A casino could soon sit near the Gettysburg battlefield, the bloodiest encounter on American soil. A Walmart supercenter may shadow the Wilderness battlefield in Virginia where Gen. U. S. Grant kept his headquarters when he first fought Gen. Robert E. Lee. And Washington, D.C.’s suburban sprawl is slowly strangling the rural lands where the Civil War’s first crucial battles were fought. It’s an ironic situation: as battlefield sites across the country prepare for an expected onslaught of visitors connected to the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, many of them are shrinking away, acre by acre.
April 12 will mark the sesquicentennial of the start of the war, and governments and citizens across the country are gearing up to commemorate it. Visitation at Civil War–related national parks has already been on the rise, increasing 6.4 percent between 2008 and 2009 after mostly flat numbers in prior years. The National Park Service has reworked its approach to teaching the war’s history to make it more focused on causes and effects. In anticipation of the anniversary, PBS plans to re-air Ken Burns’s landmark documentary on the war, and The New York Times and The Washington Post have already launched special commemorative blogs and news coverage. All the while, however, development at sites around the country is destroying Civil War battlefields at a frantic rate—30 acres a day, according to the Civil War Trust (CWT), a leading heritage conservation group—fast enough to eat up what’s left of the Gettysburg battlefield park in just seven months. “[Battlefield visitors] don’t want to see the parking lot where their ancestors once fought that’s now a shopping center,” says Jim Campi, policy director of CWT. “They want to walk through the woods and see the cannon and the fence lines.”
This month, two high-profile conflicts over further development on the sites of major battles will come to a head. Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board officials are expected to decide whether to allow a casino several miles southwest of the Gettysburg battlefield.. The Mason-Dixon Resort and Casino has become a cause célèbre for Civil War buffs, who have held it up as the best example of crass commercialism making inroads into the “hallowed ground” where more than 51,000 soldiers died. And in Virginia, a judge will hear arguments in a suit that aims to prevent the planned Walmart that is—depending on whom you ask—either adjacent to or on the Wilderness battlefield. These two standoffs are part of a larger debate that raises many of the same questions as the mosque controversy in lower Manhattan: What constitutes hallowed ground, what can you build near or on it, and how soon is too soon?
“There has to be a reasonable balance,” says James McPherson, the foremost living Civil War historian and professor emeritus of history at Princeton. “If you preserved every square foot of battlefield in Virginia, there wouldn’t be much land left. There’s a tendency among preservationists to want to save everything, but realistically there have to be compromises.”
One place McPherson isn’t willing to compromise, however, is the Virginia Walmart, a 140,000-square-foot supercenter the company wants to build in Orange County on a parcel that’s been zoned for commercial use for 37 years. The bloody May 1864 encounter fought there was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. In Grant’s first battle since becoming chief of the U.S. Army, he pounded Lee and began driving him south toward Richmond. Historians say his army’s “nerve center,” including his own headquarters, was located on and near the Walmart site, which is also across the street from the entrance to the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.
In August 2009, the Orange County board of supervisors issued a special-use permit for Walmart to build its store, but with several conditions—including setting the building back from the road, traffic mitigation, and other safeguards to reduce the project’s impact on the park. That wasn’t enough for historians, who say shrubs may block the view from the highway, but won’t prevent a huge store from destroying the landscape. As a result, the pushback against Walmart’s plans has been especially fierce. The nonprofit preservation group Friends of Wilderness Battlefield has sued the board of supervisors, Walmart, the developer, and the property owner in an attempt to stop the store, and they’ve received help from McPherson, who appeared as an expert witness and National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, among others. Plaintiffs say they don’t object to Walmart building in Orange County, but want it to move to a less historic spot.
