So What’s the Next Move?

I’ve stated that the proposed construction of a new Wal-Mart on the Wilderness battlefield is a bad idea and, along with 252 other historians, signed the Civil War Preservation Trust’s letter addressed to the CEO of the company. But even with all of the attention generated in newspapers over the past few weeks it is only a matter of time before permits are handed out and the ground paved over. What I want to know is at what point should preservationists begin to work with Wal-Mart to propose ways to minimize the site’s impact on the surrounding battlefield. Are there ways to configure the entrance, the parking lots, as well as the building itself in a way that would preserve some of the viewsheds? While I admire the efforts of the CWPT to bring the issue of battlefield preservation to the attention of the general public, it seems to me that an opportunity would have been lost if company executives are not engaged at all.  How about asking Wal-Mart to buy a parcel of land in the area and donate it to the CWPT in the name of battlefield preservation?

That’s just one idea.  What other ideas are out there?

Print Friendly
 

11 thoughts on “So What’s the Next Move?

  1. Rob Wick

    Kevin,

    I think the idea of Wal-Mart buying a parcel of land and donating it would be a good thing, but I doubt it will placate the most ardent “fire-eaters” in this battle. This is something that really tugs at me, because quite honestly, I don’t like seeing history lost (especially to commercial development) but I think much of this is a result of preservation efforts. If you keep the battlefields available to visitors, those people are going to want places to stay, eat and shop. Businesses can’t be faulted for wanting to locate near that activity. If I were a shareholder, I would demand it.

    But what bothers me the most seems to be a kind of hypocrisy on behalf of many preservationists. If you want the battlefield to be pristine, take the paved roads out. Make people walk it instead of driving it. That, of course, would drastically drive the number of visitors out because the only people willing to walk it would be people who would likely walk it anyway.

    Another point. I don’t think the mere loss of a battlefield takes away from what happened there. If you go to Springfield, Ill., and walk in the Old State Capitol to where Lincoln made his “House Divided” speech, you are not treading the same boards where he walked. The only part of the building that is original is the outside. Everything else is restored. Yet, do Lincolnites bemoan the fact that they can’t stand on the same board that Lincoln did? Hardly. The spirit of the occasion is still there to be found. Should you bend to the standards of the 21st century and allow air-conditioning in Lincoln’s home to benefit those who visit, or to make the story true to form, should you make it unbearably hot as Lincoln felt it in July? Where do you stop?

    When I was in Washington, I stood outside of Ford’s Theater. One one side stands a parking garage while further down the street is a Hard Rock Cafe. Cars were in motion on the street. Yet in my mind’s eye, I could see the crowds in a state of panic after Lincoln’s shooting. I could see those men carrying Lincoln’s body across to the Petersen house. Why? Because I used my imagination. Would it be right for me to demand that the garage be torn down or the Hard Rock Cafe closed or the street closed to traffic so I could somehow have a better “experience”. I doubt it would have made any difference.

    Even though I supported the clearing of sight lines in Gettysburg, I think a point could be made that doing that is wrong, because the battlefield naturally changes over time. Was the field in 1863 the same as it was in 1800? I doubt it. Would it really matter to anyone (other than those to whom the military story trumps all other parts of the historical experience and who can’t seem to accept–per the silly Visitor’s Center debate–that not everyone cares to see 16 different types of swords) if the field was allowed to follow its natural progression to a point where many things might be unrecognizable to those who were there in 1863?

    This fetishization of land seems to me unhealthy. After all, it isn’t the land that is sacred–it’s what happened there. What happened there will remain regardless of whether one has to look at a Wal-Mart or General Pickett’s All You Can Eat buffet. In spite of my dislike of much of American commercial development, I have a hard time caring that a view shed is going to be lost. While memory can be enhanced by visual stimulation of relics and historical sites, the lack of them doesn’t inhibit us. It only makes us have to use our imaginations and think more, which to me isn’t wholly a bad thing.

