Perhaps reading that title you wonder why the Bentonville AR retailer would want to place a megastore in the middle of nowhere. They don't. Were you a Civil War aficionado you might immediately grasp that the threat is something just as serious. The retailer wants to build the store on a hill directly across a road from the national military park commemorating one of the most significant battlefields in our nation's history, That threat is addressed in today's Washington Post by Pulitzer Prize winning Civil War historian James McPherson of Princeton. You can read that piece here, and I will quote from it in due course.
It is not that McPherson and other opponents of this particular site are opposed to Wal-Mart being in the area. As this week marks the 145th Anniversary of that battle, not so far from our national capital, perhaps it is helpful to understand its significance in our history, and the nature of historic preservation. So allow me as a Social Studies teacher to offer a brief excursus on the battle, as a resident of Virginia on the nature of sacred landscape, and as an admirer some of the words of McPherson.
One cannot live in the Virginia suburbs of our National Capital without an awareness of history: we have many significant locations. The County in which I live, Arlington, is named for the residence of Robert E. Lee, confiscated illegally by the Union Army in retaliation for Lee's having left the Union Army for his role in the South. To ensure the permanent dispossession of the Lee family, the grounds were used for burials of Union war dead. Built by George Washington Parke Custis, step-grandson of George Washington, whose own home of Mount Vernon is today an easy drive down a parkway that passes alongside the Potomac in front of the mansion, becomes a thoroughfare in Alexandria, then again becomes a Parkway down to the President's home, it is known as the Custis-Lee Mansion because the Confederate military hero, who himself grew up in Alexandria, married the only daughter of Custis. Lee's widow eventually won a lawsuit that the property should not have been seized, but by then the burials started by Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs had irrevocably established what is now our most famous National Cemetery, also named Arlington.
There are the remains of several Civil War era forts in Arlington and neighboring Alexandria. Within an hour's drive or so are many important sites from the Civil War, whose first major land battle took place at Manassas Junction, near the stream whose name is Bull Run, where a second battle occurred later. To the west are the key cities of Harper's Ferry, site of John Brown's raid, where he was captured by a detachment of U. S. Marines under the command of an army officer named Robert E. Lee, and the city of Winchester at the top of the Shenandoah Valley, breadbasket of the Confederacy. These two cities changed hands multiple times during the War.
Southwest of the Capital is Brandy Station, site of the largest cavalry encounter on the North American continent. We can head South from the District of Columbia to the area around Fredericksburg. I will return there anon, but as we go further South we come upon the Richmond area, with so many battles it is hard to list them all, whether the Siege of Petersburg, the Peninsular Campaign, or so many other encounters it is difficult to keep them all in mind. And as the fighting had begun in Virginia, in a field owned by one Wilmer McLean, the war officially ended when Lee surrendered in the parlor of the home owned by that same gentleman near Appomattox Court House in April of 1865.
Fredericksburg is in some ways the heart of the battles in Virginia. Three are of great importance. First came that ofr Fredericksburg itself, in late 1862, where the Union charge up Marye's Heights lead to such devastation that Lee was heard to remark that "It is good that war is so terrible, or we should grow to like it too much." Half a year later when Pickett's Charge was repelled at Gettysburg, the Union troops could be heard to shout "Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg" so horrible had been that event.
In the area near Fredericksburg was a region known as the Wildnerness, rough ground with lots of scrub and trees. Two major battles were fought there. The earlier one, in the Spring of 1863, is known as Chancellorsville. Lee chose to fight in the woods because his troops were heavily outnumbered and the terrain enabled him to mask the movements of troops. He won perhaps his most important battle, albeit at the very heavy cost of the death of Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, his key lieutenant, who was accidentally shot by one of his own sentries. Much of that battlefield has already been lost to development. Key parts abut now busy roads and strip malls, although the heart of the battlefield remains.
Wilderness was not, as is sometimes thought, fought on the same ground - there is very little overlap, because in 1864 Grant wanted to avoid the problems of the terrain of the earlier battle. Lee, outnumbered around 100,000 to 60,000, wanted that terrain, which largely eliminated the Union advantage in artillery.
The battle could be considered either a draw, since the Confederates at least temporarily stalled the Union advance southward, or even a Confederat victory, because Grant chose to withdraw, an action normally taken by the Commander of the losing forces. But that would be to think merely tactically. Grant knew he had an important advantage in manpower and materiel, and was determined to ground down Lee's forces. That process began with Wilderness, as inexorably Grant's continued engagements were destroying Lee's Army of Northern Virginia as a fighting force.
One horror of this particular battle is that the scrub and woods between the lines caught on fire, so intense was the fighting, and both sides had to listen in horror as some of their wounded compatriots burned alive.
All across Europe one encounters memorials of the two World Wars, whether it is the preserved trenches of the Great War, or the signs of battle of the Normandy landing. Further to the east the latter war was known as the Great Patriotic War, in which the USSR suffered terribly, and to which there were monuments and commemorations.
