Early May is a busy month for Civil War buffs in my neck of the woods. In 1863, the battle of Chancellorsville roared through the eastern half of the Wilderness; in 1864, the battle of the Wilderness ripped through the western half of that same 70-acre second-growth forest. Today, May 4, serves as a transition day of sorts: the wind-down of Chancellorsville and the ramp-up toward the Wilderness. There’s plenty to remember, commemorate, and explore.
The two battles, separated by a year, spilled over some of the same ground, yet modern buffs tend to think of them as geographically distant events—which just wasn’t so. Federal soldiers, marching toward the Wilderness a year after the Chancellorsville debacle, remembered that ground with dread. “We moved on through the interminable forest and endless night,” one Mainer recalled. “The winds tossed the leafless branches of the trees, seeming to moan and shudder.”
The latest effort by the Civil War Trust, the Chancellorsville-Wilderness Crossroads, seeks to secure ground that saw important troop movements in both battles. The 355-acre parcel, which abuts parts of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, is located within the triangle of land formed by the Brock Road, the Orange Plank Road, and modern Route 3. Acquiring the Crossroads, says the Trust, would “not only add to the more than 752 acres we have already saved at these two battlefields; we would provide an interpretive bridge between two crucial chapters in our nation’s history.”
The land in question adds an important piece to a jigsaw of property already being assembled in the area by the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, a regional preservation group acting in partnership with the Trust on the Crossroads project. “The Plank Road continues to be a primary area of focus for our battlefield preservation efforts,” explains Ben Brockenbrough, CVBT’s executive director, “especially now that Spotsylvania County seems determined to chip away at the resource and VDOT is articulating a future for the Plank Road corridor that looks much like Plank Road does today closer to the interstate.”
Brockenbrough says that CVBT has spent years building relationships with landowners in the vicinity, “incrementally stitching together battlefield from a patchwork of small privately owned properties.” The Chancellorsville Crossroads remained one of the last large tracts of undeveloped land on the Chancellorsville battlefield that has frontage on Plank Road. “It faced an imminent threat from Spotsylvania County’s efforts to promote it to developers,” Brockenbrough says. “We had been watching it for a long time but until very recently its price was just too high. A few months ago we became aware that its asking price had reduced significantly, but it remained beyond our resources. Fortunately our friends at the Civil War Trust agreed to step in.”
By raising $350,000 the Trust can leverage a $5-to-$1 match to purchase the tract. CVBT has pledged $50,000 toward that effort.
“We were haunted by the prospect of looking at this tract twenty years from now and most likely seeing it filled with residential and commercial development, plus a commensurate increase in traffic volume on Plank Road,” Brockenbrough says. “We could hear the question echoing back across the years: ‘Why didn’t you save this place when you had the chance?’”
The chance, Brockenbrough says, seems almost serendipitous.
“In my mind there is little historic significance that ties together the Chancellorsville and Wilderness battlefields,” he concedes. “They share some personnel, some quirks and coincidences, but it is an accident of geography that the Chancellorsville Crossroads tract happens to contain key parts of both battles.” However, he adds, “that accident will be beneficial to the interpretation of both battlefields—a synergy if you will.”
“Places like Gettysburg that are able to capture the national imagination require large expanses of contiguous, preserved landscape, not a bit here and a piece there,” Brockenbrough says. “The scale of these battles is immense. It may take generations to put them back together again—as it has at Gettysburg—but without the necessity of mentally erasing modern encroachment, the imagination can run free. The events of history lose their remoteness. At times, they seem about to start.”
Civil Wart Trust President O. James Lighthizer evoked that sense of possibility in a press statement announcing the campaign. He says the contiguous, preserved landscape will create a “‘land bridge’ that connects these two incredibly historic battlefields, setting the stage for some incredible interpretation opportunities. Imagine a miles-long walking trail that extends from the western edge of The Wilderness to the eastern edge of Chancellorsville!”