The Orange County, Virginia Board of Supervisors recently approved a proposal to build a Walmart on grounds adjacent to the Battle of the Wilderness, a fearsome battle fought between Lee and Grant in early May, 1864. I am reliably informed that the massive store will be visible from certain points on the actual battlefield.
The Wilderness, like nearby Chancellorsville (which was fought a year earlier) was a nightmarish engagement that commenced in a thick and tangled forest and was characterized by confusion and heavy casualties on both sides. It ended inconclusively, but it included the famous “General Lee to the rear!” episode, ably recounted by Shelby Foote (see below the fold). It is plausible, taking cognizance of the size and disorder of the battle, that men died on the very grounds where the Walmart will go up.
A solid host of luminaries, including the documentary producer Ken Burns, several historians, and the actor Robert Duval, declared their opposition to the plan. Also, in what must have been a marvelous spectacle, some folks showed up at a community meeting decked out in full Civil War costumes, including a “dead ringer” for General Lee himself. Now that is democracy.
I am told by a Virginia resident that the demand for a Walmart in this county is considerable, and that, accordingly, popular support for it, even this close to the battlefield, is solid. Fair enough.
Still, the cause of historical memory is no small matter. I am not of the view that business interests are inherently disreputable, but there are interests in the Republic that are deeper and weightier than business. And it seems to me that one would be hard-pressed to discover a more concrete instance of historical memory than the Wilderness Battlefield.
Excellent maps of the battle are viewable here. It looks from these like the Walmart will be erected in the immediate rear of the Union right flank.
From Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Red River to Appomattox:
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“We are driving them, sir!” [Union General Winfield S.] Hancock called proudly to the staff man. “Tell General Meade we are driving them beautifully.”
Lee was there in the clearing, doing all he could to stiffen what little was left of Hill’s resistance, and so had Longstreet himself been there, momentarily at least, when the blue assault was launched. He came riding up just before sunrise, a mile or two in advance of his column, the head of which had reached Parker’s Store by then, and Hill’s chief of staff crossed the Tapp farmyard to welcome him as he turned off the road. “Ah, General, we have been looking for you since 12 o’clock last night. We expect to be attacked at any moment, and are not in any shape to resist.” Unaccustomed to being reproached by unstrung colonels, however valid their anxiety, Old Peter looked sternly down at him. “My troops are not up,” he said. “I’ve ridden ahead —” At this point the sudden clatter of Hancock’s attack erupted out in the brush, and Longstreet, without waiting to learn more of what had happened, whirled his horse and galloped back to hurry his two divisions forward. So Lee at least knew that the First Corps would soon be up. His problem, after sending his adjutant to order the wagon train prepared for withdrawal, was to hang on till these reinforcements got there, probably within the hour, to shore up Hill’s fast-crumbling line. Presently, though, this began to look like more than he could manage; Wilcox and Heth, overlapped on both flanks, gave ground rapidly before a solid mass of attackers, and skulkers began to drift rearward across the clearing, singly and in groups, some of them turning to fire from time to time to their pursuers, while others seemed only intent on escape. Their number increased, until finally Lee saw a whole brigade in full retreat. Moreover, this was not just any brigade; it was Brigadier General Samuel McGowan’s brigade of South Carolinians, Wilcox’s best and one of the finest in the army.
“My God, General McGowan!” Lee exclaimed from horseback, breasting the flood of fugitives. “Is this splendid brigade of yours running like a flock of geese?”
“General, these men are not whipped,” McGowan answered, stung in his pride rebuke. “They only want a place to form and they will fight as well as they ever did.”
But there was the rub. All that was left by now for them to form on was a battalion of Third Corps artillery, four batteries under twenty-eight-year-old Lieutenant Colonel William Proague, lined up along the west side of the clearing which afforded one of the Wilderness’s few real fields of fire. The cannoneers stood to their loaded pieces, waiting for Hill’s infantry to fall back far enough to give them a chance to shoot at the bluecoats in pursuit. However, there was no time for this; Proague, with Lee’s approval, had his guns open at what was already point-blank range, shaving the heads of the Confederate retreaters in order to throw their anti-personnel rounds into the enemy ranks. This took quick effect, particularly near the road, where the Federals tended to bunch up. Flailed by double-shotted grape and canister, they paused and began to look for cover: seeing which, the cannoneers stepped up their rate of fire. Lee remained mounted alongside Proague, who kept his men at their work — “getting the starch out of our shirts,” they called it — without infantry support. This could not continue long before they would be overrun, but meantime they were making the most of it. Smoke from the guns drifted back, sparkling in the early-morning sunlight, and presently Lee saw through its rearward swirls a cluster of men running toward him, carrying their rifles at the ready, and shouldering Hill’s fugitives aside.
“Who are you, my boys?” he cried as they came up in rear of the line of bucking guns.
“Texas boys!” they yelled, gathering now in larger numbers, and Lee knew them: Hood’s Texans, his old-time shock troops, now under Brigadier General John Gregg — the lead brigade of Field’s division. Longstreet was up at last.
“Hurrah for Texas!” Lee shouted. He took off his wide-brimmed hat and waved it. “Hurrah for Texas!”
No one had ever seen him act this way before, either on or off the field of battle. And presently, when the guns ceased their fuming and the Texans started forward, they saw something else they had never seen: something that froze the cheers in their throats and brought them to a halt. When Gregg gave the order, “Attention, Texas Brigade! The eyes of General Lee are upon you. Forward . . . march!” Lee rose in his stirrups and lifted his hat. “Texans always move them,” he declared. They cheered as they stepped out between the guns. “I would charge hell itself for that old man,” a veteran said fervently. Then they saw the one thing that could stop them. Lee had spurred Traveller forward on their heels; he intended to go in with them, across the field and after the bluecoats in the brush. They slacked their pace and left off cheering. “Lee to the rear!” began to be heard along the line, and some of them addressed him directly: “Go back, General Lee, go back. We won’t go unless you go back.” He was among them now, flushed with excitement, his eyes fixed on the woods ahead. They stopped, and when an attempt by Gregg to head him off had no effect, a sergeant reached out and took hold of Traveller’s rein, bringing the animal to a halt. “Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear!” the men were shouting. But his blood was up; he did not seem to hear them, or even to know that he and they were no longer in motion. At this point a staff colonel intervened. “General, you’ve been looking for General Longstreet. There he is, over yonder.” Lee looked and saw, at the far end of the field, the man he called his war horse. For the first time since he cleared the line of guns he seemed to become aware that he was involved in something larger than a charge. Responding to the colonel’s suggestion, he turned Traveller’s head and rode in that direction. On the way he passed in rear of General Evander Law’s Alabama brigade, about to move out on the left. “What troops are these?” he asked, and on being told he called to them: “God bless the Alabamians!” They went forward with a whoop, alongside the Texans, who were whooping too. “I thought him at that moment the grandest specimen of manhood I ever beheld,” one among them later wrote. “He looked as though he ought to have been, and was, the monarch of the world.”