Park Development: Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center, Part 4

From Mink:

This is the fourth and final post on the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center. The previous posts can be found here, here and here.


The visitor center at Chancellorsville is nearing the half century mark. The decision to build adjacent to the site of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding has certainly influenced how the battlefield is viewed and interpreted. Park staff hoped to avoid impacts to the “heart of the battlefield” at Hazel Grove and Fairview. In the process, the site of Jackson’s wounding was, to some extent, elevated in the interpretive story.

Due to the visitor center’s location, the story of Jackson’s wounding gets more attention than any other site on the battlefield. At the visitor center, park visitors have the benefit of knowledgeable staff and receive personal attention and services, which certainly results in a higher visitation there than anywhere else. The only place at Chancellorsville where regularly guided tours are offered is at the visitor center and those tours are site specific, focusing on the wounding of Jackson. If the visitor center were located anywhere else, the tours would probably likewise be focused elsewhere. As a result, it’s safe to say that visitors receive more interpretation and understand the site associated with the events on the evening of May 2, 1863 than they do those of any other location or day of the battle.

The visitor center was criticized for both its location and its architectural style. As explained in an earlier post, the construction of the visitor center resulted in the destruction of a portion of the historic Mountain Road. Given the amount of land that the park had access to in 1958, the location for a new visitor center was not easy. In weighing their options, park planners chose to avoid what they deemed to be the scene of significant fighting at Hazel Grove and Fairview. The impact to the Jackson wounding site was unfortunate, but what would have been the result had the planners gone with the original plan of building a complex near Hazel Grove? 

The visitor center has also been criticized for its architectural style. The Mission 66 modernism was, and is, felt by many to be inappropriate for national parks. When first built, the visitor center was in striking contrast to the “rustic” nature of earlier park facilities, as well as its natural and wooded location. Since its construction, the park has allowed the vegetation to grow up around the structure, and coupled with the low profile of the building, perhaps it does a better job now of blending into its surroundings.

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Wilderness Military Cemetery #2

From Hennessy:

This headboard has just gone on permanent display at the Chancellorsville Visitor Center in a new exhibit, “A Family Shattered,” which tells the story of a single family whose patriarch, John Patterson, was killed at the Wilderness.  His death in turn led to a disastrous thread of events for his family back home.  The point of the exhibit is to show how what happened on our fields reverberated across the American landscape.  The headboard shown here marked Patterson’s grave on the Wilderness Battlefield before his body was returned to his hometown cemetery after the war. The board was put up by burial crews in 1865, undoubtedly replacing a cruder headboard that had marked his burial place since his death in May 1864.

Here’s an image of what some of the marked graves at the Wilderness looked like before the burial parties arrived in 1865 and installed new headboards.  This view is on the Carpenter Farm, probably not far from where Patterson was originally buried.

The Patterson headboard is the only surviving example of the mass-produced, hand-painted grave markers that stood over Union graves prior to the creation of the National Cemetery in 1866 and 1867.  In my view, it is one of the most compelling artifacts we have.  We are grateful to Patterson’s descendant, Bill Phillis of Michigan, for making it available for display.  If you can get to Chancellorsville VC, take a look.

Take a look too at this image of Wilderness Military Cemetery #2 (below).  While Patterson was buried elsewhere, you can see instantly that the headboards in this view are virtually identical to the Patterson marker (click to enlarge). Continue reading

Virtual Ellwood

From Hennessy:

A brief stray from our normal stuff today to bring you Virtual Ellwood.  This is a 3-D flyby of Ellwood that we have done as part of our Virtual Wilderness project–a 3-D interactive twin to Virtual Fredericksburg.  I share this because it’s cool, of course, but also because this fly-around reflects the very latest research on Ellwood’s wartime landscape as it appears in the nearly-done Cultural Landscape Report.  There are some things we still don’t know for sure–for example, exactly how many slave cabins stood behind the Big House and how they were configured–but most of this is rock-solid.  While Ellwood is the only component of the Wilderness landscape we found it worthwhile to model (there wasn’t much on the battlefield in 1864),  this sort of modeling will be typical for Virtual Fredericksburg.  That program will include more than 60 modeled buildings.

For those who don’t know, Ellwood is a c1799 middling plantation on the eastern edge of the Wilderness Battlefield.  We just unveiled the place in newly restored form, with new exhibits.  For more on that, see here.

Park Development: Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center, Part 3

From Mink:

Part 1 of this discussion can be found here

Part 2 of this discussion can be found here

The decision to locate the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center north of State Route 3 was made in order to keep the complex out of what local park officials felt was the “heart of the battlefield” – the area between and around Hazel Grove and Fairview. Avoidance of impacts on the Hazel Grove-Fairview landscape resulted, however, in the impact on what Historian Ralph Happel called “the dramatic point which people want to see and walk around” – the site of Stonewall Jackson’s mortal wounding.


