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. 

Entering the Wilderness of Wal-Mart and Battlefield Preservation

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.

Why the NPS at Gettysburg Is On the Right Track

I appreciate all of the comments that have been sent in re: the new Visitor Center at Gettysburg.  The major point of disagreement seems to be over the proper scope of interpretation, whether it should be confined to the battlefield or whether it should place the battle within a broader historical context.  My view comes down to the importance of civic education and the need to show why these bloody battles matter beyond the movements of troops and the weapons they carried.  As I’ve stated over and over these men did not simply fall from the sky in July 1863.  They were there for a reason and their actions shaped the course of the rest of American history.  Understanding the battle’s centrality to that broader story is the NPS’s primary mission and one that I believe it fulfills brilliantly.  With that in mind I would like you to consider the perspective of one individual.  This short essay by Allen B. Ballard appeared in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times back in 1999 and is titled, “The Demons of Gettysburg”.  Ballard teaches history at SUNY -Albany.

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