Does the Wilderness need a Walmart?

Despite the image its name implies, the Wilderness is none too wild these days.

walmartpad01Bordering the southern bank of central Virginia’s Rapidan River, the Wilderness was a seventy-square-mile tangle of dense second-growth forest—a region of scrawny, moss-tagged pines, garroted alders, hoary willows, and wet thickets.

“This, viewed as a battleground, was simply infernal,” a Union solder said shortly after the American Civil War raged through the area in May of 1864.

Today, battle still rages in the Wilderness, but this time, the federal government doesn’t face an army of Confederates—it faces the largest corporation in the world. The foot soldiers, if they arrive, will wear blue smocks adorned with yellow smiley faces and a pledge for low prices every day.

I say “if” because there’s still a chance Walmart won’t come to the Wilderness. If the retail giant stays away, it’ll be one of the biggest upsets in preservation history.

“I still think we can pull this one out,” says Jim Campi, policy and communications director of the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT), one of the groups leading the opposition to the planned Wal-Mart project.

Campi sits across the table from me at a restaurant in downtown Fredericksburg, just a dozen miles away from the front line. We’re having dinner with several of our historian friends who work for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, the national park that oversees the Wilderness as one of four major battlefields within its boundary. Between bites from an oversized Bavarian pretzel and sips of beer, Campi works his Blackberry ferociously. He’s helping to coordinate a March 24 visit to the area by Virginia Governor Tom Kaine intended to raise awareness for battlefield preservation.

Last week, the CWPT released its annual list of the nation’s most endangered battlefields. The Wilderness ranked number two, second only to Monocacy, a small battlefield outside of Frederick, Maryland, that may have a massive waste-to-energy plant built on its borders. 

As a battlefield, the Wilderness is important because it marks the first time Confederate General Robert E. Lee squared off against Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. The match-up represented in an entirely new mindset for the Union army—“No turning back,” Grant said—while it represented a new, defensive strategy for the rapidly shrinking Confederate army.

The two armies traded first shots in the Wilderness on May 5, 1864. After two days of fighting, 29,000 Americans had fallen as casualties. The battle marked the beginning of the end of the Confederacy—even though it would take almost another full year of nearly continual fighting and grappling and maneuvering for Grant’s army to grind Lee’s army into submission.

The Wilderness Battlefield straddles Spotsylvania and Orange counties. While Spotsylvania County has developed a land use management plan that prohibits any further development around the Wilderness Battlefield, neighboring Orange County is actively courting developers for its Wilderness Battlefield Gateway complex.

The centerpiece of the gateway complex is the proposed 141,000-square-foot Walmart Supercenter, which would be built on a 52-acre parcel just across an already-busy Route 3 from the Wilderness battlefield. The same road that brought the armies into the Wilderness 145 years ago would bring thousands of shoppers a day to that Walmart—funneling all that traffic right through the heart of the battlefield.

That same Route 3 also channels the thousands of commuters who now live in the many subdivisions hidden in forest. While many of those residents appreciate the historical resource in their neighborhood and support preservation efforts, others hear the sweet siren call of “more jobs” that Walmart sings. They want the economic benefits that sales and property taxes will infuse into the local economy.

But Wal-Mart isn’t building just for the people already living near the Wilderness. Wal-Mart builds in anticipation of population growth—a self-fulfilling expectation, of course, because one of the things that will fuel growth is the availability of shopping and the kinds of conveniences Walmart brings with it.

“We are not opposed to a Walmart,” says Russ Smith, superintendent of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. “We ARE opposed to a Walmart in the proposed location. There are other locations further west on Route 3 that would not impact the battlefield so heavily.” Those locations, Smith says, would “provide the same employment and tax benefits.”

The proposed location sits next to but not on core battlefield land. (Core areas are areas where fighting occurred.) Walmart would build on land in the “study area” of the battlefield. “The Study area includes rear areas such as hospitals, headquarters, supply areas, etc.,” Smith explains. Core and study areas were defined by the Congressionally authorized Civil War Sites Advisory Commission in 1993.

