- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 26, 2011

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.

An industry analyst said Wal-Mart’s decision was based on “practical business reasons” and harks back to founder Sam Walton’s credo that Wal-Mart should never build a store where it isn’t wanted.

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.

Hundreds of historians, including Mr. McPherson, filmmaker Ken Burns and celebrities such as Robert Duvall had appealed to Wal-Mart to walk away from the 50-acre property and find another place to build in the rural county of fewer than 35,000 people.

Mr. McPherson wrote in a summary of his testimony that Grant’s headquarters and his senior leaders were encamped near the site of the proposed store and Union casualties were treated on the site or in an area destined to be a parking lot for the store.

“Among other things, thousands of wounded and dying soldiers occupied the then open fields that included the Walmart site, which is where many of the Union Army hospital tents were located during the battle,” Mr. McPherson wrote.

Wal-Mart and county officials argued that no significant battles occurred on the site, but preservation groups were unrelenting. They supplied maps of troop movements and maneuvers in a region that is dotted with Civil War battlefields.

“We have long believed that Wal-Mart would ultimately recognize that it is in the best interests of all concerned to move their intended store away from the battlefield,” said James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Trust. “We applaud Walmart officials for putting the interests of historic preservation first. Sam Walton would be proud of this decision.”

The dispute was scheduled for an eight-day trial in Orange County Circuit Court. Wal-Mart’s decision to give up its special use permit was announced at the start of what was to be the second day of hearings on motions.

Mr. Wertz could not point to one reason for the retailer’s turnabout but said the decision was made after continuing corporate discussions about balancing economic decisions and the concerns of preservationists.

While preservation groups battled the store, residents and some county officials welcomed the convenience of a Supercenter and the jobs and tax revenue it would have generated for the county.