Visitors to Chancellorsville, Va., can walk down the wooded path where Gen. Stonewall Jackson led 30,000 Confederate troops in a surprise attack against Union Gen. Joseph Hooker’s forces. That evening of May 2, 1863, Jackson’s troops handed Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee a stunning victory, but it was marred by a terrible loss: In addition to devastating the Northern army, Jackson’s troops accidentally wounded Jackson himself and he died soon thereafter.
Preservationists are currently engaged in their own war over the fate of the Chancellorsville Battlefield itself. They recently won a major victory against Ray Smith and his Dogwood Development Group, who wanted to build a new community of 1,995 houses and 1.2 million square feet of commercial and office space on what is now the 790-acre Mullins Farm. Nevertheless, the future of the site remains uncertain.
The Chancellorsville battle, which raged over four days, involved 200,000 soldiers and 30,000 casualties. Lee’s greatest victory, the battle provided the Southern leader with the confidence to invade the North, culminating in the battle at Gettysburg later that summer.
Historians remember Chancellorsville for its massive numbers, its deadliness, and its importance in terms of Lee’s fate. Preservationists fear that future Americans won’t understand the significance of the fight if they cannot see the land where it happened. “The land itself tells a story,” says Jim Campi, spokesperson for the Civil War Preservation Trust. “Decisions were made, soldiers did what they did because of the contours of the land, the basic topography. Battlefields are outdoor classrooms, teaching tools, but only if they’re preserved. Many battlefields are also still cemeteries. It is truly hallowed ground.”
The troops charge
The Coalition to Save Chancellorsville Battlefield, with troops from 12 local and national preservationist, environmental, and civic groups, has been leading the charge against the development plans. When Smith announced his plans to build a new town just outside the boundaries of the land protected by the National Park Service, the group launched a publicity campaign and encouraged citizens to enlist by writing to both the media and their representatives in government. The coalition’s goal was to prevent the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors from voting to rezone the area. Rezoning was essential to Dogwood Development Group’s plans for the site and would have caused the price of the land to skyrocket.
Despite the seemingly overwhelming odds against them, the coalition’s activists took heart in their campaign. Last summer a coalition-commissioned opinion poll suggested that two-thirds of county voters opposed development of the battlefield. In November 2002, Congress passed the American Battlefields Protection Program Act, which authorizes $10 million annually over five years to provide matching grants for nonprofit groups, local governments, and states to purchase historically significant land in order to save it from development. Money from a matching grant would significantly strengthen the coalition’s ability to buy the land from the owner, John Mullins.
The January 2003 appointment to the board of supervisors of Henry J. Connors, Jr., of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, greatly improved the chances that rezoning would fail. That month Campi pointed to the 200 people who showed up in snow and freezing temperatures for a candlelight vigil outside a supervisors’ board meeting as evidence that opposition remained strong. “The public has always been on our side,” says Campi. “Now the political winds are clearly changing.”
In March 2003, the coalition’s Web page trumpeted their “remarkable victory” in banner letters: “WE WON!” The board of supervisors voted not to rezone the area, and Ray Smith withdrew his development plans.
But the battle is not over. According to Campi, landowner Mullins is angry and as a result is unwilling to negotiate with the coalition, which wants to purchase the land itself. Mullins recently asked for $40 million for the land, approximately seven times the assessed value.
The area is not likely to remain pristine. Campi notes regretfully that the land is already zoned for 225 homes and 55 acres of commercial development. Campi and the coalition hope eventually that Mullins will agree to negotiate—and that ultimately he will be able to “sensitively develop” part of his land but protect the core 300 acres of battlefield.
There are two lessons to be learned from the Chancellorsville saga, Campi says. First, local groups need to keep a wary eye on significant sites and get preservationists involved early in the process. Second, “when everyone works together, we can have an impact.”
A former American history professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., Rachel F. Seidman is a freelance writer and author of The Civil War: A History in Documents.