What's Still Great

Wal-Mart in the Wilderness

A battlefield sanctified by American blood is no place for a Super Store.

By 7.7.09

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So, here I am at the Ponderay, Idaho Super Wal-Mart. It is beautiful. They've totally redesigned it to be far more wide open, with immense aisles, immaculately clean surfaces, and somehow still a fabulously good selection of items.

Anyone who follows me even a little bit knows I am an extreme fan of Wal-Mart, which basically adds several percentage points of extra income to every worker's pay check by offering such low prices as it does. Plus, the Wal-Mart is a friendly, upbeat shopping experience. You leave the store feeling good.

But I am feeling a bit down about Wal-Mart and a super store it is proposing in an area not far from Orange, Virginia. The problem is that this particular store would be on land that is an important part of the battlefield area of the crucial Battle of the Wilderness. This battle, actually a series of battles, all important, was fought in early May of 1864. It marked the first time that Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant had fought each other.

It was a classic of the struggle that would go on between them and their brave armies from then on until Appomattox. Lee showed his characteristic imagination and unorthodox tactics to offset his inferiority in manpower and materiel. Grant, every bit as smart and capable, showed his determination to grind down the Rebels no matter how costly in blood.

The battle was called the Battle of the Wilderness because it was in a densely wooded area with thick, thorny underbrush that made maneuver difficult and lessened Grant's numerical advantage. Interestingly enough, it was only a few miles from where the famous Battle of Chancellorsville was fought one year earlier. It was there that Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men in an incident that ended his life and gravely harmed the Confederate cause.

Historians generally consider the Wilderness a Lee tactical victory because the Yankees withdrew from the battlefield. But in fact it was the beginning of the end for Lee and Dixie because while Grant withdrew, he moved his army in position for yet another battle. Grant began the long, murderous process of endlessly drawing a noose around Richmond and Lee's army, a noose that would eventually hang the Confederacy. It has been reported that when the Union troops saw that they were not going back to D.C. to regroup but were moving to keep encircling Lee and keep him engaged, they cheered.

It was a black moment for Lee for another reason. His top general in the East, James Longstreet, was seriously wounded by his own men -- accidentally -- and required convalescence for months. This was a giant loss, especially after the loss of Jackson and other top officers, that Lee could ill afford.

So, all in all, it was a major battle. About 16,000 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured by the Confederates. Maybe 10,000 Confederates were casualties or captured. In a ghastly “twist," after the first night of battle, a number of wounded from both sides were burned to death when sparks ignited the dry brush between enemy lines where they were lying.

Now, you would think that this ground would be sanctified by American blood. And some of it is. About 20 percent of the battlefield is a national park.

But most of it is in private hands. Some of it, some of the most vital of it, has now been slated to be the home of a Wal-Mart Super Store and several other stores possibly drawn there by Wal-Mart. The Wal-Mart would be almost 140,000 square feet, not counting parking. It would be right across the street from the park entrance. It would be visible from much of the battlefield park.

Frankly, I wonder if the nice people in Arkansas who run Wal-Mart have thought this through. This battlefield is incredibly important environmentally and historically and emotionally. It reeks of the blood of men fighting for causes they considered sacred. How can it possibly be that it will be used even in part for a Wal-Mart Super Store? Wal-Mart is a great American institution. I am, as noted, about as devout a fan as there is in the national media. But a store is a store and blood is blood.

There is plenty of other land in the area that is not historically sensitive. There is ample precedent for commerce to be informed by national emotion: Top brass at Walt Disney canceled its plans for an amusement park at or near the Battlefield at Manassas when its attention was drawn to the vital historical nature of the area some years ago.

Wal-Mart has shown that it is flexible on a number of issues lately, including employee health care. Now may be the time to show that Wal-Mart has a heart as well as a calculator. The blood of those men burned to death, shot through and through, some alive but leaving without their limbs, in what is still America's greatest tragedy, cries out for sanctity. I hope they can hear it in Northwest Arkansas.

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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.