By John A. Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
At around 5:30 on the evening of May 2, 1863, the soldiers of the Union Army's 11th Corps were taking it easy. Three miles to the east, their comrades were fighting Robert E. Lee's Confederate soldiers near a clearing called Chancellorsville, but the 11th manned the far western end of the Union line, where things seemed downright sleepy.
Weapons were stacked, and many Union soldiers were cooking supper when a wave of deer and rabbits and other startled woodland creatures emerged in a hurry from the woods to their right. The soldiers' wonder at this strange sight quickly turned to dread as they heard, from those woods, the Rebel Yell.
While Lee had held the Union Army at Chancellorsville, Stonewall Jackson made one of the great flanking movements in military history that day. The 11th Corps panicked, broke apart, and fled from Jackson's surprise attack. Only nightfall, and the determined stands of a few blue units, allowed the Union Army to avoid even greater disaster.
One of those brave stands came near a small chapel called the Wilderness Church, about halfway between the site of Jackson's initial attack and Chancellorsville. Here, Col. Adolphus Buschbeck organized a last stand of some 4,000 men. The two sides struggled for 20 minutes of precious daylight, before the superior number of Rebels outflanked Buschbeck and pressed forward in the gloom.
The population boom in the exurbs of Northern Virginia has threatened much of the sprawling Chancellorsville battleground with development. For generations, all the federal government had to do to preserve the sweep and feel of the place was buy a few key plots: the Chancellorsville crossroads, the place where Jackson first struck the Union line, and so on. Now, the blood-soaked woods and farm fields that have been held in private hands for 150 years may be filled with tract homes and shopping centers, spoiling the vista and the experience of visiting the battlefield.
And so it was a notable event when the nonprofit Civil War Preservation Trust announced a few weeks ago that, despite the awful U.S. economy, it would try to raise more than $2 million from private and government sources to buy an 85-acre tract at the site of the Buschbeck line.
Retired national park service historian Robert Krick, who knows the battlefield better than anyone, calls it a "preservation coup." The maps and details of the fundraising effort are available at the trust's website, itself an excellent and engrossing, multimedia encyclopedia of the Civil War.
There is a growing recognition in Congress, and in state capitals like Richmond, that there's no better way to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in 2011 than to save battlefields like Chancellorsville from the bulldozers.
And in tough economic times, it is especially valuable when good-hearted private citizens, like the members of the trust, donate their own money to match government funds for battlefield preservation. In many cases, the trust and groups like it will then give the land to the rest of us (via the park service) so we can enjoy the benefits of open space, and learn more about our history. We owe them thanks.