Last August, I went slightly mad while driving through central Virginia. The roads around Richmond are sprinkled with markers delineating the region’s singular place in American history—and particularly Civil War history, my latest obsession. It took all I had not to swerve off the road every time a sign celebrating Gabriel Prosser or Stonewall Jackson’s arm came into view. To the chagrin of my family members who were in tow, my efforts at self-control rarely succeeded.
Our first day in Virginia was providence itself. Half-lost, we were wending our way through back roads when we happened upon New Market Heights. A century and a half ago, regiments of the USCT—United States Colored Troops—had engaged a Confederate force there, and earned 14 Medals of Honor.*
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I pulled our rental car to the side of the road, and treated my son and nephew to an awkward impromptu lecture on the bravery of Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood and Private Charles Veale. It was only mildly successful—I had to talk over SUVs loudly whizzing past, and there really wasn’t much to see. Parts of the battlefield had been destroyed by housing developments. Other portions, owned by the county, are closed to the public. I ordered the kids out of the car and had them read the marker aloud, in unison. They squirmed around and gave mediocre waves as I snapped pictures.
In my lifetime, I have floated through all manner of geekdom—comic books, sci-fi, sports, medieval history, video games. The Civil War, with its swashbuckling heroes, its staggering toll, and its consequence of emancipation, is the culmination of an unorthodox intellectual journey. Galactus and Charlemagne are charming, but if not for Fleetwood and Veale, I might not exist. By the time I stumbled upon New Market Heights, I’d read about the battle in at least three books. But I had come to Virginia to move beyond books and render my journey through the “late unpleasantness” in 3-D. Books about everything from the caliber of every cannon fired to post-traumatic stress disorder to Civil War cuisine can’t adequately capture the actual conditions under which the soldiers lived and died; they can’t convey, say, the spatial reality of being caught between gunfire from two sides. Any lesson on the Battle of the Crater isn’t complete until you’ve been to Petersburg and seen the crater for yourself. Civil War sites are the classrooms of history.
Unfortunately, at New Market Heights, the classroom was closed. The Civil War Preservation Trust annually presents a list of 25 battlefields that are “endangered” and “at risk” because of sprawl and development. (Last year’s included New Market Heights.) But the battlefield where the war between preservation and commerce now rages most ferociously is the Wilderness, in Orange County, Virginia, where in May of 1864, the two armies took 28,000 casualties, some of them wounded men who were incinerated in a forest fire.
Soon, the Wilderness may also be known for everyday low prices, thanks to Walmart’s plans to put a new store at the site’s very doorstep. The fight has pitted locals in search of decent value (“Go find a shirt in Orange,” someone told the local paper. “You can’t”) against preservationists from Virginia and elsewhere, including the historian James McPherson and the actor Robert Duvall, a descendant of Confederate patriot Robert E. Lee.
The intersection of Routes 20 and 3, where Walmart hopes to build, holds special significance. “It’s at that exact place where 100,000 Union soldiers go south,” says Rob Nieweg of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “They were ordered to turn right and continue on to Spotsylvania Courthouse and the Bloody Angle, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg, and ultimately, Appomattox and the end of the Civil War. It’s the best place in America to stand and understand the average Union soldier’s experience, at that moment, knowing that what he fought for wasn’t wasted.”
In September, the National Trust joined a coalition of preservationists filing suit to prevent Walmart from going forward. Walmart contends that the battlefield entrance is actually a mile away, and notes that it’s been in discussions about the store with the community for more than a year. “This whole process has been going on for nearly 18 months,” Keith Morris, a spokesperson for Walmart, told me. “It has been a meticulous process that’s been thoroughly vetted and evaluated through public hearings, and we were approved almost unanimously by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.”
Even if the preservationists prevail, the future of the Wilderness will still be in doubt. The land is zoned for commercial development. The current fight recalls the battle, 15 years ago, when preservationists stopped Disney from building a theme park near the Manassas battlefield, in Northern Virginia, only to see the area overtaken by residential sprawl.
On our last day in Virginia, I drove my family out to the Wilderness. By then we’d seen the Petersburg battlefield, where the war drew to its bloody close, and Shirley Plantation, a sprawling estate along the James River, once tended by slaves. But the sheer emptiness of the Wilderness’s grassland and forest made it more haunting. A ranger sitting under a canopy directed us to various portions of the park, because we’d just missed the tour. We walked up a dirt road into the woods, and saw earthworks and trenches that had been preserved for close to 150 years. Across from there, the ranger told us, you could see an open field that Union soldiers had charged across, only to be cut down by Confederates concealed in the woods and protected by fortifications. For a fleeting moment, I could actually imagine the smell of gunpowder and sweat in the August heat, and the sense that death awaited.
Afterward, we drove out Orange Plank Road, east of Grant’s path as he marched toward Richmond; we turned onto Route 3, and after a few miles saw an assortment of big-box stores blooming out of the horizon. We grumbled some about the spoilage of development—and then stopped at Cracker Barrel for breakfast.