Entering the Wilderness of Wal-Mart and Battlefield Preservation

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Copy_of_0821walmartNo surprise that a lot of people are very upset about the proposed Wal-Mart on the Wilderness Battlefield at the intersection of Routes 20 and 3.  Like any Civil War enthusiast I have my concerns as well.  Every year I bring my students to the Wilderness and Chancellorsville and plan to do so again in just a few weeks.  I've spent countless hours walking the fields and finding my own personal meaning through the contemplation of the brave deeds of soldiers who fought so long ago.  In short, I would be happy if there was no additional development in that area.  Having traversed the highway between Chancellorsville and downtown Fredericksburg since 2000, however, I've grown skeptical that anything can be done to prevent it.  Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting that nothing should be done to prevent it, but this latest push seems to me to be a rearguard action.  And to be honest, I'm not sure how much weight my own view should have in deciding what to do with the land in question. 

I read in a recent article that the area has been zoned for commercial purposes for the past 20 years. Given the development over the past 10 years did anyone really believe that this day would never come?  At times I find it difficult to distinguish between the emotion over development and the fact that the developer in question is Wal-mart.  [Check out Robert Mackey's piece at the Huffington Post and also see the comments to a recent post by Eric Wittenberg.] Mackey describes Wal-Mart as at "war with America" while Wittenberg describes this latest venture as an "atrocity."  I should state for the record that I don't shop at Wal-Mart, not because I have a moral problem with the company, but because I tend to get lost in their stores and end up overwhelmed by all of their stuff.  Yes, Wal-Mart has grown like a virus since the 1960s, but it seems to me that it is just another indicator of our "super-size me" culture rather than a perpetrator to be dismissed with an ominous and dark moral brush stroke.

The Civil War Preservation Trust has taken the lead in challenging Wal-Mart's plans.  In the past I've given to the CWPT and I wish them the all the best in this latest effort.  You can read their letter to the CEO of Wal-Mart, which offers the standard argument for preservation – as if anyone who isn't already on board will suddenly have this moment of insight and join the preservation movement.  I came across this comment from a recent article in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star, which pretty much sums up my position and internal struggle with this issue:

It cannot be any worse than that flippin Sheetz and it's bright lights. Aesthetics?? Why was
that not brought up when Sheetz and McDonald's went in? Ferry Farm
Wal-Mart is only a half mile away from Ferry Farm and it's well off the
road just like this one will be. This is needed for Orange, it will
bring jobs, albeit low paying but it's a job close to home and a huge
tax base increase.
Rt. 20 will never be widened to 4 lanes, not enough
people will sellout to give VDOT enough right of way.

I suspect that there are a significant number of people who agree with the basic outline of the above sentiment.   Who am I to tell them otherwise?  The land is not zoned as a battlefield, it is zoned for commercial development.  We can make as strong a case for the historical significance of the land, but in the end it represents only one perspective and my guess is that it is a minority position.  Battlefield preservationists should not make the mistake in thinking that they have a monopoly on what is best for this particular piece of land nor should they assume that those who support the project are not looking out for their own community's well being.  It's not their fault that a battle was fought in their backyards. 

In the end I hope that in a years time that I can bring my students to the Wilderness and Chancellorsville battlefields and continue to use the land for educational purposes.  As I stated at the top of this post, I hope the Wal-Mart venture fails and may even cut a check in the next few days.  However, I am under no illusion that my position on what should be done with this land is any more important than the viewpoints of those who live in Orange County and the surrounding area.

10 comments… add one

  • Brooks Simpson Aug 26, 2008

    Kevin, you are right about the commercial zoning, and as you know there’s already stuff there at the elbow in the junction. However, I think it a dumb location for a big development, and I do worry about the impact of traffic in that area, especially west on 20. Still, the only way to stop that development is to buy it, and at present it’s uninterpreted land.

    Still, somehow the notion that during the night of May 7, the Fifth Corps began to march westward, turned south at the Walmart, and then cheered as Grant and Meade rode by, doubtless with some really good buys … well, that doesn’t work for me. But if we value the land, then we are going to have to pony up for it, and that can happen only so many times.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 26, 2008

    Brooks, — It doesn’t work for me either, but my problem is in assuming that there is an argument to be made that ought to convince others that it doesn’t work. You hit the nail on the head: it comes down to bucks and whether interested parties will cough-up a sufficient amount. As for the moral argument that this land is somehow connected to our identity as Americans, well, I will leave that to others.

  • matthew mckeon Aug 26, 2008

    Kevin,
    I’m a little disappointed with this post. You’re right people have a particular problem with Walmart, which is fuelling some of the anger in this situation. Your own reason for not shopping there, because the experience is asthetically displeasing, as opposed to that Walmart workers are systmatically screwed over to produce those great bargains, is a little precious.

