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Let’s Recross that River and Return to Chancellorsville

antietam

Today is the anniversary of one of the bloodiest days of fighting of the entire Civil War.  Those of you who visit Chancellorsville today will enjoy an insightful tour and interpretation of the final day’s fighting at Chancellorsville that took place in the area around the clearing between Hazel Grove, Fairview, and the Chancellor House.  The overwhelming majority of the roughly 30,000 casualties suffered that day between the two armies took place in this area on May 3, 1863.  While Stonewall Jackson’s daring flanking maneuver and its successful assault, which resulted in the collapse of the Eleventh Corps, damaged the Army of the Potomac the day ended with the two wings of Lee’s army split off from one another and facing much larger enemy forces in their respective fronts.  A Federal counterattack was still possible and Lee knew it.  Throughout the morning of May 3, Lee’s army fought to reunite its two dangerously divided wings.

Interestingly, many visitors to Chancellorsville never walk the May 3 ground or if they do they fail to appreciate its significance.  For many, a visit to Chancellorsville begins and ends at the visitors center, whose location reinforces a Jackson-centered narrative that highlights his flanking maneuver, assault, and accidental wounding on the very same ground.  You can replay the series of events that led to Jackson’s wounding at the hands of his own men and imagine to your hearts content those counterfactual scenarios that keep the general alive at least through the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg.  Continue reading “Let’s Recross that River and Return to Chancellorsville”

The True Face of the Southern Heritage Crowd

southern heritageThis story out of Hot Springs, South Dakota is truly bizarre and sad.  Recently a couple of African Americans veterans, who were being treated for PTSD at a VA Hospital, complained about a display that included Confederate flags.  Yeah, this is in South Dakota of all places.  At the time the flags were removed and then later placed back in the display.  Today the hospital decided to remove the flags once again.

To ensure the Hot Springs VA Medical Center is a place of healing for all Veterans, the Confederate flags will be removed from the Freedom Shrine display, located in the rotunda of the main building.  This action is consistent with continued accomplishment of the medical center’s core mission, which is to provide quality health care services to Veterans.  We thank everyone for their interest and concern for our Veterans and apologize to anyone offended by the display.

Again, why there are Confederate flags in a VA Hospital in South Dakota is anyone’s guess.  First, shame on the VA staff for returning the flags once these men complained.  As might be expected the Confederate heritage whackos are out in full force complaining about another heritage violation.  These people have absolutely no class, patriotism, and they lack sympathy.  These are men who served their country and are currently being treated for wounds sustained in the line of duty.  If removing those flags from a display helps to ease their pain, than so be it.  Is that really too much to ask given their service and sacrifice for this nation?  Continue reading “The True Face of the Southern Heritage Crowd”

A Rebel War Clerk Denies the Existence of Black Confederates

The current Confederate heritage fetish with black Confederate soldiers and the confidence with which many assert the existence of these loyal and brave men in arms stands in sharp contrast with the fact that you are hard pressed to find anyone in Confederate ranks or on the home front who acknowledged the existence of these men during the war. How could it be that black men in arms escaped the attention of…well…everyone?  Again, I’ve not come across one piece of evidence during the height of the debate over the enlistment of slaves in the Confederate army that states that these men were already present.  Not one.  What you will find, on occasion, are outright denials that they exist at all.  Continue reading “A Rebel War Clerk Denies the Existence of Black Confederates”

A Civil War Crossroads (May 1, 1863)

Battle of Chancellorsville

Frederick Chapman’s (1818-1891) painting, “The Battle of Chancellorsville” (1865) is not an easy image to come by on the Internet.  Information about the artist is just as difficult to nail down.  Chapman is a relatively obscure artist.  He served as the first president of the Brooklyn Art Association and was best known for his work with stained glass.  His best known paintings include “Raising the Liberty Pole” and “Perils of Our Forefathers.”  I would love to know a bit more about why he chose to paint this particular scene.  Did Chapman ever visit this battlefield?

The scene depicted here takes place along that famous Elys Ford and Plank Road crossroads.  The Chancellor House is still intact as the two armies converge in the largest clearing in the Wilderness late in the day on May 1, 1863.  The viewer is looking northwest as the final Confederate assault comes into view in the foreground.  I assume these are Confederates from Anderson’s and McClaws’s divisions along with Union XII Corps situated south of the Plank Road and Darius Couch’s II Corps on the opposite side.

The dreary sunset provides the perfect metaphor for a spring day that started off with such promise for Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac.  We all know what’s coming next.  One of the things that I like about this painting is that it does not glorify war. Because Chapman chose to paint a scene quickly being engulfed in darkness, those unfamiliar with the landscape and battle may have to look close to even pick out who is attacking and defending.  Defeat and victory almost seem irrelevant here.  The few glimmers of sunshine that remain highlight another American crossroads and another home swept up by war.

[Thanks to John Hennessy for sending along a usable pic of Chapman’s painting.]

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.