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Battle of Chancellorsville? There'll be an app for that
Field work begins on Chancellorsville 'battle app,' a portable digital guide to one of Spotsylvania's four Civil War battlefields.

 Fredericksburg historian Robert K. Krick (left), an authority on the Battle of Chancellorsville, points out an old wagon road used by Stonewall Jackson's troops in their flank attack to Rob Shenk, chief of Internet strategy at the Civil War Trust.
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Date published: 8/16/2011


Before long, you'll be able to hold an interactive guide to Gen. Robert E. Lee's greatest victory in your hand.

The Battle of Chancellorsville is coming to iPhones, the iPod Touch and the iPad. As they say, there will be an app for that.

Creating one isn't simple, though. A day with Robert K. Krick and Rob Shenk, who are collaborating on this newest "historian in your pocket" software, proves that.

It requires historical and technical expertise, local knowledge, a good script, sound planning and plenty of sweat, as they demonstrated in their first day of field work on the project.

Krick, a Fredericksburg historian who's considered the leading authority on the 1863 battle, and Shenk, the Web wizard behind three popular battle apps unleashed this year by the nonprofit Civil War Trust, toiled long and furiously to film the first scenes for the app.

Krick, former chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, will guide visitors across the sprawling Spotsylvania County battlefield via the wonders of videos embedded in the application.

Known for his sense of humor, Krick calls himself the enterprise's "onscreen talent." He'll play the same role park historian Frank O'Reilly does in the trust's app for the Fredericksburg battlefield, released in May.

The GPS-enabled Chancellorsville app, due this fall, will also include first-person audio narratives written by key participants in the battle, animated troop-movement maps, photos, zoomable maps, data on the Union and Confederate armies, and details on a bevy of battlefield spots and other area historical sites.

Krick, author of numerous books on the Civil War, is clearly excited by the battle apps' cutting-edge approach to interpreting history. He is writing the script for the digital guide to Chancellorsville, in which Lee and his No. 2, Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, outwitted and beat an army vastly superior to theirs in numbers. Krick calls it "the high-water mark" for Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

The against-all-odds victory, still studied in military schools across the globe, cost Jackson his life. The hard-charging corps commander died of complications from being wounded in a friendly fire incident when he rode in front of his lines to reconnoiter and press a follow-up nighttime attack.

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All of the Civil War Trust's battle apps, available via Apple's iTunes App Store, are now free. Initially, each cost $2.99.

As of late last month, people had downloaded more than 20,000 of the apps, said Rob Shenk, the nonprofit's director of Internet strategy and development.

"That's a great achievement, showing really strong uptake," he said.

"The customer feedback and ratings have been rock-solid, the type of things you really want to see: people interested in the battles, in learning about them, in coming to the battlefields to use the product, people excited to have something that energizes their kids, that engages younger folks," Shenk said. "All things that we were hoping for.

"Right now--and this fluctuates--we’re seeing a little over a thousand downloads a week for all three apps," he said. "They do cross-sell each other, and if people have a good experience with one, they may get another. And that brings people to the Fredericksburg-area battlefields."

Nationally, Apple rated the Fredericksburg and Bull Run apps No. 9 and No. 14 last week in the "What's Hot" section for travel apps at the computer and software giant's online App Store.

Bull Run, to date, has been the most popular of the three apps, due to heavy media coverage of events commemorating the Battle of Manassas' 150th anniversary last month, Shenk said.

The trust and its software development partner, NeoTreks of Colorado Springs, Colo., decided they would reach the maximum audience by making all of the apps--including future ones--available at no cost.

"Given that our top goal for the battle apps is to educate, we felt that this move to free was a natural," Shenk said. Studies have shown that free apps can outpace premium-priced apps 10-to-1.

The partners have active projects under way to field Android and iPad versions of their battle apps, Shenk said.

Release dates for those products have not been set. "Our hope is to have our first Android offerings before the year is out," he said.

Jim Campi, the trust's policy director, credited Sean Connaughton, a member of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's cabinet, with providing crucial support for the digital effort.

"These battle apps wouldn't be possible without the forethought and generosity of Virginia officials," Campi said. "While they were still on the drawing board, Transportation Secretary Connaughton recognized the tremendous tourism potential of the devices and agreed to underwrite 10 Virginia battle apps."

Virginia, the state where the greatest number of Civil War battles took place, will lead the nation in the battle-app realm, too. The first Virginia apps, for Fredericksburg and Manassas, are available now. In addition to Chancellorsville, three other apps—for Malvern Hill and two other battlefields—are expected to be completed by year's end.

--Clint Schemmer