ORANGE, Va. | Under withering opposition from hundreds of historians, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. abruptly abandoned plans Wednesday to build a Supercenter near a hallowed Civil War site where Robert E. Lee first met Ulysses S. Grant on the field of battle in 1864.
Attorneys for the world’s largest retailer announced the decision in court on the eve of a trial that would have put Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson on the witness stand. He was to testify that a portion of the site 60 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., was a “nerve center” for the Battle of the Wilderness.
Wal-Mart, which had weathered two years of criticism by preservationists over the site, did not elaborate on its decision to withdraw plans for the store one day before the trial was to begin.
“We just felt it was the right thing to do,” said William C. Wertz, a spokesman for the Arkansas retailer. He said the company would seek another location in Orange County and compensate the county for its expenses in defending its decision to approve the store.
Burt P. Flickinger III of Strategic Resource Group said it is rare for Wal-Mart to back away from a store once it has researched a location and settled on a site, but it may have wanted to avoid a continuing public relations hit at a time of disappointing sales and increased competition.
“To the company’s credit, they decided to do something different,” said Mr. Flickinger, who said he is a Wal-Mart shareholder.
While clearly surprised by the decision, preservationists celebrated the turnaround and said the decision signals their resolve to protect America’s heritage.
“I hope this sends a message not only to Wal-Mart but to other developers that the preservation community is willing to fight for historic sites,” said Robert Rosenbaum, an attorney for residents and the preservation group.
Mr. Rosenbaum said he thought that the planned testimony by Mr. McPherson was key to the decision.
“On the historic issues, we believe we would have won,” he said.
The 143,000-square-foot store planned by the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer would have been outside the limits of the protected national park where the core battlefield is located. The company argued that the area was already dotted with retail locations and zoned for commercial use.
The Orange County Board of Supervisors in August 2009 approved the special use permit Wal-Mart needed to build the store. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, residents who live within three miles or less of the site and a group that maintains a historic estate on the battlefield challenged the approval.
They argued procedural issues but also that supervisors ignored or rejected the assistance of historians and other preservation specialists when they approved the store’s construction in Locust Grove, about one mile from the entrance to the national park.
Historians view the Battle of the Wilderness as a critical point when the Civil War started to turn in favor of the North. The war ended 11 months later. An estimated 185,000 Union and Confederate troops fought over three days in the Wilderness, leaving 30,000 killed, injured or missing.