As you read this blog, there is controversy surrounding a Civil War battlefield that is located just west of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Wal Mart is trying to build a new Super Center directly across from The Wilderness Battlefield. How does this concern Savannah? In early May of 1864, Savannahian Lieutenant Colonel G. Moxley Sorrel, who grew up in the 'pumpkin colored house' on Madison Square led a counterattack against the Union Second Corps on May 6th. Others from Savannah also participated in the fight, the Oglethorpe Light Infantry marched into The Wilderness with the 8th Georgia Infantry. This development will also infringe on the nearby Chancellorsville Battlefield, where General Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded by his own men in May 1863.
This area saw four major battles during the Civil War; Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness and Spotsylvania. In essence, over 100,000 Americans were killed here between December 1862 and May 1864. This area is some of America's most 'Hallowed Ground."
I first visited this area in the Summer of 1979 with my family; we toured the four battlefields around Fredericksburg. I remember going through The Wilderness and thinking that there was nothing there compared to other battlefields, such as; Gettysburg, Antietam and Fredericksburg. It was all overgrown, with limited markers, monuments and cannons. It looked like a forest. This area is in my sights for a future book in 2010.
Currently, the Vermont Legislature is fighting to preserve the ground that Wal Mart intends to build on. The site is currently occupied by a monument to Vermont soldiers that served here. Congressmen Peter Welch of Vermont and Ted Poe of Texas are leading the Congressional fight against Wal Mart's expansion into an area that already has 5 Wal Marts. Vermont troops had occupied the ground that Wal Mart wants and the Texas Brigade prevented a breakthrough by Hancock's Second Corps on the morning of May 6th. Preservationists have gathered an army of over 250 historians; including David McCollough, Ken Burns, James McPherson, William C. Davis, Gary Gallagher and actor Robert Duvall have all weighed in against the intrusion on The Wilderness.
Wal Mart figures to bring in over 200 jobs to Orange County in their building of a 140,000 square foot structure. Everybody wants the jobs, but the opposition would like them to look elsewhere in Orange County.
How would a Wal Mart upset the landscape of The Wilderness Battlefield? The fighting at The Wilderness is unique and more horrifying the most Civil War battles. It was full of dense vegetation, narrow roads and dry foliage. The troops fought at close quarters, artillery and rifle fire started fires. These fires engulfed the wounded on both sides, the high and hot flames would not allow rescue from this man made hell. This is sacred ground, Congress was protected as part of the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania Battlefield in 1927. Over 29,000 were killed at The Wilderness.
What happened at The Wilderness? It was the first meeting between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant during the war. Lincoln brought Grant east to destroy Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, Grant's force numbered 110,000 and Lee had a force of 61,000. Lee positioned his army to react to Grant's initial movements, Grant started to move through The Wilderness. This gave Lee an opportunity to deliver a similar blow to Grant that he had inflicted on Hooker the year before at Chanchellorsville, 5 miles from The Wilderness.
The Confederates figured the dense vegetation and narrow roads would equalize Grant's superior numbers. Artillery was only able to deploy in the middle of the roads and there could be no movements of large forces of infantry. Lee wanted to catch Grant off balance, so he struck on his flank on May 5th. Grant was able to maintain his composure and had Hancock counter attack the next day. This attack almost destroyed Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, but Longstreet's Texans arrived to check the attack. They suffered over 60 per cent casualties. Longstreet ordered Sorrel to attack the over extended Union Second Corps and he drove them back three miles. They almost destroyed the Army of the Potomac, but lack of support and Longstreet's wounding stalled the attack.
The difference at The Wilderness was that Grant was given a bloody nose, but did not retreat like previous army commanders. He continued South, employing a bloody war of attrition that would force Lee to surrender 11 months later.
On May 21, Orange County officials met with representatives from Wal Mart and The Wilderness Preservation Group to decide on how to proceed. After four hours of debate, they tabled the decision to June 11. If you are interested in helping protect the battlefield, contact your local congressional delegate or visit the Civil War Preservation website, http://www.civilwar.org/