    Maybe this response is too personal and out of line. If so, I apologize.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 27, 2008

    Matthew, — I don’t mind the comment one bit. Without going into detail I am willing to bet that we are probably in agreement re: Walmart’s employee policies. I was just as outraged as many of you out there over their handling of a recent health insurance case and am pleased that it was finally resolved. One of the reasons I didn’t go into it in the post is because it seems to me to be a side issue. More to the point, while I may have issues with Walmart I don’t for a minute believe that I know what is best for their employees. People choose to work there for any number of reasons and I suspect that many value and take pride in their work at Walmart. If you don’t like their policies than don’t work there.

    I do think we need to distinguish between commercial development of the area and the fact that Walmart is behind this particular push. As I stated in the post the land is not viewed by the county as battlefield; rather, it was set aside for commercial development. Well, that’s what is happening to it.

  • Michaela Aug 27, 2008

    “If you don’t like their policies than don’t work there.” Not quite, Kevin. As we both have been in positions where we took jobs that we needed more than we liked them, I disagree. This post is not about WM, but here it is anyway: I remember clearly talking to students of mine who had families that needed jobs and had no choice, but to work at WM. Be it that they lacked a GED, be it that they were pressed by sudden loss of income of a spouse. If WM is our “alternative” to bring jobs and prosperity to an area by exploiting those that have no choice, then that should be enough to ban it. Also, their policy of hiring illegal immigrants (don’t tell, don’t ask-rule of a different kind) is appalling. Those employees get kicked out of the US immediately while WM gets fined minimal sums.

    With regard to the battlefield, Fredericksburg will buid something there eventually, just what it will be is the question. And whether preserving the actual battlefields has a value or not can be argued from different perspectives. For me as a European I believe your country clearly lacks “exhibitions on display” regarding its history for a variety of reasons. So I find it most helpful to raise another generation of educated young Americans by showing them their history “in situ”. But maybe working on a more sophisticated interpretation in the general school curriculum might be a way to balance that. And maybe by not just working on preserving battlefields, but by marking every spot in the US where slaves where sold with a large visible memorial to remember those who suffered would help, too?

    Last, but not least, you do not shop at WM because you do not shop… LOL

  • Chuck Aug 27, 2008

    Kevin, It should also be noted that not only is a Wal-Mart slated for the property, but a housing development as well. So it’s not just a Wal-Mart issue.
    Also, the land is not technically “battlefield” i.e.: no one fought on the property, but it did have the site of a hospital near Wilderness Run. If the CWPT is smart, they might be able to negotiate and save some of the property near the run for a linear park with interpretation of the hospital site.
    Personally, I believe there is much more valuable battlefield land needing to be saved than to pony up the kind of money needed for this property.

  • Brooks Simpson Aug 27, 2008

    Would the reaction be different if this was a Target?

  • Kevin Levin Aug 27, 2008

    Ela, — Again, I think we would agree that the hiring practices are suspect. That said, I don’t feel comfortable throwing out words like “exploitation” without any type of survey or without a sense of the worker’s experience at Wal-Mart. You are no doubt correct that a certain number of people have no choice but to work at Wal-Mart, but what would that choice look like without it?

    You make an excellent point, if I understand you correctly, that the money used for battlefield preservation could be more effectively used to preserve some semblance of historical understanding in the classroom.

    By the way, do you want me to pick up anything on the way home?

    Chuck, — A company called the Crater Battlefield Association owned the battlefield site for a good eight years. They turned the Crater site into an 18-hole golf course, but left the general public with access to the tunnel and what was left of the crater. Your point is well taken that perhaps it is worth thinking about how to combine commercial development with preservation.

    Brooks, — Yes, I assume the reaction would be different.

  • David Rhoads Aug 27, 2008

    This area at the intersection of Routes 3 and 20 is doomed, folks. With Orange County’s population growth rate one of the highest in the country, and the site in question zoned commercial and nestled right between Lake of the Woods and Fredericksburg, it’s only a matter of time–probably less than 2 or 3 years at this point. If Wal-Mart is somehow stopped–and personally as a resident of Orange, I’d much rather not have a Wal-Mart in the county–some other development will quickly replace it.

    The only way to prevent it is to purchase the land.

    But honestly, with the Sheetz, McDonald’s, 7-11, and a couple of strip malls already in place at or near the intersection, combined with the fact that the site isn’t even really part of the battlefield, I have to think there are better ways to spend scarce battlefield preservation money than on this patch of ground that no one who goes to the Wilderness right now would even think to visit anyway.

    By way of contrast, consider Hamilton’s Thicket, the 400-plus acre parcel at the intersection of the Brock and Orange Plank Roads that the Park Service purchased a few years ago. This is the area where Longstreet sent Moxley Sorrel to attack Hancock’s flank on the second day of the battle, a significant piece of ground by any estimation, but especially in comparison to the Wal-Mart site. That’s the kind of battlefield land that is worth fighting–and spending–to acquire.

    We can’t and won’t preserve it all, and labeling every such encroachment an “atrocity” doesn’t really do much to advance the cause of preservation, especially among the people who currently own the land and the people who live and work in the area. It would be better to reserve our resources and our umbrage for when it matters more.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 27, 2008

    David, — I find myself in agreement with much of what you have to say. It’s nice to hear from someone who will be directly affected by this.

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