Too often we too easily think of the glories of war without remembering the sacrifices, the cost. The U. S. had not had the experience on its homeland of being invaded or seriously attacked since the War of 1812, which is perhaps why the impact of September 11, 2001 had the impact it did. As we note the insistence of commemorating that tragic event, of maintaining as sacred and set apart the space in which the devastation occurred, perhaps then we can begin to imagine the importance for many to preserve as much as possible of our own great struggle, the internecine conflict which in some ways finally began to define us as one nation.
Development has spread out in all directions from Washington DC, devouring landscape and culture. McPherson notes that only 21% of the actual site of the Battle of the Wilderness are in the national park, that many key areas are "privately held and vulnerable to development." McPherson was one of a group of more than 250 historians who opposed Wal-Mart's decision to build in this spot, in a letter which included the following words:
"the Wilderness is an indelible part of our history, its very ground hallowed by the American blood spilled there, and it cannot be moved. Surely Wal-Mart can identify a site that would meet its needs without changing the very character of the battlefield."
"Wilderness Wal-Mart" supporters argue that because the proposed store site lies just beyond the park, it lacks historic significance, a profound misunderstanding of the nature of history. In the heat of battle, no unseen hand kept soldiers inside what would one day be a national park. Such boundaries are artificial, modern constructions shaped by external factors, and they have little bearing on what is or is not historic. To assume the park boundary at the Wilderness encompasses every acre of significant ground is to believe that the landscape beyond the borders of Yosemite National Park instantly ceases to be majestic."
The CIvil War Sites Advisory Commission, on which McPherson served, recommending including the site of the proposed Wal-Mart within the battlefield's historic boundaries. He notes that preservation can itself serve as an important economic driver for a region, creaing jobs and generating tax revenues through tourism. He then writes:
Recognizing this, preservationists have proposed a comprehensive planning process to balance protection of the Wilderness Battlefield with regional economic development goals, marrying respect for the old with the promise of the new. It is a process by which everyone -- Wal-Mart, local residents and the battlefield -- wins. The alternative is the type of piecemeal development that has swallowed up historic sites and destroyed the identities of countless communities. It is a scenario in which only Wal-Mart wins.
We perhaps cannot preserve every place of possible historical importance, but in our shortsightedness we have already lost much. Too many historic buildings are now gone, and sacred spaces are increasingly threatened as our cities spread out.
We will hear arguments about how now especially we need economic development. Yet development does not require us to wreak havoc and destruction on our historical and natural heritage. Not far to the west of the Civil War sites are the ancient mountains that were being destroyed through mountaintop removal. Entire ecosystems are being eradicated in the pursuit of profits that cannot be sustained. Once gone, we cannot reconstruct a landscape raised up over millions upon millions of years, and replanting monocultures - even in those few cases where possible - does not make up for the loss of diversity of ancient forests, or of the fauna which thrived therein. We destroy the mountain streams at the expense of a water flow which sustains life further downstream. Once gone, these things cannot be replaced.
Nor can reconstructions and amusement parks fully make up for the loss of sacred space that reminds us of how we have become a nation, the costs we paid for the liberties we now enjoy as the American people. We paid a horrendous price as a nation - more than 600,000 dead in a population of under 32 million, a death rate of around 2% of our total population. Think of it this way - with over 300 million Americans today, that would be a death toll of around 6 million. Or if you prefer, consider the casualties for this one battle on this one spot, this Battle of the Wilderness. Around 2,200 Union and 1,500 Confederates died. That is around 3,700, more than the deaths on 9-11. Projected to our current population, that would be a figure around 37,000. Another 16,000 or so were wounded in that battle, with more missing and captured. Think of the total casualties, approaching 20,000 then, or in the equivalent numbers today, 200,000 - more than the population of now highly urbanized Arlington County, with just under that number crammed into our 26 square miles.
Perhaps some might prefer that we not look back at the costs of war. Perhaps some would prefer we stay facing forward, and consider only the challenges before us, and the opportunities that flow from economic development narrowly conceived. I am of a different opinion, and here I stand with McPherson and the historians who wish to preserve what they can of this significant place in our history, a battle that was key in defining us as one nation. It is a battlefield whose human cost should serve as a reminder to those who too easily contemplate military conflict as the solution to problems. It should likewise serve as a challenge to those who believe that freedom and liberty can be taken for granted without those willing to pay a heavy cost.
At Gettysburg, about 6 months before Wilderness, Lincoln spoke words of importance. Gettysburg was attempted after Chancellorsville. It was the victor at Gettsyburg, Meade, whose crossing of the Rapidan on May 2, 1864, set forth an important idea, one applicable both to the sense of nation and the importance of historical memory. Let me end with those words, which I find as applicable to Wilderness as to the fields of Pennsylvania:
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.