The phenomenon of the “Moonwalk,” May 2, 1996

From John Hennessy:

The trace of the Mountain Road at Chancellorsville, where Jackson was wounded.

It was perhaps the most amazing, curious interpretive event I have ever been involved with–made so not by its content, but rather by its literal atmospherics. This now-legendary program (at least within the park staff) proved two things:  Stonewall Jackson can still draw a crowd even 134 years after his death, and people will jump at the chance to get close to history, even in its most ethereal form.

The program had its genesis in an article that appeared in one of the Civil War magazines (I believe Blue and Gray, but could be wrong). The writer had earlier done celestial calculations showing how and why the tides at Tarawa had been so exceptionally and disastrously difficult during the amphibious landing there in November 1943. His latest calculations showed that the arrangement of celestial bodies on May 2, 1996 would match precisely those of May 2, 1863, the night of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville–same moonrise, same moon phase, etc. Though amazed that anyone had the time to figure such a thing out, the park staff–atuned to subtle connections like that–thought it was all pretty cool, and so we decided to do a program at the site of Jackson’s wounding that night, May 2, 1996.  We issued the standard press releases about the event and prepared for it like a hundred others.

Frank O’Reilly was to lead the tour. At the time, I was the park’s Assistant Superintendent (a REAL bureaucrat, even in title), and offered to help with logistics and to be available if anything came up. We planned the program to start at 7:30, and to be done by 8:30 (before full darkness fell). We agreed beforehand that if some folks wanted to hang around until the anniversary minute (put by most accounts at 9 p.m.), we would hang too. We even calculated the likely moment. Adjusting an hour for daylight savings time and the 1883 adjustment for the imposition of Railway Time in Virginia (by most accounts about 11 minutes in this part of Virginia), we put the time of Jackson’s wounding at 10:11. Given that that was nearly two hours after the original program ended, we figured few if any would want to linger that long.

The stone place in the 1880s to mark (erroneously) the site of Jackson's wounding.

We expected a good crowd–maybe 60 or 80 people, given the quirky uniqueness of the evening. I drove into the parking lot just short of 7 and was astonished at what I saw. Not dozens, but hundreds of people, the lot overflowing, visitors swarming around the visitor center. By 7:15 we had probably 400 people on hand. Frank and I did some emergency recalculations, split them into two groups as best we could (Frank’s far larger than mine–people who come to see Frank O’Reilly want to see Frank O’Reilly, and not the second string), and came up with a plan to move the groups through what by any measure is a small space.

That done, as we waited for 7:30, I started talking to people. I spoke to one group who had driven from near Vicksburg, Mississippi, THAT DAY to be there for the program. I soon found that there were people there not just from all over Virginia, but from across the East Coast. All of them said they just wanted to be here to “feel” what it was like on May 2, 1863–to see the moon as Jackson and the men who shot him saw it, to sense the level of light in the forest that night, to just feel. An added bonus for the night was the weather: it too matched almost exactly the weather on May 2, 1863. The atmospherics were perfect.

Mind you, the tour we gave that evening has been given 25,000 times on that ground over the years. There was nothing special about its content. The only thing that distinguished it was nothing more substantial than the location of starlight and moonlight.

The later, more formal monument commemorating Jackson's wounding

By 8:30 we were done, and we told everyone that if anyone wanted to remain until “the moment” (still 101 minutes away) we would remain as well. To our astonishment dozens did so, quietly, Frank and I standing in the Mountain Road offering up a hushed minute-by-minute account of what was happening 134 years before. The minutes ticked by, until at 10:11, one of us said, “this is the moment.”  No one said a word as we stood there in the Mountain Road, outside the visitor center, within a few feet of where the bullets felled Jackson, the moon beaming through the leaves, the air cool and beautiful. Silence for a few minutes more…and then the assemblage started melting away. By 10:30, they were gone.

I don’t know how many people told me in the aftermath that it was one of the most amazing experiences they’d ever had.

The “Moonwalk,” as it has since become known, offered up a vivid lesson: people want to get close to history, they want to come as close as they can to touching it, feeling it. Nothing more substantial than the arrangement of celestial bodies transformed a tour done thousands of times for probably a million people into something absolutely unique in my experience (and I suspect the visitors’ too). The passage of time is an accumulating barrier to history, but once in a while those barriers can lower–and when they do, people will come. They are not nutty, but rather seek a human connection (be it imagined or real) with events and people they strive (or struggle) to understand.

It is a powerful hint why the Sesquicentennial matters so much to so many (though far more could not care less about it): even a shared moment of time distanced by precisely 150 years is enough to lower those barriers just a bit, and heighten the connection–sometimes for a moment, sometimes for a lifetime.

5 thoughts on “The phenomenon of the “Moonwalk,” May 2, 1996

  1. very cool, I enjoyed the ethereal experience at the Jackson shrine too. You just stand in the doorway of the room where he died and you can hear the clock ticking and imagine Mary Anna and the rest of his staff sitting quietly over Jackson watching as his last breaths slipped from him.

    • Steve: I think in fact the fellow figured out that too–I’d have to dig around to find it. But if memory serves me, it was something like 2088. Pencil it in on your calendar.

  2. Just reading your description gave me goosebumps. Moments like that do help us to better understand history and allow our mind’s eye to actually “see” such events.
    Thanks for the post John.

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