Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Pilot speaks out on Wilderness Walmart

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, among many others, has editorialized on the Wilderness Walmart case.

The piece is headlined “Late, but welcome Wal-Mart surrender.”

Here it is, in its entirety:

Jan. 28–”We have decided to preserve… ”

So began a welcome announcement by Wal-Mart this week that the company will drop controversial plans to build a “supercenter” near a national park commemorating the Battle of the Wilderness west of Fredericksburg.

Spokesman William C. Wertz said the company will still buy the property but not develop it. Wal-Mart will pursue a different location in Orange County, away from the battlefield, he said.

The surprise announcement arrived as a judge was preparing to hear a lawsuit brought by preservationists and nearby residents.

Local officials approved a special-use permit for the store in 2009 despite opposition from documentarian Ken Burns, Pulitzer Prize-winner James McPherson and hundreds of historians, among others.

Opponents argued that the sprawling store would detract from the experience of visitors to the Wilderness, where Gens. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant met on the battlefield in 1864 for the first time.

An estimated 29,000 men were killed or wounded in the battle widely regarded as one of the most horrific of the war. The dense woods caught fire during combat, and wounded soldiers — unable to escape or be rescued from what historian Stephen W. Sears called “a dark, eerie, impenetrable maze” — burned to death.

Development had crept closer in recent years, but nothing approaches the scale of Wal-Mart’s plans for a store of about 140,000 square feet. The company’s departure raises hope that other land nearby also will be protected.

Although Wal-Mart executives deserve praise for their retreat, they should contemplate why they repeatedly find themselves in so many public relations nightmares over plans to build near historic sites.

The Wilderness controversy was oddly similar to the furor that arose in the mid-1990s over a proposal to construct a Walmart next to the site of George Washington’s boyhood home at Ferry Farm, east of Fredericksburg. The company backed down then, too, but only after a national uproar.

Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, once said that he didn’t want to build anywhere his company wasn’t welcome.

Mr. Sam, as he was known, likely would be pleased by this week’s announcement.

But he probably would been puzzled about why his successors ever contemplated a Wilderness Walmart in the first place.


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