McPherson explains why Wal-Mart shouldn't build near the Wilderness battlefield

Historians in the News

In May 1864, two armies clashed in a desperate struggle for the course of our nation's history. The Battle of the Wilderness was a great turning point of the Civil War -- the first clash between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant and the beginning of the end for the beleaguered Confederacy. The fighting was so intense that the tangled underbrush caught fire, burning wounded soldiers alive.

To commemorate the bloody struggle, portions of the Wilderness -- which is near Locust Grove, Va., in Orange County -- were set aside as a national military park. However, just 21 percent of the battlefield is permanently protected; other key areas are privately held and vulnerable to development.

This vulnerability became apparent when Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced plans to build a 138,000-square-foot superstore on historically sensitive land directly across the road from the national park. The store would sit on a hill overlooking key parts of the battlefield, looming over a national treasure.

Preservationists are not opposed to Wal-Mart opening a superstore in the region. A coalition of national and local conservation groups has merely asked Wal-Mart to choose a different location. Together with more than 250 other historians, I signed a letter to the company in support of that idea. We wrote that "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....
Read entire article at James McPherson in the WaPo

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