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.]

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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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What Really Matters in the Survey Course

The first year teaching at any school is all about acclimation to the culture.  For someone who grew up Jewish, was Bar Mitvahed, but then lost all interest it’s been quite an adventure this past year teaching at a Jewish academy.  The emphasis on Judaic Studies and the celebration of holidays feels both foreign and familiar to me.  My students have been incredibly helpful and patient as I try to figure out my comfort zone at school events and with my own questions about the meaning that they find in Judaism.  My colleagues in the History Department have also been incredibly supportive.  It’s a very talented department.  Our meetings are filled with discussions about historiography, pedagogy, current events, etc.  I’ve thought more about what I do in the classroom this year alone than throughout my entire teaching career.

The biggest challenge by far has been working within the constraints of the calendar.  Each class meets three days a week instead of the usual four.  On top of that we have off for every Jewish holiday.  Some of you know what that means for the months of September and October.  Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the down time, but it raises a number of questions about how I go forward in structuring my classes next year, which in addition to my American history survey will also include a course in Modern Europe as well as my Civil War Memory/Holocaust course.

This hasn’t been easy given that the last course I taught before moving to Boston was AP US History.  The issue here is not even about where to cut back as much as it is trying to figure out what exactly is essential to an American history survey course that has so little time.  The good thing is that there is no pressure from the department to be comprehensive.  The emphasis is placed on imparting critical reading and writing skills.  But I do have to think long and hard about what content I want to cover in this class.

I really need to think out of the box.  I’ve thought about a thematic approach, but I tend to worry about those broad perspectives on history that seem to have so little grounding in the proper context.  My preference is to pick a couple of case studies and have students dig down in the time allotted.  Perhaps each one can represent a different approach to the study of history. For instance, we can examine the role of biography, social history, gender, etc.

As you can see things are pretty much up in the air.  I am open to any suggestions

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But For Jackson

On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chancellorsville and we are already being subjected to a steady stream of interpretive flights of fancy surrounding the significance of Stonewall Jackson’s death.

Although it was not evident at the time, some historians believe Jackson’s death began the ruin of the Confederacy. The Southern disaster at Gettysburg two months later only confirmed the start of the eclipse.  “The road to Appomattox [where the war ended] began on [that] Saturday night” at Chancellorsville, James I. Robertson Jr., Jackson’s best biographer, has said. “With his death, the southern confederacy began to die as well.”

“It was just a tragedy for the South,” Robertson said in an interview, “the greatest personal loss that the South suffered in that war . . . a horrible blow.”  Civil War scholar Robert K. Krick said: “It’s hard to imagine the war going the way it did with Jackson present.”

I guess it should come as no surprise that Robertson and Krick are leading the way.  Upcoming editorials will likely wax poetic about Jackson’s flank attack on May 2 and his final hours at Guinea Station and ignore or run rough shod over the fighting that took place the following day, which was significantly more important.  We do love our stories.

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The Crisis Pulls No Punches

justice-scalia

Not sure how I feel about the cover of the most recent issue of The Crisis, but it sure does grab your attention.  [click to continue…]

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