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Historians attack Wilderness Wal-Mart
Hundreds of historians urge Wal-Mart to relocate proposed development at Wilderness battlefield

  • Click here to read the letter to Wal-Mart
  • Click here to read the cover letter to Wal-Mart
  • Date published: 12/11/2008


    America's historians are coming out full force against Wal-Mart's proposed retail center in the Wilderness battlefield area.

    In a letter faxed yesterday to the retail giant, 253 historians urged the Bentonville, Ark., retailer to scrap its plan to build a 138,000-square-foot Supercenter at Wilderness Corner in Orange County.

    Among the signers are many of the nation's top historians including Virginia professors William C. Davis, Gary Gallagher and James I. Robertson, the authors of dozens of Civil War titles; two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner David M. McCullough; James McPherson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Battle Cry of Freedom"; Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns; and Edwin C. Bearss, chief historian emeritus of the National Park Service.

    Lee White, executive director of the National Coalition for History, said the action of such a large and diverse group shows how important the Wilderness site is to American heritage. NCH is one of the eight national and regional groups in the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition, which circulated the letter. "No one has a deeper, more abiding respect for all that this ground symbolizes than the men and women who make it their lives' work to study historic sites and events. And clearly, they understand the irreparable damage that this would do to a tangible piece of our history."

    Jim Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust, said the response illustrates the near-universal opposition to Wal-Mart's proposal in the Civil War and historic-preservation communities. In their letter, the historians call the Wilderness a "unique historical and cultural treasure deserving careful stewardship," declaring it "an indelible part of our history" made sacred by the blood shed there.

    Nearly 29,000 Federal and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded or captured in the intense fighting on May 5-6, 1864. The Battle of the Wilderness began the Union Army's Overland Campaign, which ended with Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox. It marked the first time Gens. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant faced each other in battle.

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    Virginia Tech professor James I. Robertson, author of "Civil War Virginia: Battleground for a Nation":

    "Wal-Mart Stores exist to make a profit in the present so as to invest heavier in the future. Nothing is wrong with that, to a degree. Yet at some point on a regular basis, every one of us needs to remember an inescapable fact of history: Any nation that forgets its past has little future.

    "The 'Supercenter' you are contemplating for Orange County, Va., runs totally counter to that proposition."

    Edwin C. Bearss, chief historian emeritus of the National Park Service:

    "The Battle of the Wilderness was a transcendental event in the Civil War. Arguably, as a battle, it was more important than such household words as the 'Battle of Gettysburg' and 'The Siege of Vicksburg.'

    " The intersection of the old Germanna Plank Road [modern State Route 3]--by which most Union soldiers reached the battlefield and by which most moved deeper into the heart of the Confederacy when Grant decided to push on--and the historic Orange Turnpike is key to understanding the battle and how it developed."

    University of Virginia professor Gary Gallagher, author of "The Wilderness Campaign":

    "We should preserve and protect these national treasures, including gateway areas that shield historic ground from encroaching development that often degrades the experience of citizens seeking a better understanding of the American past."

    Gordon Rhea, author of two histories of the Wilderness:

    "The Battle of the Wilderness was the first time that Grant and Lee, the Civil War's two premier generals, met in combat, and it was here that Grant exhibited the grit and determination that would bring the war to a close almost a year later."