From John Hennessy:
We are starting to get into the weeds in planning the new exhibits for Chancellorsville Visitor Center (click here for a post about this project). Doing exhibits, or any public history, has an especial demand because they both demand the delivery of big ideas in efficient ways, often with no more than 75-100 words. Writing really good exhibits is, I think, one of the best laboratories for a writer. The task allows for no tangents, no sloppiness, precise language, and complete focus on the message at hand. It is indeed, as Twain suggested, much harder to write 100 words than 500 or 1,000.
Of our four battles, Chancellorsville has always seemed to me to be the most difficult to convey to the general public. It took me longer to write the script for our present Chancellorsville film than any of the others we have done, though in many ways the story is simpler. That relative simplicity, though, implies a narrative flatness that our other three battle stories lack–especially Fredericksburg. Fredericksburg has many, many layers: civilians caught in the storm, the river crossing, street fighting, the drama of Marye’s Heights, a town devastated, and so on. Wilderness and Spotsylvania have Grant and Lee, a haunting landscape, and an evolving human experience of battle that challenged survivors to describe it in vivid ways. But, stripped to its essentials, Chancellorsville is–from a literary standpoint–a flatter story. Lee and Jackson, of course. Lots of woods. Lots of death. For the public at large, Lee and Jackson alone give the story relief (albeit vivid relief), with Hooker’s travails a minor storyline for most.
For us, the first step in doing a new exhibit is to decide what it is you want everyday visitors to walk away with–what are the two or three or four most important things that you want to have a fair chance that they’ll remember or understand? We are in this process now, and this has led to some interesting discussions about Chancellorsville. We of course can wax eloquently about the obviously important about Chancellorsville: “Lee’s greatest victory”–maybe, certainly up among the top two (I’d aver that Second Manassas included brilliant elements of both strategy and tactics, which marks it perhaps as Lee’s greatest, but I digress). Jackson at the pinnacle of his success, cut down. The Confederate war effort dealt a serious blow by Jackson’s death (though we will avoid viewing his death as a metaphor for the Confederacy at large). Lee assumes on May 1 the initiative that he would retain exactly 64 days, until the attack on July 3, 1863, at Gettysburg.
But in most of these recitations of why Chancellorsville matters, reference to the Union army is at best secondary, and sometimes absent altogether. The Union effort at Chancellorsville is invariably, and rightly, framed against the backdrop of defeat at Fredericksburg and the gloomy aftermath of the Mud March. For them, Chancellorsville is a campaign of redemption, of urgency, with bright prospects under a new, confident leader. Then disaster. Not just defeat, but ignominious defeat against an army half its size, engineered by a Union commander whose performance at Chancellorsville belied by its passivity all of his previous aggressive glory.
The disaster stunned Lincoln, leaving him musing out loud. “What will the country say? Oh, what will the country say?”
Dropping the story there has a powerful literary effect, suggesting the nation couldn’t much handle news of the disaster. But, moving beyond literary device, what in fact did the country say–were Lincoln’s musings of gloom fulfilled?
The country didn’t say much. There were no paroxysms of national grief, no chorus clamoring for political or military change. The Army of the Potomac returned to its camps in Stafford County, blamed the defeat on the 11th Corps, exonerated itself at large, and moved on. Hooker blamed Sedgwick and Howard and Stoneman, and soon focused anew on Lee.
Getting back to exhibits and simple messages, what does all this tell us? Doesn’t the Union defeat at Chancellorsville demonstrate something very important for visitors to understand: that by 1863 the Civil War had become so large, so muti-faceted, that the outcome of a single battle–even a singularly one-side victory like Chancellorsville–could not dramatically alter the course or outcome of the war? Isn’t it the clearest evidence yet that the stubborn mindset of the decisive single victory determining the fate of the nation was undeniably and reliably dead?
It is not human instinct to assert the insignificance of anything we are involved with. And this is not to say that the Battle of Chancellorsville didn’t matter (it did, in more ways than touched on here). But it is to say that in the wide view, Union defeat at Chancellorsville didn’t much matter to the Union war effort (I think Confederate victory mattered a great deal to the Confederate war effort). And doesn’t the idea that it didn’t matter reveal something about Chancellorsville and the war that every visitor ought to walk away with?
This is a question honestly asked. Comments welcome.