Shaping Chancellorsville: Guarding the Flank

From NPS-owned property at Jackson's Flank attack, looking eastward

From NPS-owned property at Jackson’s Flank attack, looking eastward

Part ten in a series

In 1998, fresh off its acquisition of McLaws’ Wedge, the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust (CVBT) turned its attention to the far end of the Chancellorsville battlefield and began buying property associated with Jackson’s Flank Attack, targeting small lots as they came on the market.

They purchased the first piece in 1998, a 5.1-acre lot located on the north side of Route 3 immediately adjoining property already owned by FSNMP. The acquisition allowed the park to open up the area to visitation, eventually turning it into a formalized stop on the park’s driving tour.

In 1999, CVBT acquired 24.8 acres of property on the south side of Route 3 known as the Talley Farm. In 2005, they purchased another 16.4 acres along the same stretch that had also been part of the long-ago Talley Farm. That plot abutted a small 3.9-acre plot with frontage on the Orange Plank Road; they had purchased that plot in 2000. In April of 2012, CVBT added a 13-acre parcel to its two Talley Farm holdings, bringing the total of its landholdings in the area to 58 acres.

“We have a little empire going on out there,” quipped CVBT Executive Director Jerry Brent.[1]

Map depicting CVBT’s landholdings at Chancellorsville as of November 2011.

Map depicting CVBT’s landholdings at Chancellorsville as of November 2011.

In all cases, the acquisitions consisted of property directly involved with Jackson’s Flank Attack, so it makes sense that fundraising solicitations were framed in that context. But CVBT went beyond that simple frame. For instance, the 1999 campaign urged supporters to “Save Chancellorsville Battlefield,” essentially conflating the 25-acre tract with the entire battlefield and/or suggesting the entire battlefield’s destruction. The opening paragraph of the solicitation quickly provided specific explanation, however, and the map on the sheet is clearly labeled “May 2nd, Jackson’s Flank Attack” in big bold letters, so there was an attempt only to grab attention with the headline, not deceive.

The same letter went on to quote two noted Civil War historians. Bob Krick, still serving as chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (FSNMP) at the time, said, “Stonewall Jackson’s surprise onslaught at Chancellorsville was the most dramatic Confederate moment of the war in Virginia.”[2] Ed Bearss, chief historian emeritus of the NPS, added, “On May 2, General Stonewall Jackson marched clear across the front of Joe Hooker’s Federal army and dealt it a savage blow on the flank. The result has been called Lee’s greatest victory.”[3]

CVBTCvilleFlier

Both historians used charged language, like “onslaught” and “savage,” to play up the attack, which kept in line with the “martyrdom of Jackson” memory because the higher his rise, the more tragic his fall. Bearss added a reference to the “Lee’s greatest victory” memory, too, and both historians went on to evoke heritage.[4]

CVBT’s efforts on the western end of the battlefield seem to have used attention-grabbing hooks, such as the “martyrdom of Jackson” and “Lee’s greatest victory” motifs, in its land acquisition strategies, but such hooks were always followed by site-specific information and interpretation. There’s also a heavy emphasis on stewardship. A fund-raising letter from their 2004 effort was a classic example:

The Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT) has begun a campaign to preserve a 16.37-acres property on the Chancellorsville battlefield. The ground is where Stonewall Jackson launched his famed flank attack on May 2, 1863. A look at the enclosed map shows how this latest acquisition ties in with our previous purchases, much like a jigsaw coming together….[5]

In its newsletters, in particular, CVBT provided exceptionally detailed information about activity that occurred on each piece of ground it acquired. Rather than using one of the memory narratives as a hook for its stories, CVBT’s stories typically led with something about the land or the process of purchasing the land. The lead story in the Winter 2001 issue, “Victory at the Talley Farm,” was typical:

The Talley Farm is a significant part of the Chancellorsville battlefield. This ground was held by elements of the Union Eleventh Corps on May 2, 1863 and was the scene of intense action when Stonewall Jackson’s infantry charged into the Federal position in the late afternoon. today, 25 acres of this terrain is owned by the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, free and clear![6]

CVBT’s strategies suggest a revisitation of a point raised earlier: What counts as legitimate historical narrative and what counts as the use of particular historical memory? One can’t talk about Chancellorsville without talking about the flank attack, but one can talk about specific parcels of land without necessarily talking about it. Evoking Jackson’s flank attack when talking about property directly associated with that attack hardly seems like exploitation, yet because the flank attack has been used as a central component of the “martyrdom” and “greatest victory” narratives, it’s difficult not to associate the maneuver with those Lost Cause memories—even if CVBT’s historical narratives don’t carry any Lost Cause flavor.

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[1] Figures and dates from a map, “Central Virginia Battlefields Trust Preserved Lands,” dated 18 November 2011. Brent’s quote comes from an interview with the author on 27 March 2012.

[2] “Save Chancellorsville Battlefield: The time to act is now!!” Flier, Central Virginia Battlefields Trust. 1999.

[3] Ibid.

[4] A fascinating topic for future study would be the themes evoked by preservation groups in the course of their solicitations. Heritage and patriotism are common, as is scarcity (“time is running out!), but there’s also a strong theme of self-reference, too, as groups point to past preservation successes in an attempt to build on success, demonstrate good stewardship, and promote esprit d’corps.

[5] Stevens, Mike. Fundraising letter. 21 April 2004.

[6] “Victory at the Talley Farm.” On the Skirmish Line: The Newsletter of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust. Vol. 5, no. 1. Winter 2001. pg. 1.

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