Fighting Back

Galvanized by a proposed Walmart supercenter, historians, residents, and Civil War buffs are struggling to protect a threatened battlefield in northeastern Virginia

Russ Smith, a low-key, 60-year-old superintendent with the National Park Service, noses his official white Chevy Impala off four-lane Route 3 in Orange County, Virginia, and onto a dirt road called Lyons Lane. We drive past the brick remains of an outbuilding and down around a curve, where he pulls to the side. In a few seconds, we're standing at a literal turning point of the American Civil War.

On May 5 and 6, 1864, Union troops marched south along the old Orange Turnpike here and clashed with Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the Battle of the Wilderness, a brutal encounter that involved more than 170,000 men and left nearly 30,000 of them dead, dying, or wounded.

The battle (its name refers to the dense undergrowth common to this region) is still recalled for a specific horror: Acres of nearly impenetrable scrub caught fire, incinerating hundreds of wounded soldiers caught in the no-man's land between opposing forces. But what truly distinguished the battle was its aftermath.

Ulysses S. Grant, freshly imported from the western theater, could have withdrawn the Army of the Potomac—standard Union practice up until that point in the War between the States. But instead, Grant ordered his troops south. "The men began to sing," one Union veteran recalled. Their ordeal would not be in vain. From then on, Grant's forces would relentlessly pursue Lee's army in a merciless war of attrition. The endgame of the Civil War had begun.

On a hill to the west of where we stand, I can see Ellwood Manor, a two-story house that served as temporary headquarters for Union General Gouverneur K. Warren and is now administered by the National Park Service. Officials hope that this elegant plantation house, newly outfitted with electronic battlefield displays, will serve as an enticing and memorable entry point for visitors to the Wilderness, which remains overlooked by tourists flocking to the more famous Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg battlefields farther east.

But there's a catch: Walmart.

In August 2009, the Arkansas-based corporation received approval to construct a massive supercenter at the intersection of Route 3 and Route 20. The Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, six local residents, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are fighting that decision in court. Routes 3 and 20 are not exactly pristine: A red Sheetz gas station squats on the southwest corner next to a McDonald's, and modest strip malls stand on both sides of Route 3. But those are mere blemishes, say the plaintiffs, whereas Walmart would be an out-and-out preservation catastrophe.

"If you want to interpret that moment in history, the best place is standing on the intersection where it happened," says Rob Nieweg, director of the National Trust's Southern Field Office, who accompanied me on my road trip to the Wilderness. "It's an extraordinary place. If Walmart and its partners build a 240,000-square-foot development, and the adjacent land is converted to big-box retail, and that intersection starts looking like other areas of Route 3, it will be impossible to interpret that moment in American history."

It's a frightening prospect that prompts important questions. What happens when a treasured historic site is surrounded by rampant development? How can the nation honor its history if sprawl consumes all but a few circumscribed acres of public land? Simply put, when is one more supercenter one too many?

Orange County, 40 miles wide and home to 33,000 residents, has not experienced the sprawl—or shopping opportunities—of neighboring Spotsylvania County, population 120,000. Yet Walmart executives, whose understanding of strategic locations rivals that of Civil War generals, identified a retail opportunity at the intersection of two rural roads. And county supervisors helped them seize it.

Local officials started talking with Walmart in 2007. And their conversations prompted strong opposition—from professional preservationists and others. Over time, those who objected to this Walmart (and pressed for the company to build just a few miles away from the Wilderness) grew to include Virginia senators Mark Warner (D) and Jim Webb (D), then-Gov. Tim Kaine (D), the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, William J. Howell (R), and 250 historians. "There are many places in central Virginia to build a commercial development, but there is only one Wilderness Battlefield," the historians wrote in a December 2008 letter to Walmart's then-CEO Lee Scott.

In June 2009, the American Battlefield Protection Program, part of the Park Service, awarded a $40,000 grant for a preservation plan for the intersection, which opponents of construction agreed to match. Gov. Kaine even offered state resources to find a new location. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources also weighed in, arguing that an Orange County Planning Department staff report, prepared for the Board of Supervisors, failed to convey the importance of preserving the historic land.

Yet the Board of Supervisors was unmoved and voted 4-1 to approve Walmart's plans.

The resulting legal complaint, filed last September, charges that the board acted so "unreasonably" that it "abdicated its responsibility." (The suit was filed against the Board of Supervisors; Walmart is not named as a defendant.)