Whether on the core battlefield or immediately adjacent to it, Walmart’s presence would mar the viewscape and atmosphere, which the park service works to maintain. Otherwise, it becomes harder for visitors to appreciate the landscape’s historical setting and lose themselves in the experience, which in turn affects their ability to understand what makes the landscape important in the first place.

“Intense commercial development is not appropriate at the entrance to a national park and particularly at Wilderness Battlefield because of the visual intrusion on the visitor experience,” Smith says. “The high volume of traffic generated will also impact the visitor experience.”

walmartpad02Walmart has argued that its store would sit several hundred feet back on the lot so people won’t see it from the road—except that the store would sit on a hillside, fifty feet above the road, making it plenty visible up to a half a mile away.

What might keep Walmart hidden, though, would be the three big-box stores that would be built in front of supercenter—another facet of the plan Walmart reps continually fail to mention when they talk about “their store.”

Walmart has even suggested that it’s a good corporate steward of the battlefield because it will set aside land for preservation. What they’ve not pointed out, though, is that the land they are “setting aside” is wetlands they aren’t allowed to build on anyway.

And of course, there’s always the question of whether the world even needs another Walmart in the first place. Does the Wilderness even need one? Four other Walmarts sit within twenty miles of the proposed Wilderness Battlefield Gateway center.

Walmart’s corporate website remains silent on the entire project, but the CWPT has launched an all-out attack against the project. Aside from sending guys like Jim Campi to the front lines, CWPT has launched a website devoted to stopping the project, sent out a flood of mailings, petitioned the Orange County Board of Supervisors, and featured the controversy in its magazine, Hallowed Ground.  

“Do you want to see the historical significance of…[this] irreplaceable battlefield marred forever by more pavement, more traffic and more development that a Walmart Supercenter will bring in its wake?” asked CWPT President Jim Lighthizer in a recent release. “And do you want to see this land…turned into just another highway strip of big box stores, fast food joints and convenience stores?”

Lighthizer is quick to point out that CWPT is not a “knee-jerk, anti-development group.” In fact, the organization has successfully partnered with a number of developers on past projects that have been held up in the preservation community as effective models of cooperation.

“We appreciate the need for good jobs,” Lighthizer said, adding that CWPT supports “well-planned economic expansion, effective land-use policies and increasing opportunities for communities through heritage tourism.”

To appreciate the value of that heritage tourism, Orange County Supervisors should clear the dollar signs out of their eyes long enough to read a 2005 report from CWPT titled Blue, Gray and Green, which looked at the economic impact battlefield tourists had on the Wilderness area.

  • Battlefield tourists spend more than $20.4 million a year on retail expenditures, averaging $54.87 per person per day.
  • Those same tourists generated $314,000 for the state government and $229,000 for local governments.

“Protecting the visitor experience is as important to the community as it is to the park if the park is to reach its economic potential,” says Smith. “The local community has a measure of responsibility to protect nationally important resources through planning and zoning.”

The park and the CWPT are both willing to help. They have worked with other preservation partners to hire a landscape architect charged with developing an alternative plan for the Wilderness Battlefield Gateway that would be more compatible with the battlefield. So far, the gateway’s developers have ignored the offer of assistance.

So, Walmart continues to move forward with its permitting process, and Orange County continues to accommodate them.

Adjoining the hillside site where the supercenter may end up, another 900 acres will soon be coming up for rezoning.

And so the CWPT, the Park Service, and other preservation groups refuse to give up the fight.

This new Battle of the Wilderness could get a whole lot wilder.

17 replies »

  1. The Walton family is so patriotic, isn’t it?

    I live in Westchester and work in Manhattan. Sites of many Revolutionary War battles, as was New Jersey. All built-over. We’re reduced to using our imaginations and commemorating our history in our head.

