By Robert McCartney
Thursday, September 10, 2009; B01
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.
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.Scrap That Law
On a separate matter, here's one objective for the next Virginia governor, whoever it is: Scrap or at least change the state law banning "crimes against nature." Among other things, it prohibits any oral or anal sex, including between married couples. It's not enforced and is almost certainly unconstitutional under a 2003 Supreme Court ruling. But it's still on the books and has drawn scrutiny because Republican candidate Robert F. McDonnell cited it six years ago in discussing a judicial appointment.
E-mail me at email@example.com. I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).