Deeper Into the Wilderness

There is an argument to be made for the preservation of battlefield land, but it doesn't help the cause if it is framed in the overly-emotional language of "Yankee Invaders" and "Yankee greed."  I absolutely love this comment from Eric Wittenberg's blog:

As a marketer and instructor I have often praised Wal Mart for their
pioneering strategies, from the store’s inception with Sam Walton to
the present, as well as the store’s innovative practices of adopting
environmentally pro-active packaging policies well ahead of most other
corporations. However, Wal Mart’s decision to blunder its way into
hallowed ground reminds me that the corporation has a powerful spin
machine, and behind the mirrors the company’s actions speak louder than
its PR machine. My great grandfather fought at Fredericksburg,
Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania with the Palmetto
Rifles of South Carolina. He was fighting, not for slavery, but to stop
the incursion of the Yankee industrial might from taxing the common
people to death, raising the prices of imported goods with higher
tariffs (this is why Texas was founded by Steven Austin to get away
from Yankee corporate greed) and to impinge on the individual freedoms
of South Carolinians, forcing them to sell their farms and work for the
large New York-based agricultural (cotton) companies. Now 145 years
later, Yankee greed has come at last to devour the memory of those who
fought to keep their land free from exploitation. All in the name of
commerce. What irony.

At least try to get the basic facts right.  Wal-Mart is not a northern company, assuming that regional identification is even possible in this day in age.  Of course, this is just one example, but most of what I've read over the past few days is not much better and most of it is even worse.  It's one thing for a reader to babble on about nothing, but it doesn't help if a newspaper like the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star cannot do any better:

The original, of course, was the 1864 conflagration between Gens.
Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. The first meeting of the two on the
field of arms took place in western Spotsylvania and eastern Orange
counties, a wild, thicket-laced area along the old Plank Road. The
battle involved over 160,000 troops and marked the start of Grant's
Overland Campaign, an offensive that took the Union Army clear down to
Richmond. Before the smoke cleared–literally: bullets set the dry
brush on fire and many wounded burned to death–almost 4,000 soldiers
rested in the arms of God.

This year's invaders cannot rightfully be called Yankees, since
Wal-Mart is headquartered in Bentonville, Ark., and trades with the
world. But the 142,000-square-foot store it proposes could be as
devastating as anything Grant unleashed
. The site, near State Routes 3
and 20, lies irreverently within a quarter-mile of the Fredericksburg
& Spotsylvania National Military Park. Also, Wal-Mart's site plan
includes four pads for "junior big boxes." And another group wants to
put a 1.65-million-square-foot retail, office, and government complex
on 846 adjacent acres. Developments in toto larger than Central Park
would lap at the entrance to a national shrine.

The FLS owes it to its readers to present a more balanced account of what is at stake at the intersection of Routes 20 and 3.   I suspect that most people in the area cannot identify Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant or that a major battle took place in something called the Wilderness.  Please, let's get off our moral high horse and take the time to frame the argument in the clearest and most persuasive terms.  Stop trying to fit Wal-Mart and any other potential developer into our silly Civil War memes.  [The title of the FLS's editorial is "Worse Than Yankees", but I would argue that the coming of the Yankees was not necessarily seen as problematic by a fairly large section of the population.  Just ask John Washington.  Two can play at this game.]  I constantly tell my students that the best way to convince through formal argument is to present the best case possible for the other side and then show why it is still mistaken.  Let's try that hat on for size for a change. 

6 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2008 @ 15:39

    Mr. Smith, — Thanks so much for taking the time from what I assume is a busy schedule to comment on this issue. You framed the issues clearly and have given me much to think about. First, I didn’t mean to pick on the good people of Orange and Spotsylvania Counties in terms of their historical knowledge any more than what national statistics suggest.

    While I wholeheartedly agree that there is a need for battlefield preservation I am easily frustrated by the absolutist mentality that seems to dominate these discussions. It seems to me that is what is currently passing for discourse regarding the intersection of Routes 3 and 20. At the same time I tend to take a much more skeptical stance towards preservation, not so much in terms of whether it should be done at all, but in terms of the what and how much. In other words, I wonder whether we too easily reduce Civil War preservation to battlefield preservation and overlook sites that are just as valuable to understanding the Civil War. I took part in John Hennessy’s fabulous (IMHO the most impressive tour that the NPS has organized in recent years) program on the life of John Washington. We toured the bank in the downtown Fredericksburg where Washington lived and while it is preserved it seems to me that such a site should fall under the NPS’s jurisdiction.

