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Historians battle Wal-Mart over key Civil War site

Saturday, January 3, 2009

LOCUST GROVE, Va. — Wal-Mart wants to build a Supercenter within a cannonshot of where Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant first fought, a proposal that has preservationists rallying to protect the key Civil War site.

A who's who of historians including filmmaker Ken Burns and Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough sent a letter last month to H. Lee Scott, president and chief executive officer of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., urging the company to build somewhere farther from the Wilderness Battlefield.

"The Wilderness is an indelible part of our history, its very ground hallowed by the American blood spilled there, and it cannot be moved," said the letter from 253 scholars and others.

Wal-Mart and its supporters point out that the 138,000-square-foot store would be right behind a bank and a small strip mall, a full mile from entrance to the site of the 1864 clash that left thousands dead and hastened the war's end.

Local leaders also want the $500,000 in tax revenue they estimate the big-box store will generate for rural Orange County, a gradually growing area about 60 miles southwest of Washington.

"In these economic times, the fact that Wal-Mart wants to come into the county is an economic plus," said R. Mark Johnson, a tire shop owner and chairman of the county's board of supervisors. "This is hardly pristine wilderness we're talking about."

Grant's Union troops were headed to Richmond on May 4, 1864, when they confronted Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The Battle of the Wilderness involved more than 100,000 Union troops and 61,000 Confederates. The fighting, according to National Park Service estimates, left more than 4,000 dead and 20,000 wounded.

Some 2,700 acres of the Wilderness Battlefield are protected as part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Preservationists regularly square off against developers in Virginia, where much of the Civil War was fought.

This dispute, however, has stirred an outcry similar to the one in 1994 over The Walt Disney Co.'s plans to build a $650 million theme park within miles of the Manassas Battlefield. The entertainment giant bowed to public pressure and abandoned the project.

Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart, which opened nearly 200 stores in the U.S. in 2007, said it studied a lengthy list of sites in Orange County before settling on the spot near the battlefield and its gentle hills dissected by neat footpaths.

"We recognize the significance of the Wilderness Battlefield, but we are not building on the battlefield," said Keith Morris, a spokesman for the world's largest retailer.

Preservationists argue the store site is still significant because it was used as a staging area by Union troops.

"Is it blood-soaked ground? No, but it is a part of the battlefield," said Jim Campi, a spokesman for the Civil War Preservation Trust, which lists the Wilderness Battlefield as endangered.

Supervisors will have the final say, after county planners decide if the retailer should be granted a zoning variance. Hearings likely will be scheduled in February and March.

Supervisor Teri Pace said there are "more appropriate places" in the county for Wal-Mart to build. She envisions an economic development plan that taps the county's history — including President James Madison's restored home, Montpelier — and its agricultural heritage, which now includes several popular wineries.

"If we define ourselves and promote ourselves as something different, with tourism and agriculture, we really have huge opportunities here," Pace said.


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