On Saturday I had the pleasure of attending a Civil War Preservation Trust sponsored walk at the Wilderness Battlefield. Of course the walk was intended to focus attention on the issues with a proposed Wal-Mart expansion to the north of the Virginia 3 and 20 intersection.
The weather was perfect for a battlefield walk. Not too cool, but enough for a jacket. Light winds and a light overcast. But with a command voice reminiscent of a Sergeant Major, our guide for the walk, park historian Frank A. O’Reilly, cut through the crisp morning. The tour started at Saunders Field and followed part of the Gordon Flank Attack Trail. By my count we made four stops. At each stop I took away at least one new perspective of the battle.
View of the field from the first stop.
Looking directly into Griffin’s Division line of march. Note the Exhibit Shelter Pavilion on the left. It is hard to see in the photograph, but the ground here affords the attacker a slight advantage. A defender at the main Confederate line (about 25 paces to the rear of the camera) could not directly engage the Federals until the peaked over this fold.
Another view of Saunders Field. This from the north side of Highway 20. Note the Pavilion is inside the clump of trees just to the left of the road.
Attack of the Zouaves!
Visible on the south side of the highway, about where the truck and bass boat are passing, is the low ground mentioned above. The 140th New York charged up this slope, also benefiting from the dip in the ground. Note how the trail drops out of sight, well before the regiment’s monument.
Other stops along our walk featured the advance location reached by the Zouave’s charge and Gordon’s flank attack of May 6. Photos in those heavily wooded areas are always difficult, so I won’t inflict upon readers my poor photos of fallen leaves and trees.
The turn out was good, well over seventy attended. Which made the Sunders Field parking area look like a Gettysburg tour stop:
After Mr. O’Reilly’s tour, we traveled to Ellwood for lunch and some news about the Wilderness Wal-Mart issues.
Jim Campi, of CWPT, driving the point home.
Wal-Mart continues to press for a re-zoning of a site just north of the National Park grounds, opposite the intersection of Virginia 3 and 20. The maps on CWPT’s site detail the proposed location better than I can describe, but the main issue I see is encroachment into the area around the battlefield. The ground Wal-Mart has its eye on is within the defined battlefield area when the park was initially created. Like many battlefields, the area was defined, but land was not purchased. Since it was not a “core” battlefield area, little effort has been made to acquire it or designate it.
While the Wal-Mart may have a large foot-print, in my opinion that will be dwarfed by the follow on… or should I say pile on… development which will undoubtedly follow. Have you ever seen a Wal-Mart anywhere all by itself? Big store fronts tend to attract a lot of strap hangers. All of which of course leads to traffic congestion. So the Virginia Department of Transportation is already considering expansion and re-alignment of Highway 20. As indicated on the CWPT maps, this would bring development across the final lines of the Federal right flank.
Some have complained the Wilderness Crossing Wal-Mart isn’t the right preservation effort, when resources are scarce. After all, the intersection is already heavily developed with several convenience stores, fast food restaurants, and a strip mall.
Wilderness Crossing - The proposed Wal-Mart site is behind the trees.
On the other hand consider the Wilderness is among the largest battles ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. Coupled with Spotsylvania, the period from May 5 to 21, 1864 was perhaps the greatest clash of arms in an open field engagement of the war. There were a lot of moving pieces during those critical days. And a significant part of those “moving pieces” moved between where that red car is paused in the photo and the bank in the background. To put it in perspective with a more studied battlefield, this spot is analogous to the Baltimore Pike at Gettysburg or Boonesboro Pike at Antietam. It is the “rear” of the Army of the Potomac, but it was also the objective of Confederate counterattacks. This intersection helps define the true “depth” of this battlefield to the modern visitor.
From what I understand, the ground is outside some boundary, and therefore not eligible for CWPT acquisition efforts. Still, if Wal-Mart is bent on turning those trees into a parking lot, then at least they should be asked to make some compromises. And I’m not talking about just a couple of markers in the parking lot. What concessions can be made to guarantee the asphalt doesn’t spill over south of Highway 3? And to protect view sheds?
Bottom line, this is a grass roots effort. A lot will depend on decisions made at the local level. Maybe the land is not noteworthy enough to preserve. But at least the development should be curbed. Personally, I’ve sent my sentiments to the Orange County Supervisors, and urge others to do so. Beyond that, I’m crafting letters to my state representatives to inquire about the use of state funds on any highway modifications in the area.
In closing, many thanks to Mr. O’Reilly for a well conducted, and thought provoking, battlefield walk and to Jim Campi for the ride around the battlefield.