Battlefield Preservation, WalMart, and Me

I think all of you are well aware that I greatly appreciate the time you take out of your day to comment on my posts.  In many cases you spend a significant amount of time to insure that your comments are clear and to the point.  By far my favorite comments are those that challenge me to rethink specific issues or to work harder to clarify my position.  In response to yesterday’s post on the Wilderness and WalMart, however, I can’t tell whether my readers are having difficulty following my thinking on this issue over time or my commitment to battlefield preservation itself.  I am getting the sense that it more of the latter.

It’s difficult to know what more I could say to satisfy some of you.  If I woke up yesterday morning and had posted a simple condemnation of WalMart, like everyone else in the Civil War blogosphere, all would be fine, but because I fail to toe the party line there is a lingering doubt.  Dimitri Rotov’s recent post also deviates from the standard line of thought, but I don’t doubt for a minute his commitment to preserving our Civil War battlefields.

Let me remind all of you of a few things that have apparently been so easily forgotten.  From the beginning of the life of this blog I have maintained a strong commitment to the mission of the National Park Service.  While others condemned Gettysburg Superintendent, John Latschar for every problem under the sun, I made it a point to remind my readers of his commitment to restoring some of the battlefield’s most important view sheds.  In addition, I can’t think of anyone else in the blogosphere or elsewhere for that matter who has gone further in supporting the NPS’s commitment to properly interpreting Civil War battlefields.  This past December I was asked by Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Superintendent, John Hennessy, to deliver the keynote address for the 146th anniversary of the battle.  In my talk I discussed the importance of these battlefields to our civic life as well as their importance as educational tools.  Every year I bring students to one of Virginia’s battlefields.  All of them walk away with a unique and invaluable perspective and a few of them are truly moved by what they experienced.  Finally, I signed the CWPT’s petition that was sent to WalMart back in October.  What more can I say about my position on battlefield preservation?

May I be so bold as to suggest that compared to many of you who are having difficulty with my position, I’ve done much more to insure the continued life of these important historic sites.

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18 comments… add one
  • John Maass Jan 26, 2011 @ 7:02

    Can’t believe they backed down!

  • Myke May 19, 2010 @ 21:05

    I am an …….AUSTRALIAN……I believe , no matter where soldters of Battle have fallen , should be preserved for future generations and not be denegrated by Greed or money , I personnally think it is an ” ABSOLUTE ” Discrase that Walmart even consider the idea and a ” INSULT ” to thier Memory .

  • Tim Abbott Aug 29, 2009 @ 11:46

    Historic landscapes are increasingly rare in the intensively developed Eastern corridor of the United States. Just as habitat fragmentation reduces biodiversity, battlefield fragmentation eliminates some of its potential to inform and affect visitors and community identity. Rarely can land protection efforts realize the full conservation potential of a significant landscape, either as habitat or for its historic value. Where such opportunities still exist, it may well be a top conservation priority to invest all the time, treasure and creativity at society’s disposal to ensure that these landscapes maintain their full integrity.

    How many American battlefields still have this potential? Antietam? Gettysburg? Saratoga? Not many more. And sadly, not the Wilderness.

    Many, many other battle sites have not been isolated in time, where historic viewsheds can be maintained and the surrounding community becomes identified, for better or worse, this a signature event that occurred there long before living memory. If you want to interpret the site of Bunker Hill, you must contend with a obelisk in the midst of the Charlestown that rose from the ashes and a community whose residents have other sources of self and community identity. For some of us today, this is a regrettable loss,but for the generations who came after the Revolution, the monument was a fitting memorial and the idea that valuable real estate would be locked up in the interest of preservation would have made little sense.

    There are many different values at play in situations like this. One thing I have learned in my years in the land protection business is that community support is vital if you want to conserve significant amounts of land, and there is no better way to derail a well-intentioned preservation effort then to let it become characterized as an imposition by outsiders – or worse, by Government – that values a rare species over the needs of local people, public land over private property, or the memory of something that happened long ago over the perceived needs of those who live there today. It may be a false dichotomy, but it can be lethal for conservation.

    Places like the Wilderness are without a doubt under intense development pressure. It goes against our instincts to accept the loss of another irreplaceable acre of land with historic significance. Yet those terms of victory will ensure a lost cause.