The disagreement epitomizes disputes across the country: local officials, eager to spur economic growth, want to open lands for housing or commerce. In Orange County, for example, Walmart says it will create some 300 jobs, and says a survey it conducted in early 2009 found that 61 percent of residents backed its plan. But historians and preservationists fight back, saying development mars the historic value, cheapens the sacrifices made by thousands in the war, and impairs the ability of historians and visitors to understand the battles that took place. Preservationists also worry that development may actually cut into the economy: around many battlefield sites, tourism is a lucrative and sometimes dominant business—it accounted for $2.5 billion in spending in Civil War parks in 2008 alone, according to the National Parks Conservation Association—but they say modern intrusions could dilute that value and drive away tourists, resulting in a net contraction.
Conflicts like the one in Orange County are the fruits of seeds sown more than a century ago. In the years immediately following the war, most battlefields were maintained by veterans’ organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic and the United Confederate Veterans, which played major roles in establishing parks like Gettysburg and the present-day Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park (the National Park Service didn’t exist until 1916, and only took Civil War sites over from the War Department in the 1930s). As the sites became national parks, however, the scale of preservation was still minimal—the idea that urbanization would ever touch such remote farmlands seemed so absurd that park boundaries often included only historic stretches of road and significant structures. Though not formally preserved, fields remained in the same condition they had been in when Confederate and Union troops met. Now, however, urban sprawl has overtaken many of these areas, and threatens others. Once-remote parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, comprising most of the war’s eastern theater, are increasingly bedroom communities for Washington, D.C. “A lot of people have a misunderstanding that if it’s battlefield land, it’s within the boundaries of the park,” Smith laments. “We hold maybe one seventh of the battlefield. It would be totally unrealistic for us to hold all of it. We have to get the local community to understand that while we’re not going to preserve it, they do deserve to be treated with some sensitivity.”
The modern Civil War preservation movement dates back to the 1980s, when major D.C. area developer Til Hazel announced a plan to build a huge mall on part of the Manassas battlefield. The development was eventually blocked by an act of Congress that took over the land and provided Hazel compensation for it, later pegged by a court at $130 million. Since then, preservation groups have become more aggressive, led by the Civil War Trust, which has bought up 25,000 acres of land using private donations and matching grants. And there have been notable victories, especially the 2000 demolition of a much-reviled observation tower at Gettysburg, which had been erected in 1974 by a private developer on a patch of the battlefield not owned by the Park Service, over noisy objections. In another victory, CWT prevented the building of a racetrack at Brandy Station, Va., site of a major cavalry battle in 1863.
Economic strife has helped the cause, too. The housing developments that were a frequent threat to rural land have come to a halt since the collapse of the housing market—a reprieve, but by no means a guarantee, that new attempts won’t follow when the sector rebounds. Meanwhile, some landowners have turned to preservation as more lucrative than selling to developers. While there are still some 600 acres of land inside the Gettysburg park that aren’t preserved or protected, the park recently demolished two 20th-century houses acquired when the owners offered to sell them.
But in quite a few cases, it’s too late. Many of the battlefields in the western theater—including Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Georgia—are long gone. Others are hemmed in and reduced significantly; the Chantilly battlefield in northern Virginia “is a postage stamp now,” Campi says. And despite the stoppage of Hazel’s plan, the Manassas park is sliced by U.S. 29 (the Lee Highway, appropriately enough) and State Route 234.
Preservation has its skeptics, too. Proponents are often attacked as being antidevelopment, or simply of overreaching. The Gettysburg casino is, to detractors, the textbook case. Unlike the Wilderness Walmart, the proposed casino is actually five miles out of town, in neighboring Cumberland Township. If approved, the casino will include up to 500 slot machines—the smallest of three sizes allowed under state rules—and will be located at an existing resort, rather than in new, purpose-built structures. David LaTorre, a spokesman for the developer, points out that there are far more egregious infractions in the town itself. “People talk about how this is like building a McDonald’s next to Pickett’s Charge, but there is a McDonald’s there,” he says with only mild exaggeration.
The Civil War Trust remains staunchly opposed, and it’s got a host of celebrities on its side—including Ken Burns, author David McCullough, and actor Sam Waterston. The site is just too close to the battlefield, and the impact of development and traffic on the historical resources is too great, Campi says. The local community, too, is split into pro-casino and anti-casino sides—a small civil war, 150 years after the big one.