  2. I have mixed feelings about this, and I suppose they can be summed up in the name of the magazine you mentioned: Hallowed Ground. I know that area extremely well, having traveled Route 20 to Route 3 and back many a time while driving between Charlottesville and Fredericksburg. I have toured the battlefields at the Wilderness, as well as nearby Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, and Fredericksburg. I was once a Civil War junkie, memorizing names of commanders and the placement of units right down to the regimental level in dozens of battles, while digging up and reading first-hand battle reports down to the company level. Having grown up in Virginia, I’m also aware of the near religious reverence many people in the Commonwealth have for the Civil War and its soldiers, a reverence I once shared, and I wonder if it’s not time it died out.

    To grow up in Virginia when I did was to read the treacly, Southern-leaning Civil War histories of Douglas Southall Freeman and embrace them as unvarnished truth. A trip to Richmond could not be complete without a cruise down Monument Avenue to take in the statues of all the Confederate heroes and a visit to Battle Abbey to see idealized paintings of said heroes. I know now, though, that the Civil War is to Virginians what the Alamo is to Texans: an outsized myth that treats blood-soaked soil of slaughterhouses where men were killed or maimed for life as “hallowed ground,” as though the act of killing human beings sanctifies the very ground where they were murdered.

    So, in one sense, I think it’s time that Virginians and, for that matter, homo sapiens gave up the idea that ripping people apart with steel or crushing their bodies with explosive pressure waves is noble, honorable, or sacred. It is not. On the other hand, my visit to the puny Fredericksburg battlefield sickened me, since it is no longer possible to even guess what might have happened there, how the terrain looked, and what the average soldier who fought there must have experienced. To walk the line of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg is to see the cannon emplacements as far away as the Round Tops, the cannon emplacements on Cemetery Ridge, where the Union Lines were behind the stone wall, the copse of trees at which the Confederate lines aimed, the terrifying barrier of the rail fence on the Emmitsburg Road, and the sheer terror and horror of making that march across that long, broad stretch of open land while under fire almost the entire way.

    Somehow, I don’t think a Wal-Mart on Seminary Ridge would improve that experience or the understanding it brings.

    So, I guess I oppose Wal-Mart’s intent to build across from the Wilderness, but I would feel much more strongly about this if the Wilderness, and other Civil War battlefields, were set up to convey the horror of men screaming out their last breaths in agony and terror while (in the case of the Wilderness) being burned alive by the fuel ignited by the battlefield pyrotechnics.

    I’ve grown old, I guess. I no longer see battle as noble and heroic.

  3. The veterans themselves found out pretty quickly how terrible battle was. They went off with flags flying and drums beating, prepared for glory and instead found horror. They’re the ones who first started setting aside battlefields as a way to commemorate their own sacrifices and deeds.

    To me, the value of an untarnished battlefield is that it allows visitors to find meaning of their own. For some, that means nobility and heroism (because those things did exist); for others, it means slaughter and terror (because those things existed, too). For others, a battlefield is important because great-great-granddaddy fought there.

    Battlefields represent a chance to take a time-out from the rest of the world, too. Sometimes the visitor slips back in time and sometimes the visitor just enjoys the peace and quiet of the current moment.

    Those various meanings have various degrees of relevance to everyone. But without the chance to experience the battlefield in the first place, no one can have ANY kind off experience or form any kind of connection.

  4. Chris,

    I used to feel as you do. I don’t any longer. I think battlefields should be preserved with the same intent people had for the preservation of Auschwitz. That’s not what I see on most Civil War battlefields.

    I wish I did.

  5. Battlefields represent a chance to take a time-out from the rest of the world, too.

    As do wilderness areas in general, right? I would oppose the building of a WalMart in any preserved natural area, including one which happened to be the site of a battle, for the sake of the lives which depend upon it now and the grace that communing with a living environment grants us.

    But without the chance to experience the battlefield in the first place, no one can have ANY kind of experience or form any kind of connection.

    Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Places have the emotional meaning which we assign them, as do relics, as do histories both written and oral, as do pictures. You may have a profound reaction to the site of a conflict; I was very moved by Pearl Harbor, and I do understand the better uses of memorials.

    However, I also know two things. First, I do not need to visit a battlefield to connect with the horrors and heroism of, for example, World War II; I can visit my grandfather’s grave, I can read, I can look at photographs, I can listen to stories, I can visit the Museum of Tolerance. Second, wars are the very worst imaginable way to resolve conflict , and if learning is the singular crown of our species, organized mass murder is its shame, and ideas about glory and honor in battle are lies men use for power while women watch their children die.

    Mark the spot to remember where it happened; write down the names and the atrocities so that maybe, maybe someone will learn to do better, and then let it go. Let the soil break down and the grass and trees use what the dead left there. Let the re-enactors and the battle cultists stick to their books and memorabilia – can anyone truly believe that the dead are honored by tourists tramping over the places where they spent the last unimaginable minutes or hours of their lives, looking for a safe, vicarious rush of patriotism that they can pack away with the coolers and the cameras? We’re making new scenes of “honor” and “glory” every day; perhaps that energy would be better spent visiting those places and figuring out how to save the living.

    Eventually every battlefield becomes just another piece of land; human memory stretches only so far. The quicker the better, as far as I’m concerned.

  6. I see plenty of people who show up at the battlefields and could care less, so battlefields in and of themselves don’t necessarily create emotional connections. So, I agree with you, Ann, that a battlefield is not the only way to make an emotional connection with the history that happened there. Different approaches and different triggers work for different people.

    I have also learned, though, that a battlefield can teach lessons by its very topography–lessons that no pictures or accounts or books can teach as effectively. If a field gets turned into a parking lot, then the lessons is lost. (That touches on the whole big other issue of whether we, as a society, are any good at learning lessons from our own history!)

    People certainly have different motivations for visiting. As someone who interprets some of those fields for visitors, I see ’em all–and even as non-judgmental as I try to be, some people see those fields in ways I just can’t understand. (For instance, you and JS both bring up some great points about the need for some people to just let go.)

    But one mistake some people do make when they consider battlefields is that they automatically see them as places or terror and horror and carnage (which they certainly were), but they neglect to talk about the courage and sacrifice that took place there. I’m not talking about the romanticized notions of honor and glory you’re talking about; I’m talking about the kind of sacrifice that lets me enjoy the life I have today because those guys back then gave theirs up. I profoundly understand that trade-off, but I’m not sure I would if I hadn’t spent so much time walking the ground.

    It’s different for different people.

  7. Chris,

    I appreciate your position, and it’s one I used to have, myself, but no longer do. After years of talking to survivors of war and reading accounts of other survivors, I no longer think battlefields are about “courage and sacrifice.” Well, OK, I’ll grant you “sacrifice,” in the same way an Aztec victim might have his heart cut out to appease the Sun.

    Look, I’m not a pacifist in any sense. I’m just a guy who thinks that warfare has no redeeming value other than to do it when it’s absolutely necessary (and at no other time) and to understand, when you’re doing it, that there is nothing in the least bit glorious about it. It’s human butchery. That’s all it is and all it ever will be. There’s no glory in slaughtering a cow, and I’m sure the cow is happy to sacrifice it’s life so that human may have concentrated protein.

    When I walk a Civil War battlefield, all I can think of is the boys walking shoulder to shoulder with other boys their age from the same hometown or county, more afraid of running, or even shirking, than they were of dying or having their limbs or genitals blown off. Being known as a coward in their home communities was worse than anything else they could imagine. And so they stood when the grapeshot ripped into the human beings around them like hail through banana leaves, and they kept on walking when the skipping round shot exploded heads and cut men around them in half.

    So, I keep coming back to the words “hallowed ground,” and find myself sickened by them. Words like that, applied to what battle really is, just serve to convince future generations of boys to go to battle with waving flags and blowing trumpets in their heads. There’s nothing sacred about spilled blood. It’s just blood — blood that should have pumped through the veins and arteries or a man until he died a natural death, surrounded by his loved ones. It’s just waste.