Park staff were well aware of the key resources north State Route 3. Historian Albert Dillahunty referenced these resources in his December 1958 memo to Superintendent Northington:

“A visitor center south of the road would be cut off from the dramatic Jackson Monument area by the four-lane highway. To put the center north of the road, the Jackson Monument, grave of unknown Union soldier, trace of Old Mountain Road and the quartz boulder placed during the late 19th century to mark the place where Jackson fell could be left in a buffer strip between the highway and the visitor center to be treated as an exhibit in place.” (Memo, dated December 24, 1958, Albert Dillahunty to Superintendent, FRSP, copy in FRSP files)

It is interesting that Dillahunty mentions the Mountain Road trace in this memo, as its consideration as a resource is often overlooked. The Mountain Road is the small woods road that Stonewall Jackson and his entourage were traveling on when fired upon by the 18th North Carolina Infantry. While the approximate site of Jackson’s wounding is a short distance east of the visitor center, the road trace ran from Bullock Road, paralleling Orange Plank Road, eastward for about a mile.

While the Mountain Road may have received some consideration during the visitor center planning stages, there appears to have been little outcry about the possible impacts construction would create.

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Bloody Plain Panorama III: The Swale

From Hennessy (for previous posts on the Bloody Plain Panorama, see here, here, and here–click on images to enlarge them):

Few more subtle landscape features were so important as the swale at Fredericksburg.  Running from near Hanover Street nominally southward through the Fairgrounds to near what is today Lafayette Boulevard (a dirt short-cut during the Civil War), this slight ripple in the ground was surely noticed by no-one until circumstances on December 13 and 14 rendered it the most important feature on the field to thousands of Union soldiers.  Other than the Stratton House, this ripple of ground provided the only shelter on the Bloody Plain.  On an excerpt from the great panorama of the Bloody Plain, I have traced the swale in black across the field, just east of the Stratton house, above.  I also indicate on an overlay of the modern landscape.

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Park Development: Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center, Part 2

From Mink:

Part 1 of this discussion can be found here

Choosing a Location

The selection of a location for the new visitor center at Chancellorsville was not without debate within the NPS. Typically, land within a national park is considered significant to the story of that park and finding a site that can be heavily developed, such as the construction of a visitor center, is no easy task. This was certainly the case at Chancellorsville. In the late 1950s, NPS-owned lands at Chancellorsville totaled about 600 acres, whereas today the battlefield under NPS stewardship sits at about 2,600 acres.

The map below shows the approximate boundaries of what the NPS owned of the Chancellorsville Battlefield around the time the decision was made to build the new visitor center. Trying to find a place for development, within those shaded areas, proved somewhat difficult and there was some disagreement within the NPS once the decision was made.

The star on the map to the left represents the location of a contact station that had stood near the Stonewall Jackson Monument since 1935.

While it might have been easy to simply expand the existing parking area and build the larger facility, NPS staff and planners looked at other areas of the battlefield to site the new visitor center. A major consideration for any proposed site was that the new building should be easily accessible from current traffic patterns. In other words, access from State Route 3 was preferred. Additionally, the project also included the construction of three houses for park employees, along with water and maintenance facilities. Given the comparatively small amount of land the park had to work with, there were few options.

On March 17, 1958, NPS Director Conrad L. Wirth signed off on a plan that called for placing the visitor center south of State Route 3 and along Stuart Drive – a park road. The development plan below shows the accepted location and orientation of the visitor center and associated structures.

The close-up view below shows the proposed visitor center location in relation to State Route 3 and the Stonewall Jackson Monument. It
should be noted that the plan depicts State Route 3 as a four-lane divided road. That would not actually occur for another 15 years, but the NPS was planning for the road’s widening. Continue reading

Park Development: Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center

From Mink:

One of the constant conundrums that national parks face is the balancing of preservation and conservation with accessibility and enjoyment. Part of the mission of parks is to provide for the enjoyment of its visitors, which involves the development of nationally significant natural and/or historic sites into parks.

Like all national parks, the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park (FRSP) is often developing new trails, signs, and providing or improving ways for its visitors’ enjoyment. There have been two periods when intense and concentrated park development has occurred: the initial park development under the War Department, National Park Service and Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and the Mission 66 period in the 1960s. While the first focused on creating roads and preparing the park for its first visitors, the second sought to upgrade and expand facilities and interpretive opportunities for both visitors and park staff. The most visible element of the Mission 66 development at FRSP is the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center (CVC), which was, and continues to be, the subject of some controversy, scrutiny and criticism.

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