Thursday, November 12, 2015

Writing about Chancellorsville

For the past two months, I've been writing about Lane's brigade and the battle of Chancellorsville for two different destinations. The first treatment was the chapter for the Branch-Lane book. The second was an article, possibly for inclusion in a new issue of Civil War Regiments, about how James H. Lane wrote about the battle.

 The chapter in the Branch-Lane book is about 10,000 words. It is my belief that this will be the most widely read and scrutinized chapter of the book. Why? Well, it was Lane's brigade that shot Jackson. This episode of the war is one upon which a lot of ink has been spilt, possibly only second to the battle of Gettysburg.

Even after such an exhaustive study, I still have a few questions. Both the 7th and 37th Regiments voted to bestow upon a member of each company the "Badge of Honor." Would it not be great to know why their comrades picked each of these men? Just what did they do during the battle to earn this honor?

There were a couple of men who were promoted to a high rank on the field, men such as William Lee of the 7th NC. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel. Did this really happen on the field, or, did his promotion date to May 3, 1863?

And lastly, John Crayton , 28th NC, was killed in action. According to the Troops book series, "a medal was presented to his friends for his bravery." I wonder what it looked like, how many were struck, who were his friends?

The article I sent to Civil War Regiment takes a little different tack. Instead of looking at the role of Lane's brigade at the battle, I examined the way Lane wrote about the battle, starting with his official report, and then moving into the post-war years. He wrote a couple of newspaper articles about the role of his brigade, and corresponded with Henry B. McClellan, biographer of JEB Stuart, and with Augustus C. Hamlin, a Federal veteran who wrote a history of the battle of Chancellorsville. Lane's timeline of events never really strayed from his official report. He did, though, as time went on, add little details, like his conversation with Jackson on the Orange Plank Road, about the topography surrounding him, and about how dark it was.

A small example would be Lane to Hamlin about May 3, 1863. After being driven out of the captured Union lines, Lane pulled his men back, resupplied them with ammunition, and was then ordered to the far Confederate left.  Lane wrote that:
" The woods were on fire, shells, dropped loaded muskets & cartridges were exploding in every direction. The dead, Confederates as well as Federals, were on fire, & helpless wounded Federals-officers & men-begged to be removed from the approaching devouring flames but we could render no assistance.  On reaching Colquitt, we had to wait until the woods on his left was burnt over, before we could prolong his line. There we remained until the next day in the ashes & the charred scrubby oaks, & it was hard to tell whether we white or black, Federal or Confederate so far as the color of our clothes were concerned.  When we were ordered back, the troops in rear received us with boisterous laughter & cheer.  My brigade was in nearly every great battle fought by the Army of Northern Virginia, but in none did I ever witness so many harrowing scenes as I did at Chancellorsville."

No matter how many times I get to explore some of these topics, there is always some new angle to study, some new direction to consider, and big pile of questions I would love to have answered.

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