The Washington Times - May 3, 2009, 10:57AM

The ongoing battle between the goliath Wal-Mart and the historically important Wilderness Battlefield in Orange County continues unabated.

It brings up several questions, most specifically, must business bow to history?  Must a legitimate business entity seek to build only where special interest groups cannot get involved?


As a civil war historian and a long time ‘tromper’ of battlefields of all types in a variety of states,   it’s not an easy question to answer. I remember when a strip shopping center was proposed near one side of Manassas National Battlefield Park.   It would have taken no land, would have desecrated no sacred spots, yet it would fall within the “sight line” of the battlefield.  In other words, the average tourist or battlefield walker might be able to spot the strip mall once he saw over, through and around the power lines, gas transmission lines, and other already approved intrusions, not the least of which is a traffic light beside the Stone House!

I’ve not been to the proposed Wal-Mart site, but reading the articles, it appears that it would be located across the roadway from the Wilderness Battlefield site.  So, obviously it would be visible to those visiting the battlefield.  One has to wonder how far we can legally and morally go in protecting our sacred sites from even being near  (or within view) something commercial.

In an article in today’s Washington Post, by noted historian James McPherson, he writes that “the store would sit on a hill overlooking key parts of the battlefield, looming over a national treasure.”

Well, yes, if it’s “on a hill” it’s definitely “looming over.”  The question remains, how much of a treasure is there?  He also states that “only 21 percent of the [original] battlefield  is permanently protected; other key areas are  privately held and vulnerable to development.” And whose fault is that? And what can be done about it?

Aye, there’s the rub. We recently saw Ox Hill (or Chantilly) rededicated. This tiny battlefield is all that remains after developers whose names are as familiar as Cheerios and Kleenex were allowed to ride roughshod over some 90% of the original site, aided and abetted by landowners — some of them descendants of those who fought there — quietly took their monetary reward to the bank. Think Fair Lakes and Fair Oaks and various versions of the names.  That’s  your once-pristine battlefield, where a grave and remains were found within the last 20 years!

Is it reasonable to expect Wal-Mart or anyone else to respect and revere battlefields when landowners are more anxious for bucks than bullet holes?For cash than cannon balls?  It is rapidly becoming a situation from the preservationists and historians among us are sitting in the caboose, trying inadequately to drive the runaway train.

I am all for protecting our battlefields, and regularly support both vocally and financially the incursions upon them. However, as Will Rogers once opined or suggested, buy land — they ain’t makin’ any more of it.  We have to be good stewards of the land in our domain, but we have to be realistic as well.

Virginia sits as an inarguable central spot in these  discussions. One is  hard pressed to find a square acre of land anywhere in the Old Dominion  which was not fought over, around, under or in view of. Men fought and died; their blood permeates the soil to this day, now mixed with asphalt and concrete.  It should never be diminished in any way. But how to choose and where to allow it?

Coalitions between preservationists and developers are a scant win for the former and an equally scant loss for the latter. Bristow Station saw a massive assault by groups trying to save it, the meetings went on for night after night. A small area was “preserved,” a “buffer area” constructed,  yet almost the entire Alabama Cemetery was lost and paved over, some time after the rudimentary markers had been mysteriously removed. Score one for the developers.

MacPherson terms such agreements, “marrying respect for the old with the promise of the new,” and in the coming week, the 145th anniversary of the Battle of the Wilderness, urges the mega-giant Wal-Mart to find a better locale for its 138,000 square foot superstore, than across from the battlefield.

Yes, we can holler and scream and protest and carry signs, and Wal-Mart may go somewhere else to build.  It may be far away from the battlefield and nearer to some other historically significant (or even insignificant) site.  And the thousands of families and children who would be going in and out of that  Wal-Mart will never have the chance to say “Hey, Dad, why don’t we go to see that battlefield?”

Perhaps the time has come for us to try and find ways we can get along with an emerging proliferation of commercial sites, and put them to work FOR us instead of AGAINST  us.  It’s worth a try.

Unfortunately the big money is on Wal-Mart.