Shaping Chancellorsville: Conclusion

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The final installment in a series

In 2010, the update to Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (FSNMP) map denoted for the first time the location of the Day One battlefield even though it lies outside the park boundary. In its summary of the overall battle, the first sentence reads: “At Chancellorsville Robert E. Lee won his greatest victory, but lost his legendary subordinate, Stonewall Jackson.” Of the ten tour stops on the driving tour, descriptions for five of them reference Jackson by name (compared to three mentions for Hooker and, surprisingly, one for Lee).

This might suggest the Lee-Jackson storylines of the Lost Cause have won. I was surprised when I conducted this study in 2012, looking at 149 years of material related to battlefield development, at how frequently the Lee-Jackson storyline was used to guide and contextualize acquisition decisions. Then, after the land was acquired, those same storylines were used to interpret the new ground.

The Reconciliation memory, meanwhile, faded with the veterans only to be resurrected in the preservation battles of the last twenty years. The Emancipation memory comes into focus only in the last fifteen years. Beyond mentions by Calvin Coolidge, the Union memory never got used at Chancellorsville at all.

Park map updated in 2010

Park map updated in 2010

But if the story of Lee and Jackson at Chancellorsville has become the story at Chancellorsville, is it fair to dismiss the entire storyline as Lost Cause propaganda? What components of that story merit discussion as fact and what components have been inflated into myth—and can people deconstruct the myths enough to see and understand the facts? What other narratives exist, and are people willing to be receptive to them? These are difficult questions because the Lost Cause myth co-opted so many of the legitimate highlights of the otherwise-objective history.

A communication theory called “selective exposure” may offer a useful lens for examining the problem. Selective exposure suggests that people choose to expose themselves to messages and ideas they already agree with in an attempt to affirm what they think they already know. Applied in the context of Chancellorsville, people who don’t know about the battle have at least heard of Lee and/or Jackson, meaning the Lee-Jackson storyline offers a convenient and accessible hook into the story (the use of Lee-Jackson angles by the media over time certainly suggests so). People who do know about the battle typically know it as Lee’s greatest victory, and they come to the battlefield often expecting to have it presented that way.[1] Selective exposure suggests the Lee-Jackson storyline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As one Park Service colleague once put it, visitors essentially say, “Tell me the old story one more time—and so we do.”

This poses challenges for interpreting the battlefield beyond the Lee-Jackson narrative. “I have learned the hard way that getting visitors to swim against tides and instinct is almost impossible,” says Chief Historian John Hennessy. “Visitors have a huge say in what programs we do. If they don’t respond to a program, then we’re not going to repeat it. If they do, then we sail forth.”[2] In the summer of 2012, for instance, park historians offered tours at Fairview, focusing on the events of May 3; basing that discussion at Fairview rather than at the Chancellorsville intersection moves the discussion out of the direct context of “Lee’s greatest victory.” Tours on the ground extended beyond the fighting, too, to incorporate stories of pre-war life on the plantation, the use of the site as a hospital, the Chancellor cemetery located there, and others.

The driving-tour description in the park brochure for the tour stop at Fairview mentions “some of the bloodiest fighting of the war”—a memory almost entirely overshadowed in recent years, even when that ground was being acquired, by the “greatest victory” storyline.

In the summer of 2011, historians offered tours in the woods on the north side of Route 3 that focused on the May 3 fighting there. Various summer “History at Sunset” programs offered over the past several years have extended the scope of Chancellorsville’s overall story every farther. Other memories do exist.

In fact, the current park brochure as a whole, beyond its Chancellorsville descriptions, tries to offer a more nuanced view of the park’s overall story—or, as the case might be, stories: “For slaves, war and the arrival of the Union army meant freedom. For white residents, war brought anguish. Continuous occupation and tumultuous battles left the region devastated.” While the lines directly evoke the Emancipation memory, they also indicate a broader trend toward a wider use of multiple memories. Whether this post-structural approach succeeds in allowing multiple memories to operate, only time will tell.

“Today the battlefields are quiet…” says the text, which speaks of “preserving and protecting these treasured landscapes.” To stand at the Chancellorsville intersection today, with the ruins of the house before you and the unceasing cram of traffic on Route 3 beyond, it’s a little difficult to believe how quiet these battlefields can be—or how loudly the memories there still speak.

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[1] My assertion is based on anecdotal evidence and my own experience working at the park. An interesting topic for further study would be a survey of visitor knowledge levels and expectations coming to the battlefield.

[2] Hennessy, John. Email to author. 8 May 2012.

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