I’ve been reading about the American Civil War, and I think I’m finally getting a grasp of how it went, at least in the eastern theater—the interaction of strategy and politics and geography and personality that produced those battles whose names are so familiar to Americans: Gettysburg, Antietam, Bull Run… But there are onomastic problems here. The easiest is the existence of duplicate names; the South tended to name battles after nearby towns or railway junctions (Sharpsburg, Manassas, Leesburg) and the North after natural features of the landscape (respectively Antietam [Creek], Bull Run, Ball’s Bluff—there’s a convenient list here). That was no problem for me even as a child, familiar as I was with pairs like Tokyo/Edo, Bangkok/Krung Thep, and Thailand/Siam. (To this day I love alternate names for places.)

What really threw me for a loop was examining a series of battle maps and realizing that the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 1863) and the Battle of the Wilderness (May 1864) were fought over almost the same patch of ground (the later battle was a little to the west). Furthermore, the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 1862) and the Battle of Spotsylvania (May 1864) were fought just a few miles away; all four are part of the same national military park and all four involved the same strategy (the North trying to cross the Rappahannock and get within striking distance of the Confederate capital Richmond). It would make a lot more sense if the first two were called First and Second Wilderness (like First and Second Bull Run/Manassas). Similarly, Chickamauga (September 1863) and Chattanooga (November 1863) were just a few miles apart and part of the same series of events; they could perfectly well be called First and Second Chattanooga. But of course people don’t give things names with a view to the convenience of future students.

Still, you’d think they’d make the relations clearer in modern reference books. Battle maps tend to be either abstract (rectangles representing the opposing divisions, labeled with the names of commanding generals, and arrows showing the motion during a specified time frame) or lavishly pictorial (little blue and grey mannikins shown in action poses advancing or retreating across a lovingly rendered landscape); in both cases, there is usually no indication of wider context (what state are we in again? which direction is Washington?) and only the most cursory idea of what role the battle played in the larger scheme of the war. If I were making a Civil War atlas, I’d have plenty of “context pages” that showed the areas of battles on a wider grid, so you could see at a glance how Fredericksburg related to the Wilderness, and I’d create nice names for larger elements of the war that would allow you to make sense of the battles (the Rappahannock Campaign, the Push to Georgia, etc.).

And why “Chancellorsville,” anyway? As far as I know, there was no -ville at all, just an inn called the Chancellor House in the middle of the Wilderness. Questions, questions…


  1. Ian Myles Slater says

    You are right about the shortcomings of most battlefield maps and Civil War atlases; the tendency to favor tactical clarity over strategic interest often requires close reading of a text that actually mentions that a battle was being fought in the same place, or close to, a previous encounter. This may also be due to those responsible for such projects not thinking it necessary to mention what is obvious to them.
    I’m just as happy with the use of very distinct names, though. As it happens, there actually was a Second Battle of Fredericksburg; an episode in the Chancellorsville Campaign, fought at the same place as the earlier battle, but on a much smaller scale. (There is a short account at It seems to be pretty much ignored; I was surprised that I had remembered it correctly, putting it in the 1863 campaign, instead of Grant’s, in 1864.
    I’ve never run down the “Chancellorsville” name in detail, but variations in place names taken from commercial establishments don’t seem to have been uncommon in nineteenth-century America. “Chancellor House,” “Chancellor’s House,” and “Chancellorsville” are probably well within the range of variations (the last being rather grander). The question I would ask is whether the -ville might have been a journalistic mistake, or perhaps evidence of some failed local attempt at “boosterism,” instead of an alternative name for the inn.
    Actual changes in local usage were not necessarily reflected in the not-very-good period maps. Their shortcomings were a frequent problem for both sides; although some Northern generals, who took a broad line to mean a good road, may have been the most badly confused by them. Sherman once had the odd advantage of campaigning in a region he had surveyed as a junior officer, and may have known more about than the opposing Confederate commanders.

  2. Thanks for a most informative comment! It hadn’t even occurred to me that “Chancellorsville” might just be a fancy name for the inn.

  3. Richard Hershberger says

    In a somewhat similar vein, one sometimes sees an optional -town suffix. Examples are Elizabethtown, NJ (modern Elizabeth) and Towsontown, MD (modern Towson). In both of these examples the shorter form survived, but I imagine there are other cases where it was the longer form.
    I haven’t seen such variation with -ville, but I haven’t looked for it, and I haven’t looked in the South. I have just happened to notice the -town variation in my baseball research from the 1870s.
    Richard Hershberger

  4. Yeah, but those are actual towns. “Chancellorsville” was just a large house/inn at a crossroads.

  5. John Emerson says

    New Munich, MN is hardly more than that. Americans are optimists.

  6. But surely the officer corps of both sides sat together in the same classrooms at West Point, and were taught the same methods of doing things, so why this deviation?
    And of course naval battles have the same problems but intensified, especially when out of sight of land.

  7. Didn’t Dickens write something scathing in Martin Chuzzlewit about the hero visiting somewhere with a grandiose name that was just a swamp? (I haven’t read it.) Perhaps it should be taken as aspiration rather than optimism.

Speak Your Mind