Today marks the 149th anniversary of the opening of the battle of Chancellorsville. Supremely confident “Fighting Joe” Hooker rocked back on his heels after an unexpected punch on the nose by Stonewall Jackson, withdrawing into a defensive position around the Chancellorsville intersection. Giving up the high ground to the east of the intersection was the first major mistake in a multi-day battle that would see Hooker make many.
That land is today preserved by the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust and the Civil War Trust. It was a crucial acquisition that opened up important terrain for understanding the overall battle (and I, for one, am thankful to CVBT and CWT for their preservation efforts).
I’ve been doing some work lately on the evolution of the Chancellorsville battlefield. To commemorate the anniversary of the start of the battle, I thought I’d share a little.
This first map was done in 1892 by the Chancellorsville Battlefield Association:
The CBA consisted of a number of veterans interested in preserving the battlefield by, ironically enough, developing it. They sought
to improve and embellish it with parks, avenues, museums and hotel; the mark with permanent memorials the lines held by the contending forces; to erect monuments to the conspicuous soldiers whose valor and skill were displayed in that great battle, and to make it an attractive rendezvous where the veterans of the Gray and the Blue may meet in cordial fraternity, and the visitors for all coming ages may find convenient access to all the memorable historic spots in Spotsylvania….
For only $10, veterans could buy a 10×25-foot plot. The effort eventually failed due to lack of support, and the 900 acres the CBA bought around the Chancellorsville intersection reverted back to private hands.
If the battlefield looks scant, that’s because it is. Congressional approval in 1928 authorized land acquisition in accordance with what’s become known as “The Antietam Plan” (because it was first implemented for the creation of Antietam National Battlefield). The Antietam Plan called for
the placing of markers and tablets at the sites of the important points, events, and actions, by the construction of roads where necessary to make important points reasonably accessible, and by acquiring the sites where trenched on the main battle line are sufficiently well preserved to warrant retaining in their present condition.
“An ‘Antietam system,’ involving ownership of little or no land other than roads, would be adequate it an area continued to exist in a static Nineteenth Century rural culture,” NPS Historian Ralph Happel lamented in the mid-Fifties.
The next NPS map, from the 1970s, shows the Park Service’s efforts to fill in some of the gaps:
The contact station has been replaced by a visitor center. More green appears in the triangle between Bullock Road, Ely’s Ford Road, and Route Three. More green appears elsewhere–but some green has disappeared, too, part of a land swap that finally secured the ruins of the Chancellorsville mansion.
In the sixty-plus years since Happel’s lament, we’ve all seen first-hand the ravages of development on the battlefields. Because the NPS is legally prohibited from acquiring land beyond its assessed value, and because development pressures have pushed market values through the roof, the government has been hard-pressed to keep it. That makes the work of preservation groups all the more invaluable because they can acquire land that the government otherwise could not. Preserving the land where fighting opened on May 1, 1863, is one of the best examples.
Take a look at the battlefield today:
Notice how much more green there is, representing lands owned by the NPS or preserved in some other way. (You’ll see a little of the Wilderness poking in from the left side of the map, too!)
I have close to a dozen maps I’ve been working with for my project, and I’ve had a tremendous amount of fun looking at different iterations of the battlefield as it’s grown.
The soldiers who fought over this ground in 1863 wanted people in the postwar years to remember what happened there. They wanted people to remember their efforts, their bravery, their sacrifices.
As you study the maps and ponder the story they tell about the battle and the battlefield: remember.