Shaping Chancellorsville: Cementing the Story

The former driveway to the cement plant still cuts across the Fairview clearing

The former driveway to the cement plant still cuts across the Fairview clearing

Part eight of a series

The area on the Chancellorsville battlefield known as Fairview was a central point of action during the fighting on May 3. Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (FSNMP) already owned much of the land there and had established a tour stop at the location because of highly visible earthworks. However, a 28-acre tract in the middle of the Park-owned property remained in private hands.

FSNMP had been vigorously pursuing acquisition of the property since 1973, but owner A. N. Johnston demurred.[1] Johnston had operated a construction business on the site since 1963 and, in 1967, had opened a rock-crushing plant there; then, in March 1975, he announced plans to open a concrete plant on the property.[2] He even went so far as to start bringing in pieces of the plant, ready to assemble, in anticipation of the necessary approvals from the county.

CementPlant-blogphoto

Property owned by A.N. Johnston at Fairview, with the sprawl of his contracting business ready to sprawl even further with the addition of a concrete plant. Note the Federal artillery emplacements below the treeline along the left edge of the photo. The Chancellorsville intersection can be seen, complete with its own small copse of trees, below the treeline near the top of the photo.

Unable to convince county officials to deny the zoning changes Johnston would need for his concrete plant, the NPS chose to pursue the drastic course of condemnation, which would allow the government to take the property by eminent domain. “[C]ondemnations are productive of enough evil to be ardently avoided,” Freeland wrote to his regional supervisor.[3] However, a “combination of unfortunate circumstances beyond the control of this office” left him no other choice, he said.[4]

Mr. Johnston’s tract is squarely amidst Chancellorsville Battlefield, along an historic ridge which was one of the most important United States positions during the fighting in May 1863. His property line runs within ten yards of a cluster of five cannon, and within fifty yards of a tour stop which has been designated by the approved Interpretive Prospectus as one of four Key Sites on the entire battlefield.[5]

“We would hope the country would see the importance of retaining this land in as unchanged a state as possible so the people who come from all over the country can see Chancellorsville Battlefield in approximately the same state as it was in 1863,” said Bob Krick at one of the public meetings about the Johnston project.[6] “This nationally significant historic land is in need of protection by us all,” he added.[7]

Subsequent newspaper coverage of the controversy almost entirely avoided any discussion of the battle at all.[8] The one notable exception is a July 8, 1975 article by Daniel Epstein in The Free Lance-Star, “Old battleground at center of new fight,” which introduced the condemnation proceedings. The article leads with the “greatest victory” angle: “Confederate general Robert E. Lee repelled a major Union offensive at Chancellorsville in 1863, defeating a force twice the size of his….”[9]

In the sixth graph, Epstein provides some site-specific background about the property.

Bounded by the Fairview and Hazel Grove areas of Chancellorsville Battlefield, the clearing is the site where fighting swept back and forth across the plateau on May 3, 1863, and where Confederate troops seized Federal guns, turned them around, and began firing at Chancellor House. The area around the site where Johnston wants to put his concrete plant ‘marks the high point of Robert E. Lee’s career,’ the Park Service says.[10]

Note, again, the reference Epstein slipped in, made by an NPS official, that squarely contextualizes the property as part of the “greatest victory” storyline. Only in the last paragraph of the twenty-three-graph story, after it jumps to page 8, is there any other site-specific background. There, Epstein mentions the Chancellor cemetery, one acre large with a wall around it, which sits in the middle of the Johnson tract, and the Chancellorsville House site that sits less than 200 yards from the property line.[11]

The lack of public discourse in the media about the condemnation might be, in part, because the park remained relatively quiet about the project in an attempt to avoid stirring up any public animosity. “Freeland’s careful attention to process ensured that the resulting condemnation and declaration of taking did not harm the park’s otherwise good neighbor reputation,” Zenzen adds.[12]

The U.S District Court judged in favor of FSNMP on July 13, 1976, although it wasn’t until late 1977 that the Park was able to take possession of the property.

