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William McGrath

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Lessons From Chancellorsville

Posted: 04/21/2012 1:56 pm

Approximately five years ago, we built a vacation house at Lake Anna, Virginia. Lake Anna is approximately 75 miles southwest of Washington D.C. and 30 miles northwest of Richmond. I have often heard people refer to the 100 mile drive from Washington D.C. to Richmond as the longest hundred-mile drive in the United States. The contrast in surroundings is astounding. You leave the urban and developed area of Washington D.C./Northern Virginia and arrive in a much more rural surrounding in the Richmond Area. The Lake Anna area is especially rural and it contains an eclectic mix of vacation homes and full-time working farms. It is not unusual to see cows swimming in the lake while tubing or water skiing.

There are also several Civil War battlefields very close to Lake Anna. Since I am an amateur Civil War buff, I visit Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and the Battle of the Wilderness more than a normal person. In contrast to the big battlefields, several smaller battles are marked along local highways by the small, gray signs. The battles of Ox Hill, Front Royale and Winchester are marked by such signs. Again, vivid reminders that a good portion of the Civil War was fought in Virginia.

My all-time favorite "war" stop is at the Chancellorsville battlefield. More specifically, I visit often the location where General "Marsh" Robert Lee and General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson bivouacked for the last time. Jackson, one the Confederacy's most able generals, was shot by North Carolina troops during the battle and died later from complications from the wound. The location of the meeting is non-descript and if not for the markings could easily blend back into the cover of the Virginia woodlands.

But there is a true aura surrounding the site. Two of America's most brilliant and daring military leaders sat there over 150 years ago and discussed strategy. Ironically, these two notable American warriors were not planning on how to defeat America's enemies but were plotting on how to defeat America. Not that they were alone, as they schemed; Northern Generals on the other side plotted on how to kill rebels.

I was born and raised in New York but have spent the last 13 years of my life raising my family in Virginia with my wife. I have come to despise the term" Rebel." Every rebel was an American. Additionally, the same Virginia countryside that gave up their sons to fill Stonewall's 27th Virginia gave up their sons to fill the ranks of the US 29th. The 29th served honorably in both world wars and is famous for its part-filled landing on Omaha Beach during the D Day invasion. On a family trip to Normandy, I was reminded on the depth of the 29th's sacrifice when Frenchman reacted very emotionally when he saw my University of Virginia hat. He was quick to remind me how bravely the 29th had fought and sacrificed on D Day. As I said before, all rebels were Americans.

The sheer magnitude of the Chancellorsville battlefield is also daunting. Close to 200,000 Americans participated in battle and close to 30,000 died. To put 30,000 dead in perspective, it is close to 10 times the number of Americans that died during the attacks on the World Trade Center.

As I watch America become more polarized, I worry that a balanced approach to the biggest problems of our generation will elude us as a country. And I worry more that the lessons of Chancellorsville will be lost and the battle lines will be drawn again. The new lines will not be so neatly cut along geography as they were during our first war of separation. Today's lines will be drawn in every city, every town and every house in America. I shudder to guess what types of causalities such a conflict could produce.

I can only hope everyone has the common sense to tone down the rhetoric and remain civil and respectful while working through the issues. I get the sense that collective soul of the 30,000 Americans who died at Chancellorsville feels the same.

 
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