And Was There a Spirit of the Wilderness?

Published:May 5, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

Courtesy of the Civil War Preservation Trust, here is video of Robert Duvall speaking at the Wilderness yesterday on the subject of a proposed Wal-Mart there. Short version: He’s against it. Also, he’s related to Robert E. Lee.

The Associated Press picked up on the story, telling its readers that Duvall “believes in capitalism coupled with sensitivity.” Which sounds nice, but what does it mean exactly? Capitalism includes buyers and sellers, after all, so who in this case is supposed to be sensitive to whom? The AP doesn’t say.

Luckily, Duvall does. Short version: Wal-Mart and Virginia. The big box behemoth, he says, should show more “sensitivity toward historical events, toward the feelings of the people of this whole area because we have this legacy in Virginia . . .”

For its part, the Washington Times disagrees. Know how you can tell? Because writer Martha M. Boltz begins her second paragraph, “Now Duvall is a marvelous actor . . .”

She continues:

One small fact remains uncontroverted. The land on which the Arkansas giant wishes to build its store has been zoned commercial for many years. While there will be a proffer of segregating off 17 acres of land as well as a the perennial buffer zone, it remains commercial land. If someone wanted to do something WITH the battlefield, why not before this? Why not a group or consortium come together of all of these preservationist minded folks and save the area? Turn it into a real battlefield park, interpretivve signage, trails to be walked, a history to be learned, and a battlefield preserved.

She makes a good point. Whatever happens, though, I hope that as much land is preserved for history as possible. It’s a personal thing with me, and not always rational. I think the final paragraph of our entry on the Wilderness during the Civil War does a good job of summing that up:

Because of scenes like these, the relatively small tract of land called the Wilderness has tended to loom large in the American imagination. In Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle (1999), Stephen Cushman has pointed to the recollections of Morris Schaff, a Union officer who fought at the 1864 battle. Schaff noted that the Wilderness was the site of two important setbacks for the Confederacy—the death of Stonewall Jackson in 1863 and the wounding of James Longstreet a year later. “And was there a Spirit of the Wilderness,” Schaff wondered, “that, as tears gathered in eyes of fathers and mothers over separation from children and home, recorded an oath to avenge the wrong? Else why did the Wilderness strike twice at the Confederacy in its moments of victory? Who knows!”

Speaking of Stephen Cushman, he’s an English professor at the University of Virginia, and I loved his book. If you loved it, too, and thought he was a whiz-bang literary and historical tour guide of the Wilderness, then you might just consider plunking down, in addition to the $19.50 for his book, another $54,950 for a guided tour of the whole world!

By private jet, of course.