First-day site at Chancellorsville opens to public

In the opening hours of the May 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, it was not yet clear that Robert E. Lee was about to win one of his greatest victories— but at the greatest cost, with the loss of Stonewall Jackson. Today, as part of several events related to the battle’s 145th anniversary, visitors will be able to stand on some of that same first-day ground and contemplate those incredible reversals of fortune.

This spring, the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) announced the acquisition and preservation of more than 200 acres of the Mullins Farm, the site of the battle’s first-day fighting. The acquisition culminates a long effort by the Trust, the Coalition to Save Chancellorsville Battlefield, and other groups to protect the parcel. Chancellorsville is among the most compromised Civil War battlefields: Only about 10 percent of the original 22,000-acre battleground is protected by the National Park Service, for example, and much of the remaining land has been paved over for commercial and residential development. Despite its historic significance, the Mullins Farm is located in a particularly desirable location for developers. At one point, 2,000 houses and 2.2 million square feet of commercial space were planned for the property.

After CWPT forged a groundbreaking agreement with the property owners, developers, the National Park Service, and Spotsylvania County officials, the 214-acre parcel will open to the public this May 24, in conjunction with the 145th anniversary of the battle.

A new interpretive trail will orient visitors and explain the significance of the first-day fighting to the overall campaign. “It’s going to be a good feeling to finally have this lengthy preservation effort come to a conclusion,” says CWPT spokesman Jim Campi, “and see visitors young and old out on the site enjoying it.”

The property will also host an anniversary reenactment on May 3- 4, which will include speeches from CWPT and county officials, lectures, programs, and demonstrations, as well as field hospital “immersion” event. That same weekend, the Chancellorsville unit of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park will stage several anniversary events, including walking tours and discussions about the wounding of Stonewall Jackson, Jackson’s flank attack, and other topics (which will be scheduled so that they do not conflict with the reenactment). On May 9 and 10, other events, including a candlelight tour at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, will retrace the general’s final hours.

This spring, CWPT will also launch a special Chancellorsville web site, including a new interactive map that will allow visitors to follow the battle hour by hour and monitor the progression of troops over that rough terrain 145 years ago.

—Kim A. O’Connell

New translation of “Lee’s Miserables” marches in

One hundred and twenty five years before a megamusical called Les Miserables opened to raves on Broadway, a big novel of the same name debuted on the Civil War battlefield.

Victor Hugo’s epic story of Jean Valjean, which the New York Tribune declared “a call for a nobler and wiser Civilization,” captured the hearts and minds of both Rebels and Yankees. Confederate Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett’s wife Sallie, who traveled with her husband and later recounted her battlefront experiences in an 1899 memoir, remembered her joy when “our good friend,” Union Maj. Gen. Rufus Ingalls, sent a copy of the book across enemy lines.

“The soldiers,” Pickett wrote, “with a quick instinct of appropriateness born of experience, rechristened the work ‘Lee’s Miserables,’ and certainly no book ever achieved the popularity of that most marvelous picture of life. They watched with eager eyes and hearts its progress along the line. They formed groups around the campfire and the man who was deemed to have the greatest elocutionary development was appointed reader for the assembly.”

Pickett recalled the arguing over whose turn it was to have the book next:

“‘It’s too good a book to be lent around in this way to the men,’ said a booklover, jealously, glancing over the many penciled marks; for after the initiatory christening and comments the men began in turn as they read it to write their sentiments, till every space—margin, flyleaf, every spot, in fact, where the pencil could find room for a name, a word, a thought— was covered. ‘Let them have the book and mark it all they want to, for nothing is too good for the poor devils,’ said the General.”

Among the notations that Pickett remembered three decades later were remarks about Abe Lincoln, Jeff Davis, and one soldier’s longing for “the green persimmons…which thy fields did once so abound, and which did mercifully help us in our efforts to draw up our stomachs to the size of our rations.”

This July, Modern Library will publish the first, completely new unabridged translation of Hugo’s masterpiece since 1887. Acclaimed translator Julie Rose took on the daunting task; Adam Gopnik, New Yorker writer and author of the bestselling Paris to the Moon, provided the introduction. Now is your chance to find out what all those Civil War soldiers found so riveting.

Rhett and Scarlett sing about Tara on London stage

Gone with the Wind has gone across the pond. A much-anticipated musical adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is opening in London in April. Directed by Sir Trevor Nunn with music and lyrics by composer Margaret Martin, the musical will be performed at the New London Theatre in the city’s West End through late September. Although casting had not been finalized at press time, theater Web sites were reporting that Jill Paice and Darius Danesh were the actors most likely to play Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Movie buffs beware: The musical’s storyline reportedly hews closer to the Margaret Mitchell novel than to the 1939 movie starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh (herself a British actress who stirred controversy when she was cast as the world’s most famous belle).

