Civil War Buffs Clash Over Proposed Wal-Mart The discount giant wants to build a super store on the edges of an 1864 battle site in Orange County, Va. What makes this Wal-Mart skirmish different is that a lot of people on both sides of the battle lines are united by a common passion for the war itself.
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Civil War Buffs Clash Over Proposed Wal-Mart

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Civil War Buffs Clash Over Proposed Wal-Mart

Civil War Buffs Clash Over Proposed Wal-Mart

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Commemorating America's past can get complicated. Wal-Mart wants to build in Orange County, Virginia, and some people there don't want the big-box store.

But as NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, a lot of people on both sides are united by one common passion: The Civil War.

AILSA CHANG: Wal-Mart wants to build its superstore on a battlefield, right on top of the hill that overlooks grassy fields and dense woods. Now, maybe a lot of people don't know the Battle of the Wilderness, but talk to the folks here fighting over the Wal-Mart and you'll hear right away - the Civil War is in their blood, literally. Take Craig Rains. He's a local Civil War preservationist fighting against the Wal-Mart.

Mr. CRAIG RAINS (Civil War Preservationist): I had great-grandfathers who were - one was with the 1st Virginia Infantry and one, on the other side, was with the 3rd Iowa Calvary.

CHANG: And Zack Burkett. He's a county supervisor who's fighting for the Wal-Mart.

Mr. ZACK BURKETT (County Supervisor): My great-great uncles survived at Vicksburg by eating rats.

CHANG: And Russ Smith. He's a National Park ranger who takes care of the battlefield. Ask him about his ancestor.

Mr. RUSS SMITH (Ranger, National Park Services): Well, his name was James Leatherbury and he was a great-great-uncle. He was here with the Second Delaware, the Crazy Delawares.

CHANG: So here's the issue: Wal-Mart says, we're not building on actual battlefield land. We'd be on the edge. The preservationists say, no, the store might not be where actual fighting occurred, but it's where a lot of war activity took place, like where armies ran medical teams and reinforcements up and down. But we'll get back to that battle in a moment. What I want to do first is take you onto the actual battlefield.

(Soundbite of explosions)

CHANG: The Battle of the Wilderness is where Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant had their first face-off. Film director Ken Burns memorialized the battle in a documentary.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Battle Cry of Freedom")

Unidentified Man: The Battle of the Wilderness began in chaos. Units got lost, fired on their own comrades.

CHANG: It was May, 1864. The intense fighting set the trees on fire, and soldiers shot too badly to move ended up burning alive in the forest. It was a turning point.

Mr. SMITH: This is the place where instead of retreating, the Union Army turned south.

CHANG: Russ Smith has been a ranger with the National Park Service for 37 years.

Mr. SMITH: Grant decided to keep moving, that this was going to be a grinding campaign and that he was going to keep fighting until this war was over.

CHANG: In less than a year, the Confederates would end up surrendering at Appomattox Courthouse. Everywhere you go in this area, you see eerie reminders of the bloodshed here. A lone rock marks where legend says one of the most famous amputated arms in history is buried.

So that's Stonewall Jackson's arm right under that rock?

Mr. SMITH: As far as we know, it is there under that rock.

CHANG: County Supervisor Zack Burkett wanted to show me the horror of fighting almost blind in a dark, tangled forest.

Remember, Burkett's fighting for the Wal-Mart, but he loves this battleground. He told me sometimes he'll wander this forest for hours by himself, crying. He says, I'll do it without taking any water so I can feel the same thirst the soldiers felt. Burkett wanted me to feel what it was like running through a forest in a hail of bullets.

Mr. BURKETT: I'll get some rocks, and you pretend your microphone's a rifle. You try to run through that while I throw rocks at you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURKETT: Okay.

CHANG: I didn't take him up on the offer.

But now, let's get back to the present-day battle. Just as friends were divided over the Civil War, they're divided today by the battle over Wal-Mart, like Burkett and Ranger Russ Smith.

Mr. SMITH: You're free to disagree.

Mr. BURKETT: I do. I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMITH: That's your constitutional right…

CHANG: They're sitting down for coffee at a local McDonald's, very close to where the new Wal-Mart would be.

Burkett and others say the store won't be on important battlefield land. And what about the two strip malls already here anyway? Smith and other opponents say the store will bring in 6,500 more cars a day. And it will definitely be visible from the national park.

Mr. SMITH: You're going to be able to see it from the road back in here…

CHANG: The county planning commission was supposed to decide on the Wal-Mart proposal last week. But the meeting ended in a tie, after Civil War re-enactors in full Confederate uniform rode in on mule and horseback to air their views. The public comment meeting is tonight.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News.

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