Recently, I’ve found myself impressed by the wide variety of stories, some clearly related and others less obviously so, to which the week-long campaign of Chancellorsville is linked in our collective understanding and memory. These stories are connections of a sort that stand largely independent of one another and exert enough influence to dramatically redefine the campaign when we look through the lens that each provides.
Chancellorsville thus comes to possess strikingly different identities simultaneously; it’s an event, for example, that kills a great general, inspires a moving photograph, or influences the writing of a classic novel. I am also interested in a related phenomenon: connections and stories that at one time exerted such influence over the popular understanding of Chancellorsville but do so no longer.
In an effort to understand better the capacity of a given historical subject to hold simultaneous connection with multiple stories that redefine it, I have adopted the “chemistry” analogy described below.
In the most enduring example of this re-defining, Chancellorsville’s myriad far-flung events become understood essentially as the lead-up to and then the wind-down from the mortal wounding of Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson on May 2, 1863. Whether fully or partially, consciously or unconsciously (or somewhere in-between, as Eric J. Mink has discussed in a post about the selection of a location for the visitor center), a narrative of Chancellorsville overall is thus defined down to one of its component stories.
Yet even the incredible drama and impact of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding have not given that story a monopoly over the defining of Chancellorsville. Beginning in the 1960’s, some students of Chancellorsville and of Stephen Crane’s writing publicized, and thus reinforced, a very different connection for the campaign: Chancellorsville as the historical inspiration for the battle in The Red Badge of Courage, a novel that makes no reference to Stonewall Jackson. (Its pages likewise assign no specific designation to the battle; Crane identified the setting as Chancellorsville only in a relatively obscure short-story published after Red Badge was released, a short story in which his protagonist, Henry Fleming, spoke as a veteran.)
The work of scholars such as Harold Hungerford, Charles J. LaRocca, Stephen W. Sears, and John Hennessy—Hennessy in an annual Red Badge of Courage evening-tour on the battlefield itself—changed this. Their interpretations have traced in detail how Chancellorsville came to provide the stage, or at least essential framing for the stage, upon which Henry Fleming had his classic, unforgettable immersion in combat.
As is the case, I suspect, with other aspects of the Civil War, the postwar interpretation and re-defining of Chancellorsville includes a dynamic that I’ve taken to thinking about in terms of chemistry (especially now that I can rely on Wikipedia rather than on vague but traumatic recollections of my eleventh-grade chemistry class): the campaign as an electron shared by more than one atom. With each additional “atom,” the Chancellorsville electron acquires an additional interpretation or defintion. The story of Chancellorsville is shared, for instance, by the story of Jackson’s decisive Confederate career spanning a number of different battles, but also by the story of Stephen Crane’s extraordinary imagining—mainly in a lodge in Port Jervis, New York in the 1890’s—of a war fought when Crane was only a child. To cite yet another example of the phenomenon, historian John F. Cummings III has just offered a new analysis, here and here, of a famous connection for the Chancellorsville campaign that references neither Jackson nor The Red Badge of Courage: early war-photography.
For me, however, the chemistry analogy suggested itself through an especially exotic partner-atom–an especially exotic (but now largely forgotten) means for redefining and understanding Chancellorsville: the Battle of Manila Bay. A recent post on Dimitri Rotov’s blog, Civil War Bookshelf, included an image of a striking painting by Rufus Zogbaum. Zogbaum had based it on a photograph of seamen of the USS Monican in 1888. Rotov identifies the standing seaman as Gilbert H. Purdy, who fought with Battery K, 4th U.S. Artillery at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg:
According to an online article by historian Patrick McSherry, Gilbert Purdy after Gettysburg returned to a career in the U.S. Navy. He saw action with the crew of the USS Kearsarge against the CSS Alabama, off Cherbourg, France, and eventually (at the age of 70 and a decade after he posed for the photographer on Monican) with the crew of the USS Olympia, at Manila Bay in the Philippines. There, on May 1, 1898, the American Asiatic Squadron of Commodore George Dewey destroyed the Spanish Pacific Squadron of Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasaron–some seven hours of intermittent combat that did much to make the United States a key power in the western and southern Pacific:
My online research elsewhere revealed that this pivotal battle achieved a prominent association with Chancellorsville after Purdy acquired an informal publicist in correspondent Joseph L. Stickney, one of his Olympia shipmates. Stickney published at least three eyewitness accounts of Manila Bay. The three included slightly different descriptions of an eve-of-battle conversation between Purdy and Dewey—one of the “incidents that came under my notice before and after the battle,” Stickney wrote—and appeared in a newspaper dispatch that he filed immediately after Manila Bay, and, later, in a magazine article (below) and a book:
The Commodore, while walking back and forth on the starboard side of the upper deck, noticed that one of the petty officers—a man whose duties did not call for his presence there—was making a pretence of finding something to do on the port side, but was also keeping a careful lookout on the Commodore. This man’s record of nearly forty years of service in the navy and army of the United States had caused him to be regarded with special interest by the officers of the Olympia, and he was, to a certain extent, a privileged character. So the Commodore, being familiar with the manners of seamen, and seeing that the old man “had something on his mind,” said to him,
“Well, Purdy, what is it?”
