Where Should the New Chancellorsville Vistor Center Be Located?

Note: It looks like I did a poor job of reading Eric’s post.  For some reason I was under the impression that there were plans to build a new VC.  That said, I have heard talk about the possibility of a new location so let’s proceed with that in mind.

The new group blog, Mysteries and Conundrums, authored by NPS historians at Fredericksburg has quickly become my favorite Civil War site.  John Hennessy and the gang have done a fantastic job of sharing the challenges associated with interpreting and preserving some of our most important Civil War ground.  I particularly enjoyed reading Hennessy’s last post in which he asks readers to consider a name change to the Stonewall Jackson Shrine.  Many of the responses reflect deeply held views, but I commend Hennessy for his continued commitment to asking the tough questions.

Eric Mink’s latest post provides some interesting background information on the Chancellorsville Visitor Center; it looks like his next post will let us in on the decision-making process that went into the decision on the location of a new visitor center.  [Update: Just as this was published Eric Mink posted his second installment.]  I’ve brought students to Chancellorsville for the past 8 years and since I am pretty familiar with the battlefield I thought I would take a shot at suggesting a new location.  The best place for a new visitor center would be on ground that covers the fighting that took place on May 3, 1863.

I’ve been bringing students to Chancellorsville for the past eight years and so I am fairly familiar with the ground and have thought quite a bit about how to approach a battlefield tour.  We spend about 5-6 hours touring various sites, beginning at the present VC and proceeding to the Zoan Church, Chancellor House, and the final meeting spot between Lee and Jackson.  From there we walk a bit of the original road that Jackson used for his flank march and discuss tactics and the difficulties associated with fighting in the Wilderness.  We stop at the Flank March spot to discuss ethnicity and the Union 11th Corps along with the effects of Jackson’s attack.  From there we drive back where I do a play-by-play of the events that led to Jackson’s wounding; it’s a narrative that closely follows Bob Krick’s brilliant analysis of this important moment in the battle.  Finally, we make our way over the Fairview where we eat our lunch and discuss the events of May 3.  While there we discuss Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, which helps us to get at issues related to soldier life.

It’s that final stop of the day that I look forward to most.  The present location of the VC steers folks away from fully appreciating the area between Hazel Grove and Fairview.  The focus on Jackson’s wounding while important obscures the most significant day of the campaign.  After all, as effective as Jackson’s attack was it did not significantly damage the Army of the Potomac.  In fact, one could argue that Hooker’s men were in a better position to destroy the separated elements of Lee’s army.  More soldiers died on May 4 than any previous day of the battle and it constitutes one of the bloodiest days of the entire war.  The fighting that led to Confederate control of Hazel Grove on the morning of May 3 and the location of E.P. Alexander’s artillery led directly to Union army’s abandonment of its positions.  Thanks to the decision to cut down a few trees visitors now have a clear view from Hazel Grove to the Chancellor House and discussion of the role of artillery in the campaign.  Finally, such a location allows for a colorful retelling of the moment that the men of the ANV rallied around Lee as they approached a burning Chancellor House.  Gary Gallagher has argued that this is the moment that the army became his.  Locating the VC here would encourage a much more accurate understanding of the campaign and its broader consequences.  In fact, I suspect that many either do not drive over to this area or do a quick and meaningless drive-by.

The area between Hazel Grove and Fairview is clearly the best choice for a new VC.

7 comments… add one

  • Matthew Donnelly May 19, 2010

    I know this goes against a previous post here, but the Hazel Grove/Fairview is where I spent most of my time during my one visit to Chancellorsville. The reason why is because it is a critical spot for my closest Civil War relative (my great-great-grandfather’s twin brother), who was in the 141st PA and was captured. – not a bad move for him, as he missed his regiment being caught at the apex of Sickles’ salient at Gettysburg. The point is, if you read a lot on Chancellorsville, you will find that there’s a lot more happening than just the flank attack, and thay May 3rd was a day of bitter and bloody fighting centered at Fairview. An updated Visitor Center on the south side of Rt. 3 would do a lot to highlight this horrible day of hard fighting. But, the reasons quoted on the Fredericksburg blog are still valid today. Stonewall Jackson remains a near-mythic figure and the site of his wounding (sort of) is where the focus of rememberance remains for the general public. It would be nice to see happen, but I doubt it will.

