Let’s Recross that River and Return to Chancellorsville


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. 

Our popular memory of the Chancellorsville campaign has very little room for the May 3 fighting.  It’s not that we have no stomach for the amount of suffering experienced on that final day; rather, it is that we are preoccupied with the suffering of one man.  We follow Jackson from his wounding to the amputation of his left arm to his transport to Guinea Station, where it was learned he had contracted pneumonia and where he died just eight days later.  It’s a story we love to tell and retell, but this little Civil War inspired Passion Play comes at a price.

Why are we so drawn to Jackson’s deathbed and final words?  In many ways it is a comforting scene – at least the way it is commonly remembered and depicted in popular culture.  Ron Maxwell’s interpretation of the scene is, no doubt, familiar to most of you.  Perhaps we are comforted by the fact that Jackson enjoyed what nineteenth-century Americans referred to as a “Good Death.”  He died in a setting as close to a familiar domestic setting as can be imagined during wartime; he was surrounded by loved ones at the end and; most importantly, he was able to utter a few final words that signaled an acknowledgment of the end and a reassurance that his soul would be at peace for all eternity.

Jackson’s death stands in such sharp contrast with the kind of death that most Americans faced on May 3 and beyond.  It was away from loved ones, often surrounded by the cries of fellow wounded and the torn and mangled corpses of former comrades.  Many died with no opportunity to share a final few words with friends and family.  As many of you know Jackson has two grave sites.  His arm is buried in a marked grave (so they say) close to where it was amputated and the rest of him is buried in a prominent location in Lexington, Virginia, where it is visited by thousands of Americans throughout the year.

Scattered in gravesites throughout Virginia are thousands of Unknown markers for soldiers who died in battle. Some of them are soldiers who died at Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863.

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9 comments… add one
  • Dudley Bokoski May 4, 2013 @ 12:07

    That the physical, social, and economic toll of the war tends not to be discussed as much as other aspects may be because the scale of suffering was so enormous it is difficult to comprehend at a distance. Even with advances in the technology of war, the combined American death toll in World Wars I and II is still less than the Civil War. Yet we don’t often stop to think of the lost generation of the Civil War and how their loss affected society.

    If the South clung to the memory of the war longer than the North could it have been because it felt the loss more keenly? In the North the impact might have been less if for no other reason than European immigration quickly filled the civilian ranks and kept the economy moving forward. But the empty places at Southern tables were not so quickly filled.

    The Civil War may be a considered a just war in contemplation of the good end it resulted in (the destruction of slavery). But taken in context, was it that at its inception? The North certainly did not go to war to achieve that good end and the South entered upon war far too lightly for what appears to have been unreasoning fear on things not only not done, but perhaps not much contemplated. So, we are far too quick too forget not only the terrible price paid during the war, but the rush into war itself.

    If you set aside the good result, if the war was only about preserving the Union, would the cost be too great? And whatever rationalizations some would offer for the Southern cause, how must we regard those leaders who so lightly allowed a generation to be be fed to a grist mill which produced no substance?

    We perhaps reduce the war to the sad and doomed Lincoln and the pious Jackson on his death bed because morality tales are easier to wrap our minds around than the butcher’s bill both sides paid. There is no evil in wanting to cling to their images, but there is likely a moral responsibility to consider the suffering caused by the war and to never lightly enter upon war.

    If we remember Jackson and Reynolds, Lee and Grant, and all the rest are we not obligated to remember with scorn the Southern fire eaters and Northern Radical Republicans who believed shaping the world to their will warranted such a dreadful toll?

  • Pat Young May 4, 2013 @ 9:52

    Yup. It is sitting by my bedside. My next three The Immigrants’ Civil War article are on the road to obloquy for the XI Corps.

    • Daniel Weinfeld May 4, 2013 @ 10:16

      There’s interesting recent scholarship coming out of Germany on the German immigrant community during the civil war (written in English). Andrea Mehrlander’s book on German immigrants in the confederacy is worthwhile. Anton Hieke is also doing great work on German Jews in the Carolinas and Georgia that seriously challenges the usual argument that Southern Jews strongly supported the Confederacy.

      • Pat Young May 4, 2013 @ 12:21

        Thanks Dan. If only those books were less than 100 bucks.

  • Pat Young May 3, 2013 @ 17:48

    Forgetting May 3 also allows for the Chancellorsville narrative to assign blame for Union defeat to the “German” XI Corps. We have the death of the Messiah (with a perpetual resurrection in Lost Cause “what ifs”) and the designated scapegoat in the conveniently other Germans. Very Biblical, as long as nothing of importance happened on May 3.

    • Kevin Levin May 4, 2013 @ 4:38

      Good point. I assume you are familiar with Christian Keller’s book, Chancellorsville and the Germans (Fordham University Press).

  • Corey Meyer May 3, 2013 @ 8:27

    Channeling some Drew Faust today?

  • Chuck May 3, 2013 @ 7:47

    At the 2003 Gettysburg reenactment, one of the Confederate units was the 18th North Carolina. As they prepared to launch a counterattack, we heard some unkind comments hurled in our direction. Our response was to ask “who killed Jackson?”

    • Kevin Levin May 3, 2013 @ 7:58

      Yeah, I definitely think a bit more distance from the Civil War is a good thing for all of us.

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