Ben Stein: Wal-Mart in the Wilderness

Roundup: Talking About History

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....

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