By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
A few weeks back, I wrote about the ongoing controversy in Orange County, Va., where Wal-Mart wants to build a "supercenter" shopping mall on the ground where the Union and Confederate armies clashed in the battle of the Wilderness during the Civil War. Here is a disheartening update: A courageous and wise public official has been fired for suggesting that Wal-Mart choose a different site.
Wal-Mart needs a special permit to build its big box, with its flock of accompanying stores. When the Orange County planning commission held a public hearing on the permit, two thirds in the audience said sure, they would like to have a Wal-Mart in the county—but why does it have to be built on the battlefield?
County Administrator Bill Rolfe, who had "worked hard for two years to clear the bureaucratic thicket for Wal-Mart," according to the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, was impressed by the citizenry's logic. And he was moved by commentaries written in the newspaper by local residents who had fought a similar fight with Wal-Mart back in the 1990s—when it wanted to build a store next to George Washington's boyhood home in Stafford County, Va. In that case, the county officials persuaded Wal-Mart to build on different land, and everyone was happy. The Wal-Mart property was improved, and added to the tax rolls; the preservationists protected Washington's home, and the local economy continued to prosper as tourists came to see where George chopped down the cherry tree.
Rolfe's level-headed suggestion did not, unfortunately, persuade a majority of the Orange County board. Instead, after a closed session on Friday night, in the middle of the Fourth of July weekend, they fired him.
Yesterday, a Free Lance-Star editorial criticized the supervisors for their "red faces and quivering wattles" and concluded that "truth and justice have had better days." It praised Rolfe for a "spotless" record, and for "keeping [his] honor clean." The same cannot be said for the supervisors who voted, in a 3-2 roll call, to dismiss him.
The newspaper noted why the battlefield should be preserved. When the federal government surveyed the Civil War fields some years ago, it ranked the 384 major battlefields and put the Wilderness in the top 45 as "having a decisive influence on a campaign and a direct impact on the course of the war." Of those 45 "Class A" battlefields, 10 faced a "high" threat of development, including the Wilderness.
It gets worse. The land that Wal-Mart wants to pave was not only used by the Union troops during the Wilderness fight (in which no less a hero than Gen. Ulysses S. Grant wept at the carnage), but also by the Confederates in Gen. Robert E. Lee's great victory of 1863 at the adjacent battlefield of Chancellorsville, where Gen. Stonewall Jackson died at the culminating moment of a brilliant flank attack.
With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaching, there is bound to be increased interest in Virginia's battlefields. Even if greed is their primary motive, the Orange County supervisors should be planning to lure tourists to a preserved Wilderness battlefield, not despoiling it with a shopping center that could be built on another site.
Here are the names of the supervisors who voted to fire Rolfe: Mark Johnson, Zack Burkett, and Teri Pace.
Come the next election, Orange County voters should fire them.