    Best
    Rob

    Reply
  2. Beth Parnicza

    I would agree with you, Rob, if it were merely the question of just Wal-Mart, which, at this point, it is. However, what concerns me the most in the placement of Walmart on the battlefield is the growth that Wal-Mart will bring with it. How often do you see a Wal-Mart as the only commercial development in its area? My biggest fear in this situation is the further development that is likely to result around the Wal-Mart, growth of the same kind that is beginning to encroach on nearby Chancellorsville at Zoan Church and has already dominated Salem Church. I agree with the movements to draw the line on development now to set a precedent.

    In regards to the hipocrisy, removing the paved roads, etc. is impractical for the reasons you already stated and would go a ways to defeat the part of the purpose of preserving the battlefields for the public. Yet, paved roads are not quite the same to me as a Wal-Mart. I think this kind of question can be a delicate balance, but it seems more logical to me that a Wal-Mart disrupts much more than it aids in the overall goals of preserving the battlefield for public understanding, whereas a road, trail, or visitor’s center helps understanding to a degree that I justify the harm it does to preserving the battlefield.

    As for working with Wal-Mart officials, I think this should have been taking place from the beginning but is especially important now. I do respect Walmart’s right to build in the area, and frankly, I think it will happen regardless of the attention drawn to the problem. This isn’t necessarily tragic, either. Walmart’s development will likely benefit the area economically. At some point, the CWPT will have to admit defeat and should try to work with Wal-Mart to minimize the negative impact it will have on the battlefield. Donating a parcel of land could be a good compromise if managed properly, and it sounds like a good idea to me. To draw on my earlier example of the Zoan ridge at Chancellorsville, though the viewshed is damaged by a large Home Depot and other development, the trench line is preserved and now has interpretive signs and a trail leading up to it so people are aware that it exists. A compromise of this nature would satisfy me, at least.

    Reply
  3. Rob Wick

    Beth,

    So if I understand you correctly, you are willing to allow paved roads and modern buildings on the battlefield in hopes that it will bring more people to visit and say that this is the equivalent of being a little cruel to the land to be kind to the visitors in what I assume would be the hope that a greater understanding of what happened emerges. Very few, I imagine, could argue with that. But when those people want to be able to eat, shop or whatever while there, and businesses whose main goal is to make a profit, want to locate there, that can’t happen because it ruins the “experience”. Doesn’t that seem highly contradictory? What will those people do when it comes time to go to the hotel that isn’t there or the restaurant that can’t be open? They will go to a place where that won’t happen, taking tax dollars out of that area. I daresay that a person could travel all over the United States and find pieces of ground that someone would consider hallowed, but because a group of Civil War preservationists (many of whom I highly admire) have enough money and vocal support from others like them to focus on one state in the east where most of the battles took place, development is prohibited there. Sorry, but that just doesn’t wash.

    And I imagine I can anticipate some responses. Very few would mind a hotel or restaurant because it could be designed to not stick out like the sore thumb that Wal-Mart or Home Depot is (a point I will heartily concede). But if we start allowing development on or near battlefields only pleasing to the eyes of certain people, then where does it stop? Referring to my earlier point, do I get to say no to Hard Rock Cafe because it’s located within seeing distance of where Lincoln was murdered? Who gets to be the ultimate arbiter?

    I hate to say this because it makes me sound like I am opposed to preserving battlefields, which I’m not. But what would happen tomorrow if all the battlefields turned into commercial development? Would that mean the war could never be studied again? Would it mean that our children will never be able to understand the battle because they can’t see where it took place? How many children are lucky enough to see battlefields now? I’ve been studying the Civil War seriously for 32 of the 45 years I’ve been alive but I first visited Gettysburg in 2004. While it certainly helped me in terms of geographical understanding, that visit only enhanced my understanding of the battle. It didn’t inform it. The study I had done previously did that.

    I hope a compromise is in the offing, but I also hope that the most rabid in the opposition realize that even if a battlefield is lost (which I don’t think any serious person believes will happen here) it won’t stop the study, or understanding, of the battle.

