New Battle Mounted Over Civil War Ground

The battle of the Wilderness is not over.

The Civil War battlefield where Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant first faced Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is once again the site of a titanic struggle between powerful forces.

On one side is Wal-Mart, which plans to build a superstore near the park's entrance.

On the other side are preservationists, led by actor Robert Duvall, a Virginian and descendant of Lee who played him in the film, "Gods and Generals."

"Wal-Mart with their deep pockets full o' cash. I mean if they have that much money they can move down the road a couple of miles because I believe they'd have the money to do that, I mean I would think. I certainly believe in capitalism, but I believe in capitalism coupled with sensitivity," Duvall said recently during a news conference at the battlefield. "Whatever we can do to help we'll help. But we'll help first by graciously chasing out Wal-Mart."

Video:New Civil War; Wal-Mart vs. HistoryPlay

Opponents want Wal-Mart to move down the road, but while the site near the battlefield is zoned for commercial development, the other options are largely zoned agricultural and would require time-consuming changes before Wal-Mart could locate there.

"We've gone to great lengths to try to work with residents, county planners, state officials to come up with a very unique design that fits within the unique character of Orange County Wilderness. And we've built the store to be furthest back from the site as possible. You won't be able to see it from any of the battlefield park," said Keith Morris, Wal-Mart's public affairs director.

The only option for stopping the project now appears to be to appeal to Orange County supervisors or to Wal-Mart itself. A planning board will offer its recommendation in June. The county board of supervisors, now leaning in favor of approving the project, is expected to vote this summer.

The Wilderness battle marked a crucial yet little-known point in the Civil War. Some 180,000 Union and Confederate troops faced off at Wilderness -- more Americans than are now in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

"The Wilderness battle fought in May 1864 was really a turning point in the Civil War, in a lot of ways possibly more important than Gettysburg because it was there that the Union determined that it was not going to let up," said Jim Campi, government relations director of the Civil War Preservation Trust.

The two-day battle left a staggering 29,000 dead and wounded. When it was over, Lee never held the offensive again.

"This was really the beginning of the end for the Confederacy," said Russ Smith, superintendent of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. With a massive Wal-Mart complex at the crossroads where Union and Confederate troops camped, "this area loses the sense of place. It just becomes any other place in the country, and we want to maintain that special atmosphere for visitors to understand and enjoy this place."

Craig Raines was drawn to the area from Arkansas to live near those historical ties.

"This is going to destroy that rural vision that we have. Wal-Mart's going to be open 24 hours a day," Raines said.

But some of his neighbors want the jobs, tax money and one-stop shopping Wal-Mart would bring.

"We need it. It's that simple," said Wayne Phillips, who says he drives 20 minutes to shop now. "Anybody who doesn't think we need it, there's something wrong with them."

Development is also gaining ground at Gettysburg, Fort Gaines, Ala., and dozens of other historic sites. One preservation group, the Civil War Preservation Trust, estimates 30 acres of battlefields disappear each day. Only 14 percent of the Wilderness battlefield is protected from development, the trust says.

At the Wal-Mart site there is already a strip mall and a four-lane highway.

"There's a 7-11, McDonald's, shopping centers all along the entrance to the battlefield park already, much closer than we are," Kmart's Morris said.

However, the Wal-Mart site would dwarf the existing development.

"We're very proud of our battlefields. That doesn't mean we can't also have the commercial growth that we so desperately need," said Barbara Banner, executive director of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce. "Right now we are driving 20, 25 miles to get the same type of service products. It means 300 jobs and about half a million dollars in tax revenue. For a small county, 300 jobs are a lot of jobs, particularly in today's job market."