Wayside installed at the Chancellorsville intersection (undated). The language codifies the “greatest victory” storyline, but the pull-quote about “the dignity of gods” strongly reinforces the Lost Cause image of Lee as a so-called “marble man.”

Wayside installed at the Chancellorsville intersection (undated). The language codifies the “greatest victory” storyline, but the pull-quote about “the dignity of gods” strongly reinforces the Lost Cause image of Lee as a so-called “marble man.”

The Chancellorsville intersection in particular represented a key component of the “Lee’s greatest victory” narrative, which was codified by the addition of a wayside exhibit. However, the additional acquisition of Fairview presented the park with an opportunity to expand its interpretive approach beyond the Lost Cause narrative because both properties offered site-specific resources that related to non-military stories, such as civilians and slaves (specifically, the ruins of the Chancellor mansion, the Chancellor family cemetery, and Fairview’s use as a pre-war plantation).

Such stories, however, were not commonly discussed at NPS sites at the time,[13] and so, at Chancellorsville, they remained untold. Not until the early 2000’s did interpretation on the site finally expand to include other stories—stories that finally gave hearing to the Emancipation memory.

Wayside installed at the Chancellorsville intersection (undated). The language codifies the “greatest victory” storyline, but the pull-quote about “the dignity of gods” strongly reinforces the Lost Cause image of Lee as a so-called “marble man.”

Wayside installed at the Chancellorsville intersection (undated). The language codifies the “greatest victory” storyline, but the pull-quote about “the dignity of gods” strongly reinforces the Lost Cause image of Lee as a so-called “marble man.”

Waysides installed at Chancellorsville in the early 2000’s on land once slated to be a concrete plant. The posts mark out the location of the overseer’s cabin that once stood on the spot, and the signs offer explanation about the building’s use on the plantation before the war and as a hospital after the battle. Discussion of plantation life and the depiction of slaves on the sign offers a nod to Emancipation memory by overtly discussing slavery.

Waysides installed at Chancellorsville in the early 2000’s on land once slated to be a concrete plant. The posts mark out the location of the overseer’s cabin that once stood on the spot, and the signs offer explanation about the building’s use on the plantation before the war and as a hospital after the battle. Discussion of plantation life and the depiction of slaves on the sign offers a nod to Emancipation memory by overtly discussing slavery.

————

[1] Ibid.

[2] “Park Service opposes concrete plant request.” The Spotsylvania Times. 19 March 1975. (The clipping comes from NPS archives; the page # was not included on the clipping.)

[3] Freeland, Dixon. Memo to Regional Director, Mid-Atlantic Region. 17 April 1975.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. The other three Key Sites of the battlefield, as identified in the Prospectus, were the Lee-Jackson Bivouac site, Hazel Grove (a companion site to Fairview), and the Chancellor House and clearing. (Mink, Eric. Email to author. 30 April 2012.)

[6] Epstein, Daniel. “Plant bid is opposed by NPS.” Free Lance-Star. 13 March 1975. pg. 17.

[7] Ibid.

[8] For examples, see “Park Service opposes concrete plant request.” The Spotsylvania Times. 19 March 1975; “Spotsylvania panel rejects request for concrete plant.” Free-Lance Star. 1 April 1975. pg. 9; “Park Service pursues land condemnation.” The Spotsylvania Times. 30 July 1975. pg. 1.; and “Air board asked to block cement plant.” Free Lance-Star. 21 August 1975. pg. 13.

[9] Epstein, Daniel. “Old battleground at center of new fight.” Free Lance-Star. 8 July 1975. pg. 1.

[10] Epstein, Daniel. “Old battleground at center of new fight.” The Free Lance-Star. 8 July 1975.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Zenzen, 255.

[13] Zenzen, 357.

This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Civilian, Memory, National Park Service, Preservation, Slavery and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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