    Best
    Rob

    Reply
  4. Beth Parnicza

    Rob,
    You bring up some very good points. Before I continue to defend my point of view, I’ll bring up another against myself. Is it fair to deny the residents of this area the opportunities in terms of employment, lower prices for products, or less of a drive for access to a Wal-Mart simply because a number of people living all over the country (I at least don’t live nearby) deem the place they live to be too sacred to build upon? This doesn’t quite add up, either, and I’ll admit it. I am sure, too, that Wal-Mart would not build if it did not think it could turn a profit in that location.

    And yet, I will still maintain that having a large amount of development near a battlefield causes it to lose much of its integrity. Not everyone has the same capacity for imagination, especially those who have not studied the battle in-depth, which would be a large number of people who visit battlefields.
    The amount of development acceptable around a battlefield is all a matter of opinion. I like to think of myself as more of a moderate on this subject. As I mentioned before, I’m not necessarily opposed to a hotel or even a Wal-Mart, but I am strongly opposed to a large development growing up so close to the battlefield. This kind of large development seems to be a trend in this area, spreading outwards from Fredericksburg, and I am afraid that allowing this Wal-Mart will open the flood gates, so to speak. Therefore, I support a stronger stance against the building of the Wal-Mart in hopes that it discourages too much development. Some development, hopefully enough to sustain visitors, will still slip through, and I have no problem with that. Yes, more development would probably mean more visitors, but at what cost? And I’m certainly not arguing that a Wal-Mart or even a bit more development in that area would cause the battlefield to be lost or even greatly compromised. I do think, however, that much of the charm of the Wilderness battlefield is in its more secluded location. But is the my opinion of a battlefield’s charm enough to keep out commercial development?

    Also, I place a little more importance on preserving battlefields. By no means do I think the complete elimination of battlefields would end the study of the War, even in terms of minute military movements. I’m more concerned with those not already inclined to study the Civil War. Although I can’t count myself among that number, I know a number of individuals whose initial interest in history or the Civil War was peaked as kids visiting Gettysburg or another battlefield. Battlefields are important not only in the interest of attracting more to the field of history, but also when considering the average American’s knowledge of the Civil War. Many visitors to battlefields have little or no idea what actually happened there and lack the motivation to study it without the physical presence of some open field or bit of Wilderness and someone there to explain the importance of it.

    How many visitors go to Gettysburg because they believe it is the solemn duty of parents to drag their children to that hallowed ground, as opposed to because they’ve studied it for years, yourself clearly excluded here? And yet, both kinds of visitor will leave with a better understanding of what took place there. I’ll argue that there is little better to help a person understand a battle, in terms of terrain, points of view, and generally why events unfolded as they did, than to actually walk the ground. It’s connecting the intangible to the tangible, and it’s essential for many people’s understanding, especially those who haven’t studied the battle.

    In terms of a compromise, I think the question of what Wal-Mart can do to appease the preservationists might be best addressed to Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP and the CWPT officials in the area. They have the insight to know what their highest priorities for the area are and how those could best be served.

    Regards,
    Beth

    Reply
  5. Rob Wick

    Beth,

    First, let me thank you for this discussion. I would certainly agree that you are a moderate in your point of view and in many instances I agree with you. I think, just to add another facet to this, many people are also opposed to it simply because it’s a Wal-Mart. While I wish I could shop somewhere else for my groceries, my town only has the Wal-Mart. I refuse to buy clothes or electronics there because they just don’t seem to last as well (especially clothes) but bread is bread is bread and if I can get it there cheaper, that’s what I’m going to do. And your point about the people in other locations trying to stop development in another part of the country is also well-taken. I don’t live near any battlefields in the east, although I’m within driving distance of several in the west. I would hate for someone to tell me a particular area couldn’t be developed, if it would benefit my local economy, because of something that happened there hundreds of years ago.

    I wish that developers and preservationists could find some way to work together that doesn’t rely on so much venom. Developers need to understand that not every site that’s empty screams out for an ugly building to be built. Preservationists, on the other hand, need to understand that not every piece of what they see as sacred ground can, or must, be preserved. Life has to move forward, but in a respectful way that remembers and honors the past, but in a way that also makes allowances for the future benefit of all people.

