Rest easy, Stonewall


Haymarket, Va. -- IT BEGAN 133 years ago with Abraham Lincoln taunting a general fearful his Union troops were unready to fight.

"You are green, it is true," said Lincoln. "But they are green also. You are all green alike."

And they were. On a warm July day in these foothills 35 miles south of Washington, 67,000 raw young Americans fought the First Battle of Bull Run. So began the bloody Iliad that shaped America.

At day's end, congressmen and their ladies were caught in the pell-mell Union retreat. To prove it no fluke, Confederates the next year won the Second Battle of Bull Run on this Manassas plain.

The land seems eerily unchanged this sunny, still 1994 afternoon: Split-rail fences, rolling fields. Not hard to conjure rebel yells and musket fire.

On a green hillside the bronze statue of Gen. Thomas J. Jackson sits astride his horse, gazing serenely eastward as he did in 1861 when a Confederate commander shouted, "There stands Jackson like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians."

At ease, Stonewall. The flank's been turned on another army of invaders. Mickey Mouse waved a white flag to end the Third Battle of Bull Run.

When Disney in a near-midnight thunderclap announced last week that it was scrapping its $650 million theme park four miles from Stonewall Jackson's statue, the retreat was victory for the good guys:

Those who value the past, who'd defend hallowed ground from roller-coasters and water slides.

OK, I'm prejudiced. I cheered Disney's surrender. I'm a history freak. A couple of North Carolina ancestors were mixed up in the Civil War. Like most buffs, I hear ghosts on old battlefields.

And I thought Disney's park a dumb idea -- cheating to grab off tourists attracted by the Washington area's history.

No way Disney's plastic glitter wouldn't have trivialized the past. Mickey Mouse trying to explain slavery makes you shudder. A Disney park is fine, but pouring 77,000 cars a day into a history-rich area was arrogant.

As historian Shelby Foote, famed for appearances on Ken Burns' "Civil War" TV series, drawled, "No harm in Mickey, Minnie and Pluto sportin' around. But real harm in sportin' around with Lee, Grant and Lincoln."

Mickey, you were crowding sacred land. Not only the Manassas battle corridor, but also Wilderness and Chancellorsville sites, George Washington's home and the Washington monuments would have been sucked into the Disney high-tech toytown.

Why charge for fake history when the real stuff is practically for free?

Admittedly, the day after Disney's pullout, my euphoria wasn't shared by everyone around tiny Haymarket. Most were angry -- especially if they'd bought into the expected land boom around Disney's 3,000 acres or $48 million annual revenue or some 19,000 jobs.

"Feels like a funeral," said Haymarket mayor Jack Karp, standing outside the white clapboard town hall, flag at half mast. "This thing was beaten by external people, historians in New York City who don't pay our taxes."

Other bitter locals such as Bonnie Frauhauff said Disney lost a class war: "The rich gentry didn't want their lifestyles hurt. Money talks."

"Damned outsiders screwed us," shouted a beefy guy in Matthews Restaurant. (As though Michael Eisner, Disney zillionaire titan in Hollywood were a local Good Old Boy).

"True, I'm an outsider," said historian and Disney foe David McCullough calmly at a news conference. "Boys from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Michigan who fought here were outsiders. Virginia is home for all Americans."

What shocked Virginians was Disney quitting when it seemed an easy winner. Politicians from Gov. George Allen to county bosses were in Mickey's pocket. What defeated image-conscious Disney was the threat of lawsuits by environmentalists and history buffs.

"With the 1998 opening and a $650 million investment in danger, we had to look elsewhere," said Disney's Dana Nottingham here.

That stirs promotional glands in Maryland, North Carolina and other parts of Virginia. Let's hope Disney finds a playpen that doesn't overwhelm real history with glitz.

Richard Moe, Civil War author who led the preservation fight, said, "We're not against theme parks or economic development. Put it in the right place."

The Third Battle of Bull Run was a clash between money and history -- the local lust for jobs, spinoffs, taxes vs. hunger to hold onto America's past. That's why turning back Disney's gizmo kingdom was significant.

Keeping shopping-mall madness from paving over battlefields, Indian sites and historic homes is vital to the country's sense of self.

When the past is gone, even Michael Eisner can't buy it back.

Rest easy, Stonewall. The ghostly armies of 1861-62 couldn't be beaten by all of Mickey's millions.

Sandy Grady is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad