The planned Civil War theme park has historians up in arms

By Tim Appelo and Steve Daly
Updated July 15, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

During the Civil War, the battlefield of Manassas, Va., where Confederate general T.J. Jackson became known as Stonewall and 28,000 fell, was described as ”the very vortex of hell” by one soldier. Now Manassas, about 26 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., is the vortex of a bitter clash that’s turned into the biggest historic-preservation battle in the country. On one side is the all-American Disney Company. On the other is a star-spangled band of defenders made up of 150 of the nation’s most distinguished historians, many of its top environmental and preservationist groups, and such celebrity-value names as actor Robert Duvall, novelist William Styron, and filmmaker Ken Burns, creator of PBS’ The Civil War series.

They’re fighting over the project called Disney’s America, a $650 million, 3,000-acre historical theme park and vacation development slated to be built just 4 miles from the battle site. Preliminary plans for the theme park, scheduled to be finished by 1998, include a Lewis and Clark raft ride, a Civil War fort, and a re-creation of the combat between the Monitor and the Merrimack. ”It’s a shocking travesty of what history is all about,” snaps Protect Historic America member Styron.

Boasting 16 Civil War battlefields within an hour’s drive, the spectacular Northern Virginia-D.C. area already draws 20 million tourists a year. ”There is no other tract in this country so rich in history,” says Robert Walters, executive director of Protect Historic America. ”Now [Disney is] talking about 2 million square feet of retail — planting a city in the countryside. Then come the T-shirt shops and reptile petting zoos.”

Disney CEO Michael Eisner defies the theme park’s critics. ”Everybody has a right to their own opinion,” he says. But citing ”overwhelming support from Prince William County and the state of Virginia,” Eisner continues, ”I would be surprised if the current criticism would prevail.” He also has the backing of Virginia’s Gov. George Allen, who has dissed the ”smug, self-appointed arbiters of culture” who would deny his citizens 19,000 low-paying jobs.

Much as the Union did in 1861 and 1862, Disney has a lot riding on the battles at Manassas. The Walt Disney Company is counting on its theme park division — which has been hurt by a decrease in foreign tourists, California’s fiscal and physical woes, and the poor showing of Euro Disney — to help it maintain its demanding 20 percent yearly growth rate.

But its effort to expand into Virginia has inflamed many historians. ”People would rather go see the reenactment of Manassas than they would go to see Manassas, which is a great shame, ’cause there’s a true feeling to be gotten out of standing on the sure-‘nough ground,” says author/historian Shelby Foote, who became a star of Ken Burns’ PBS series. He spurned an offer to help create Disney’s America. ”I’ve had enough to do with Hollywood people to know that once you give them your skilled advice they’re going to ignore it to the extent that they want to increase the drama.”

Historians Eric Foner (A House Divided) and James Horton (Free People of Color), however, did take Disney’s money (”a straight fee,” says Horton, ”[about] three figures a day”) and consulting offer. ”I certainly understand Shelby’s fears,” says Horton. ”But it seems unfair to me to say to Disney, ‘This is terrible, you’re doing this wrong,’ then [refuse them] when they say, ‘Will you help us do it right?’ We need to try to make sure that they do it as well as we can push them to do it.”

”Those guys to our mind have sold out hopelessly,” says Styron. ”Foner, who’s whored himself to Disney…and
Horton are disgracing themselves.” Foner, who’s on sabbatical in England, hasn’t responded to requests for comment, but Horton vows he won’t keep mum if Disney tries to tamper with history. ”I’m not saying this is wonderful if I don’t think it is.”

As even Eisner admits, this isn’t the first time his company has butted heads with historians. ”When Walt Disney was creating Audio-Animatronics [talking robots] for the 1964 World’s Fair,” he says, ”people came out [and asked], ‘How can you have Lincoln be a talking doll?’ I’ve never seen such vicious writings by the media, by historic-preservation groups.” The Lincoln robot went on to be a winner. Yet Foote acidly notes that Disney rebuffed an actor in 1963 who’d exhaustively researched Lincoln’s actual speaking voice, which was high-pitched: ”They said, ‘Get outta here, we want some deep chest tones. We want Lincoln to sound like Lincoln!”’ (Disney retorts by providing a 1963 newspaper review extolling the robot’s authentically Lincolnesque ”high- pitched” voice.)

Despite opposition, the Lincoln robot will likely speak again at Disney’s America. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, believing the park will be built, has put the Manassas area on its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. And a recent nonbinding House of Representatives resolution, urging Disney to relocate the park, has, in the opinion of Civil War buff Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), a force ”comparable to a warm bucket of spit.” The only considerable obstacle Disney faces is a series of environmental-impact studies by the federal government scheduled to be completed by November 1995.

Even Foote is sadly predicting ”long odds” for the Disney opponents. Disney’s America, he says, ”is the kind of thing that’s supposed to succeed. There’s so much money flying around.”