    On the other hand, there are many examples across this country, even in places typically thought of as intensely conservative and staunchly in favor of private property rights, where it is a condition of development permitting that lost wetlands and habitat be mitigated by the restoration or conservation of an equivalent amount at another location. What if Wal-Mart, as a condition of the permitting it received, had purchased for preservation another area of the Battlefield, perhaps with even greater significance? This would not have addressed all the impacts of development – traffic, for instance – but it could have been a creative solution and provided an outcome other than the zero sum game.

    It would only be possible if those granting the permits, those working for preservation, those concerned about economic development, and the developers themselves were willing to work toward such an outcome. Sometimes, giving an inch is an unacceptable concession. Far more frequently, it can result in a negotiated compromise that provides benefits for more than just one side. This is a hard lesson, but one we need to grapple with before the next crisis that threatens the special places we value.

  • Craig Aug 27, 2009 @ 12:44

    Personally I did not have an issue with anything you said on the post or thread. And indicated such. I am aware of your support of the preservation efforts in the past. I just had to call a point of order when it seemed you were painting broad brush. I’ve yet to see anyone make a radical stance when discussing preservation. (But hey, maybe if we had a demonstrationist wing of the preservation movement – you know to show up at town hall meetings – we’d get more press!)

    As you say, some just don’t regard the value of the resource as others do. By the same token, I don’t get up in arms about what flag is displayed on the state capital grounds. We’ve been re-inventing our perception of the Civil War for generations now. And it won’t stop with this one. The presence or lack of a particular flag on the state capital grounds will not serve to better interpret the war to a degree worth expending a single participle upon…. in my opinion.


  • Russ Smith Aug 27, 2009 @ 11:58

    No problem, Kevin, Even though it didn’t appear so in the end, I’m still firmly convinced that a large majority wanted both the Wal-mart and preservation. Unfortunately, a significant group seemed to come to believe that they had to make a choice between the two. At least that’s the way they expressed themselves (sometimes loudly.)

  • Kevin Levin Aug 27, 2009 @ 11:51


    Sorry about the mix-up between you and John. I agree with your assessment re: the way the issue was framed for the public. At the same time I don’t agree with those who judge the residents of Orange County as voting squarely in favor of economic development as opposed to historic preservation.

  • Mike Aug 27, 2009 @ 11:38

    Sad, I grew up in the birthplace of Wal-Mart (Arkansas) and no Wal-mart how grand is more important to a community that a Historical site.

  • Russ Smith Aug 27, 2009 @ 11:26

    Standing up before those crowds in Orange County at the public hearings, I might have wished that John Hennessy WAS Superintendent of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP. All I can say is that Wal-mart was very successful in defining the issue as Wal-mart vs. battlefield preservation. That was never the case. There are plenty of other suitable sites for a Wal-mart in the area. Even major news outlets bought the story line that Orange County had to make a choice between much-needed jobs and revenue vs. historic preservation. It was actually a false choice between two types of economic development.

  • Naim Peress Aug 27, 2009 @ 9:25

    I think it’s important to remember that many of the Orange County residents who attended the hearing on Monday spoke in favor of Wal Mart’s permit. Most of the people who opposed the permit seemed to come from outside the county. We are powerless to stop a group of people for whom shopping is more important than historical preservation.

  • Steven Mynes Aug 27, 2009 @ 6:55


    I’ve only recently begun reading your blog. I’m impressed with the writing, both its style and content, and it seems you have no fear of controversy. My own studies of the war are probably a bit more plebeian.

    Let’s say my hackles were up when I first read your “Walmart Wins” post. I decided not to comment in that state. When I read the post again the following day, along with the comment thread, my reaction was less emotional and I think I understood your position a bit better. For me, the issue was the perceived tone of the post. Perceptions clarified, I’m moving on.

    I look forward to reviewing your blog and to your future posts.


    • Kevin Levin Aug 27, 2009 @ 7:07


      All I can is that if you are confused about any aspect of the content of a post please ask. It’s that easy.

  • Eric Mink Aug 27, 2009 @ 3:13


    Obviously, battlefield preservation is something that many people are emotional about. Just by looking at the number of people that turned out to Monday’s hearing, as well as the amount of national, and international, press that the Wal Mart issue generated, obviously passions run high on the issue. To wake Tuesday morning and see your post with the smiley face, next to “Walmart Wins,” followed by the pronouncement, “As I’ve said before, this is a preservation battle that was lost a long time ago,” well, it struck a nerve. It could have been perceived as gloating, as some of your readers I talked to took it that way. This was made more perplexing by the knowledge that you signed the petition to Wal Mart, alongside 250+ other historians. It’s human nature that people who take a strong position on something, and lose, don’t particularly like being told “I told you so.” Right or wrong, it is an interpretation of your earlier post, and as I said it did strike a never with some people.

