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Battle of Chancellorsville? There'll be an app for that

August 16, 2011 12:00 am


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. 080811Civilwarapp2cs.jpg

Rob Shenk takes a still photograph during his production work on a Battle of Chancellorsville app for smartphones. tc081611app3.jpg

Krick and Shenk are creating a historian in your pocket app about Chancellorsville; images of the Bull Run app are seen here. Shenk calls Krick, former chief historian at the Fredericksburg park, a natural on film. tc081611app4.jpg


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.

That famous moment will be interpreted by the battle app, along with many lesser-known incidents and places, said Krick and Shenk, who is the Civil War Trust's director of Internet strategy and development.

One recent day, they hit the road at 7:30 a.m. and didn't wrap up shooting until nearly 2 p.m. "It's a huge battlefield," Shenk said, noting that the fighting lasted three days, with troops engaged from Fredericksburg deep into what people today think of as the Wilderness battlefield.

Spotsylvania bills itself to visitors as "the crossroads of the Civil War," and so it seemed for Krick and Shenk.

The duo's travels took them across the county from the trust's First Day at Chancellorsville property along State Route 3 to one of the newer parts of the national park, the sloping fields west of Wilderness Church where Jackson launched his flank attack and started rolling up stunned Union regiments. Their forced march include the trust's Wagner Tract, a recently acquired parcel where Union troops--most of them German Americans--made a desperate stand, only to be overwhelmed by the advancing Confederates.

In between, they visited-- among other storytelling landscapes--the scene of Lee and Jackson's last bivouac, where the commanders decided to split their army to encircle Gen. Joseph Hooker's Federal troops; Catharine Furnace, an iron smelter that was key to the battle's second day; a fern-laden historic road trace; the bed of what became the Potomac, Fredericksburg & Piedmont Railroad; Poplar Ford, where a park road crossed a small stream, just as Jackson's "foot cavalry" did; and the intersection of Brock and Orange Plank roads, where Jackson's troops turned, later emerging into the rear of Hooker's army.

At each stop, the two men hopped out of Shenk's Toyota and picked a place to shoot video segments for the battle app. They moved fast, with Shenk wielding a tripod-mounted video camera and a sun reflector to record each scene.

The multimedia maven praised Krick as a "video machine" and a "one-taker" who got nearly all of the shoots right the first time, requiring only one take, in Hollywood parlance. Shenk, who has shot many videos for the trust, said some historians require multiple takes to utter every word and phrase correctly; on a bad day, one required 16.

At each spot, Krick--without rehearsal--succinctly described what happened there, weaving anecdotes, quotations and perspective into his narrative.

"By the time [Jackson] got to this crest, the Federal lines had been completely unhinged," Krick intoned into the camera's microphone atop a ridge just west of Wilderness Church. "By the time his troops rolled here, the Federals knew they were going to have to flee the field. Most of them had already done so. Some of them made a brave rally, in what became known as the Buschbeck Line, a few hundred yards farther east--our next stop."

Krick and Shenk, who coincidentally are both California natives, were enthusiastic about prospects for their Chancellorsville undertaking. Shenk noted that many people who download the battle apps are visiting battlefields virtually, from many states--or countries--with some using them to plan trips to the historic sites.

The trust's latest digital-device project will complement the national group's work to promote heritage tourism and preserve fast-dwindling Civil War battlefield acreage, spokesman Jim Campi said.

"We have learned through long experience that the more land we save and interpret, the longer tourists stay in an area. The longer they stay, the more money they spend at local businesses, hotels and eateries," Campi said. "Our battle apps will keep tourists in Spotsylvania County longer."

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029


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

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.