The plaintiffs say that supervisors failed to follow state law and the county's own goals for the protection of historically important land. Their complaint also alleges numerous irregularities in the approval process—charging, for example, that a crucial planning commission vote, on August 21, was invalid, in part because insufficient notice was given for the meeting.

Orange County, for its part, argues that the National Trust and the other plaintiffs are simply on the losing side of a political argument; that the board listened to preservationists even if it did not agree with their arguments; and that Virginia law gives local officials great leeway in land-use decisions. More technically, it argues that none of the plaintiffs will suffer direct harm from the Walmart development, a prerequisite for any lawsuit.

The two sides clashed for the first time on a snowy morning in February in the chambers of Orange County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Bouton. "This has been a highly contentious issue," said the county's attorney, Sharon Pandak. But the complaint only lays out "an alternative point of view" from the one that supervisors endorsed. And if that's true, she said, "the county's decision should stand" and the lawsuit should be dismissed.

She faced off against Robert Rosenbaum, with the D.C. firm Arnold & Porter (which has taken the case pro bono), who argued that "no reasonable board" would ignore the advice of such an impressive array of historians, officials, and public and private experts. On the question of legal "standing," Rosenbaum contended that the National Trust's congressional mandate included the right to sue when historic treasures were threatened, and that the mandate afforded standing over and above the narrow stardards of state law in this case.

The courtroom skirmish was heavy on legal preliminaries, but the battle over a Wilderness Walmart spotlights a fundamental concern: How should land adjacent to crucial historic sites be treated? No one thinks the proposed construction area should become a national park—there is no federal money to buy it, in any case—but surely middle ground exists between that and a supermall? "We have to get out of the zookeeper mentality," says the Park Service's Smith, "where we cage certain areas and forget about whatever happens outside that cage."

Then there is the ever-vexing issue of managing sprawl, which has engulfed the area around Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania's neighbor to the east. In 1927, when the federal government began acquiring the land that became the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (which contains four battlefields, including the Wilderness), there was every reason to think that the region would remain forever rural. Consequently, the Park Service owns only a fraction of the battlefield land—just 14 percent according to Smith's estimate. The rest is largely unprotected. But rising house prices around Washington have driven commuters ever further south into Virginia, a trend abetted by the arrival of Virginia Railway Express stations in 1992. As a result, the once-rural landscape east of the Blue Ridge Mountains has changed beyond all imagining.

Driving south from Washington on I-95, the first indication of Fredericksburg sprawl is the towering sign for Central Park, which turns out to be a mega shopping center on Route 3. It has a Best Buy and a Target, plus a Sports Authority, an Old Navy, a Walmart, and more. Continue west on 3 and the thesaurus of sprawl continues—Taco Bell, The Home Depot, DVDs on the Run. In the very heart of this development, hiding behind a scrim of trees as if embarrassed, is the historic Salem Church, a handsome brick structure that was the site of a crucial clash during the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville. The Park Service maintains it, and the building is in fine shape, but to say the site has been preserved would be an overstatement, given the din surrounding it on all sides. (When I asked one of the plaintiffs, Dale Brown, for directions to the church, he smiled ruefully and said: "Just past the Chick-fil-A.") Keep driving on 3 and development peters out into farmland and scattered housing about a dozen miles to the west of I-95. The new Walmart would rise a few miles past that: a fresh encampment of sprawl.

Civil War battlefields are particularly vulnerable to sprawl because major clashes often took place near cities or on crossroads that evolved into modern intersections. A wake-up call came in 1988, when the government had to pay a developer $118 million to prevent construction on part of the original Manassas battlefield (including the site of Lee's headquarters), an expensive federal "taking." In search of less-extreme solutions, Congress created the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission to look into the issue of battlefield protection. The commission, whose report came out in 1993, identified 384 battlefields and ranked them according to importance and intactness; the Wilderness ranked "A-1." It also sketched the geographic contours of each site, stressing that in almost every case, important land lay outside the boundaries of existing parks and memorials. The report concluded that local stewardship and public-private alliances would be crucial in protecting Civil War sites.

One of the private groups that has been most successful in that regard is the Civil War Preservation Trust, whose work is evident along Route 3.

In 2003, Spotsylvania County was considering approving the construction of 2,000 houses and commercial buildings on land that saw maneuvers during the first day of Chancellorsville. After protests that included a candlelight vigil, the county board voted against the plan. The Civil War Preservation Trust then brokered an agreement through which it ­purchased 140 acres of land to be set aside in perpetuity,

and agreed to the construction of 300 homes set back from

Route 3 beyond a swell of land. In a subsequent coup, the organization purchased 208 key Fredericksburg acres, known as Slaughter Pen Farm, for $12 million.

