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Coffin: Walmart And The Wilderness

01/31/11 7:55AM By Howard Coffin
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(HOST) Commentator Howard Coffin welcomes the news that Walmart has canceled plans to build a store on a Civil War site in Virginia where many of those who fought and died - were Vermonters.

(COFFIN) On April 6 at 7 p.m., Vermont's observance of the Civil War sesquicentennial officially begins with a program at the State House. An evening of music, portrayals, and a brief speech will mark the 150th anniversary of a special session of the Vermont Legislature, that began on April 23, 1861, and commenced Vermont's Civil War effort.

But perhaps this state's sesquicentennial actually began this January 26 when word reached Vermont that Walmart Inc. had abandoned plans to build a big box store on Northern Virginia's Wilderness Battlefield. Preservationists feared the project would have devastating effects for the still largely rural battlefield where Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant battled for the first time in the spring of 1864.

News of the Walmart decision, to take its 145,000 square foot store somewhere else, was especially welcome in Vermont. The state Legislature had strongly opposed the Wilderness Walmart, passing a resolution two years ago asking the company to move its store, and for Virginia authorities to make sure that they did.

Vermont had its finest Civil War moment at the Wilderness, on May 5 and 6, 1864. The First Vermont Brigade suffered 1,234 casualties those two days in a heroic defense of a woodland crossroads which, if lost, would likely have resulted in the cutting in two of the Army of the Potomac. The campaign that began at the Wilderness, under General Grant, went on for 40 days and set the stage for northern victory in the Civil War.

The Walmart store, planned close to Grant's headquarters, would likely have damaged the landscape where the Vermonters fought. Increased traffic would probably have necessitated a widening of historic roads along which remnants of earthworks thrown up by Vermonters survive.

That woodland so important to Vermont's history is now part of a national park, and a Vermont monument, in the shape of Camel's Hump, stands where all those Vermonters fell.

On the day of the Vermont monument dedication four years ago, speeches were made, the monument unveiled, and as it all ended, a bugler played taps.

As the melancholy notes echoed through the historic woods, over the old trenches and breastworks, something remarkable happened. From a bright and cloudless sky, a gentle rain began to fall on the once-bloody ground where thousands and thousands of men, north and south, fought through two days of smoke, fire, and fury. The rain fell like gentle tears on the leaf scattered earth where, no doubt, some Vermont soldiers still lie. It fell where Vermonters fell, for human freedom, and the unity of a nation Abraham Lincoln once called the last best hope of mankind.
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