This is a repost from a couple years back, germane to today’s 150th anniversary of the fighting at Fairview.
Over at Fredericksburg Remembered, I have also posted more reflective things, including my remarks at the opening ceremony for the Chancellorsville 150th: A Remembering People.
I have also posted “Icons, the merely famous, and us”–my thoughts on Jackson on the anniversary of his wounding.
Working on these fields, we are of course pretty familiar with them. But closeness doesn’t always make for clarity. No resource on our fields is more obscured by closeness than earthworks. At ground level it’s impossible to see them as anything but vertical features–now slowly fading mounds of earth. But with the advent of readily available high-resolution aerial photography from Google Earth or Virtual Earth, you can see these earthworks in a whole new way: as they relate to each other horizontally.
A case in point: Fairview, on the Chancellorsville Battlefield. With all apologies to Jackson aficionados, I have always felt that if visitors can make one stop at Chancellorsville to get a general grasp of the battle, Fairview should be it. It was the fulcrum upon which the battle of Chancellorsville turned. That becomes apparent looking at an aerial view of the site (these views are from Google Earth).
I have labeled on the image the six artillery lunettes built by the Union army on May 2, 1863, when its attention was focused eastward and southward. But the aerial view shows the tangible impact of Jackson’s flank attack on the battle, as it crashed down on the army from the west (to the left). The new line of works built overnight May 2-3 is oriented westward, not south, to better defend against what changed front required by Jackson’s assault. Note too that the artillery here on May 2 was paltry compared to the extensive line constructed prior to the fighting on the morning of May 3–as many as 34 tightly packed Union guns fought along this line that morning. Fairview became the focal point of massive, life-eating attacks–some of the heaviest sustained combat of the war (no hyperbole there). For five hours, a man fell every second in the woods and fields around Fairview, more than 18,000 in all.
This change in the works and the relative scale of the lines can be seen clearly in this aerial view, but is much harder to grasp on the ground.
One other little observation.
In Eric Mink’s recent posts, Are Those Trenches Real?, he included an image of the CCC at work “restoring” a lunette at Fairview. On the map above, I have labeled the lunette they worked on as #5. On the ground today, that lunette does not appear to be radically different from its adjacent partners. But look at it from above: you can see that the CCC work radically enlarged it, compared to the others. I had never noticed it before looking at the aerial image.
Here’s another example, at Spotsylvania. We know the Muleshoe Salient as a Confederate construction, and of course it was the focal point of fighting for two days: May 10 and, most famously, May 12, 1864. If your meanderings take you to the east face of the salient, walk around and take a shot at making sense of the jumble of works there. Good luck.
But take a look at this aerial view, showing the East Angle at the upper left and the east face of the salient (the Bloody Angle is about 400 yards off the left edge of this photograph).
While the origin or use of the double set of works at top remains obscure (at least to me), it’s clear that the original Confederate stretch of works at right, along the east face of the Salient, was re-faced by the Union army, with the best and most extensive traverses that survive anywhere in the park. While the aerial doesn’t bring clarity on everything, it’s certainly an important point of departure for figuring these things out. More than that, it demonstrates that the construction of the lines at Spotsylvania was anything but haphazard. They were carefully engineered, geometric undertakings whose complexity and precision is almost impossible to grasp from ground level.
The aerial imagery is an important new tool that helps understand the resources we manage, and it offers great potential for public interpretation as well–something we will be exploring more as we move forward. In the meantime, explore yourself. You might spot some things you (or we) never noticed before.