For years, battle anniversaries were something I remembered and spent my days in Southern California calculating the time difference in Virginia so I could pace through the day in my mind or keep up with the rare livestreams in the “years before Covid” world. Living in Virginia has inspired me to take the opportunities of being at historic sites whenever reasonably possible and safe.
One mini tradition that I started for myself last year is “coffee with the XI Corps” on Chancellorsville Battlefield. I don’t drink coffee. Well, okay, I like a latte occasionally. But I don’t drink black coffee…except on the afternoon of May 2. There’s just something about the bitter drink and crunchy campaign food relished on the green fields under a shade tree. It’s where history happened. If I close my eyes and try to block the noise of the traffic, I remember the smell of campfires, the sounds of a camp that I’ve experienced many times through living history weekends.
That’s what the primary sources say it was like on that afternoon of May 2, 1863. Calm, relatively peaceful. A hint of worry in the air, perhaps, because of the strange reports that the soldiers on the outskirts kept forwarding to headquarters about Confederates on the move. The calm before the surprise attack launched by Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson and his corps that came bursting out of the western tree line.
I ask myself why I like to set aside time to remember the XI Corps. It’s a unit that gained quite the reputation for running at Chancellorsville and later Gettysburg. Perhaps it’s the German American recruits (I have German-American ancestors in part of my 19th Century family tree)? Perhaps it’s the rebel streak in me that wants to give some attention in memory to the forgotten figures in the story. After-all, many people think of Jackson and his soldiers, leaving the regiments of the XI Corps as the “victims” or the butt of jokes in the brilliance of “Stonewall” legend. Maybe it’s just that I’m lazy, and I like the idea of sitting under the shade trees instead of walking the flank attack route. (That’s not completely true. I want to do the march or its equivalent.)
Whatever the reason, May 2 is a good day to take some time and ponder the Battle of Chancellorsville. This year I started thinking about the things the soldiers left behind, and this blog post on Emerging Civil War was the result: Left Behind – Pieces of Lives & Personal Stories.
Do you visit historic sites on the anniversaries? Any particular traditions during those visits?