The second battle of Chancellorsville

Preservationsts try to keep Chancellorsville as it was in 1863

On the back trails of the battlefield at Chancellorsville, there are places where time seems to have stopped, where May 1863 seems just a few steps around the next bend of a road.

Visiting here, you can easily conjure up images of the Confederate victory - a Pyrrhic one - and imagine that Southern troops are about to pounce, as they did in Stonewall Jackson's lethal flank attack on the Union Army. Jackson wound up being shot by his own troops, the most consequential incident of "friendly fire" in American history.

If you visit Chancellorsville - one of the lesser-known but most important Civil War battlefields - you had better come soon. Preservationists now talk about what they call the "two battles of Chancellorsville."

The first involved the Northern and Southern armies in fierce and fiery combat inside dense woods. The second is the fight to keep as much of the surrounding landscape the way it was in 1863.

There is no "ville" here, and never was. Even in 1863, the roadside tavern Joseph Chancellor had built in 1824 in the hopes of attracting travelers was the only building in the immediate area. The only thing the tavern attracted was trouble when Union Army commander Joseph ("Fighting Joe") Hooker stopped here on what he thought was a successful march toward the Confederate capital of Richmond.

Today, as at Gettysburg, one can scan regimental monuments and historic markers on the battlefield, but it is their relative absence that makes Chancellorsville so spooky - and so compelling. At one spot on a still-unpaved road that Jackson used to slither through the woods, you can hop your way across a small stream, just as his troops did on their trek to get at Hooker's right flank.

The National Park Service owns much of the battlefield, part of the larger Fredericksburg- Spotsylvania Military Park, the largest of its kind. Some 110,000 Americans were killed or wounded here in battles from 1862 to 1864.

At the NPS Center on the Chancellorsville battlefield - near a 10-foot-high obelisk marking the spot Jackson was shot - guides will tell you it was the most significant of all the battles fought in the area.

Every recent Congress and president have put more money into buying up battle land that is not already owned by the Park Service. New purchases, private gifts, and easements have brought control or oversight of some very valuable bits of historic property into public hands.

Still, to the chagrin of preservationists, some private landowners won't sell to the government, eager for higher bidders who want to develop housing and shopping for the sprawling suburbs of nearby Fredericksburg.

One major plan for a massive condominium development has recently been stopped - at least for now. But another threat is always lurking.

The Virginia Department of Transportation proposed a beltway, or "outer connector," to loop Interstate 95 around Fredericksburg, which would bring traffic and noise pollution near secluded areas of the battlefield. The proposal has been defeated, but preservation activists worry it will soon be resurrected in another guise.

Because of threats such as these, Chancellorsville is on many lists of endangered historic sites, including advisories from key preservation groups such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Civil War Preservation Trust. With the collaboration and aid of the CWPT, the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust is now completing acquisition of more than 16 acres that were used by Jackson's troops in their attack.

The battle itself was noteworthy for the audacious decision by Jackson and Robert E. Lee to split the Confederate army and send Jackson's troops deep into what is still called "the Wilderness," around the Union right flank. A battlefield marker identifies the spot where Lee and Jackson met at night on May 1 to devise their strategy.

Jackson's chief engineer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, had found a farmer who told him of a narrow path through the thickets. Wagons had used it to supply old iron forges in the wilderness, the only things ever built there. The woodland road led southwest, then hooked even farther west to a point where the right wing of the federal army had camped.

As May 2 dawned, Lee decided to hold his front with only 17,000 men, bluffing that he had more, as Jackson took his 28,000 men on the path that circled the Union troops. There were 73,000 federals, but alarms from the few who sensed something was up were discounted by Hooker.

Jackson's stated goal was "always to mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy." At dusk on May 2, after a day's march, he achieved it. At 5:30 p.m., he drove into unsuspecting Union divisions composed of recent German immigrants, forever after known as "the Flying Dutchmen."

Only federal artillery saved the US Army from complete rout. Frustrated, Jackson tried night reconnaissance, and the rest is - well, the rest is American history.

Jackson, badly wounded in the dark by his own men, had to have his left arm amputated. Lee anguished, "General Jackson has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right."

The main section of Virginia Route 3 today marks where fighting went on for several more days, savagely but inconclusively. Two Union generals and one Confederate general were killed during battle. Jackson died about a week later.

The National Park Service owns a "Jackson Shrine," complete with his deathbed, by the north-south railroad line from Washington to Richmond some 10 miles away. The tracks are new; the railroad bed is the same as it was in 1863, the main axis of the Civil War. The clocks in the shrine have been stopped at the hour he died on May 10.

Nearer Chancellorsville, Jackson's arm is buried at Ellwood, a farm once owned by his chaplain's family. Today the rust-red farmhouse is ensconced between a set of stately sycamores and Kentucky coffee trees.

The Park Service recently acquired Ellwood, another of its small victories. But many wonder if such wins are enough.

The preservation problem, say activists, is simple: The Civil War was fought on front porches, in backyards, and across farms and towns. Most land on which battles occurred was privately owned and can be used - or sold - as the owners desire.

The situation in Deep South states is worse, as sites of old battles and skirmishes are rapidly becoming malls. At Chancellorsville, many enthusiastic preservationists want a last stand to save for visitors its timelessness and sense of the past.

There is one other reason, preservationists say, to save the battlefield - its hidden historic significance.

Many historians consider the battle to be Lee's finest victory. Having won, Lee headed north toward Pennsylvania and began to think his army was invincible - hence the (otherwise incredible) order for Pickett's charge two months later on July 3, 1863.

In short, without Chancellorsville, there would have been no Gettysburg.

What impression will visitors to the battle field have in 15, 20, or 25 years? No one knows, but preservationists hope the experience will be as close to what it was like in 1863 as is possible today.

So far, the outcome doesn't look hopeful: At nearby Salem Church, where the last fighting in the battle took place, motels, gas stations, and malls inch toward the wilderness, and billboards inherit the earth.

Maybe the pessimists among the preservationists are right: See this hallowed ground while there is still time.

Learn more about the Battle of Chancellorsville

The Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center (540-786-2880) is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Periodic talks are given by National Park Service staff, and a cassette is available for a car tour of the battlefield.

Ellwood (540-371-0802) is open on weekends from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. The Jackson Shrine at Guinea Station, Va., is usually open Friday to Tuesday, but currently closed for roadwork (540-633-6076).

Special events and tours will take place in Fredericksburg May 27-31 (www.nps.gov/frsp/special.htm). For information and reservations, call 1-800-654-4118. On May 29, 15,000-plus candles will be lighted at the National Cemetery, one for each soldier buried there (www.nps.gov/ luminari.htm).

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