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Actor Robert Duvall leads effort against Wal-Mart construction

LOCUST GROVE—Actor Robert Duvall, who is a descendant of Robert E. Lee and portrayed the Confederate general in the movie “Gods and Generals,’’ has some credentials when it comes to the Civil War.

Duvall, 78, drew upon those connections last week to make the case against a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter within a mile of the Wilderness Battlefield, where Lee and his Union counterpart, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, first fought in a battle l45 years ago that historians said hastened the South’s fall.

Joined by two congressmen whose states suffered heavy losses in the Battle of the Wilderness, Duvall – who lives in Virginia’s horse country – pledged to do “anything we can’’ to support the fight against the Wal-Mart store. The proposed construction has drawn opposition from 250 historians, including David McCullough and James McPherson, and filmmaker Ken Burns.

“We’ll help first by graciously chasing out Wal-Mart,’’ the Academy Award-winning actor said during brief remarks on the back porch of Ellwood Manor, a former plantation house that dates to the 1700s and served as a hospital for Confederate troops. Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s left arm, amputated during fighting at nearby Chancellorsville, is buried in a small graveyard nearby.

Wal-Mart has argued that its proposed 138,000 square foot store is planned for an area already zoned for commercial use. It also has said the store’s location, near a strip mall and across from McDonald’s along busy Route 3, will not diminish the battlefield.

In a statement, Wal-Mart said: “From the beginning of this project Wal-Mart has been very sensitive to ensuring that our development is respectful of the county’s unique location and history.’’

Orange County planners have scheduled a May 21 hearing on the proposal. The county board of supervisors will have the final say on the store.

Some local supporters have said the store could bring needed jobs and tax revenue to the rural county about 60 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.

Duvall and others, including Reps. Ted Poe, R-Texas, and Peter Welch, D-Vt., cited the sanctified ground of battle in arguing against the Wal-Mart.

“Those young men who died, many of them are still out there in graves known only by God,’’ Poe said. He said 60 percent of Texas’ 800-man force at the Wilderness was killed or wounded.
For Vermonters, the death toll of 1,234 on May 5, 1864, amounted to 16 percent of the state’s total combat deaths for the entire war.

“This hallowed ground must be protected and preserved so that future generations of Vermonters can appreciate our state’s crucial role in saving the Union,’’ Welch said in prepared remarks.

Grant’s Union troops were headed to Richmond on May 5, 1864, when they confronted Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The Battle of the Wilderness involved more than 100,000 Union troops and 61,000 Confederates. The fighting, according to National Park Service estimates, left more than 4,000 dead and 20,000 wounded. Some put the number higher, at 29,000.

Approximately 2,700 acres of the Wilderness Battlefield are protected as part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

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