A Day on the Day One Battlefield at Chancellorsville

Today, a path leads visitors through the trees volunteers planted in 2006 to help restore the historic treeline.

Today, a path leads visitors through the trees volunteers planted in 2006 to help restore the historic treeline.

Spring 2006

My daughter and and I arrive at the Day One battlefield—called the “Lick Run Battlefield”—at 8:45 a.m. Several other volunteers have arrived before us. They stand in front of a small building that had once been a farmer’s cinderblock utility shed but has recently been fancied up with deep red vinyl siding and a few simple but attractive shrubs. The building now serves as the sales office for a housing development that will soon be going on the far side of the low ridge to our north.

Mixed among the volunteers are a half dozen or so staffers from the Civil War Trust (CWT), visiting and swapping stories. From one group, I hear discussion of last year’s tree planting. From another, I hear about the current effort to stop a casino in Gettysburg. From another, I hear the number “103,” which, I’ll find out later, is the number of Civil War sites participating in CWT’s annual Park Day this year.

Lick Run, little more than a trickle, has cut a deep streambed between the property’s two hills. No one really knows the stream’s name, though, and the battlefield will eventually get the simpler, more descriptive name “First Day at Chancellorsville Battlefield.” This is where fighting broke out on May 1, 1863. Joe Hooker’s Federals were trying to sneak up on the Confederates in Fredericksburg, thirteen miles to the east, but Stonewall Jackson moved out and intercepted Hooker, catching the Federal commander completely by surprise.

Steph and I have come here as an act of stewardship. Two years earlier, when she was eleven, Steph had joined in a CWT-sponsored petition drive to help preserve this land, gathering a couple hundred signatures around school and around town. Now that the land has been saved, I thought it might be a good opportunity for us to help with its reclamation. Today’s goal: plant 2,100 trees in an effort to restore the Civil War-era treeline of the property. This area sits on what would have been the easternmost edge of the Virginia Wilderness. “We’re going to plant trees to make the Wilderness more wild!” Steph has said.

As we make our way to the sign-in table, Mary Goundrey isn’t difficult to pick out. The self-described “wild redhead” whom I’ve spoken to on the phone is there in person, wearing a white T-shirt that says, “No Gettysburg Casino.” Mary has served as the CWT’s point-of-contact person for this event. It seems as though her title as grassroots field coordinator is to be supplanted in the field by tree roots for the day.

Mary and I exchange pleasantries as Stephanie adds our names to the sign-in sheet. The forecast calls for a chance of a shower but, if it holds off, the day should be warm and windy—unlike last year’s Park Day, Mary tells me, when they worked through a day-long downpour.

After a few moments, my friend Eric Mink joins us. Eric, who works as the cultural resource officer for the National Park Service, has come on his day off to help with the tree planting. He’ll also give a brief explanation to the volunteers about the significance of the ground just before we begin our planting. He’s the one who explains how they figured out the location of the historic treeline. There weren’t many photos taken or illustrations made of what the area looked like during the war era, but in 1867, Army engineers who returned to the area made a map of the old battlefield. Eric matched up that map with current satellite photos of the property and, using GPS technology, was able to pinpoint the exact line of the trees.

“That’s the next step in preservation,” Mary once explained to me. “Once you get the land, then you want to restore it to the way it used to look. You want to make it look authentic.”

The first tree planting has flourished.

The first tree planting has flourished.

During last year’s monsoon, volunteers planted two thousand oak trees and Virginia pines. This year, we’ll plant Virginia pines, white and red oaks, yellow poplars, flowering dogwood, hackberrys, and mulberrys, all donated by the Virginia Department of Forestry. Five of the department’s foresters are also on hand to assist. “They’ve given us a real nice mix of trees,” Mary says.

Neon orange flags have been spaced across the property, marking the spots where we need to dig holes. The hardwood saplings, once planted, must also get “tubed”—that is, a three-foot-tall section of mint green Tubex is fitted over the sapling to offer protection and act as an ersatz greenhouse. The corrugated material is bio- and photo-degradable, so it will dissolve within three years, when the saplings are robust enough to survive the elements on their own. Following that, a two-by-two-foot square of black material gets placed around the exterior of the tube to keep down weeds that might compete with the saplings.

By the time we get started around 9:30, some forty volunteers and ten CWT staffers have assembled. We learn about the battlefield. We get our instructions. We get to work.

Steph volunteers for “tree dissemination” duty. She and two other volunteers will open the packages of saplings, trim their roots, soak the saplings in water, and bundle them into mixed groups of six for distribution. The wet roots are carefully wrapped in plastic grocery bags to protect them from drying out in the wind. The rest of us, meanwhile, set to digging. The ground, parched from lack of rain, resists. Nor is it made any easier by the multitude of rocks, almost all of them pieces of quartz the color of orange tea that range in size from nickels to footballs.

Restoring the historic treeline provides a buffer from development still underway on the northernmost part of the property. Preservations and developers got an excellent compromise that still serves both.

Restoring the historic treeline provides a buffer from development still underway on the northernmost part of the property. Preservations and developers got an excellent compromise that still serves both.

Less than five hundred feet away, just beyond the edge of CWT’s property, rests a convoy of giant yellow earthmovers and heavy equipment. There’s a grader, a couple of bulldozer/backhoes, a pair of oversized dump trucks. As much as I could use a little help fighting with this rock-infested, hard-packed dirt, the equipment is all far too big for our purposes—but as I look at it I can’t help but be amazed at how easily man can move earth if he really wants to.

The equipment belongs to the same developer who converted the cinderblock building into its sales office—the same developer who’s currently in the process of building a subdivision on the backside of the battlefield. Beyond the strip of yellow construction tape that marks the far boundary of CWT’s property, everything has been razed and graded. There’s no grass, no shrubs—just clay-red soil that awaits home upon home upon home. Aside from restoring the historic tree line, today’s project will also serve to install a screen that will eventually block those homes out of view from the road.

Even as we work to restore this piece of landscape, the rest of the Spotsylvania countryside continues to change.

* * * * *

“Chancellorsville is flat-out one of our greatest victories,” Mary tells me. “We hold this up as a model of what happens when everyone works together for the greater good. It’s a wonderful success story.”

Pressure on this land, known as the Mullins Farm, has been hard. Developers have tried for years to turn the property into a greenhouse and nursery, then an “instant city” with residential and business areas. State transportation officials also proposed an “Outer Connector” from I-95 a few miles to the east that would terminate on the battlefield. In 2004, that proposal got whacked, ending one threat. Later that same year, CWPT bought 140 acres of the Mullins Farm for $3 million—a far cry from a much earlier deal where the owner offered to sell the whole lot to the Trust for $40 million. Trust officials had called that asking price “almost-laughable” since the property had been assessed for tax purposes at $5.6 million.

But another 500 acres of the Mullins Farm got sold to a developer, Toll Brothers, which planned to build 163 luxury homes on the property. Then, in a surprise move in late 2005, Toll Brothers offered to sell another 75 acres of historically significant land to the Trust at a “substantially below-market” price—contingent on whether the county board of supervisors rezoned the remaining Toll Brothers property to allow an additional 33 homes. The supervisors eventually approved the deal, giving CWT a total of 215 acres of viewshed under its protection while allowing the developer to build homes on the far side of a hill that would screen it from view. The county, delighted at potential real estate dollars and historic tourism dollars, won out, too.

“It’s win-win-win!” Mary says.

* * * * *

Dark clouds hang over us, threatening rain that never comes. We could sure use it to soften this ground a little, I think as I chisel another hole with my shovel.

The clouds blow by, sometimes breaking up to let the sun shine on us for long periods of time, sometimes darkening again to angry shades of billowy charcoal. What a perfect metaphor for the development battles that have raged through this area in the past few years.

I strike up a conversation with an irrepressibly cheerful man, Bob Hagan, who turns out to be one of the country supervisors. He moved to the area in 1998, leaving behind a home on the Chesapeake Bay so his wife could be closer to an ailing parent who lived in Spotsylvania County. “I gave up sweeping panoramic sunsets on the bay for a view of my neighbor’s camper in his driveway,” Hagan chuckles. “He said he’d make it up to me by painting a sunset on the side of the camper. And to go the extra mile, he’s gonna put a sunrise on the other side and, every morning, he’ll go out to his driveway and turn the camper around for me.”

In November of 2002, Hagan won a seat on the board of supervisors during a special election, running on a platform that opposed Dogwood Development’s original “instant city” proposal. “I made it clear where I stood on the issue,” he tells me. “I’m sure it helped me.”

“Well, look, now your tree planting can help you earn some extra votes for the next time you run.”

“Naw, I don’t need ‘em anymore,” he says. “I’m actually stepping down once the budget is passed because I’ve been elected president of the Chamber of Commerce. Looks like I’ve fooled enough people enough of the time that they think I’ll be able to do a good job at it,” he laughs.

It’s impossible not to like this guy—and for me, it’s all the more so because he’s not planting trees for the photo op some politicians would make out of it. He’s here simply because he wants to be. I’m also impressed because, by assisting in its maintenance, he’s taking responsibility for the property he helped save.

Hagan isn’t the only county supervisor on hand. He’s soon joined by Hap Connors, the board’s chair. Connors and I chat for a bit, and I answer his questions about where we’re from and why we’re here. “My daughter collected petition signatures to help save this ground,” I explain. Connor’s brow crinkles for a second. “I heard about that—the girl from New York,” he says. “I think it’s really great that you guys are here.”

Connors makes it a point to seek out Steph by the end of the day. “I want to thank you for all you’re doing,” he tells her.

“You’re welcome,” she says. “It’s fun.”

* * * * *

Landscape restoration continues even today.

Landscape restoration continues even today.

Much has been said about this property—that’s it’s hallowed ground, it’s sacred soil.

“So, now that you’ve had your hands in this soil all day long, what’s your impression of it?” I ask Mary.

“It’s fantastic,” she replies.

“People wonder why you need to save that particular site, that particular piece of ground,” she continues. “But being here, working it like this, you can definitely sense the resonance. You can never read that out of a history book. When you see it, it suddenly makes sense. It clicks into place.”

She also appreciates the fact that the day’s labor on this hallowed ground is connected to something larger. “All across the country, people are getting dirty and getting the same experience because they’re working on behalf of something they care about,” she says. “It’s their history in their own back yards, and they’re the ones taking care of it. They’re taking ownership.”

At the end of the day, Mary invites Steph to take a few of the leftover saplings with her. We gather up a couple of the flowering dogwoods and a pair of the Virginia pines; we’ll plant them this spring as a memorial to our day at Lick Run.

The more important takeaway came mid-morning, though. Steph had been joined on sapling duty by a four-year-old girl who got tired of following her father as he dug holes and planted trees. She attached herself to Steph like a staff officer might accompany a general. “You need to be nice to her,” I remind her. “You should try and encourage her the same way Frank has encouraged you.” I refer to Steph’s mentor, NPS historian Frank O’Reilly, whose become like an uncle to her.

Steph falls silent. “I know,” she finally says. “Okay.”

“What’s her name?” I asked.

Steph’s answer is so ironically appropriate that it has to be scripted, too perfect to be real—except that it is: “Riley.” What goes around does, indeed, come around. If history doesn’t repeat itself, it certainly rhymes.

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