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Historian weighs in against Walmart

October 13, 2010 12:35 am


McPherson lo1013hospital.jpg

In May 1864, a battlefield artist sketched field hospitals, artillery and horse-drawn wagons along the Germanna Plank Road in the area of today's planned Walmart Supercenter.


One of the nation's top historians has agreed to testify in the court case over a Walmart Supercenter planned in the Wilderness battlefield area.

James McPherson, who received the Pulitzer Prize for his "Battle Cry of Freedom," will testify that the Walmart site was blood-soaked ground in 1864's Battle of the Wilderness.

Masses of Union casualties were treated there; it wasn't merely a staging area for the battle, as claimed by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and its backers, according to a summary of his testimony submitted to the Orange County Circuit Court.

"[T]housands of wounded and dying soldiers occupied the then-open fields that included the Walmart site, which is where many of the Union Army hospital tents were located during the battle," McPherson writes in the nine-page document.

An attorney for the local residents trying to stop the development in eastern Orange said McPherson has been asked to testify at the trial, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 25.

"There has been a debate on whether the Walmart would be built on the Wilderness battlefield. We sought Dr. McPherson's testimony on this subject because he is a world-class expert on the Civil War," said Robert Rosenbaum of Washington's Arnold & Porter law firm.

"His report leaves no doubt that the site was indeed part of the battlefield. His report also makes it clear that this is hallowed ground where wounded and dying soldiers were sprawled and being treated during the fighting."

Some 185,000 Union and Confederate troops fought in the area for three days, with casualties. Historians view the Wilderness, where forces led by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee first met in battle, as pivotal.

"Those three days of trauma in the Wilderness were the beginning of [the] end, even if the end was still eleven months in the future," McPherson wrote. "The hinge of fate in the Wilderness did indeed decide the destiny of the continent for centuries. If Grant had turned north instead of southeast when he came to that intersection near the proposed Walmart site, the destiny of the United States might have been much different."

In August 2009, the county Board of Supervisors approved the special permit Wal-Mart needed to build its big-box store.

Its decision is being challenged by Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield, which maintains a historic estate in the national park, other groups, and some residents who live within three miles of the project site.

McPherson's testimony isn't certain, Orange County Attorney Sharon Pandak said last night. "It's premature to say [McPherson] will testify," she said. "He's been identified as an expert by the plaintiff, and that's it."

Both sides must submit lists of their expert witnesses, and then it's up to the court whether to allow each one, Pandak said.

Rosenbaum said he could not conceive on what grounds Orange would object to McPherson's testimony.

A 240,000-square-foot retail center, anchored by Walmart, is planned north of State Routes 3 and 20--a cannon shot away from Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Walmart has noted that its supercenter would be built in an area already home to two retail strip centers.

McPherson told the AP that maps and new research shed light on what happened on and near the Walmart site, which is a short distance from the historic intersection of Germanna Plank Road and the Orange Turnpike.

The Union Army's 5th and 6th Corps situated their field hospitals on or near the Walmart site, his testimony states. Surgeons treated about 8,300 wounded Federal soldiers there and at 2nd Corps hospitals about a mile away, in addition to Confederate wounded brought back by ambulance.

In his testimony, McPherson calls the crossroads area "the nerve center of the Union Army during the Battle of the Wilderness."

The Walmart site is part of the battlefield as defined by the federal Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, on which he served years ago, he wrote.

"This site is important for understanding the Battle of the Wilderness because of its centrality during the entire battle for Union troop movements on the roads through that intersection, artillery emplacements, infantry deployments, communications and care of the wounded," McPherson wrote.

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

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