    • Kevin Levin May 19, 2010

      Hi Matthew,

      Thanks for commenting. I agree that Jackson exerts a great amount of influence on how we view Chancellorsville, but unfortunately it is at too great a price. Visitors end up missing out on JEB Stuart’s handling of Jackson’s corps on May 3. The focus should be on interpreting the campaign in its entirety.

  • John Hennessy May 19, 2010

    Kevin: Your posting is relevant. We have had many conversations in the park about the possibility of a new visitor center for Chancellorsville and just where it should go, if ever the windfall needed to build one magically appeared (not likely, by the way). Your observations on the topic point out the great conundrum that faces the NPS when pondering VC’s. As Eric discusses, do we seek to put the VC outside the resource–and thus eliminate the consumption of historic ground–or do we put it within the resource, thus giving visitors direct and immediate access to important places like Fairview. While I would never seek to repeat what in retrospect was the terrible mistake of locating the visitor center at Manassas in the middle of Henry Hill), I do agree that our visitor centers must give visitors direct access to a site or sites that can move them. If we do not, then–given most visitors’ limited energy and time–their visit begins and ends at the VC, and not on the battlefield. They might as well be in Minnesota as at Chancellorsville if that’s the case.

    Your post points to two issues that we are currently struggling to overcome. First, the relative neglect of Fairview and Hazel Grove–but especially Fairview, which I view as the single most important and instructive site on the field. Most visitors never get there. We need to get them there. But as the park staff in the 1950s foresaw, Route 3 is an impassable barrier to pedestrians and nearly so for vehicles seeking to cross it.

    Second, with the current’s VC’s proximity to the site of Jackson’s wounding, much of our interpretation inevitably focuses on that event, with the result that most visitors leave with little idea that the major portion of the battle–indeed some of the heaviest fighting of the war–occurred on the morning of May 3, 1863. We need to get visitors to see the battle beyond Jackson’s wounding. With the VC where it is, that’s a challenge.

    All this points out that national parks are not created, they evolve constantly. Being in this business is intensely interesting…and buffeted as we are by the winds of Civil War memory makes it only more so. Thanks for your post and for helping make today one of the busiest ever on Mysteries and Conundrums.

    • Kevin Levin May 19, 2010

      Based on the number of comments at Mysteries and Conundrums it looks like you guys are doing just fine. Of course, I am more than happy to send additional readers over. Like I said your blog has been incredibly entertaining and educational.

      I would say getting visitors to relevant places ought to be the primary concern, but I do see your concern with trying to avoid overshadowing the landscape with a large structure. My students really enjoy walking that ground between Fairview and Hazel Grove and now with the tree line cut it makes for an even more interesting discussion. Thanks John for taking the time to comment. I am looking forward to Eric’s next installment.

      More importantly, I am looking forward to your next controversial question. I hope you are not going to suggest a name change to Marye’s Heights. :D

  • Timothy Orr May 20, 2010

    If FSNMP had funding to build a new visitor center, would it really put its resources toward a new Chancellorsville VC, or would the NPS attempt to build a Wilderness/Spotsylvania VC (since those battlefields have only exhibit shelters as the principal edifices to interpret the battles of 1864)? I guess I always thought the Overland Campaign sites would be the next scenes of interpretive improvement.

    • Kevin Levin May 20, 2010

      Hi Timothy,

      First, congratulations on finishing your doctorate and on your new position at Old Dominion University. Pretty good idea. One of my Facebook Friends suggested that Ellwood ought to be considered. I guess it depends on what the Walmart brings to the immediate area. I can think of one individual who will appreciate having you closer. :D

      • Timothy Orr May 25, 2010

        Thanks for the kind words, Kevin!–it is best, though, that I reserve my effusive exhortations of happiness to facebook. Of course, you identified a pivotal “question mark” concerning future interpretation at FSNMP. What will the Wilderness Walmart bring to the area (I ask rhetorically)? I shudder to think.

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