On December 11, in a letter to Walmart President and CEO Lee Scott, 253 historians from throughout the country urged the retail giant to reconsider plans to build a 138,000 square-foot supercenter immediately adjacent to the Wilderness Battlefield in Orange County, VA. A formal application for the project was filed on December 5, 2008.
Among the signers are some of the most prominent historians in America, including two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David M. McCullough; James McPherson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom; Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns; respected Virginia educators and authors William C. Davis, Gary Gallagher and James I. Robertson, the authors of dozens of Civil War titles; and Edwin C. Bearss, Chief Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service.
Although many individual historians have previously voiced opposition to Walmart’s Wilderness proposal, such a large and diverse group uniting in this cause demonstrates how important the Wilderness is to our nation’s heritage, noted Lee White, executive director of the National Coalition for History (NCH), one of the eight groups making up the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition, which circulated the letter.
Jim Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT), said the impressive response to the letter is a clear illustration of the near universal opposition to the proposal within the Civil War and historic preservation communities.
“That so many prominent individuals — respected professors, decorated scholars and award-winning authors — have all joined together to speak out against this proposal in one voice is truly telling,” said Lighthizer. “We have been overwhelmed by the response to this effort and the impassioned pleas from historians calling on Walmart to protect our history.”
“No one has a deeper, more abiding respect for all that this ground symbolizes than the men and women who make it their lives’ work to study historic sites and events,” White stated. “And clearly, they understand the irreparable damage that this would do to a tangible piece of our history.”
In the letter to Walmart, the 253 co-signing historians pronounce the Wilderness to be a “unique historical and cultural treasure deserving careful stewardship” before declaring it “an indelible part of our history, its very ground hallowed by the American blood spilled there.” The letter concludes with a request for Walmart to “identify a site that would meet its needs without changing the very character of the battlefield” and move the store farther away from the National Military Park.
“Civil War battlefields are wonderfully evocative places,” noted historian Gary W Gallagher, the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia and the author of numerous books on the subject. “We should preserve and protect these national treasures, including gateway areas that shield historic ground from encroaching development that often degrades the experience of citizens seeking a better understanding of the American past.”
Gordon Rhea, the author of The Battle of the Wilderness and In the Footsteps of Grant and Lee: The Wilderness through Cold Harbor disputes any claim that the ground Walmart is eying lacks historic significance. “The proposed Walmart site lies near the intersection of the wartime Germanna Plank Road and the Orange Turnpike,” he said. “This was the nerve center of the Union army. This land served as the heart of the Union Fifth Corps’ encampments and lies within the shadow of Grant’s and Meade’s headquarters. It is truly hallowed ground.”
Historians and preservationists fear that if the Walmart is built, it will increase traffic and greatly encourage further development in the region.
“The Wilderness Battlefield is the biggest tourist destination in Orange County,” remarked Craig Rains of the Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield. “A store this large, set amid a nearly pristine rural landscape, threatens to overshadow the experience of the tens of thousands of visitors who come to the battlefield each year. Moving the store, even just a short distance, can prevent that.”
Historian Edwin C. Bearss agreed, adding, “There are plenty of other places to build a Walmart. The intersection of the old Germanna Plank Road (modern Route 3) and the historic Orange Turnpike is key to understanding the battle and how it developed. The addition of a new Walmart store in an area already served by other branches of the same chain, would lead to a further and irreparable degradation of an historic site of national significance.”
The Battle of the Wilderness, fought May 5–6, 1864, was among the most significant engagements of the American Civil War and marked the first time legendary generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant faced off against one another in battle. Nearly 29,000 American soldiers were killed, wounded or captured in the horrendous, two-day struggle.
The Wilderness Battlefield Coalition is a group of national, statewide and local preservation, conservation and civic organizations that share an abiding interest in preserving and the Wilderness Battlefield. The Coalition seeks to raise public awareness about the value of historic preservation and the urgent threats confronting the Wilderness Battlefield. The Coalition consists of eight nonprofit organizations: the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, the Civil War Preservation Trust, Friends of Fredericksburg Area Battlefields, Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, the National Coalition for History, the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Piedmont Environmental Council. For more information on the Coalition and its opposition to the proposed Walmart at the Wilderness, please visit their website.