CHANCELLORSVILLE, Va. — Even for seasoned battlefield trampers, Wednesday’s start to the Battle of Chancellorsville’s 10-day sesquicentennial was a double-barreled blast.
Hard-core visitors set off early in the morning on a “Mayday Turnabout” bus tour setting the scene for the campaign’s first clash. By early afternoon, hundreds of people were flocking to Spotsylvania County’s First Day at Chancellorsville battlefield for historian-led tours of the lesser-known, but pivotal, place.
A decade ago, this hallowed ground along the wartime Orange Turnpike (today’s State Route 3) nearly became a “new town” of 2,350 homes and 2 million square feet of commercial space and offices pumping 77,000 car trips a day onto Route 3—with an Outer Beltway driving development into Spotsylvania’s most historic areas.
Instead, because concerned local residents banded together with the Civil War Trust, much of the land where Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson turned back Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s boys in blue is preserved for all time, open to the public to enjoy.
On Wednesday, close to the hour at which the battle began on that ground, historians and preservationists assembled under a tent to commemorate the battle’s first day and celebrate the saving of some of the land where men fought, died and fell wounded.
John Hennessy, chief of interpretation at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, warmed up the throng.
“There is a connective thread between those who lived here, fought here, suffered here, and died here, and us,” he said, in words reminiscent of Bruce Catton. “For they did what they did with the hope, even expectation, that those who followed would not forget what they had done. We are a remembering people.”
Park Superintendent Russ Smith spoke of the Civil War centennial, which he experienced as a young boy, and the ongoing work to save precious bits of Chancellorsville’s sprawling battlefields.
“While Americans in 1963 celebrated common valor and the reunion of North and South, today we take a broader view and commemorate war, rather than celebrate it,” Smith said. “We commemorate its causes, consequences and all of its participants. We also make a commitment to preserve those sites that conjure up images and memories of the war, sites which now are very much in danger.”
Civil War Trust President Jim Lighthizer praised Smith’s 10 years of service to the park and regaled folks with a quick recounting of the all-out fight—he called it “going to war”—to preserve the 215-acre First Day tract’s hills near Motts Run.
All told, the trust has invested $30 million in Spotsylvania to save some of its Civil War sites, he said.
So, here and nationally, the past decade of preservation—and the larger ends achieved by the American Civil War—deserve celebrating, Lighthizer said.
“We are the freest people in the world today, and that didn’t happen by accident. It’s because a whole lot of men and women gave up their lives, because they believed in the concept of freedom,” he said.
“We should never lose sight of the fact that this terrible war settled two questions for all time, and changed this country. It settled the question of slavery, could one man own another? And it settled the question of secession: Are we going to break up the nation because one group in one part disagrees with another?
“ One of the places where we started to settle that was here at Chancellorsville, Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory.”
Volunteers ran out of places to park cars for the occasion. More than half of the 300-plus people who came were from out of state. Many had made arrangements months ago so they can be in Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg for sesquicentennial events, just as people did for the Battle of Fredericksburg’s 150th.
After the speechifying, park historians Beth Parnicza and Eric J. Mink led packs of eager visitors from one end of the First Day site to the other, quoting participants in the pitched battle fought for the area’s highest ground.
Among many anecdotes, Parnicza and Mink noted one little-told story: that some of the site’s farms were home to Unionists who risked their lives—and profited—spying on Lee’s army for Hooker. Ironically, they brought the battle to their own doorsteps, and—for Absalom and Reuben McGee Sr. and Jr.—further split a family divided by the war.
But the Union general got it worst, Parnicza suggested: “By giving up these ridges, by deciding to hold the lesser ground around Chancellorsville, Hooker doomed himself.”