Shaping Chancellorsville: How memories of the battle shaped the battlefield

part one in a series


It has become the stuff of legends: Astride his horse, Traveller, Robert. E. Lee rides into the Chancellorsville clearing, the mansion in flames behind him, his men gathered ‘round with hats off, cheering wildly. It’s late morning, May 3, 1863, and the Army of Northern Virginia has overcome odds of nearly two-and-a-half to one to score what would become known as “Lee’s Greatest Victory.”

From this pinnacle, Lee would launch his army northward, toward Gettysburg. Meanwhile his victory at Chancellorsville comes at a terrible price: the loss of Lee’s “left arm,” Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, accidentally wounded by his own men while carrying out a surprise flanking maneuver on the second day of the battle; he would die days later.

These are the motifs from Chancellorsville that have carried on from history into iconography and memory: Lee’s greatest victory, the martyrdom of Jackson, the road to Gettysburg.

Other parts of the story, though, have remained largely forgotten, which has in turn had a huge impact on the very ground of Chancellorsville itself. What has been remembered and what has been forgotten has shaped the battlefield, which has further impacted the shape of the story.

Generally forgotten is the fact that May 3 was the second-bloodiest day of the Civil War: more than 17,000 killed, wounded, and missing (just under nine thousand Confederates and just over eight thousand Federals). In total, the battle would cost 30,000 lives, although most of the post-war memory focuses on the loss of only one: Stonewall Jackson’s.

Likewise forgotten are the side actions at Fredericksburg and Salem Church, where advancing Federal reinforcements ran into resistance from smaller Confederate forces, affecting the outcome of the entire campaign.

Over the next few weeks, this series will examine what has and hasn’t been remembered about Chancellorsville as “public memory” over the past 150 years and, specifically, how those memories have been employed over time in the establishment, expansion, and evolution of the Chancellorsville Battlefield.[1] A look at every land acquisition would be impractical, so won’t present a full chronology of park development. Instead, I’ll focus on several key instances. Along the way, I’ll refer to park signage, publications, and interpretive programs as they directly relate to land acquisition (a content analysis of those media would provide an even clearer picture of the uses of and articulation of memory over time).

As the basis of my discussion, I’ll look at four strains of Civil War “memory,” as articulated by scholar Gary Gallagher, which have evolved over time: the Union memory, emphasizing the war to preserve the Union; the Emancipation memory, emphasizing the war to end slavery; the “Lost Cause” memory, emphasizing a romanticized vision of southern valor in the face of overwhelming odds; and a Reconciliation memory, emphasizing mutual sacrifice by both sides in the crucible of battle.[2]

The Lost Cause memory, in particular, played a significant role in shaping the Chancellorsville battlefield over time. In large part, that’s because the Chancellorsville-specific motifs of “Lee’s greatest victory”[3] and “the martyrdom of Jackson” are central tenets to the overall Lost Cause narrative. The battle represents the Confederate high tide—regardless of anything folks at Gettysburg have to say[4]—and it introduces the great “What If” that has powered Lost Cause imagination ever since: “What if Jackson had lived?” (or, as sometimes articulated, “What if Jackson had not gotten shot?”).

Other motifs have also been used over time—and the reconciliation theme would be particularly important in the earliest land preservation efforts because veterans were still very much a part of those efforts—but the physical evolution of the Chancellorsville Battlefield has largely been guided by the “greatest victory” and “martyrdom” storylines.

To see how, stay tuned!

[1] Chancellorsville is one of four major battlefields that makes up Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House. The park also oversees several historic structures: Chatham, Ellwood, Salem Church, and the Stonewall Jackson Shrine.

[2] Gallagher, Gary. Causes Lost, Won, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War. North Carolina Press, 2008.

[3] The characterization of Chancellorsville as “Lee’s greatest victory” is, in itself, the result of several framings that are beyond the scope of this series. Suffice to note that the battle has been characterized as Lee’s, not the Army of Northern Virginia’s, greatest victory (although they frequently serve as synonyms from a semantics point of view). Also, a case could statistically and situationally be made for several of Lee’s battles as his “greatest,” but the relative vagueness of the word “greatest” allows for mystique as well as data, so its semantic use is particularly important. See “‘Greatest’ of the Greatest” from May 5, 2012, for further discussion.

[4] Thomas Desjardin’s outstanding book These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory (DeCapo Press, 2004) explores the mythology behind the Confederate high tide of Gettysburg.

I am indebted to Eric Mink, Beth Parnicza, Don Pfanz, Keith Kelly, Linda George, and John Hennessy at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for helping me collect the primary source material for this paper and for answering my constant questions. At the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, I am indebted to Jerry Brent, who let me root around in his filing cabinets. At the Civil War Trust, Mary Koik, David Duncan, and Mark Coombs all offered valuable assistance. Dr. Wulf Kansteiner and Erik Nelson offered important comments for editorial development.

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