Saving the Flank Attack

Preservation at the Chancellorsville Battlefield

Stonewall Jackson’s Flank Attack at Chancellorsville is one of the most famous and most dramatic incidents of the Civil War — the doomed military legend leading an audacious assault that won his army its greatest victory, but cost him his life.  But until recently, there was little promise that students of the war would ever be able to walk that ground where the tide of battle turned. 

The land where the attack climaxed, where Jackson’s troops smashed through the Union’s so-called Bushbeck Line, had long been a privately owned farm until 2009, when the Civil War Trust negotiated the chance to by the 85-acre parcel.  Driven by its large Route 3 frontage, the price of the property was a steep $2.125 million and time was of the essence; when the deal was announced the Trust had less than 90 days to raise its share of the money before a Virginia matching grant that could be used to complete the transaction would expire. 

Wagner Tract at Chancellorsville
View of a portion of the 85-acre Jackson Flank Attack property that the Civil War Trust worked to save in 2009 -2010  (Photo: Rob Shenk)

But, as Trust President James Lighthizer said at the time, the site was “arguably one of the most historically significant pieces of hallowed ground we have ever saved, and we have just got to get it… This is what we are in business to do.  This is why we exist!”

A massive fundraising campaign ensued, but the Trust met its obligations, securing the necessary matching grants and purchasing the land.  In an example of its work to find mutually agreeable outcomes, although the Trust owns the land, its previous guardians continue to live on the site under a long-term lease, maintaining the land as a functioning farm.  The site is made available periodically for public tours and interpretation.

A Permanent Preservation Legacy

In April 2010, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell came to the Wagner Farm to sign into law a measure permanently establishing a state matching grant program for battlefield preservation.  The program that the Trust had utilized by making its 90-day fundraising deadline had proved so successful that state lawmakers chose to make it a permanent tool in the Commonwealth’s land conservation arsenal.   “Today,” said Gov. McDonnell, “we reiterate our commitment to the future through the stewardship of Virginia’s remarkable open space lands, including important historic landscapes.”

Big Check at Chancellorsville
Civil War Trust's John Nau (left) and Jim Lighthizer (right) accept a check from the Commonwealth of Virginia for the 85-acre Jackson Flank Attack property.  (Photo: Rob Shenk)

When the preservation opportunity was first announced, historian Robert K. Krick described the significance of both the site’s place in history and its protection.

Nearly 30,000 Confederates erupted out of the thickets behind their surprised foe and ‘swept like an avalanche’ over the enemy, screaming the Rebel Yell. ‘They fled before us equal to sheep,’ one attacker recalled. In his official report, a colonel from Massachusetts drolly described his fleeing friends as being ‘under the influence of an aversion for Stonewall Jackson.’ A demoralized Federal said of the Southern battle cry that afternoon that the rebels ‘all . . . roar like beasts.’

“The preservation coup by the Civil War Trust in acquiring some 80 acres in the midst of the Flank Attack deserves universal applause as a spectacular success. The Wagner tract, just east of Wilderness Church, includes nearly 2,000 feet of frontage on the north shoulder of the historic Orange Plank Road. Extinguishing the potential for dense commercial use along that long stretch seems to me to constitute the most dazzling jewel in the Trust’s long and impressive history of preserving hallowed ground.”

Building on Success

In 2012, the Civil War Trust continued its preservation efforts at the Jackson Flank Attack by saving another 14 acres along modern day Route 3.  With the help of our friends at the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, the Civil War Trust purchased an empty commercial building--once the sight of an armory and, later, an antique store. 

Chancellorsville 2012
This modern structure sits directly across from National Park Service land along Route 3.  (Rob Shenk)

In 2013, the Civil War Trust announced another opportunity to save two portions of Jackson's Flank attack.  Partnering again with CVBT, the Trust reclaimed an additional 37 acres of the Chancellorsville battlefield, adding to the more than 115 acres already saved along Jackson's famous attack route.  These tracts included the site of the historic Talley Farm, over which the Alabamians of Gen. George Doles' brigade swarmed when the struck the unsuspecting Federals.

Chancellorsville Satellite Image
Satellite view of Jackson's Flank attack, noting the land preserved by the Civil War Trust (blue), CVBT (brown), and the National Park Service (green).  The properties preserved in 2013 are highlighted in yellow. (Google Earth)

The Civil War Trust remains committed to protecting the Chancellorsville battlefield and Jackson's Flank Attack.

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