“What will the country say?”: Lincoln’s lament, Chancellorsville, and public history


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.

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8 thoughts on ““What will the country say?”: Lincoln’s lament, Chancellorsville, and public history

  1. As Stephen Sears points out in “Chancellorsville”, Lee was not pleased with the results of the battle: “At Chancellorsville we gained another victory; our people were wild with delight–I, on the contrary, was more depressed than after Fredericksburg; our loss was severe, we had gained not an inch of ground, and the enemy could not be pursued.”

  2. As someone new to the study of these battles, I can’t get it out of my head that the four battles were an ebb and flow which make up the prelude of the final outcome. If there were a way to show the interaction of the battles resembled the bobbing of a ship at sea or prize fighters in the ring. The players — size of the Armies, heroes (generals), terrain, civilians, the foot soldier — were tumbled at each battle. As the battle (round) ended, the combatants made changes to react.

    I like time lines so maybe a picture of the four battles (with a zig/zag to PA) would work to show the Chancellorsville in context with all of the battles.

    As John said, it is really hard to word-smith ideas into a small footprint. Particular attention should be made to the graphics as the words. (“A picture is worth a 1,000 words.”). That said maybe a scale graphic of the size of the Union force (1 man represents 10,000 men) with “Winner” and “Loser” scribed over the force graphics would be efficient.

    What is the format for getting ideas and consensus out? I ran and taught brainstorming sessions (yes, with the large white papers on the walls) to get all ideas out and obtain consensus from attendees. I’d be happy to facilitate such a meeting.

  3. Probably the simplest description would be a Confederate victory in the face of impossibly long odds, but a victory that was too costly to lead to final success. Lee and Longstreet both knew that any more victories like this was going to kill the army.
    You make a good point that Lincoln’s quote, while dramatic, doesn’t give a real look at the reactions of the army or nation after the battle. Everything I’ve read about the battle (and it’s a fair amount-I had a great x 3 uncle captured at Hazel Grove) says that army morale was nowhere near as bad as it was after Fredericksburg.

  4. John,
    After the dramatics of the flank march, loss of Jackson, fighting in the Wilderness, the take away for me is the triumph of Union logistics at Chancellorsville. You already have a display case at Chancellorsville related to logistics, but it gets muddied with subsequent stories of mules run amok. The report of quartermaster Ingalls after the battle is exceptionally upbeat in that the new doctrine for giving the army the necessary mobility to operate away from a fixed base for a defined period had proved exceptionally successful. This capability again proved its worth as the Union army marched into Pennsylvania, moving more quickly than Stuart anticipated, etc. etc. The Army of the Potomac used its time in winter quarters to develop professionally, something the Confederate army did not have the means to pull off. When we talk of the industrialized North prevailing over the South, the Union army still needed to figure out how to bring its material wealth to bear in the field, something that American military men have had to confront ever since.

  5. “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 very good observation/question….IMHO the winter of 1862-63 for the Army of the Potomac was the dividing line of sorts between what had gone on before (meek/bad leadership and perception by R&F of defeats) and how the army would be after (better leadership, and a perception by the R&F of setbacks but not defeats).
    Following that winter the AOtP was a much more confident and aggressive army and that confidence/aggressiveness continued into Pennsylvania and beyond. In that respect Chancellorsville seems to have much more of a connection to what happens at Gettysburg and beyond than what happened in December at Fredericksburg.
    How you explain to the general public how the AOtP gained that confidence in a small exhibit is the real conundrum.

  6. Thanks to all of you for some very thoughtful comments. I raised the question because it’s not exactly customary for an author or a park to declaim their subject as anything but critical to the evolution of the nation. Monocacy is the “battle that saved Washington.” Gettysburg the High Water Mark; Antietam, the gateway to emancipation; Wilderness and Spotsylvania–the beginning of the end. Chancellorsville WAS important, but I think it’s equally useful to illuminate ways that it wasn’t critical…. I tend to agree–as Erik and Chuck suggest–that the importance of Chancellorsville for the Union perspective lies in the army’s preparation for the campaign. We will be continuing to refine these messages. Input always welcome… Many thanks. John H.

  7. John, I think your point- and the point of other commentators- about the development of the Army of the Potomac, in contrast to the ANV, is really important, and will draw the interest of a lot of visitors from north of the Mason-Dixon Line. With your location along the I-95 corridor, this has to be important for the park’s long term success. The Army of the Potomac used the winter of 62-63 to develop in so many ways- logistics, definitely, but also in improving its Intelligence service. On the Confederate side, to me Jackson’s flank march is simply one of the most dramatic moments in American military history.

    I look forward to seeing what develops at Chancellorsville.

  8. Perhaps the most significant reaction of the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac to the Chancellorsville defeat was the realization that it was their commander, Joe Hooker, who had lost the battle rather than the AP. In almost every situation, the men fought well and gave the Rebels as good as they got. If Hooker had been more aggressive and taken advantage of the tactical opportunity created by the division of Lee’s Army on the morning of May 3, the results of the battle may have been very different. As Jeffrey Wert has so effectively pointed out, one of the principal characteristics of the AP was its resiliency. The rank and file doubtlessly speculated what they would be able to accomplish under a truely effective leader.

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