I had the opportunity to speak to a college history class about the battle of Chancellorsville on Thursday. It was May 3, the 149th anniversary of the battle. I began by presenting them with an iconic vision of the fight: Robert E. Lee, astride his horse, Traveler, riding into the clearing around the Chancellorsville mansion, which was fully engulfed in flames. His troops gather around him, hats off, cheering. It’s Lee’s greatest victory, overcoming odds of almost 2.5-to-1 to defeat “Fighting Joe” Hooker—but at what a cost: his chief lieutenant, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had been accidentally wounded by his own men. He would be dead in a week.
Those are the themes people most frequently associate with the battle of Chancellorsville: “Lee’s Greatest Victory,” “the martyrdom of Jackson.”
“But did you know May 3 was the second-bloodiest day in American history?” I asked them. “Did you know today was even the anniversary?”
No one, of course, did. But even casual Civil War buffs forget the magnitude of the sacrifice in lives May 3 represents. The Lee/Jackson story runs dominant.
I’ve written before about our cultural historical ignorance. But the question I posed to the class today focused specifically on the types of things we DO remember. With Chancellorsville, the dominant story—or, more accurately, the dominant interpretations—focuses on Lee’s greatest victory. The story of Jackson’s wounding and subsequent death (and ascension into Lost Cause martyrdom) is the other dominant memory.
But 17,000 men were killed, wounded or missing on May 3, 1863: almost 9,000 Confederates and just over 8,000 Federals. Only Antietam’s 23,000 casualties ranks higher for a single day of bloodshed.
The students had several really excellent questions, and we had a lively discussion/debate after my presentation. I was heartened by their response because, a month and a half ago, this same class struggled to tell me much about the battle of Gettysburg. The Gettysburg Address was the best they could come up with, but there was even one student who didn’t realize that “Four score and seven years ago” came from that speech. Another thought it was the speech Lincoln used to free the slaves.
Today, they wanted to know more. They engaged. They asked questions. They wanted to know why these stories were so important. They wanted to know why the ground was so important.
May 3 was the second-bloodiest day in American history—and on this May 3, the students wanted to remember.