The well known reenactor and battlefield preservationist Robert Lee Hodge has a short editorial in the Roanoke Times in which he warns residents living in the Lynchburg-Appomattox area to resist plans to build another Wal-Mart:
As I toured Appomattox last year, I saw that development in historic areas has increased more in the last five years than in the past 142 years since the surrender. Wal-Mart announced this month that it will build on the ground that was fought over primarily by a Federal cavalry brigade under Gen. Henry Davies and Confederate troopers under Gen. Thomas Munford — including the 2nd Virginia Cavalry in which Company H was the Appomattox Rangers.
This is where Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fired its last shots and suffered its last casualties. The Confederate dead are buried on the ground slated for development. The Robertson house that once stood there was used as a Federal headquarters and probably a hospital. This is of interest to reverent people throughout the country.
Now make no mistake I have a great deal of respect for battlefield preservationists and I’ve been known to give money to at least one organization. That said, I cringe at these sappy and vague references to the importance of our Civil War past:
Whether you are a Southerner or a Northerner; Democrat or Republican; domestic or imported; black, white, yellow, red, blue or gray — these places tell us more about who we are than any other single historical period in our brief existence. It is our road map to tell us who we are, where we are, where we have been, and where we may go.
I for one can’t stand the sight of Wal-Marts and I resist shopping there whenever possible. I am even willing to pay more for an item rather than walk into these cookie cutter – fake hospitality asylums. However, I honestly don’t know why I should resist plans to build one of these monstrosities on land that was fought over by Federal cavalry. More importantly, Wal-Marts provide people with jobs and even with all of the controversy surrounding benefits packages that has to have some value – definitely more value than preserving land because Federal cavalry fought over it.
I am going to go out on a limb here and it will probably upset some, but I actually doubt that most battlefield enthusiasts/preservationists really agree with Hodge’s assessment these sites constitute some kind of road map of national identity. Most people’s interest in the Civil War extends no further than the battlefields themselves. Just consider the opposition over the past few years to the NPS’s efforts to broaden our understanding of Civil War battlefields in a way that would connect them to broader issues that go very far in addressing our national identity.
My guess is that in the end most people desire to save Civil War battlefields so they can walk the ground and imagine for themselves the movements of troops and the fighting that took place there. We’re not talking about serious reflection about issues of national identity, we’re talking about entertainment. How can Hodge claim that saving land that was fought over by a Federal cavalry brigade translate into anything other than saving a small piece of a larger military campaign puzzle? In short, it’s a chance to play soldier in the "Mind’s I." The problem is that the people who enjoy walking battlefields constitute a very small interest group.
If you want to save the battlefields than raise the money and purchase the land. Hell, I will even help, but don’t preach to me that this issue somehow transcends region, race, and politics.