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.*
Video: Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks to Civil War historian Frank Smith about how black soldiers transformed America.
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.