Despite those successes and the efforts of the advisory ­commission, many local officials still resist the notion that land outside a park can be historic. In the run-up to their vote, Orange County supervisors insisted that the site proposed for the Route 3 Walmart was not just outside the battlefield—-it could not even be seen from it. (They may have been thinking that the building site is not visible from an exhibit area marking Grant's headquarters, which stands one-half mile down Route 20.)

Zack Burkett, an Orange County supervisor, and Pandak, the county attorney, both said that no member of the board would comment on the Walmart issue. But R. Mark Johnson, a former supervisor who voted for the Walmart and lost his bid for reelection last November, did speak with me. He insisted that board members considered concerns about preservation as well as the county's need for retail and economic growth. "It wasn't, as the opponents made it sound, done willy-nilly," he said. "When Walmart said it wanted to locate there, it was the unfolding of a plan … to locate growth in the town of Orange, in the town of Gordonsville, and the Route 3 corridor" where Walmart hopes to build.

He said the board was taken aback by the extent of the opposition: "We have been dealing with the National Park Service regarding the Route 20 corridor … They never said, 'Oh, by the way, we've noticed that this property'—the Walmart plot—'is zoned commercial and we don't want it developed.' " He insisted the Park Service did not express any concerns when McDonald's and Sheetz went in, in 1994 and 2000. (Smith disputes this, as does Craig Rains, a plaintiff and a member of the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield. Concerns were raised, Smith says, but "no one was listening.")

Keith Morris, Walmart's director of community affairs, did not seem eager to talk—-it took weeks of phone messages to reach him—-but when we finally spoke he argued that the proposed supercenter had elicited widespread popular support in the county. At the public meetings he attended, Morris estimates that sentiment was two-to-one or better in favor of construction. "When we are building a store we have to make sure we are meeting the needs of the community," Morris said. "We value that much more than we do the person who writes from Florida and says, 'I'm concerned about your building on the site'—although we take that into consideration, too."

Another supervisor voted out last fall, Teri Pace, cast the lone vote against the Walmart. She thinks that some of her constituents were mistakenly led to believe that vetoing this location meant vetoing a Walmart altogether, when that need not have been the case. She wishes her colleagues had embraced the idea that the Route 3-Route 20 intersection and Wilderness Battlefield could serve as a tone-setting "gateway" into the county. She wanted to see the Walmart pushed a few miles west, closer to a 1960s-era community of houses called Lake of the Woods, with the debated site and surrounding area given over to a resort and stores selling local delicacies. "Instead of hurting tourism, and hurting our entrance, we could have had a place that developed tourism," she says.

At the court hearing, Pandak, the county attorney, made the point, bitterly "ironic" in her view, that five of the six individual plaintiffs claiming to be concerned about the battlefield live in Lake of the Woods, which falls within a battlefield study area. One of those plaintiffs is Craig Rains. When I visited him in his Cape Cod-style home, Rains readily conceded that traces of Confederate and Union trenches can be found throughout his community.

But past development decisions, right or wrong, should not be used to license future recklessness, he said. After all, attitudes toward the past can evolve. Consider Ellwood Manor, which the Park Service acquired in 1977, repaired, and then mothballed for two decades. When the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield—"just a bunch of old retired people out here in the woods," Rains says—began to raise money for further restoration, there were gaping holes in interior walls. Now Ellwood is a showcase for the Park Service, which stepped in financially after the battlefield group raised more than $300,000.

Like many people around here, Rains has a personal connection to the local battlefields. One of his ancestors, a medical orderly, may have assisted in the amputation of Stonewall Jackson's arm after Chancellorsville. (The arm, and the arm alone, is buried at Ellwood and marked with a granite monument, one reason people make pilgrimages there.) Given just a little prompting, Rains can expound upon the idea that the Wilderness was more important than Chancellorsville and marvel anew at the moment when Union troops cheered the turn south. "It is spine tingling," he says, "and I just think that more people need to know about it."

Will people learn about it while standing on a battlefield in the shadow of a mammoth Walmart? That question remains in the hands of the court. And in the hands of Walmart officials, who could still change their minds about where to build. "There's a lot of difference," Rains says, "between standing at Ellwood Manor looking out over the land, seeing it just as it was when it was a Union headquarters, and standing at Old Salem Church and hearing cars whizzing by."

He thinks it's a difference worth fighting for.

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