Category Archives: Battlefield Interpretation

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.

From Heroes to Survivors

Bull RunEarlier today I finished reading Michael J. Bennett’s essay “The Black Flag and Confederate Soldiers: Total War from the Bottom Up” which is also published in Andy Slap and Michael Smith eds., This Distracted and Anarchical People: New Answers for Old Questions about the Civil War-Era North.  In his essay, Bennett explores accounts of massacres throughout the war that function as a case study of how various factors shaped what Mark Neely calls the “limits of destruction.”   Continue reading

Three Crater Photographs

Here are three photographs of the Crater from the Petersburg Museum that did not make it into my book. The first was taken inside the mineshaft itself and is dated 1926, though it is difficult to estimate exactly where.  Notice the sunlight that is coming in from above.  I assume the photograph was taken close to the entrance.  The second one shows a depression in the soil that follows the mineshaft up to the Crater itself, which is located by the cluster of trees just over the ridge line.  It doesn’t look much different from today.  It was taken sometime between 1926 and 1934. The final photograph, I believe, is from a point just west of the Crater looking northwest.  The tree line is much fuller today and extends all the way to the Jerusalem Plank Road.  It was taken in 1906.  I would love to find a photograph of the battlefield in the 1920s that showed the actual golf course.

From Civil War to ?

58172-art-american-imperialismThis will probably be the last post I write before I put together my final thoughts as an introduction to the panel on interpreting USCTs at Civil War sites that I will be moderating on Saturday at Gettysburg College. I am still thinking about Carole Emberton’s essay, which I briefly touched on a few days ago.  She’s got me thinking about the place of black Union soldiers within a narrative arc that stretches from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement and the unquestioned assumption that closely links their service and sacrifice with a postwar reward of civil rights.  Emberton argues that this narrative stood in sharp contrast with a widespread belief that service in the military functioned to tame those characteristics that many white Americans (North and South) believed prevented African Americans from enjoying the benefits of full citizenship.  Continue reading