overrides narrow standards of state law.

The Wilderness Wal-Mart Battle Raises Historic and Societal Questions

The battle over the Wilderness Wal-Mart underscores fundamental historical and societal questions:

How should land on or adjacent to a crucial historic site be treated? Is there a middle ground between rampant development and fanatical preservation of every artifact? Should there be a line between development and preservation and if so, where is it and who determines its location?

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