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A new fight at Civil War site

August 13, 2009|Faye Fiore

One hundred and forty-five years after Gen. Ulysses S. Grant first fought Gen. Robert E. Lee, another conflict is brewing on the Wilderness Battlefield: whether to let Wal-Mart build a superstore where 29,000 soldiers were wounded or killed.

To stand on the battlefield at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in rural central Virginia is to go back in time. It looks almost as it did on May 5, 1864, when 160,000 troops clashed over two bloody days -- a tangle of woods that trapped men in brutal, hand-to-hand combat and gave the field its name. The farmhouse that served as a Confederate hospital stands restored. Lt. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's amputated arm is buried at the battlefield.

Across the street is where Wal-Mart wants to build its big-box store, about a quarter mile from the part of the battlefield that is today a national park.

Some famous names have lined up in opposition: Actor Robert Duvall, a self-described descendant of Lee; the state's Democratic governor and its top Republican lawmaker; 253 historians and several preservation groups.

They say they have nothing against another Wal-Mart (there are already four in a 20-mile radius), just not one so close to a national shrine.

In a letter rallying his troops, O. James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust, envisioned "cars full of people who probably could not care less that one of history's most monumental battles was fought there" and "an explosion of sprawl that could engulf the existing battlefield."

But some would welcome a little sprawl. Orange County, where the battlefield sits southwest of Washington, is a sleepy piece of countryside with one high school, a couple of wineries, some cattle ranches, a bunch of sheep, a handful of restaurants and not very many jobs.

Agriculture is the biggest industry. Low-income work supplements farming -- like the farmer's wife who drives a school bus.

Unemployment has shot from 3% to 8%, and Wal-Mart is promising 300 more jobs in a county of 35,000 people. It is all but certain that more businesses will follow.

"I hope one of those would be a good restaurant. There's not a steakhouse in the county. No Red Lobster. You have to go to Fredericksburg or Culpeper for that," said Zack Burkett, 69, a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors that is to decide Wal-Mart's fate Aug. 24. He says board members are leaning yes.

"Telling private business what they can and can't do doesn't work very well. It's called fascism. I looked it up in my old Funk and Wagnalls," he said.

But if there is an issue as emotional as the ailing economy in Virginia, it's the Civil War.

The county planning commission endorsed the project in May with 200 mostly unhappy people in attendance; Alexander Hays IV -- descendant of Union Gen. Alexander Hays, killed at Wilderness -- came all the way from Ohio.

Rep. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat and Wal-Mart foe, flew in recently to remind folks that the deadliest day in his state's history took place in their backyard. He read a letter written by a private with Vermont's 3rd Brigade: "Most of my friends lay dead or wounded, scattered in the field somewhere."

Scenes like that are common in Virginia, site of more major Civil War battles than any other state.

As suburbs sprawl out to meet the countryside, battlefields once considered remote are prime targets for developers. More than 40% of the hallowed ground has been paved over in Virginia; about 13% is protected, according to the National Park Service. Much of the rest is in private hands.

Efforts to save the surviving land have met mixed results.

In 1994, the Walt Disney Co. met a public backlash so fierce it dropped its plan to build a historical theme park near Manassas, Va. An effort to build a Formula One racetrack at Brandy Station, Va., site of the war's biggest cavalry fight, was defeated in 2005. And a proposed gambling casino for Gettysburg, Pa., was beaten back in 2006.

But at Salem Church near Chancellorsville, Va., an 800-acre battlefield has been reduced to 2 acres by strip malls and asphalt.

A corporate spokesman said Wal-Mart was trying to cooperate, toning down the parking lot lights and erecting a more fitting stone sign instead of the usual giant pole. Alternative locations farther from the battlefield were offered; the company says they're too small.

"There's a void," Wal-Mart spokesman Keith Morris said. "People tell us they can't buy general necessities and back-to-school items inside the county."

The land is zoned commercial, and if Wal-Mart doesn't go in something else will, Burkett said. "If some guy wants to build a porno shop, if it's under 60,000 feet, we can't say no."

Preservationists warn the county is overlooking the financial value of a battlefield frozen in time. Civil War tourism is big business in Virginia; visitors spend on average $71 a day.

They come to stand where the soldiers stood, to imagine the smell of gunpowder, the blast of cannon fire, the clack of bayonets, the morning-after cries of the wounded. In a setting so pristine, it isn't hard.

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faye.fiore@latimes.com

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