Shaping Chancellorsville: Going National

(photo courtesy of
Civil War Trust President James Lighthizer at the July 2002 press conference (photo courtesy of

part twelve in a series

At a July 31, 2002 news conference, representatives from seven different preservation groups held a well-coordinated news conference to draw national attention to the latest development threat to the Chancellorsville battlefield: the land where action opened on May 1, 1863.

At the event, the historical value of the site was presupposed—“Chancellorsville is a national treasure,” said Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) Jim Lighthizer. “The battlefield’s address may be in Virginia, but this hallowed shrine belongs to the entire country.”—and persuasive frames centered around the need for preservation, quality of life issues, the economic impact of tourism, the need for intelligent planning and zoning, and public participation in the planning process.[1] 

“You and I are facing the Second Battle of Chancellorsville,” Lighthizer wrote in a letter that summer to CWPT members and supporters—a letter he characterized as “perhaps the most urgent letter I have written to you in my two-and-a-half year service….” After outlining the scope and impact of the development proposal, Lighthizer invoked the “martyrdom of Jackson” memory. “Imagine standing on the spot where General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson received his mortal wound and, literally, only feet away, bumper-to-bumper traffic crawls past you, horns blaring and radios blasting.”[2]

The image was, indeed, disconcerting—but “the spot” he referred to was some two miles to the west of the property under threat.

Chancellorsville, the letter went on to say, has been “long regarded as Robert E. Lee’s boldest gamble and greatest victory.”

“When Hooker ordered his men off that ground,” Lighthizer wrote,

he set in motion everything that happened afterward…

…Jackson’s famous flank attack and subsequent accidental wounding, the decisive Confederate victory that emboldened Lee to invade the North a second time…

…ending in a clash of forces near a Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg.

How easily this “hinge of history” could have swung the other way.[3]

Lighthizer hit all of the Lost Cause memories that have been enshrined as the memory of Chancellorsville: the “martyrdom of Jackson,” “Lee’s Greatest victory,” and “Gettysburg” memories. Lighthizer also effectively drew on site-specific events in his appeal to create memory:

The developer’s response has been to say, essentially, that no “real” fighting was done on this land, so you and I should let him do whatever he wants to do.

While May 1, 1863, was only the first day of action, and only a prelude for the terrible battles of the following days, I think the 600 Union and Confederate casualties sustained on and near this ground would take issue with the developer.[4]

This is clearly neo-Reconciliationist in tone, invoking the mutual sacrifice and honor of both sides.[5] A map that accompanied the letter outlined the troop actions on the field.

Civil War Preservation Trust map depicting the troop movements on the Day One battlefield. Notice Jackson’s name, in the lower-right corner of the map: a location on any page that has extra prominence because eye movement goes from left to right, top to bottom, which always ends the eye near the lower-right corner of a page.
Civil War Preservation Trust map depicting the troop movements on the Day One battlefield. Notice Jackson’s name, in the lower-right corner of the map: a location on any page that has extra prominence because eye movement goes from left to right, top to bottom, which always ends the eye near the lower-right corner of a page.

“Builder Battles Stonewall” wrote The Washington Post.

Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson performed a bit of magic on May 1, 1863, when he and a handful of soldiers drove a huge Union contingent into retreat on the first day of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Within three days, he and his boss, Gen. Robert E. Lee, would grab certain victory from the Federals, using cunning in place of strength.

Today, the second battle of Chancellorsville begins.[6]

CWPT aggressively used its nationally distributed magazine, Hallowed Ground, as a tool for giving supporters in-depth information about Chancellorsville. The Fall 2002 issue—the first to come out after the formation of the coalition—billed itself as a “special longer issue on Chancellorsville.”[7]

The front cover, which featured a photo of the Jackson Monument, teased a story titled “Stonewall Jackson’s Flank Attack at Chancellorsville” by Bob Krick as well as a story about the coalition. Inside, there were first-person accounts about Jackson’s mortal wounding and the destruction of the Chancellorsville mansion. While chock-full of Chancellorsville-related content, the featured articles did not directly relate to action that took place on the threatened Day One property, using the “martyrdom of Jackson” and “Lee’s greatest victory” motifs as attention grabbers, instead. The issue’s “Parting Shot,” a last-page feature highlighting a particular preservation crisis, did focus on the Day One battlefield, but it, too, lead with the “greatest victory” motif (albeit tagged with a one-word qualifier). “The Chancellorsville battlefield in Virginia, arguably the scene of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory, stand to be all but destroyed….” it said.[8]

“The Chancellorsville Sage Continues” Hallowed Ground said on the cover of its Winter 2002 issue, following up with a story inside. In its Spring 2003 issue, Hallowed Ground included Chancellorsville on CWPT’s list of Most Endangered Battlefields. Regular updates continued to appear in future issues.

CWPT and other preservation groups successfully kept the story in the local and national news in other ways, too. As an example, in September, George Will addressed the controversy in his syndicated column. “The 12-mile march on May 2, 1863, took Stonewall Jackson from the clearing in the woods where he conferred for the last time with Robert E. Lee to a spot from which Jackson and 30,000 troops surveyed the rear of the Union forces,” Will wrote in his first sentence, covering a lot of ground at Chancellorsville except for the Day One ground actually being contested. He went on to recount the flank attack, and then mentioned that, by the time the battle was over, “Lee was emboldened to try to with the war with an invasion of Pennsylvania. The invasion’s high-water mark came at the crossroads town of Gettysburg.”

One hundred and thirty-nine years after the battle here, a more protracted struggle is under way. In 1863 the nation’s survival was at stake. Today, only the nation’s memory is at stake. “Only”? Without memory, the reservoir of reverence, what of the nation survives?[9]

As Will drew upon “Lee’s greatest victory” and “Gettysburg” motifs to set up his story, the actual Day One ground was irrelevant to him. What was most fascinating, however, was his explicit use of memory. The battle for land, he suggests, is the battle for memory.

Despite a public opinion poll that showed opposition the Dogwood Development, the County Planning Commission voted to endorse the project in November of that year. However, the county Board of Supervisors reversed that decision by a unanimous vote the following March.[10]

But the battle, it turned out, was still not over.


[1] Coalition to Save Chancellorsville Battlefield. “List of Speakers/Topics for 7/31/2002 News Conference. CVBT collection.

[2] Lighthizer, Jim. “Urgent Notification: Chancellorsville Battlefield Threatened by Development.” 2002. pg. 1.

[3] Ibid, pp. 2-3.

[4] Ibid, 2.

[5] This becomes a common theme in preservation literature of the decade.

[6] Wheeler, Linda. “Builder Battles Stonewall.” Washington Post. 31 July 2002. no pg. # on clipping from Burrell’s Information Services.

[7] As an unadvertised bonus, the issue also featured an articled by noted NPS historian Dennis Frye on “Jackson’s Generalship at Harpers Ferry” as well as an article “Selected ‘Stonewall’ Sites on Civil War Trail.”

[8] Hallowed Ground. Fall 2002. Vol. 3, No. 3.

[9] Will, George. “Trampling Out the Contours.” Bluffton (IN) News-Banner. 20 September 2002. Wills’ syndicated column appeared in hundreds of papers; this is the one I just happen to have.

[10] Nelson, Campi, 1.

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