“Battlefield Season”

Stonewall Jackson Death Site, circa 2000

“Battlefield season,” as I refer to early May, is always an especially busy time of year for me. Of the five battlefields I live among, the battles of Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania all took place in early and mid-May, with North Anna (another of my favorites, and nearby) taking place immediately thereafter.[1] In the midst of all that, my semester at the university is always wrapping up, meaning lots of grading. And, of course, there are usually a few ECW book projects in the works somewhere!

Civil War history, in general, is bustling at that time. In 1863, Grant is crossing the Mississippi River and moving into Mississippi’s interior. In 1864, Sherman is moving through Rocky Face Ridge and angling toward Atlanta. There’s activity in the Shenandoah Valley, at Bermuda Hundred, along Red River, at Port Hudson, aiming at Mobile—and that’s just 63 and 64, when most of my own attention is focused on Central Virginia.

In the midst of all that crazy, it’s all the more important for me to take time each year to commemorate each of the battles close to me and spend time on each battlefield, day by day. May 10 is a particularly important day to me.

I came to the story of the Civil War through the story of Stonewall Jackson. He died May 10, 1863, and for more than two decades, I’ve commemorated the day. I can easily point to it as the most important Civil War-related event to me.

As I became more invested in the story of the 1864 Overland Campaign, and the battle of Spotsylvania Court House in particular, I’ve paid tribute to the efforts of Col. Emory Upton’s men as they made their famed but ill-fated charge into Confederate lines. I like to walk in his footsteps and smoke a cigar.

More recently, because of my association with Stevenson Ridge on Spotsy’s eastern front, I’ve paid May 10 respects to Brig. Gen. Thomas Greely Stevenson, the IX Corps division commander for whom Stevenson Ridge is named. I’ve concentrated a lot of attention on Stevenson’s story this part year, in particular, in an effort to better identify the location of his mortal wounding. (see here)

Beyond the commemorations clustered on May 10, though, I have over the years developed a series of traditions that pay heed to the early-May events I’ve spent much of my professional career writing about. Most of these commemorations focus on people—not necessarily woundings or deaths but certainly in specific moments of crisis.

Here’s a quick run-down:

May 1: E. P. Alexander, who set up his artillery on the first day of the battle of Chancellorsville in what is now my front yard (see here and here). It’s likely Stonewall Jackson prowled the ground here on horseback, as well, although I have no actual accounts of that. The location and its proximity to the fighting and the artillery both make it make sense.

May 2: Stonewall Jackson, wounded along the Mountain Road on the second day of the battle, around whom much of my professional interest has centered

May 3: Capt. Sewell Gray of the 6th Maine, killed at Second Fredericksburg while his regiment helped break through at the Sunken Road and Stone Wall

May 4 is usually a “bye” for me, at least as far as specific traditions are concerned, although it is a good day to drive Jackson’s ambulance route if I have the time. Union Brig. Gen. Amiel Whipple was killed by a sharpshooter at Chancellorsville in 1863, but I’ve never had a particular attachment to Whipple or his story.

May 5: Ulysses S. Grant, who made his headquarters during the battle of the Wilderness at a spot to later become known as “Grant’s Knoll

May 6: James Longstreet, accidentally wounded by his own men during the battle of the Wilderness (and James Wadsworth mortally wounded nearby on the same day)

May 7: Ulysses S. Grant at the Brock Road/Plank Road intersection, where he fundamentally changed the nature of the war

May 8: Sarah Spindle, whose home in the midst of an eponymously named field was burned down on the first day of the battle of Spotsylvania Court House because the home was between enemy lines

May 9: “Uncle John” Sedgwick, who was killed by sniper fire on the second day of the battle of Spotsylvania at what is now the entrance to the national battlefield

May 10: Stevenson, Stonewall, and Upton

May 11: Pvt. Oliver Cromwell Bixby, one of the five sons the now-famous “Mrs. Bixby” supposedly lost in the war (although she only lost two); as part of the 58th Massachusetts, he occupied part of Stevenson Ridge in preparation for the May 12 assault against the east face of the Mule Shoe, where he would be wounded (he’d be killed a few months later at the battle of the Crater)

From there, my observations are less focused on specific people. But on May 12, I always walk the Bloody Angle. On May 14, thanks to preservation efforts by the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust, I can visit Myer’s Hill. On May 15, I drive by the Aldrich Farm, just a mile down the road from me, where the USCT first tangled with the Army of Northern Virginia. May 18 is a good time to walk Lee’s last Line. May 19 merits a visit to Harris Farm (where I pay special attention to the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, whom I’ve written a bit about). On May 21, it’s down to Massaponnax Church. At some point during on May 23-25, I’ll spend time visiting the North Anna River.

There’s a lot to cram in and a lot to remember­—but that’s my job, isn’t it? To help people remember these stories? And in order to do so, I must remember them myself. Along the way, I try to learn a little something new so I’m not recycling the same stories over and over and so I don’t fall into the trap of sentimentalism. This is all my way of demonstrating my appreciation for the sacrifices of the men and my gratitude for the “new birth of freedom” the war gave our country.

I can do so by learning from and appreciating men and women of both sides, white and black, free and enslaved. There are many stories to remember. There are many ways to connect to the war.

I hope that you, too, take some time to reconnect to those stories and places and people that make the war meaningful to you.


[1] The other two battlefields, Fredericksburg and Mine Run, have anniversaries in mid-December and late November, respectively.

3 Responses to “Battlefield Season”

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!