Telling Stories at Chancellorsville

Chancellorsville-map-detail-1

It’s one of those days where I can’t help but miss central Virginia and the opportunity to bring my students to Chancellorsville for the 150th anniversary.  Chancellorsville was the first Civil War battle that I attempted to interpret for those students who took my Civil War class.  Interpreting a battlefield rarely involved the close analysis of maneuvers on a regimental level or trying to nail down the precise location of a unit.  While I love listening to guides who can do that sort of thing I don’t really have the patience to do the necessary heavy lifting and that was never my goal in bringing my students to a battlefield in the first place.  Chancellorsville always worked well because it allowed me to narrate from a number of different perspectives at places like the Zoan Church, the final meeting place of Jackson and Lee, along the flank march, and at the Chancellor House.  I could tell stories about the men in the ranks, civilians, and even slaves without losing the power of the unfolding drama.

My favorite stop on the tour was always lunch at Fairview.  I usually provided a brief overview of the events on May 3 before settling down to a relaxed discussion of excerpts from Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, which the kids read beforehand.  It’s one of my favorite Civil War novels.  Private Fleming worked extremely well in connecting my students to the surrounding landscape.  Conversations touched on the topics of bravery and cowardice, the importance of comradeship, sacrifice and duty and typically blurred the distinction between present and past.

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of distant hills.

Once a certain tall soldier developed virtues and went resolutely to wash a shirt. He came flying back from a brook waving his garment bannerlike. He was swelled with a tale he had heard from a reliable friend, who had heard it from a truthful cavalryman, who had heard it from his trustworthy brother, one of the orderlies at division headquarters. He adopted the important air of a herald in red and gold.

“We’re goin’ t’ move t’morrah–sure,” he said pompously to a group in the company street. “We’re goin’ ‘way up the river, cut across, an’ come around in behint ‘em.”

To his attentive audience he drew a loud and elaborate plan of a very brilliant campaign. When he had finished, the blue-clothed men scattered into small arguing groups between the rows of squat brown huts. A negro teamster who had been dancing upon a cracker box with the hilarious encouragement of twoscore soldiers was deserted. He sat mournfully down. Smoke drifted lazily from a multitude of quaint chimneys.

“It’s a lie! that’s all it is–a thunderin’ lie!” said another private loudly. His smooth face was flushed, and his hands were thrust sulkily into his trouser’s pockets. He took the matter as an affront to him. “I don’t believe the derned old army’s ever going to move. We’re set. I’ve got ready to move eight times in the last two weeks, and we ain’t moved yet.”

Despite the available evidence, some have questioned whether the book is really about the battle of Chancellorsville since it is never mentioned by name.  Few, if any, soldiers would have identified the fighting so explicitly.  I suspect that Crane understood this, which is one of the reasons why the book works so well when discussed on the field.

p.s. I really wanted to use Frederick Chapman’s painting of the clearing around the Chancellor Inn for this post, but I can’t locate a high resolution pic online.  This is the painting that is used on the cover of Stephen Sears’s wonderful campaign study.

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