Friday, January 29, 2010

Walmart Threatens Wilderness Battlefield

Walmart has initiated another bushwhacking in the Wilderness

Published: January 27, 2010
Updated: January 27, 2010

A century ago, when memories of our tragic Civil War were still fresh and old soldiers visited the battlefields to reflect on lost comrades and life’s deeper meanings, one veteran wrote that “the spirits lingered on the fields and formed the shadow of a mighty presence.”

Years passed, reunions came and went; reports, photographs and old soldiers faded, but as Americans who cherish heritage know well — something stayed.

I find it ironic and saddening — in light of recent struggles to preserve the Wilderness battlefield and honor heroes on both sides — that Walmart is progressing with plans to erect yet another superstore complex on the northern edge of this historically significant field 12 miles west of Fredericksburg.

Aside from the certainty of greater traffic congestion and urbanization in still bucolic areas bordering the Wilderness along Route 3, irreplaceable loss and degradation to the area’s “historical environment,” the proposed Walmart will probably have unintended consequences.

How we honor our history as a nation, like our fallen dead, and the hallowed ground where they fought, speaks volumes about who we are as a people. In challenging times such as these, we must protect our treasured legacies and resist those forces that would accelerate our slide to into “historical amnesia” if left unchecked.

From the number of stores already in the area, it would appear Walmart believes its “Manifest Destiny” is to pave over the landscape at strategic intersections where research analysis indicates a potential growth market within 10 miles. But the company’s professed interest in local communities seems shallow when framed against this reality: Walmart seeks to build literally across the street from a national shrine.

Wilderness is not just another historic site. Arguably the largest and most horrific battle of the Civil War, with more than 160,000 total combatants (Gettysburg had 30,000 fewer), the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-6, 1864) was also among the bloodiest with 29,000 casualties (killed, wounded and captured).

It marked the first direct contest between armies commanded by Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The fighting was desperate. Fires erupted and smoke obscured the lines amid the tangled underbrush. Many wounded were consumed, screaming in the inferno. Years later veterans would liken the struggle to Indian warfare — a “great bushwhacking in the woods.”

Although neither side gained clear advantage, the battle signalled a turning point. Wilderness marked the beginning of the long slog to Appromattox as Grant wheeled south toward Richmond after the battle instead of withdrawing as his predecessors in Union command had done in each of three earlier campaigns.

On behalf of all tourists, Civil War buffs yet unborn and fellow pilgrims of history, I sincerely hope Walmart will have the decency to shelve its proposed complex or move it elsewhere and avert another potential “bushwhacking in the Wilderness.”

It would be more than tragic if the last casualty of the Wilderness turned out to be the battlefield itself.

Hollis is director of the General Longstreet Recognition Project in Washington, D.C.