Wilderness Walmart Retrospective
On November 8, 2013, then-Virginia governor Robert McDonnell announced that Walmart — the world’s largest retailer — had donated 50 acres of land to the Old Dominion on the eastern edge of Orange County, a beautiful and bucolic part of the Commonwealth roughly 15 miles west of Fredericksburg. This land was no ordinary green space, however: it was hallowed ground, property that Pulitzer Prize–winning historian James McPherson dubbed “the nerve center of the Union Army during the Battle of the Wilderness.” Fought May 5–6, 1864, this battle was one of the most significant engagements of the American Civil War, featuring the first meeting of Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in combat.
Governor McDonnell’s announcement of what he described as Walmart’s “generous and voluntary gift” of this historic Civil War battlefield acreage to Virginia represented the exciting conclusion to a preservation story that began five years prior, when this type of ultimate happy ending seemed like a distant hope. In 2008, the company famously founded by businessman Sam Walton had applied for a Special Use Permit to construct a 138,000-square-foot superstore in Orange County, selecting the Wilderness site as its preferred location. County officials approved Walmart’s request the following year.
As they have time and again on behalf of sacred soil across America, the men and women of the Civil War Trust rose in defense of the Wilderness Battlefield, together with numerous allies and partners in preservation. Chief among these was Robert Rosenbaum, an attorney with Arnold & Porter LLP, who led an extensive pro bono effort to prevent construction of the Walmart Supercenter on the battlefield and put together a deeply researched and convincing case for the historic significance of the proposed building site. In addition to the Civil War Trust, the coalition of organizations united to protect the Wilderness included none more important than the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, a local preservation group and — along with six area residents — a key plaintiff in the lawsuit. The National Parks Conservation Association, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Piedmont Environmental Council and Preservation Virginia also played key roles in the resistance.
Thanks to the powerful combination of Arnold & Porter’s skilled legal representation and preservationists’ sustained advocacy campaign, which targeted Walmart and political leaders alike, the Bentonville, Ark.– based corporate titan announced in January 2011 that it had “decided to preserve” the site atop the Wilderness Battlefield it had initially marked for construction. Instead, Walmart pledged to work with the relevant parties to find a more suitable location for its Orange County store; in coming to this decision, the company was acting not only in accordance with the wishes of the Civil War Trust and the greater preservation community, but also those of another former Virginia governor — Timothy Kaine — and state House of Delegates Speaker William Howell. Kaine, a Democrat who now represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate, and Howell, a Republican who has served as the Commonwealth’s Speaker of the House for more than a decade, had joined hands across party lines in 2009 to encourage Walmart and Orange County to “find an appropriate alternative site for the proposed retail center … outside the boundaries of Wilderness Battlefield and out of the view of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.” Democratic Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont and Republican Rep. Ted Poe of Texas, each from states whose soldiers left lasting legacies at the Battle of the Wilderness, urged the same of Walmart on a national stage — a courageous stand in which the two members of Congress were joined by supporters ranging from noted actor and director Robert Duvall to the entire Vermont General Assembly.
In recognition of his role in protecting the Wilderness Battlefield, a grateful Civil War Trust presented Arnold & Porter’s Robert Rosenbaum with the Shelby Foote Preservation Legacy Award in 2011. The plaintiffs in the so-called Wilderness Walmart lawsuit — including the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, as well as Curtis Abel, Dale Brown, Sheila Clark, Susan Caton, Dwight Mottet and Craig Rains — likewise received the Trust’s 2011 Carrington Williams Battlefield Preservationist of the Year Award.
Prior to completing its donation of the company’s original Wilderness-area property to Virginia last fall, Walmart also fulfilled its corresponding promise to construct a new Supercenter elsewhere in Orange County. The store, located miles from the Wilderness Battlefield, held its grand opening in July 2013.
Since the time of Walmart’s decision to relocate within Orange County, the Civil War Trust has been at the forefront of a continuing cooperative effort to engage local officials, landowners, conservationists and other stakeholders in crafting a mutually beneficial blueprint for blending preservation and context-sensitive development as a gateway to the Wilderness Battlefield. Looking forward, county board of supervisors chair Teel Goodwin has voiced optimism on achieving a successful balance: “[I]t is time to find common ground to meld a future that we all can share…. Economic development and preservation can find a harmonious path if we work together for the best interest of Orange County.”
Additional information regarding this ongoing joint effort is available at www.WildernessGateway.org.