    Again, let me thank you for a provocative and stimulating, yet civil, discussion.

    Best
    Rob

    Reply
  6. Greg Rowe

    OK, I’ll admit, in this arguement, I’m more than a little jaded.

    I live in Texas and teach history to middle schoolers. I will begin teaching a Civil War course next spring. As I have looked at how I will approach this course, I do not have the luxury of a vast number of battlefields to take my students to enhance their learning. The nearest battlefield is Pleasant Hill/Mansfield (part of Banks’ Red River Campaign) and is over four hours by car. (It’s even longer in a big yellow school bus!) Other major engagements in the Trans-Mississippi Region (Pea Ridge, Sabine Pass, Galveston, Palmetto Ranch) are even further. So, I will look for other ways to enhance learning. Gainesville, home to a great deal of Unionism in Texas during the war and site of the Great Hanging of 1862, is a little over an hour away. That is a possible trip.

    While I do believe battlefields can attract people to a study of the war, in my experience, it developed, perhaps, because I didn’t have the luxury of many major battle sites near my home. (Incidentally, Pleasant Hill/Mansfield is only about 40 minutes from my boyhood home, but I have never been there, though it is high on my list of things to do in the new year.)

    Aside from that, I have seen Wal-Mart pave over prime hunting lands I walked as a kid, in spite of avid hunters and outdoorsmen, like my father, who live in the community, speaking out on the issue. This happened not once, but twice. (Once when the original store was built and again when the company decided the town needed a Supercenter.)

    While I can empathize based on that and believe Kevin’s suggestion of a parcel of land being donated specifically for preservation is good, I also have to ask where the state’s involvement in historical preservation is. I missed noticing whether Virginia has a state park system on my trip there this past summer. Most Civil War sites are under federal control through the NPS, and should be, but what about state efforts of preserving these sites through the state park system? Many historical sites in Texas are preserved by the state park system. Granted, many of these are state historical sites. How much more of a state historical site for Virginia can a place be than if a battle was fought there as part of a war that directly affected whether or not that state stayed in the Union? The money may not be available, but no one will ever know if no one ever asks.

    Reply
    1. John E. Buchanan

      Greg

      Good points about the difficulty of bringing history to life when you are “geographically challenged”! When I teach a World War II course I can recall specific terrain features, etc, whcih are lost on my students because I have at least been on thsoe battelfields but they have not. I appreciate your predicament. And by all means, get to Mansfield. Louisianna has doen a decent job preserving it.

      As for Virginia State Parks….I happen to live right outside of Petersburg, VA (about 1.5 miles from the Beef Steak Raid start point).

      The Virginia State Park system is mostly about recreation. At that it excels. Under state (or should I say Commonwealth) control are Saylors Creek, Staunton River Bridge and a few other select sites. A lot of counties and other lcoalities have done a lot of preservation as well. The NPS seems to have the lock on Civil War and Rev War, though.

      Virginia has set up an outstanding Civil War Trails program (civilwartrails.org) for touring.

      REF the question at hand…I think it is a matter of you can not save everything. I think it is time to work with rather than against WalMart

      Reply
  7. Kevin Levin Post author

    Thanks to all of you for sharing your thoughts on what is a very sensitive can complex issue. I understand both sides of this debate. That said, I urge preservationists to take a more direct approach when dealing with commercial development. There has to be a way of forging partnerships when it comes to the development of historically important places. My biggest problem with preservationists is this holier-than-thou attitude that reduces advocates of commercial development as somehow falling off the moral spectrum entirely. It seems to me that it is the preservation camp that must make the argument given the apparent lack of interest in preservation on the part of so many. I may not like it, but that is the reality.

    Thanks again.

