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