Editor's note: Updates story with additional Civil War background on the site in question, reaction from National Parks Conservation Association officials.
In a development that apparently ends a long dispute over whether a key vestige of the Wilderness Battlefield near Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park would be paved over, Walmart officials have abandoned their plans for a supercenter on the parcel.
The corporate giant's decision was announced by the Civil War Trust, which long has fought Walmart's plans, and came as a trial was to begin in Virginia's Orange County Circuit Court into the legality of a special use permit given to Walmart for the project.
It was back in August 2009 that Orange County officials cleared the way for the 140,000-square-foot store on a 53-to-55-acre tract of land just north of the Wilderness Corner intersection in Orange, Virginia.
According to the National Park Service, the Battle of the Wilderness was fought on May 5-6, 1864, with troops under both Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee engaged. "It was the beginning of the Overland Campaign, the bloodiest campaign in American history and the turning point in the war in the Eastern Theatre," notes the agency.
“We are pleased with Walmart’s decision to abandon plans to build a supercenter on the Wilderness battlefield,” James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Trust, said in a release this morning. “We have long believed that Walmart would ultimately recognize that it is in the best interests of all concerned to move their intended store away from the battlefield. We applaud Walmart officials for putting the interests of historic preservation first. Sam Walton would be proud of this decision.”
According to John Hennessy, chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, during the Civil War the land in question likely saw much troop and support movements and possibly contained various headquarters and field hospitals.
"In terms of the battle, the rear areas of armies were incredibly busy places. While we can't say with certainty what went on upon this parcel, we can say there were headquarters and hospitals surrounding the intersection, and wagon trains and herds of cattle passing through constantly," Mr. Hennessy said. "By battle's end, the Union line passed just north of the site, and so the site stood between the Union right flank and army headquarters near the intersection. There's no questioning the site was an integral part of the Union rear area."
At the National Parks Conservation Association, President Tom Kiernan praised Walmart's announcement.
“After months of intense debate and a legal challenge led by the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition, we are pleased with Walmart’s decision this morning to abandon its plans to build a Superstore on a privately-owned portion of the Wilderness Battlefield," Mr. Kiernan said.
“Pulitzer-Prize winning historian James McPherson has said that this site was in the nerve center of the Union Army during the battle of the Wilderness, which was as significant as the battle of Gettysburg. The battle resulted in one of the most decisive moments of the U.S. Civil War, involved more than 150,000 soldiers, and resulted in 30,000 casualties," he added. “Today’s decision is a victory for protecting our priceless historic landscapes that tell our shared story. All involved now have the opportunity to work together to preserve this site so that it remains compatible with the national park's meaning and character. As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War, I urge Americans to work together to protect these sacred places for our children and grandchildren to experience and enjoy in the future.”
The Civil War Trust is part of the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition, an alliance of Virginia residents and national groups seeking to protect the Wilderness battlefield. Mr. Lighthizer noted that the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition has sought from the very beginning to work with county officials and Walmart to find an alternative location for the proposed superstore away from the battlefield.
“We stand ready to work with Walmart to put this controversy behind us and protect the battlefield from further encroachment,” he said. “We firmly believe that preservation and progress need not be mutually exclusive, and welcome Walmart as a thoughtful partner in efforts to protect the Wilderness Battlefield.”
Opposition to the supercenter was voiced by, among others, more than 250 American historians led by Pulitzer Prize-winners James McPherson and David McCullough, according to the trust.
One month after county officials voted in 2009 to allow the project to go forward, a legal challenge was mounted to overturn that decision. A judge presiding over the case was considering various pretrial motions when word came that Walmart was abandoning the project.