Last night Frank O’Reilly presented a talk to Charlottesville’s Civil War Roundtable. As many of you know he is a historian with the National Park Service in Fredericksburg and the author of the award-winning book The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock (LSU Press, 2003). Although I’ve mentioned more than once my preference for George Rable’s Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (UNC Press, 2002) I thoroughly enjoyed O’Reilly’s study and learned last night that the book had been nominated for a Pulitzer prize.
I attended last night’s meeting with the assumption that he would talk about the death of "Stonewall" Jackson at Guiney Station where that NPS continues to maintain and interpret the site of the generals death. While I’ve never visited the site I’ve heard my share of goofy stories of how the event is reenacted, leaving at least one visitor with the belief that she could "sense" Jackson’s presence. Unfortunately, O’Reilly focused his presentation on the events of May 2, 1863 and specifically on the wounding of Jackson by his own troops. Needless to say I was disappointed, though I probably would not have been as upset if he had decided to focus on a topic all-together different from the popular mantra of Jackson’s last moments with the Army of Northern Virginia.
Before I continue I do want to point out that O’Reilly did a great job last night. Although his presentation was clearly pulled right out of the battlefield tours that you can hear if you visit Chancellorsville, O’Reilly was incredibly enthusiastic. It is a clear sign that he enjoys what he does and wants you to be able to identify with a piece of American history. And that’s always nice to see.
Last night was just another confirmation of my belief that most Civil War enthusiasts are content with hearing the same stories told well over and over. The more detail the better as if the added information will get us to some little gem or uncover the secret that implicitly lay just below the surface. O’Reilly began by reminding the audience that Jackson was at the "peak" of his career and that his wounding represented one of the "tragic moments in American history." Notice how setting things up in such a way shapes the narrative of the day’s events. Confederates become the principal actors, as they should be, considering that it’s Jackson’s corps that is on the move. My concern is that this can be and usually is taken to the extreme. The battle becomes the Confederate’s to lose; this tendency to tell the story from their perspective in the hopes of achieving some kind of dramatic effect can also be seen in the way the story of the battle of Gettysburg is often told.
Worst of all, our understanding of contingency on the battlefield is shaped by what one side did as opposed to a richer discussion of how the actions of both sides brought about a certain outcome. In the case of May 2 the story ends up as a build-up to Jackson’s own wounding. Hanging there in the background is the possibility that Jackson can continue his assault and destroy the Federal Army. And if he can’t do it on the evening of May 2 there is the possibility – given that he has maneuvered his men on the field with the goal of pinning the Federals down rather than pushing them beyond the Rappahannock – of continuing the assault the following day. Meanwhile, little is said about what the Federals are doing just a stones throw away to hamper any further advance.
Rather than see May 2 as a build-up to a decisive Confederate victory why not interpret Jackson’s attack as putting the Federal army around the Chancellor House in a much better position given that they are now more tightly compacted and as a result are in a position to either sweep down and take the smaller force commanded by Lee or counterattack against Jackson? With Jackson on the field, however, anything is possible. With such a focus on May 2 it is no surprise that few people appreciate the importance of the fighting the following day which goes down as one of the bloodies days of the war. My guess is that most people who travel to Chancellorsville want to hear about Jackson so it is no surprise that interpretations focus on Jackson and the events of May 2.
Not only is the shooting of Jackson tragic, but we’re not satisfied until we put him in the grave. Not so fast, however, as we need to milk those final dramatic scenes at Guiney Station for all it’s worth.
Soak It Up!