It’s a pleasure to convey this morning’s news that Walmart has reconsidered its plans to build upon land adjacent to the Wilderness battlefield. The Civil War Trust issued a statement on the matter: newspaper reports shed some light on the reasons for Walmart’s decision.
Another battlefield preservation controversy seems to have reached an important point. Note that I did not say that it was over. Walmart will build in the area, along State Route 3.
Each person celebrating this news has their own reason for doing so. My reasons are deeply personal. First, starting in the summer of 1974, I began visiting the area. I recall rescuing abandoned kittens left at the Saunders Field wayside a few summers later while I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. I was last in the area in 2009, when with two friends we made a whirlwind tour of six battlefield sites in northern Virginia (one site each for First Manassas [Henry House Hill], Second Manassas [New York Avenue], Fredericksburg [Marye's Heights], Chancellorsville [Jackson's wounding], the Wilderness [Saunders Field], and Spotsylvania [Bloody Angle]) for someone who wanted to see as much as possible in a single day. So I’ve been to the junction of State Routes 20 and 3 many times, as a visitor, historian, tour leader, and so on. I knew of the importance of the ground, and I’ve seen the area change, sometimes in ways that left me feeling rather strange.
For in May 1864 the Army of the Potomac entered the Wilderness for the opening clash of what was to become known as the Overland campaign. Among the lead regiments that fanned out across Saunders Field and launched the battle on May 5, was the 146th New York, which included among its men one James L. Denton, my great-great-grandfather. In short, his regiment would have marched right by the location for the planned Walmart supercenter (along what was then called Germanna Road), a short distance east of Saunders Field, before moving westward on the Orange Turnpike. The roads have changed a little in the area, so the current intersection is a little to the west of the historic intersection along what was then the Orange Turnpike (now State Route 20). Nowadays the roadway intersection houses a McDonalds, a bank, a 7-11, and several other businesses, if I recall correctly.
Balancing preservation and development is always a tough challenge. I appreciate that all parties involved have their concerns and their arguments. They key is working together to reach some sort of settlement, and I think we’re still in the middle of that process. After all, Saunders Field was but the first in a series of clashes in May 1864. It was not the last.