By JAMES MCPHERSON
Sunday, May 3, 2009; C06
In May 1864, two armies clashed in a desperate struggle for the course of our nation's history. The Battle of the Wilderness was a great turning point of the Civil War -- the first clash between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant and the beginning of the end for the beleaguered Confederacy. The fighting was so intense that the tangled underbrush caught fire, burning wounded soldiers alive.
To commemorate the bloody struggle, portions of the Wilderness -- which is near Locust Grove, Va., in Orange County -- were set aside as a national military park. However, just 21 percent of the battlefield is permanently protected; other key areas are privately held and vulnerable to development.
This vulnerability became apparent when Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced plans to build a 138,000-square-foot superstore on historically sensitive land directly across the road from the national park. The store would sit on a hill overlooking key parts of the battlefield, looming over a national treasure.
Preservationists are not opposed to Wal-Mart opening a superstore in the region. A coalition of national and local conservation groups has merely asked Wal-Mart to choose a different location. Together with more than 250 other historians, I signed a letter to the company in support of that idea. We wrote that "the Wilderness is an indelible part of our history, its very ground hallowed by the American blood spilled there, and it cannot be moved. Surely Wal-Mart can identify a site that would meet its needs without changing the very character of the battlefield."
"Wilderness Wal-Mart" supporters argue that because the proposed store site lies just beyond the park, it lacks historic significance, a profound misunderstanding of the nature of history. In the heat of battle, no unseen hand kept soldiers inside what would one day be a national park. Such boundaries are artificial, modern constructions shaped by external factors, and they have little bearing on what is or is not historic. To assume the park boundary at the Wilderness encompasses every acre of significant ground is to believe that the landscape beyond the borders of Yosemite National Park instantly ceases to be majestic.
With Civil War battlefields we have a true tool for determining historic value: the findings of the congressionally appointed Civil War Sites Advisory Commission. I was privileged to serve on this distinguished panel of historians and lawmakers, and I stand by our decision to include the area Wal-Mart is considering within the battlefield's historic boundary.
The controversy illustrates another misconception about historic preservation -- that it must occur at the expense of economic development. A properly managed historic site can be a powerful economic driver for its community, creating jobs and generating tax revenue by drawing tourists.
Recognizing this, preservationists have proposed a comprehensive planning process to balance protection of the Wilderness Battlefield with regional economic development goals, marrying respect for the old with the promise of the new. It is a process by which everyone -- Wal-Mart, local residents and the battlefield -- wins. The alternative is the type of piecemeal development that has swallowed up historic sites and destroyed the identities of countless communities. It is a scenario in which only Wal-Mart wins.
There is still time for Wal-Mart to recognize its error and identify another location. This week marks the 145th anniversary of the Battle of the Wilderness, a perfect opportunity to seek a solution in everyone's best interests. The Wilderness Battlefield is a living memorial to American sacrifice and heroism. It would be tragic if such a landmark was lost through the short-sightedness of local decision-makers and Wal-Mart's stubborn refusal to consider reasonable alternatives.
The writer is the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of History at Princeton University and a past president of the American Historical Association. McPherson won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for "Battle Cry of Freedom" and is a two-time winner of the Lincoln Prize.