Shaping Chancellorsville: Establishing the park

part four in a series

The Battlefield Park Commission

The Battlefield Park Commission

After the Chancellorsville Battlefield Association fizzled, a second effort to establish a battlefield park got underway in the area in 1898, sparked first by the Fredericksburg City Council, joined later by the Virginia state legislature. Their promotional literature cited Fredericksburg as “the gateway of the Confederacy” and that “through its portals rolled the bloodiest tide of battle known in history.”[1]

While the material mentioned that “the destruction of [the country’s] united existence was prevented” (a reference to the Union memory), the emphasis focused on common valor and sacrifice—key components of the Reconciliation story. “There is no other spot, of the same size, on this continent, which is connected, historically, with so many great men and memorable deeds,” the materials said.[2]

While momentum for the park rose and ebbed, it began a final, inexorable rise by the early 1920s. By December of 1925, a Congressionally appointed commission recommended that

the battle fields be marked in accordance with the Antietam system by 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.[3]

At Chancellorsville specifically, the commissioners predicted that “any development that will prevent access to the battle lines is unlikely” and recommended against any large land purchases there.[4]

“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,” lamented Park Service Historian Ralph Happel, who noted that the “problems of encroachment are daily becoming more acute.”[5]

“The minimum holdings have distressed historians,” Happel added. They “represent the absolute minimum of ownership.”[6] Although park founders had no way to know it at the time, this vexation would bedevil the park for its entire history, forcing the park to be ever scrambling against encroaching development and rising real estate prices.

Finally, on February 14, 1927—Valentine’s Day—Congress approved “An Act To establish a national military park at and near Fredericksburg, Virginia, and to mark and preserve historical points connected with the battles of Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania Court House, Wilderness, and Chancellorsville, including Salem Church, Virginia.”[7] It would become known as Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (FSNMP).

In dedicating the park on October 19, 1928, President Calvin Coolidge specifically invoked reconciliation: “[R]econciliation is becoming complete,” he said. “Sectional animosities have disappeared,” he later added. He doesn’t talk about winners and losers; instead, he delicately phrases it thus: “Had the decision been otherwise….”

Instead of one great country enjoying domestic peace and progress, holding a commanding position in the world, we should have been a region of hostile factions, impotent at home and despised abroad. The service which we did for the cause of humanity in 1898, the world crisis in which we successfully performed out part in 1917, would all have been impossible.

He also invoked the Reconciliation theme of valor, lauding “the heroic sons of the North and South [who] met in mortal combat, each contending for what he thought was right as God gave him the power to see the right.”

Despite his heavily implied suggestion that Union was the proper outcome, though, Coolidge also managed to recite almost every key litany of the Lost Cause. In his passing synopsis of Chancellorsville, he mentions Lee’s heavy casualties, and “among these was the ablest military leader of all his generals, Stonewall Jackson, who fell through the mistake of his own men. His loss was irreparable. Following this action General Lee led his forces north until he was turned back at Gettysburg.” In the later match-up of Lee vs. Grant, Coolidge noted that Grant had “superior forces at his command” and “Lee always had the smaller force. His being on the defensive and his brilliant leadership each time saved him from defeat. He always inflicted much the larger losses.”[8]

Coolidge

Soon thereafter, the War Department, charged with operating the park, began purchasing land—an activity it pursued with some vigor until the worsening financial climate of the Great Depression brought acquisitions to a halt by 1932. By that point, the entire park consisted of 2,100 acres, with the largest chunk being at Chancellorsville. Park commissioners had the authority to expand land purchases beyond the Antietam-style plan as they deemed necessary.[9]

At Chancellorsville, they argued that visitors to the battlefield would want to “stand upon the actual site” rather than look at signs that directed them across fields.[10] Another practical consideration might be that Chancellorsville sat in the middle of Virginia’s Wilderness, and the thick-tangled forests didn’t offer much view from the road, making it difficult to understand the action.

The roadside property at Chancellorsville paralleled the Confederate line along the southeast edge of the battlefield, where Lee and the divisions of McLaws and Anderson were positioned throughout the battle; it also paralleled the Federal positions opposite, held by the Union XII Corps, and hooked around the east and north sides of the Chancellorsville intersection.

Property also included the area around the site of Jackson’s wounding, Confederate positions around Hazel Grove, and some of the corresponding Federal positions at Fairview, although it did not include the Chancellorsville intersection itself because the owner had been asking “an exorbitant price.” The park opened a road in 1932 that connected the sites.[11]

NPS-1930s-sm

The physical layout of the battlefield suggests an emphasis on the military story of Chancellorsville—no surprise since a battle took place there and the War Department served as the property’s administrator. Other memories, however, such as the Emancipation memory, were literally excluded from the ground because there were no site-specific resources included to interpret those stories. “The Lost Cause tradition and white supremacy, both of which worked to remove blacks from any discussion of the Civil War and its aftereffects, shaped the park’s legislation and its establishment,” notes historian Joan Zenzen in her administrative history of FSNMP.[12] The Emancipation memory, she suggests, was repressed entirely.


[1] Happel, Ralph. A History of The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Battlefield Memorial National Military Park. Fredericksburg, Va: FSNMP, 1955. pg. 35.

[2] Ibid, 36.

[3] Ibid, 47. The text Happel quoted comes from pg. 33 of the commission’s report.

[4] “Report on the Inspection of Battle Fields in and around Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, 1 December 1925.” FSNMP collection. Quoted on pg. 36 of Joan Zenzen’s FSNMP Administrative History, At the Crossroads of Preservation and Development: A History of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

[5] Ibid, 47.

[6] Ibid, 47.

[7] The specific mention of Salem Church in the enabling legislation proved to be ironic because today the Salem Church battlefield serves as the “poster child” for lost battlefields swallowed by development. However, I would argue that the battlefield was allowed to be lost because the battle served as a side action to the main battle at Chancellorsville. Because one of the main historical memories of Chancellorsville centers around the martyrdom of Jackson, and because Jackson had nothing to do with Salem Church, that aspect of the overall campaign has been overlooked. The loss of Salem Church, in historical memory and as a battlefield, are beyond the scope of this paper, although I give it detailed treatment in my forthcoming book with co-author Kris White, Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front: The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church.

[8] All quotes from Coolidge, Calvin. “Address Dedicating the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Country Battle Fields Memorial, Fredericksburg, Va.” <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=464#axzz1u3zzTJOw> Accessed 6 May 2012.

[9] “An act to establish a national military park at and near Fredericksburg, Virginia, and to mark and preserve historical points connected with the ballets of Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania Court House, Wilderness, and Chancellorsville, including Salem Church, Virginia, approved February 14, 1927 (44 Stat. 1091)”

[10] Zenzen, Joan. At the Crossroads of Preservation and Development: A History of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. FSNMP, 2011. pg. 41.

[11] Zenzen, 43-44.

[12] Zenzen, 46.

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