Academy Award-winning actor Robert Duvall and local activists mark battle’s 145th anniversary with plea to move Walmart away from historic site

cwptlogo1At a news conference this morning, advocates for historic preservation gathered to decry the construction of Walmart supercenter proposed for the entrance to Virginia’s Wilderness Battlefield.  If built, the megastore would stand across the road from the national park commemorating the bloody struggle, and within the battlefield’s historic footprint.

Robert Duvall, Academy Award-winning actor and descendent of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, led the charge.  “The Walmart Corporation has it within its power to be a savior of the Wilderness Battlefield.  Simply by moving to an alternate location slightly further from the battlefield, they have the ability to protect this critical piece of American history for generations to come.”

Representative Ted Poe of Texas concurred, saying, “This land, like other battlefields in our country, is consecrated with the blood of Americans.  Many are still buried here and known only to God.  We owe these Americans the right to keep this battlefield preserved for history and not to have a corporation, like Wal-Mart, lay asphalt over their graves.  I feel the definition of corporate responsibility must always extend to respecting America’s hallowed grounds.  Those values should not be eroded for the sake of Wal-Mart’s commercial gain.”

Public outcry against to the Walmart proposal surfaced as soon as it was announced last year.  Both Poe and fellow representative Peter Welch of Vermont have been outspoken in their opposition.  The two men each hail from states that were particularly bloodied during the epic battle; Texas troops fighting at the Wilderness sustained 60 percent casualties, while the death toll among Vermonters on May 5, 1864 amounted to 16 percent of the state’s total combat deaths for the entire war.  In February, the two men sent a joint letter to Walmart executives, urging them to reconsider their site choice.

“The 1st Vermont Brigade’s brave stand at the Battle of the Wilderness exemplifies the spirit and sacrifice of Vermont troops in all conflicts our country has faced.  This hallowed ground must be protected and preserved so that future generations of Vermonters can appreciate our state’s crucial role in saving the Union,” Welch said.

“I am hopeful that Wal-Mart will respect the history and tradition of the Wilderness site and reconsider its plan to build a store in such close proximity to this treasured landmark.”

“We hope they would be patriotic neighbors and locate their new store away from the battlefield,” added Poe.

The Wilderness Battlefield Coalition, a collection of local, state and national conservation groups that seeks to promote the battlefield as both a historic site and as a potential economic engine for the region, has sought to encourage Walmart to consider alternate locations in the county.

“We are not calling for a halt to development in Orange County — far from it,” said Zann Miner, president of Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, a coalition member. “Instead, we simply ask county officials and developers to weigh all options and their consequences before breaking ground.”

Also speaking at the event, Miner noted that in order to reap the financial rewards that numerous studies have shown historic sites can bring through heritage tourism, nearby development must be well-thought-out and respectful, calling the Walmart proposal neither.

The application before county officials calls for a 52-acre retail complex near the intersection of Routes 3 and 20, less than a quarter mile from the edge of the Wilderness Battlefield unit of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.  The project would contain several box stores, anchored by a 138,000-square-foot Walmart Supercenter.  Preservationists have asked the county to work with the Park Service, conservation groups and local landowners to develop a long-term vision for the area before approving this or any other single construction project.

Regarding the need for deliberate and cohesive action rather than piecemeal expansion, Duvall said, “I urge Orange County’s decision makers to plan the development they allow at the edge of this national park carefully.  The choices they make will be felt for generations to come, making this the time to be thoughtful and deliberate, not rash.”

Preservationists concede that limited commercial development has occurred in the area in the 145 years since smoke cleared after the battle, but maintain that the sheer scale of the proposed project negates that justification. “Once intense development begins near the battlefield, it will be all but impossible to stop,” Miner said. “And once this hallowed ground is paved over, it is lost forever.”

Although the National Park Service controls and interprets key portions of the battlefield, only approximately 21 percent of the historic landscape at the Wilderness is currently preserved.  While not owned by the federal government, the area currently projected for development lies within what a congressionally appointed panel of top historians deemed the extent of the battlefield.  Moreover, preservationists argue, such large-scale development at the gateway to the national park will damage the battlefield’s viewshed, denying visitors the ability to acquire a sense of time and place, and negatively impact the visitor experience.  It is also feared that the drastic increase in traffic will not only make the battlefield more difficult to tour, but will also increase pressure to widen or realign Route 20 through historic land.

The Battle of the Wilderness, fought on May 5-6, 1864, was among the most significant engagements of the Civil War.  It marked the first time that legendary generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant faced each other in battle and was the inaugural engagement of the long and bloody Overland Campaign, the beginning of the end for the beleaguered Confederacy. The area was densely wooded, making the fighting confused, especially as sparks from ammunition and ordinance caught the undergrowth on fire. When fighting ended, more than 29,000 Americans had been killed, wounded or captured.

The Wilderness Battlefield Coalition is a group of national, statewide and local preservation, conservation and civic organizations who 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 nine 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, the Piedmont Environmental Council and Preserve Virginia.  For more information on the Coalition and its opposition to the proposed Walmart at the Wilderness, please visit http://www.wildernesswalmart.com/.

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