    All waste.

    Nothing more.

    • I’m sympathetic to those who don’t want to see battlefields over-worshipped, for sure. But the “Wal*Mart” element of the equation gripes me nonetheless. Even if we all agree that the sooner we desanctify these patches of land the better, can we PLEASE have it done by somebody other than the bloody goddamned culture-razing scourge from Bentonville?

  8. I I live not far from Gettysburg and have been there at least once every year since I was a small child. I grew up appreciating that terrible things had happened there but also wanting to learn more about the history of my country, why those terrible things took place at all. That was the legacy that a Civil War battlefield gave to me. I’ve seen it do the same for others. The Civil War was probably THE defining point in American history and the places where it occured deserve preservation. If they inspire one person to study our history as a nation, to empathize more with what others have experienced, they are woth saving. They are an integral part of our heritage and losing them would be devastating to many Americans.

    Gettysburg recently experienced a similiar situation: somebody was trying to open a casino very close to the battlefield, on what they call the “study area” in this article. Thankfully, the proposal was defeated. I understand and respect points of view that differ from mine, but, having literally grown up over the years on the battlefield, I know it is a part of who I am as an American and that I would never have appreciated or learned so much from the history of my country without it’s influence. I truly feel that forever losing these places would, in some ways, be almost as tragic as the unspeakable things that occured there so long ago.

  9. I’ve heard this story time and again with this company. For some twisted reason Walmart execs seem to enjoy looking for the most contentious places to site their tacky shopping centers. They must really do their homework because they never fail to tick off the locals wherever they go. In my area it was a Native American sacred burial site. They won of course (Walmart did) since the native Americans couldn’t come up with enough money to fight the giant pain in the ass.

    Walmart exec: “Hmmm we want to open a store in Walla Walla even though nobody, except the shopaholics, wants us there. So to get back at them we want to pick THE most irritating location possible. Some place sure to really rub them the wrong way and then force our way in. Ideas anyone?”

  10. justme gets to the heart of the issue, imo. It’s not about glory or horror so much as history…which generally includes both. What one feels at a place like The Wilderness is a personal response to history being more than words on a dusty page.

    To remove the ability to transport ourselves into history for the sake of yet another WalMart says more about the priorities of our nation than i’d like to consider.

    Our fealty to growth makes me all Malthusian inside.

  11. I’m pretty sure I’ll never have the mental capacity to fathom how low Wal-Mart will go to keep needlessly expanding its retail empire. What always irked me as a journalist was the boiler plate “We will preserve the character of X,” whether X was Main Street, an area near a neighborhood or, as in this case, hallowed ground deserving of utmost respect.

  12. Like it or not, Wal-Mart has a business plan that nears perfection. They invented the concept of rolling inventory, which really gave them an edge. They provide goods at low cost, provide a good return for their share holders, create competition and jobs. Wal-Mart, along with McDonalds are the essence of capitalism. Wal-Mart was responsible for much of the low inflation of the 80’s and 90’s. Love them or hate them, they are an international force to be reckoned with. While I might not agree with everything they do, they make an honest attempt to maximize shareholder value and create profits.

  13. Walmart will do what they want. There is a reason they contributed over 200 million to both political parties during the last election. It isn’t just Walmart, any company, foreign or domestic can obtain the same. All it takes is the right amount of money in the hands of the right politician and, as the British say, ‘Bob’s your Uncle’.

    I worked for Walmart for two years when I had no other choice. No human being could work for that contemptible company if they had their choice. In my home town Walmart was blocked from building until the proper contributions were made. Magically all obstacles then dissipated.

    Go figure.

  14. I can’t stand box stores of any type. They ruin the landscape and sell cheap junk that most folks don’t need. Lets not forget how they push all the local mom and pop places out of buisness. you know the places where they know your name and have some character. Please if you can take your money to the corner store and not to the chain.