“I hope, sir,” replied Purdy, straightening up and saluting, “ye don’t intend to fight on the 3d of May.”
“And why not?” “Well, ye see, sir,” said Purdy, with the most serious air possible, “the last time I fought on the 3d of May I got licked.” And then he went on to tell of the ill fated day of Chancellorsvilie, when he had carried a gun in the army, and had gone to defeat under ” Fighting Joe” Hooker.
“All right, Purdy,” said the Commodore, “we won’t fight on the 3d of May this time; but when we do fight, Purdy,” he continued, with an air of friendly confidence, “you’ll have a different kind of a May anniversary to think about. Remember that, Purdy.”
I find it striking that Stickney uses the Chancellorsville connection to contrast, unfavorably, the Civil War with the Spanish-American War. He places the spotlight on Chancellorsville but as an American defeat rather than as a showcase for American valor and military prowess, although those were presumably understood by Stickney and his readers as important to the Manila Bay victory (even as lopsided as it turned out to be). Yet Purdy’s own battery at Chancellorsville had been celebrated in print for similar qualities–in a journal article in 1866, a book in 1867, and a volume of the Official Records in 1891–the campaign’s overall, unhappy outcome for the Army of the Potomac notwithstanding.
May 3, 1863, the day after Jackson’s wounding, saw Purdy and the other gunners of Battery K engage in their principal combats during Chancellorsville, first on the left of the Union gun-line at Fairview and then beside the Chancellorsville Tavern:
Despite enduring at Fairview what Stephen Sears would term “one of the severest beatings of any Federal battery in any battle of the war,” Battery K went back into action, near the tavern. The artillerists blasted canister at advancing Confederates, forcing them, in the words of battery commander Francis Seeley, “to break and take to the cover of the woods on my left and front.”
Stickney’s three accounts not only failed to give any indication of this aspect of Purdy’s Chancellorsville experience (and, you may have noted, described him as an infantryman rather than an artillerist), those made him an addled, superstitious relic of an old war and of one of the many defeats it brought United States forces, in contrast with the complexity, modernity, and rapid success of a new war. Purdy personifies the warmaking of the 1860’s and in the process provides comic relief for the architect of the Manila Bay victory. Dewey’s own status as a Civil War veteran goes unmentioned in Stickney’s accounts of the conversation with Purdy.
This blog and its sister site, Mysteries and Conundrums, consider from time to time the workings of our past- and present, collective understanding of the Civil War–its “memory,” to use a term currently in vogue. In the chemistry of memory that I suggest above, a given Civil War topic acquires numerous, re-defining linkages–an electron shared (sometimes in tension, and not always permanently) by numerous atoms. The publicizing of Seaman Purdy’s conversation with Commodore Dewey shows that even entire wars have shared our Chancellorsville electron.
Such is the case for individual as well as collective memory. Purdy died in 1912; we can only imagine the daily ruminations of a man who could choose among mental revisits to Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Cherbourg, or Manila Bay for nearly 15 years.
And on the subject of Chancellorsville going to sea, this post is respectfully dedicated to the men and women who have served or are serving aboard the USS Chancellorsville (CG-62).
Noel G. Harrison