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.