Wednesday, October 02, 2013

`Rest Under the Shade of the Trees'

“The land where we are now, is covered with small second-growth pine, and looks as if it had been under cultivation once, but probably worn out and abandoned for more fertile regions. Part of the woods that we have been through is grown up to oak and other solid timber of all sizes, and has probably been forest from time immemorial.” 

Fewer pines stand today on the land where the Battle of Chancellorsville took place in April-May 1863. Among the hardwoods, oaks, maples and beeches predominate. The park’s website describes the grounds as “an eastern North American riparian and woodland habitat on a substrate of the Appalachian Piedmont and the Atlantic Coastal Plain.” When I parked in the visitor's center lot, the tree in front of the car was a ten-foot sassafras just starting to redden. The leaves are trilobed and remind me of alien footprints. I pinched a sprig and savored the scent. The passage above was written at Chancellorsville by Private Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont Volunteers to his hometown newspaper, the Montpelier Green Mountain Freeman, on Nov. 29, 1863, six months after the battle. His correspondence is collected in Hard Marching Every Day: The Civil War Letters of Private Wilbur Fisk, 1861-1865 (eds. Emil and Ruth Rosenblatt, University Press of Kansas, 1992). 

Dozens of photographs of men who fought at Chancellorsville are mounted on the walls of the visitor’s center, including one of Capt. Charles F. Lewis of the 119th New York Regiment. 119th New York Regiment  He was a student at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., when he enlisted at age eighteen in 1862. I lived in Schenectady for six years, worked as a reporter for its newspaper and still know members of the Union faculty and staff. In the rare books collection there I held, for the first time, a copy of Whitman’s self-published first edition of Leaves of Grass. Lewis, like Whitman’s brother George at Fredericksburg, was wounded at Chancellorsville. Lewis’ brother-in-law, Elias Peissner, a professor at Union College, was killed in the battle. Lewis survived to be in the audience at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, the night President Lincoln was assassinated. 

In the gift shop I bought a copy of Ernest B. Furgurson’s Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave (1992). Furgurson numbers Confederate veterans among his ancestors, and served in the Marine Corps during World War II. I started reading his book in the visitor’s center and resented having to close it in order to drive back to my in-laws’ house. Later, returning to the book, I started to understand the importance of trees on a battlefield, particularly at Chancellorsville and the Wilderness. Describing Sickles’ attack on the night of May 2, and how the Confederate sought shelter among the trees, Furgurson writes: 

“…one of McGowan’s South Carolinians lay flat in terror as soldiers’ shouts and curses rang and cannon roared. `We knew nothing, could see nothing, hedged in by the matted mass of trees,’ he recalled. `Night engagements are always dreadful, but this was the worst I ever knew. To see your danger is bad enough, but to hear shells whizzing and bursting over you, to hear shrapnell [sic] and iron fragments slapping the trees and cracking off limbs, and not know from whence death comes to you, is trying beyond all things. And here it looked so incongruous—below raged thunder, shout, shriek, slaughter—above, soft, silent, smiling moonlight, peace.’” 

That same night, May 2, Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and his staff were mistaken in the dark for Union cavalry. Confederate sentries fired on them and Jackson was struck three times. A military surgeon, Dr. Hunter McGuire, amputated his left arm but Jackson died of complications from pneumonia on May 10. McGuire reported Jackson’s final words:
“A few moments before he died he cried out in his delirium, 'Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front rapidly! Tell Major Hawks' -- then stopped, leaving the sentence unfinished. Presently a smile of ineffable sweetness spread itself over his pale face, and he said quietly, and with an expression, as if of relief, 'Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees."

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