    Reply
  8. Charles Bowery

    This is an excellent discussion that highlights why Civil War Memory is on the “short list” of the best history blogs out there. Both Rob and Beth bring up great points, but I would have to say that I agree with Rob in this case- you simply cannot preserve every piece of ground, every troop position, every viewshed. We in the USA have the luxury, because of our (relatively speaking) brief military history, to _try_ and preserve everything related to the Civil War. After having spent the last five years living in Europe, I can say that those folks don’t have that luxury, and don’t even try. If you preserved every battle site in western and central Europe, you’d have one continuous battlefield park from the Elbe to the English Channel! But in spite of this relative lack of systematic preservation, with the right sources and some imagination, you can still get a sense of what happened in various time periods- even as far back as the medieval period.

    This is why I have to admit that I was amused by the argument over the casino in Gettysburg. I don’t personally frequent casinos, but lots of people do. If it brings money to a town, and doesn’t directly impinge on the battlefield, I can’t fault a locality for doing something like that. The Wal-Mart hits closer to home, but you probably aren’t going to stop it at this point. Better, as some have said here, to engage the corporation and figure out a decent middle ground.

    Reply
  9. Tim Abbott

    This is a fascinating discussion, and as a conservation professional I will echo Kevin’s desire for preservationists and developers to explore ways to protect more historically important land in the development process. There are a number of reasons why this can and should be one of the tools in the conservation toolbox, though as always different situations call for different tools.

    - We cannot buy all the land we need with conservation dollars. Especially now, with public funds in short supply and private philanthropy taking huge hits as the economy worsens, conserving intact landscapes – let alone key parcels of land – taxes available resources to the limit. Whenever charitable, conservation dollars try to compete with the resources available to developers and when real estate prices are high, conservation loses. There have to be other ways to guide development where appropriate and preserve what is most significant about historic places and the communities where they occur.
    And indeed there are.

    - It’s been done before. No less a corporation than Disney made the choice to offset its impacts on 446 acres of wetlands and the Florida landscape by joining with the Nature Conservancy to create the 8,500 acre Disney Wilderness Preserve in Kissimmee, FL at the headwaters of the Everglades.

    http://disney.go.com/disneyhand/environmentality/environment/preserve.html

    Huge timber companies in Northern New England have negotiated 100,000-acre working forest easements with the core, 25,000 no-cut reserves that conservationists wanted. Many communities in my part of New England have conservation set-asides (or payments in lieu of conservation) mandated in their subdivision regs.

    - Corporate responsibility, even sustainability, has gained traction in recent years. Wal-Mart is very serious about using its market clout to make both its operations and those of its suppliers greener. It might be receptive to a proposal that went even farther to mitigate the impacts of its new development on the historic value of the surrounding landscape. What, besides the conversion of a large area of undeveloped land to built, are those impacts? Some of these have been mentioned already. Noise, traffic, visual screening, light pollution, additional sprawl. All of these things can be addressed as part of the development process. None of them is preferable to keeping the site open and preserved, but in the absense of a realistic means to that end, can be part of a way forward.

    Frankly, Wal-mart could be quite amenable to purchasing key parcels of land for preservation to offself what it will ultimately develop if it gets its permits. Unless the well is thoroughly poisoned now, that may be a good avenue to pursue. With historic preservation, you have one advantage over other mitigation practices, such as those that create “new wetlands” elsewhere to offset what was lost in the place you care about. There ought to be a very clear idea of which parcels are essential to preserve and where there might be willing sellers. Wal-mart might find it better to make a considerable but finite gift of money for the acquisition of such properties, rather than inflating the real-estate market once it becomes known that it is a player. How much historically significant land would 10-20 million get you on the Wilderness battlefield? Disney put $40 million into the Disney Wilderness Preserve in Central Florida.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Tim, — It’s nice to know that I have not fallen completely off the deep end. My concern is with the overall tone of the preservationist rhetoric. They talk in absolutist terms as if they alone have some kind of monopoly on what is best for this land. While the CWPT is negotiating with Wal-Mart it doesn’t help that the Civil War community has for the most part written off Wal-Mart’s proposals as illegitimate and worse. Thanks for chiming in on this one.

      Reply

Join the Conversation