    A minor clarification – John Hennessy is the Chief Historian and Chief of Interpretation at FRSP. Russ Smith is currently the Superintendent.


    • Kevin Levin Aug 27, 2009 @ 3:20


      Thanks for the clarification. As I stated in an earlier comment, no thought went into the choice of a smiley face beyond wanting to brighten up the post with a WalMart image. Based on my reading of the news throughout the entire process I was not surprised by the decision, which is what I was trying to communicate. You obviously have a different view of things and that’s fine. I don’t know who you talked to about the post in question, but as I tried to demonstrate in this post, anyone who has read this site over time knows where I stand.

  • Andrea Jones Aug 26, 2009 @ 15:52

    The whole Walmart fight was pretty well a doomed battle. Speaking as someone who is relatively local, I can’t blame the occupants of Orange county for grabbing for the perceived money Walmart represents. I just wish that store were going somewhere else in the county. I read your original response as more akin to mine, a sort of resignation to what was clearly an uphill and losing battle from the beginning, rather than a lack of commitment to the concept of battlefield preservation.

    Sometimes the fights just make a person tired, is all, and when they’re over and you’ve lost, there’s not a lot of outrage left.

  • Michael Lynch Aug 26, 2009 @ 15:09


    I don’t think any reasonable reader would question your commitment to battlefield preservation and interpretation. I certainly wouldn’t.

    I would, however, disagree that “everyone else” in the blogosphere has been excoriating Wal-Mart since the ruling. I haven’t seen any outright condemnations of the company other than the one at Eric Wittenberg’s blog and one at the NTHP blog, although two bloggers (including me) took swipes at the Orange County Board of Supervisors, and TOCWOC simply said the ruling was “bad news.”

    I did have a problem with the sentiment expressed (not by you) in one comment to your earlier post, namely that all places are basically historic when you get right down to it, and that we should come to terms with the fact that we’re going to lose a great many of them. It implied that preservationists are incapable of discerning which are places of interest and which are places of real significance. The sentiment seemed to be that the driving force behind preservationism is a simple knee-jerk opposition to all change, rather than a prudent concern about the loss of certain critical resources. Not all pieces of ground are created equal.


    • Kevin Levin Aug 26, 2009 @ 15:12


      I should have said Civil War blogosphere and beyond. If I am thinking of the particular comment in question, I have to say that I didn’t read it that way.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Aug 26, 2009 @ 15:03


    With all due respect, this have nothing to do with the NPS. Frankly, there is little if anything those folks can do in situations such as this. The CWPT, and private organizations like Franklin’s Charge here in Franklin, TN, are often the only thing standing between developers and battlefield. Forget about the NPS. The CWPT often has to take the hardline approach that it does because developers more often than not refuse to offer any concessions and are relentless in their efforts to build no matter what the historical significance of the a piece of ground may be. I have intimate knowledge of this situation in Virginia and let’s say that the smiley face Wal Mart puts forth is not how they operate behind the scenes. If the CWPT, and folks like myself, learned anything from this it is that we will have to fight residential and commercial developers tooth and nail. Wal Mart reps used the same kind of baloney language in Virginias that other developers have used elsewhere, i.e. it’s not battlefield, it’s not important, our hands are tied.

    I don’t doubt your commitment to battlefield preservation. But please understand that someone like myself, who actually works at a historic site constantly threatened by developers, doesn’t have much time for conceding a single inch to a Wal Mart. Or to the next fellow who comes around and wants to build 100 condos and then tries to tell me that I don’t really understand the situation. Believe me, since you said you have done more than many who post here to promote the “continued life” of historic sities, I live this every single day. I have perhaps a greater leg to stand on than just about anyone. As I said, we will fight this sort of development every step of the way.

    Eric A. Jacobson

    • Kevin Levin Aug 26, 2009 @ 15:09


      I didn’t want to turn this into a pissing contest. I was simply responding to the tone of some my comments. Best of luck to you in your continued fight to preserve our nation’s historic sites. T

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