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Kaine Wants Wal-Mart Away From Battlefield

By Fredrick Kunkle

Threatened with the possibility that an army of cashiers with barcode-reading guns could invade hallowed ground near one of the Civil War's most hellish battles, Virginia's two most powerful political foes have united in a bipartisan stand to relocate a proposed WalMart in Orange County.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell (R) -- who have been on warring sides of many state issues -- have written to the local Board of Supervisors asking them to help WalMart find an alternative site farther from the Wilderness battlefield.

"[W]e strongly encourage your Board to work closely with Wal-Mart to find an appropriate alternative site for the proposed retail center in the vicinity of the proposed site yet situated outside the boundaries of Wilderness Battlefield and out of the view of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park," says the July 13 letter co-signed by Kaine and Howell. In their letter, Kaine and Howell also offered state resources in helping to work out an alternative.

Kaine has made his preservation of 400,000 open land a centerpiece of his tenure; Howell is a Civil War buff who has also co-chair of the Sesquicentennial of The American Civil War Commission. Both said the battlefield is "supremely important."

The Wilderness marked the first clash between Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and culminated in a savage exchange of fire in a jungle-like inferno of scrub oak and pines. The May 1864 battle killed or wounded 24,000 soldiers, many of whom were wounded who perished in the forest fire that broke out during the battle. The National Park Service owns 2,800 acres of the core battlefield, whose larger area extends across nearly 7,000 acres.

Wal-Mart has proposed to build a 138,000-square-foot store and parking lot on a site that is considered a gateway to the battlefied. Located on a hilltop overlooking the battlefield, the site had been zoned for commercial development for some time but still has little more than a small shopping plaza opposite a Sheetz gas station.

Preliminary plans also called for the discount store to be adjacent to a retail, office and residential complex called Wilderness Crossing. Neither the supercenter nor the larger complex would be built on the battlefield. A study commissioned by the company said the proposed site lacked historical and archaeological significance.

Jim Campi, a spokesman for the Civil War Preservation Trust who publicized the joint letter today, said a similar proposal had been floated earlier this year by the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition, an organization of national, regional and local preservation groups.

"We firmly believe that encouraging Wal-Mart to move to an alternative location is in the best interests of both the National Park and Orange County residents," Campi said in a written statement. "We are prepared to work with the Commonwealth, the county, Wal-Mart and local citizens to find an alternative location that benefits all."

"There are a couple options we looked at," Campi said in an interview. He said the corporation would be more respectful of the nation's history and better off economically by locating farther west on Route 3, closer to existing commercial centers on the way to Culpeper. Although he acknowledged that the site had long been zoned for commercial activity, no one thought it might be on Wal-Mart's scale.

"What's being proposed here is four times the existing commercial at that site," Campi said.

The two candidates who hope to assume Kaine's seat -- state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D) and former Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) -- also have publicly urged Wal-Mart to move farther from the battlefield, Campi said.

James M. McPherson, Pulitzer prize-winning author of "Battle Cry of Freedom," joined with 250 other historians argue that the proposed Wal-Mart would spoil a significant historical landmark and asked that the big-box retailer reconsider its planned site.

"The Wilderness Battlefield is a living memorial to American sacrifice and heroism," McPherson wrote an op-ed that appeared in the Washington Post in May. "It would be tragic if such a landmark was lost through the short-sightedness of local decision-makers and Wal-Mart's stubborn refusal to consider reasonable alternatives."

By Matt Mosk  |  July 15, 2009; 4:14 PM ET
 
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