    As for battlefield preservation I think there needs to be a discussion of how much ought to be preserved and where, and I also believe that preservationists need to see themselves as part of a broader historical narrative. Joan Zenzen’s study of Manassas as well as Jim Weeks’s book on Gettysburg and memory suggest that preservation is just one of many attitudes that can be taken when it comes to battlefield land. I am even open to the suggestion that we have enough battlefield land already preserved.

  • Russ Smith, Supterintendent, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP Aug 28, 2008 @ 14:57

    Hi Kevin,

    I’m finding the exchange on the proposed Wilderness Walmart to be very interesting. I’d like to add some thoughts.

    First, I think you sell the residents of Orange County and Spotsylvania County short. I’ve found local residents to be both proud and knowledgeable about their Civil War heritage. They know very well who Grant and Lee are.

    As far as the proposed Walmart is concerned, the issue is not just Walmart, but whether it is appropriate to put a major commercial development that includes much more than a Walmart next to a national park. Aesthetic values aside, this degrades the tourism value of those resources and increases pressure on the roadways through the park.

    I find odd the argument that there is a already a Sheetz and McDonald’s at the corner of Routes 20 & 3, so anything else is appropriate. By that logic, the Walmart will be used to justify every other commercial development. And, by the way, there were public objections to both the Sheetz and McDonald’s.

    Yes, the Walmart site is zoned commercial. It was a decision made twenty years ago, before the example of the big box development in Central Park in Fredericksburg (which I believe you’re familiar with), and before Orange Countians started to express their concern about the loss of the rural character of the county. The County’s recent anti-Big Box ordinance codifies that concern.

    (I understand that the commercial square footage proposed for the Route 20 & 3 intersection actually exceeds that of Central Park.)

    No, it’s not about Walmart. It’s about completely changing the character of a rural landscape on the doorstep of a national park. An issue that big deserves some public discussion.

  • Chuck Aug 28, 2008 @ 13:27

    For some reason the argument always seems to get hysterical and belligerent before the parties take a deep breath and talk about a workable solution.

    I also find it interesting that no one has yet brought up that the current Route 20/3 intersection is itself not historic. The historic intersection is actually south east of the current intersection and the western side of it is protected by the NPS.
    So the historic intersection is not going to be affected by this development only the current intersection which has been compromised for quite some time by McDonalds, Sheetz and other businesses.

    It is a shame that people get all dramatic before sitting down and calmly trying to figure out the true possibilities for a solution. The land in question had no combat on it only hospitals and probably wagons, so there is much room for negotiation to commemorate the site without having to make it seem like a developer is destroying everyone’s heritage.
    Deep breath everyone 🙂

  • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2008 @ 6:08

    Jarrett, — I am indeed familiar with the book, but it was one of Eric’s readers who offered that little gem.

  • Brooks Simpson Aug 28, 2008 @ 2:11

    Just remember: the Wilderness was the beginning of the end for Bobby Lee and his boys. Maybe you shouldn’t be able to turn left onto 3 from 20 in memory of that. 🙂

    And, of course, that would hurt the commercial value of the property. So honor our heritage: no left turn!

    Anyone who’s been to Spotsylvania lately will recognize how much that’s changed in so little time.

    What will they do next? Tear down Yankee Stadium?

  • Anonymous Aug 28, 2008 @ 0:18

    Hey Kevin,

    Just curious, but have you read James L. Huston’s “Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights and the Coming of the Civil War?” Huston points out that in 1860 the value in slaves just among the largest southern planters was 3 BILLION contemporary dollars, which he finds was more than railroads and manufacturing COMBINED. I know Huston’s book is not one of the more popular recent studies because its focus on economics and charts and graphs can be, well, dry, but he does make clear that if we make the logical assumption that wealth equals power, than the power in 1860 lay with the slaveholders, who were just as concerned with money and capital as any “Greedy Yankee.” Perhaps Mr. Wittenberg should read Huston’s book.

    – Jarret

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