In a new twist to the saga of the Battle of the Wilderness Wal-Mart, the Vermont Legislature is being asked to take a stand in Dixie. Howard Coffin,who served on the staff of former Senator Jeffords and is a noted Civil War historian specializing in Vermont's role in the conflict, has urged the Vermont Senate Economic Committee to weigh inon the proposed development of a 144,000-square-foot Wal-Mart on land outside the Wilderness Battlefield in Virginia.
The Burlington Free Press reports:
"[The proposed development] threatens the area near a monument that honors the 1st Vermont Brigade, which held the ground there for the Union Army in 1864...Coffin has asked the Vermont Legislature to help. He urged the Senate Economic Development Committee on Wednesday to pass a resolution laying out how important the area is to Vermont history and asking Wal-Mart and the Orange County, Va., Board of Supervisors to reconsider the project.
'This site in [the] Wilderness is Vermont's most important Civil War site, surpassing Gettysburg,' Coffin said. There, in May 1864, the 1st Vermont Brigade held the ground, allowing the Union Army, led by Ulysses S. Grant, to move farther south to eventual victory. In 2006, a monument paid for by Vermont and the federal government was installed noting the Vermonters' role. Now, that monument sits along the road that shoppers would take to the new Wal-Mart and the inevitable other development that would come with it, Coffin said."
Coffin's statement is notable for several reasons. His scholarship deserves considerable credit for highlighting the significance of the part played by another brigade of Vermonters - Stannard's 9-month recruits - that fired into the exposed flank of the shattered brigades of Pickett's Division at Gettysburg. For Coffin to call the actions of the venerable "Old Vermont Brigade" at the Wilderness even more significant than Vermont's contribution to breaking Pickett's Charge is clearly saying something.
What makes the service of these Vermonters in the Wilderness in May, 1864 stand apart is the overwhelming sacrifice they made, suffering 1,234 casualties and holding an exposed position under relentless pressure until relieved.
"The Vermont Brigade advanced a short distance and was met with heavy fire. Although they were mere yards apart, the Vermonters found themselves firing at an unseen foe. The heavy timber, brush, and the growing battle smoke made it impossible to see more then a few feet. The firing in their front increased in intensity, but the brigade held fast against heavy odds. The men hunkered down behind trees and rocks returning the enemy's heavy fire. Finally somewhere about 2:00 PM elements of Hancock's II Corp began to arrive and a lull in the fighting took place as both armies began to reform their lines.
Just after 4:00 PM the "Old Vermont Brigade" was ordered to advance again. With Getty's other two brigades the Vermonters advanced thru the tangled brush towards the unseen foe. After advancing a very short distance they were met with a blast of musket fire. Once again they stood and fought unable to advance against the superior fire power. By 5:00, Hancock's men had joined the advance. The II Corps brigade to the Vermonter's left began to give way. The Green Mountain Men were now the most advanced unit in the Union army, and it's left flank was unprotected. Still the men stood and fought refusing to give ground. The men were running low on ammunition, and their ranks began to thin at an appalling rate. On some parts of the line there was hardly an officer left to guide the men. The fighting was so confused that Vermonters also took several casualties from Union Cannons posted on the Plank Road supporting the attack. As the slaughter continued, troops from the II Corp moved up to relieve the brigade, and they were finally ordered to retreat back to the breastworks at the Brock/Plank Road intersection. The 5th Vermont regiment actually charged the enemy buying time for the other Vermont regiments to retire. Finally, nearly surrounded and taking fire from three directions the men of the 5th raced back to the intersection. The brigade's work for the day still wasn't done. The Confederates continued to feed fresh troops into the fray, pressed the II Corps back, and attacked and took some of the breastworks along the Brock Road. Also captured were the very union guns that had mistakenly inflicted casualties on the brigade. Union troops including members of the Vermont Brigade made a counter charge and retook the cannons and the breastworks.
Finally, May 5 drew to a close. The II Corps was reunited with the rest of the Union army, and intersection lay in Federal hands. The "Old Brigade" had once again lived up to its reputation. They had advanced thru the tangled brush and forced a stand off with a much larger body of the enemy. When they became isolated and almost surrounded they still refused to budge until ordered to retire. The vital intersection was bought and paid for largely with the blood of the Vermonters."
There is a new monument to the Vermont Brigade dedicated in 2006not far from the Plank Road where drivers would pass on their way to the proposed Wal-Mart. A problem with Coffin's argument, though, is that the Vermont monument is 2-3 miles away from that potential development. The impact on the area where the Vermonters fought and died would presumably be largely from increased traffic.
Coffin is not wrong to ask the Vermont Senate to be an advocate for the memory of its native sons who fought and died on southern soil. Though its significance may seem trivial by comparison, I would hope that if ever the site of the northernmost skirmish of the Civil War were threatened by development, Vermont would be receptive to similar calls to reconsider from the Legislatures of the home states of the "St. Albans Raiders." Alternatively, Vermont could find common cause with Georgia, as the site of General Longstreet's wounding is not farfrom the stand made by the Green Mountain boys. I suspect, though, that Vermont's potential intervention in the Wilderness Wal-Mart controversy might gain more traction if it offered a solution that was relevant to those living in affected Virginia communities.
The Wilderness Battlefield is a patchwork of protected open space within an increasingly developed landscape. I have spent time there trying to imagine how my step-great, great grandfather's regiment, the 146th New York, could have made its charge across Saunder's Field, all the while walking on rubberized, handicapped accessible trailswith traffic passing along a busy road nearby. It is frankly just as unimaginable to me - someone who has not experienced combat, let alone 19th Century warfare - in this state of preservation as it felt standing on the recently restored flanks of Little Round Top where the 146th NY previously fought on the 2nd day of Gettysburg. One is park-like and retains something of the feel of the preexisting terrain, and the other is situated within encroaching development. Neither resemble the smoking horror and screaming hell of the actual battles: places where none of us in our right minds would ever want to be.
We want our Civil War battlefields to be places of quiet contemplation, the way we like our rural cemeteries. We fear that Lincoln's immortal Gettysburg Address got it wrong, and that "we must dedicate -- we must consecrate -- we musthallow -- this ground, or the world will little note, nor long remember what they did here." There is some basis for this fear. What we do not value we tend to forget, and over they years we Americans have lost much of our natural and cultural heritage through short-sighted ignorance. Still, you know the mystic chords of memory have been plucked anew when costumed avatars of Grant and Lee start weighing inon the Wilderness Wal-Mart.
Though it is my profession to conserve land, and I have been passionate about this period in our nation's history for three of my four decades, even I know we cannot freeze these places in time. I believe that preservation and development can and must find ways to accommodate the needs of the living as well as the memory of the dead. Sometimes that means saying no to development. Sometimes a part must stand for the whole. Sometimes there can be creative conservation outcomes in the development process. If development and preservation are able to find opportunities to conserve more land and be smarter about how and where development takes place, there could still be reasonfor hope that for places like these, "The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."