“I am drawn to the challenge of telling Mitchell’s epic story through words, music and the imaginative resources of the theatre,” said Nunn, a former director of Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company, and Royal National Theatre, in a prepared statement. “The major turning point of American history is conveyed through Mitchell’s extraordinary cast of characters, black and white, as they pursue their different ideas of the future, and of the past.”

—Kim A. O’Connell

The Day Stonewall Died

Few last words in his- tory are as eloquent and memorable as those of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” Mortally wounded by his own men at Chancellorsville, Jackson suffered the amputation of his left arm and contracted pneumonia. He finally succumbed on May 10, 1863—a death so devastating to the Southern cause that some say it presaged the very death of the Confederacy two years later. What else occurred on the fateful day?

— Kim A. O’Connell

That’s General Letterman on the right

No sooner had a newly woolly David Letterman stepped on stage after settling with the striking Writers Guild than guest Robin Williams announced to the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, General Lee! The Civil War reenactment will begin shortly!” Judge the resemblance for yourself. And consider the personalities, too—Lee also had a quirky and wry sense of humor. Wonder what a “Top Ten” of his might have been like? Well, so do we. Send us a list you think Lee might have come up with, and we’ll run our favorites on our Web page at

Interview: Harold Holzer on Lincoln’s 200th

Despite being a perennial lesson for school children, it remains astonishing that Abraham Lincoln, who reached those heights of glory and accomplishment during the Civil War, was born into poverty in a one-room log cabin nearly 200 years ago. In February, the two-year commemoration of the Lincoln Bicentennial kicked off with a gala and symposium in Louisville and Hodgenville, Kentucky, near Lincoln’s humble birthplace. States and towns across the country are planning their own events as well. The village of Lincoln, Virginia, for example—the only place in the former Confederacy named for the 16th president before the war—is working with its local elementary school and preservation groups to mark the occasion. Similar efforts abound.

As co-chair of the Lincoln Bi – centennial Commission, Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer is pleased that the commemoration will shed new light on our 16th president, the subject of dozens of books and hundreds of articles that Holzer has authored, coauthored, or edited. He recently spoke to America’s Civil War about the Bicentennial, Lincoln’s gifts, and the profound impact that Holzer’s own elementary-school introduction to Lincoln had on his life.

—Kim A. O’Connell

To what do you attribute your interest in Lincoln?

It came out of a writing assignment in fifth grade. Our teacher had put the names of historical heroes and villains into a hat, and we were to select a name and write a composition about that person. I picked Abraham Lincoln. I immediately took down from the library this shiny black book called The Lincoln Nobody Knows [by Richard Current]. I read it in one stretch, re-read it, and then saved up enough money and bought my own copy.

After all your scholarship, what aspects of Lincoln’s life mean the most to you?

I have two: Lincoln’s image and Lincoln’s rhetoric and communication abilities. Regarding the Lincoln image in portraits, paintings, and sculpture, I published a book on the subject [The Lincoln Image, in 1984], and it’s still a small and merry band of men and women who focus on it. As for the power of Lincoln’s words, unlike today when we hear presidential candidates speak 400 times a day, back then those opportunities were precious—and he capitalized on them.

You wrote a book about one of those speeches—Lincoln’s 1860 talk at Cooper Union in New York, which cemented his presidential candidacy. How did that come about?

I have been interested in Cooper Union as a venue for political discourse since I worked as a press secretary [in the 1970s], and several mayoral candidates were sitting around this platform there when someone ran down and threw a pie at them. In addition to the book, I’ve worked in the years since to encourage major speeches to be held there, including the new Lincoln Series of political dialogues, which has featured Tim Russert, John Edwards, Newt Gingrich, and Michael Bloomberg, among others.

What would you like the Lincoln Bicentennial to accomplish?

We want to re-examine Lincoln and his period, not to look for flaws or overemphasize legendary qualities, but to recognize that this is the one leader who corrected our course midway through our democracy and inspired us to improve the nation. For the Bicentennial, there are books planned, television projects, dance, music, poetry. We will also have a new president, whom we hope will be infused with a sense of responsibility in taking office two weeks before Lincoln’s 200th birthday, as well as an understanding that if you’re guided by the lessons of the past, the path to the future is easier to find.

What can we as a nation do to better honor and interpret Abraham Lincoln?

I actually think we are doing a very good job. I think Lincoln should be judged according to the political realities of his own time; for instance, I don’t think we’d find him as enlightened on race. But he’s an example of leadership in crisis. His steadfastness and modesty are important. The other basic truth about Lincoln is that he demonstrates something that is uniquely American—that no matter where you come from, no matter who your father is, if you’re diligent and work hard, you can do anything that you want.


Originally published in the May 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here