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Wal-Mart Collapses on Civil War Battlefield

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Another Major Historic Gaffe by Giant Retailer

ORANGE COUNTY, VA. The historic Wilderness Battlefield in Fredericksburg, Virginia, claimed another casualty this week: Wal-Mart.

The southern-born retailing giant fell on its own sword by announcing abruptly on January 26 that it was withdrawing its plans for a superstore near the site where 29,000 soldiers perished in one of the most remarkable two days battles in the history of the Civil War.

Wal-Mart's surrender ended their 26-month siege of the Wilderness Battlefield, an attack that sparked national attention, activated numerous historic preservation groups, and aimed a barrage of bad press towards Wal-Mart headquarters. It was not a strategic attack worthy of a General Lee or Grant---and it ended with a low-key withdrawal. "We just felt it was the right thing to do," a Wal-Mart spokesman told the AP.

This is actually the second major preservation gaffe by Wal-Mart in Frederickburg, Virginia. In the mid-1990s, I was invited to Fredericksburg, to help residents fight off a proposed Wal-Mart on the site of Ferry Farm -- George Washington's boyhood home. Augustine Washington moved his family to the Ferry Farm property in 1738, when his son, George, was six years old. George received his formal education during his years there, and forged friendships in the neighborhood that lasted the rest of his life. I told the crowd of activists fighting the Ferry Farm Wal-Mart, "I cannot tell a lie: this is most dumbest site I have ever seen for a Wal-Mart."

That is, until they amassed their corporate troops on the edges of the Wilderness Battlefield.

An estimated 160,000 troops fought at the Wilderness. The Confederate Army and the Union suffered heavy losses. The battle was a tactical draw. But the Battle of the Wilderness marked the beginning of the end of the American Civil War.

The Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) was one of the groups that took the lead in the pushback against Wal-Mart. "Do you believe a Wal-Mart Supercenter belongs within sight of both the Wilderness and Chancellorsville battlefields?" Jim Lighthizer, President of CWPT said in an email alert:

Do you want to see the historical significance of both of these irreplaceable battlefields marred forever by more pavement, more traffic and more development that a Wal-Mart Supercenter will bring in its wake? And do you want to see this land - within easy artillery range of Ulysses Grant's headquarters during the battle of the Wilderness - turned into just another highway strip of big box stores, fast food joints and convenience stores?

The outcome of the Wilderness Battle may have been hard for Union or Confederate troops to predict at the time -- but the political outcome of the Wal-Mart/Wilderness Battle 145 years later was never in doubt. Local officials favored the project even before the volley of facts against the project were fired. Wal-Mart marched by the Orange County Planning Commission on a narrow 5-4 vote, and the Orange County Supervisors voted 4-1 to grant a special permit for the project. Hardly a shot fired.

But the Wilderness Battleground became a national flashpoint for sprawl. "The question for Wal-Mart, one of the world's most successful corporations, is whether they need a fifth Wal-Mart within 20 miles to be sited on this 'cathedral of suffering,'" said Vermont Congressman Peter Welch. Actor Robert Duvall visited the site in opposition. "I believe in capitalism, but I believe in capitalism coupled with sensitivity. Sensitivity towards historical events and the feelings of the people of this whole area." Duvall offered to "graciously chase out" Wal-Mart from the Wilderness site.

By 2009, Wal-Mart was digging in to make its stand at the Wilderness. "Two years ago," a company spokesman said, "the county decided this site was one where growth should occur. We have looked at alternative sites and there are other sites but they require rezoning. There is no guarantee the county would approve another site." Facing almost certain litigation, Wal-Mart squared off against its enemies.

In a press release dated September 23, 2009, the National Trust for Historic Preservation fired its legal ammunition. The Trust said the superstore "would harm the historic battlefield and encroach upon the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park...The County has responsibilities to protect those historic resources under Virginia law and under the County's own Comprehensive Plan for development." The Trust was ultimately denied legal "standing" in the case, but other parties continued the charge.

The lawsuit was filed in the Circuit Court of Orange County. Seven and a half months after the appeal was filed, the plaintiffs won the first skirmish. A Judge in the Orange County Circuit Court ruled that opponents had the legal right to move forward with their lawsuit. The Judge found that a huge Wal-Mart superstore raised valid concerns about increased traffic and litter. "The use of land by an establishment like Wal-Mart could have an adverse and immediate impact," the judge wrote.

Six neighbors were given "standing" in the case. They are Curtis Abel, Sheila Clark, Dwight L. Mottet and Craig Rains, all residents of Lake of the Woods, and Susan Caton, owner of Susan's Flowers Etc. in Locust Grove; and Dale Brown, who lives in Spotsylvania County. Brown can see the project from his property. These local residents have helped topple the largest retail corporation on the planet.

One day before the trial was to begin, Wal-Mart hoisted the white flag. Rather than face a string of bad headlines, and ultimately lose their case, Wal-Mart withdrew its artillery. "I hope this sends a message not only to Wal-Mart but to other developers that the preservation community is willing to fight for historic sites," said a lawyer representing the plaintiffs.

Jim Lighthizer was gracious in victory:

We have long believed that Wal-Mart would ultimately recognize that it is in the best interests of all concerned to move their intended store away from the battlefield. We applaud Wal-Mart officials for putting the interests of historic preservation first. Sam Walton would be proud of this decision.

Actually, I imagine that Sam Walton would have wondered what bonehead at Wal-Mart Realty could have settled on such a controversial site. But Wal-Mart blundered onto Ferry Farm, and then repeated the mistake at the Wilderness Battlefield a decade later. What these very public defeats make clear is that Wal-Mart has learned nothing from its own arrogant corporate history.

Al Norman is the founder of sprawl-busters.com. He has been helping communities fight big box sprawl for the past 17 years.