FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — If you’ve been to the National Park Service’s Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center in the past, what you’ll see there now is like night and day compared to its old self.
Its exhibits have been re-born, pumped full of vibrant life and color and context.
Yesterday, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park opened the doors—a “soft” opening, to be sure—to this box of wonders.
As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War’s Overland Campaign begins, this building offers the best introduction to the fighting that make the region “America’s Battleground,” as the new exhibition’s opening banner declares.
In the course of three years from 1862 into 1864, four major battles felled 100,000 men here, and the Fredericksburg area became the most blood-soaked ground in the nation.
Now, inside this 1960s structure (a relic of the Civil War’s centennial), artifacts, words, sculpture, photographs and moving images tell of combat and casualties on three of those fields: Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. The update is the first overhaul of Chancellorsville’s displays in more than 50 years.
But it’s not all about soldiers and generals, tactics and strategy. Wonderful stories of civilians caught up in the war—men, women, children, slaves—are related here, too.
That’s where the exhibits may work best, said John Hennessy, the park’s chief historian.
“The whole thing has a strong element of humanity,” he said while examining designers’ and curators’ final work. “It encourages people to see leaders as people rather than as icons.”
That perspective is present from the get-go, as soon as a visitor steps from the visitor center’s lobby into the exhibition.
There, kneeling, is the figure of an exhausted Confederate soldier, sobbing from the stress and horror of what he has experienced in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
A label quotes David Holt of the 16th Mississippi, after fighting at the Bloody Angle on May 13, 1864: “We halted in a pasture and broke ranks. Then came the reaction. All moved by the same impulse, we sat down on the wet ground and wept. Not silently, but vociferously and long.”
A few steps later, one sees two girls huddled in the basement of the Chancellor House as May 1863’s Battle of Chancellorsville rages around them.
Nearby is an incredibly accurate diorama of the Chancellor plantation, faithful down to the last shingle and pig. It was created by area resident Sam Ganoung.
Around the corner is a small portrait of Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, framed with a lock of his hair and a swatch from the uniform he was wearing when he was mortally wounded on the night of May 2, 1863.
But the most gripping part of the show is arguably halfway through—a gray-walled room filled with dozens of portraits of dead and wounded soldiers and their families, donated by descendants; one display case holding two uniforms; and two walls of floor-to-ceiling type stating the names of the more than 16,000 soldiers who died as a result of the area’s four big battles.
It is a sobering space.
“Their graves may be unknown, but they are not unknown any longer,” Hennessy said. “In many ways, I think that is the greatest part of this whole exhibition: that these names are here. The least that we can do is remember the names of men who died for our country, or the Confederacy.”
The display may be the only one like it on the Civil War battlefields interpreted by the National Park Service. Only at Gettysburg does Hennessy know of a similar effort to compile a complete list of battle dead.
Here, all the work was done by volunteers. They went through every roster of every regiment, name by name by name, and picked out those who were killed or mortally wounded here.
The display case holds the uniforms of Union Gen. James Clay Rice, who wore it on May 10, 1864, when he was mortally wounded at Spotsylvania Court House, and Confederate Pvt. William Hightower of the the 23d Virginia Infantry, who fell grievously wounded in the leg in the intense fighting at Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863. Surgeons amputated his leg but Hightower died of his wounds two weeks later.
“I don’t know there is any artifact of the four battles here that more vividly tells the story than his uniform, with its left leg removed,” Hennessy said. “He was young, youthful-looking, and he gave his life for the Confederacy.”
Site work on the visitor center began Christmas week last year. Alterations, including interior modifications, a new boiler and a climate-controlled entrance vestibule to help preserve curatorial items, cost about $300,000. The exhibits cost $600,000 to build and install.
Park staff members did all the planning and writing for the exhibition. Park Service curators from Richmond National Battlefield Park and George Washington Birthplace National Monument helped remove and safeguard artifacts during the redo, and installed historical objects in the new cases.
There are new images, artifacts, videos and interactive displays, and some old favorites—such as the narrated dioramas of Jackson’s wounding and the fight at the Bloody Angle.
Park Superintendent Lucy Lawliss is enthusiastic about the result, saying that the park and exhibit team led by Hennessy “have done an outstanding job.”
“Visitors to the new exhibits will be overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of the stories, graphics, figures and artifacts interwoven in a narrative of life and death on these three battlefields,” Lawliss said Thursday. “The designs are state-of-the-art with video graphics thoughtfully placed to provide an enhanced level of experience and understanding. Visitors will have to come more than once to absorb all that is presented.”
The exhibition’s official opening will take place the morning of May 17; the public is invited.