It’s May 1 in Chancellorsville, and there’s a boom of color in my front yard. The azaleas have burst open in pink and white, and there’s something else mixed in there—something magenta—I don’t recognize. The flowering dogwoods have inviting white blossoms cascading across their branches. The peonies haven’t yet popped, but they have budded; I expect them to burst next week sometime. The rhododendron next to the house isn’t ready to bloom yet, either, but I know it’s coming. In the meantime, it lurks in front of the porch, biding its time.
This is a much different scene than the one here 152 years ago today. Then, artillerist E. P. Alexander set up his guns along the ridge my house now sits on. The house wasn’t built until 1905, so the ridge was empty as Alexander deployed.
“In about two miles from Chancellorsville, we got into an extensive open country,” Alexander wrote, “& at the far side of it we saw a great display of Hooker’s force, & I brought up more guns, & more infantry was deployed, which we moved steadily forward toward them.”
That open country still spills across the rolling hills today toward the far treeline. Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum’s XII Corps had been marching eastward down the Plank Road when Confederates surprised them. Alexander remembered it as “but little fighting on our road,” but Slocum felt so confident of his position and his ability to push the Confederates that he nearly disobeyed Hooker’s direct order to pull back to the Chancellorsville intersection, two miles to Slocum’s rear.
“But soon they began to disappear in the woods & we recognized that they were being withdrawn,” Alexander said. “That is just what had happened.”
By evening, the battle shifted from my front yard closer to Chancellorsville as Hooker consolidated his position and Lee moved in to mirror Hooker’s lines. A mile from where I now sit, Lee and Jackson sat on a pair of cracker boxes, with a map spread out before them, plotting their next move.
Subsequent attention on the battle of Chancellorsville over the next century and a half would focus on those next two days—but for a while, the battle spilled across my front yard on its way to becoming something larger.