Chancellorsville

by Stephen W. Sears

Paper Book, 1996

Status

Available

Publication

Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1996

Description

A careful tracing of the movements of both the Union and Confederate armies which offers fascinating vignettes of daily life within the ranks. Looking at issues from horse fodder to critical military strategy, the author examines the personal and military cost of this historic clash of armies.

User reviews

LibraryThing member wildbill
This book is a good narration of the battle of Chancellorsville that contains very interesting descriptions of the people involved. I felt that the author did a particularly good job on his portrayal of the Union commander, General Joe Hooker. He is portrayed as a very capable general whose reputation fell after this battle. I have read enough Civil War history to have a good idea of what happened but this book provided a more detail and gave me a better understanding of the battle action. I learned a lot about what happened after Stonewall's flank attack spoiled the best laid plans of Mr. F. J. Hooker. (That was Robert E. Lee's derogatory nickname for General Hooker)
After their right flank was roughed up by Jackson the Union army was still in a good position. The Confederate army was split up three ways and outnumbered everywhere. I think it was at this point that Lee showed he was the better general. Hooker was definitely not at his best and he either got scared or just gave up on himself. The author provided an extensive narrative of the injury Hooker suffered when he got his bell rung by a shell that hit a front column of the Chancellor house that Hooker just happened to be leaning against. It sounded to me like Hooker must have suffered a concussion and that can cause a variety of neurological symptoms.
The bottom line was that Lee gained control of the battle and all the men and equipment of the Union army were not enough to defeat the Confederates. The Union cavalry did not come close to carrying out their assignment and the Union army was again misused by their generals. This is referred to as Lee's greatest victory although I vote for the Second Battle of Bull Run. In both battles a significant portion of the Union soldiers remained unused at the end of the fighting. This was contrary to Lincoln's express instructions to Hooker to make sure to use all of your men.
One habit of this author has become a bit of a peeve for me. He goes into a great amount of detail about casualty statistics. How many men were lost in specific units and what percentage of their men were casualties compared to other units. I understand that a lot of men were killed and wounded and these types of detailed statistics are not of a great interest to me. It seems that the author is either showing off his research or padding the pages in the book.
I think this book is definitely more appropriate for the Civil War buff. On that level it is a well done book that I recommend to that group.
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LibraryThing member timbrennan
Sears is a master. This reads like a top notch thriller.
LibraryThing member mdubois
Chancellorsville presents an amazing study of decision making, risk management, and the impact that the fog and friction of war have on plans and strategies. Despite what may have been the best intelligence data available in that time and outnumbering General Lee's army greatly, General Hooker continued to demonstrate the consequences of poor decisions and poor delegation of responsibility. A must read for any aspiring leader - or anyone who thinks they have everything they need to make good decisions.… (more)
LibraryThing member ALincolnNut
Among most students of the American Civil War, there is shared wisdom about the 1863 battle of Chancellorsville. Despite steep odds against a force that had briefly outmaneuvered him, Robert E. Lee masterminded a great, and even embarrassing, victory against the northern Army of the Potomac and its commander, Joseph Hooker, who seemed to completely lose his nerve during the fight. It would have been a complete Confederate victory except for the stunning death of Lee's top lieutenant, Stonewall Jackson, who developed a fatal infection after being shot by friendly fire.

Stephen Sears, a military historian who has written several books on notable battles and figures in the Civil War, challenged some of these conclusions when he published his groundbreaking and thorough study of the battle, “Chancellorsville,” almost 20 years ago. Through extensive research of soldiers' personal letters alongside more traditional sources, he describes a battle that was hardly a one-sided victory. Further, he partially resuscitates Hooker's reputation and suggests that Lee was as desperate and lucky as he was brilliant in this battle.

For historians, whether armchair or more serious, it is his assessment of Hooker that may be most surprising. While fully aware of some of Fighting Joe's limitations, including his inflated regard of himself, Sears credits Hooker with several things. Foremost, he restored the morale and fighting ability of an army that had been demoralized in the utter defeat at Fredericksburg under the almost inexplicably foolish Ambrose Burnside. Then, Hooker developed and executed a surprising flanking maneuver which compelled Lee to withdraw or attack – and Lee, ever aggressive, attacked.

Where most believe Hooker lost his nerve was after the battle began and Lee unleashed Jackson's stunning flank march. Sears cautiously refutes this charge by explaining how Hooker was injured when a cannon ball split a pillar next to him, which rendered him ineffective for several hours – and even caused a rumor to spread in the army that he had been killed. Within a few hours, though, Hooker resumed issuing commands to reposition his army and await a further Confederate attack. Indeed, if Hooker had not finally withdrawn after a few days, it is possible that Lee might have attacked the Union army in the center and suffered defeat himself, fulfilling Hooker's initial battle plan.

This, then, is the other key surprising narrative of the battle, which both recognizes and questions Lee's battlefield supremacy. Sears carefully explores the decisions Lee makes during the battle, especially regarding Jackson's flanking march. The effects of Jackson's attack were devastating to the Union right, but subordinate Union generals missed opportunities to prevent or better prepare for Jackson's maneuver. And the success, as if usually did, only made the aggressive Lee want to continue the offensive – battlefield tactics that would prove less than brilliant at Gettysburg and which might have proved equally questionable had Lee been able to attack the center of Hooker's army before it recrossed the Rappahannock River.

Overall, Sears' account is captivating, describing the campaign, battle, and aftermath in detail with great appreciation for the fighting men in both armies, for opportunities taken and chances squandered, for questionable tactics and gallant leadership. Students of the Civil War will have a renewed appreciation for the conflict, and for this battle which probably should be considered more of a bookend with Gettysburg (a conclusion that Sears infers in several ways, but does not state or explore) and thus part of the climactic turning of the tide in the war.
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LibraryThing member charbonn
Following the Battle of Fredericksburg in Dec. of 1862, the Army of the Potomac was demoralized. It was not just the heavy casualties sustained in a frontal assault on a well-placed enemy, but it was also the poor food that the army was given to subsist on afterwards — “an unvarying diet of hardtack, salt pork, and black coffee. This diet was bad enough for men who were well; for anyone with dysentery or typhoid it could kill.” Eventually, after a second attempt on the Confederates floundered to a halt in the infamous “Mud March”, the Union commander, Ambrose Burnside (who had tried to turn down command of the army on the grounds that he wasn’t capable of it), was replaced — by Joseph Hooker, the very man who he had tried to keep from army command by taking it himself.

Hooker was a man of slightly unsavory reputation in his personal life, but he was renowned as a fighter. Moreover, he turned around the army’s supply situation. Finally, he put together a plan that, he felt, was capable of defeating the masterful Lee. He would not attack Lee, but rather, maneuvering around the Army of Northern Virginia’s left flank, he would allow himself to be attacked, or force Lee into retreat. Unfortunately, this left the initiative to Lee.

Hooker’s plan went smoothly for several days, but on May 2nd, 1863, things went disastrously wrong. One of his corps commanders, Daniel Sickles, caught a glimpse of the Confederates and concluded that they were retreating. They were not. What he had seen was General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson moving his corps across the front to a position on the Army of the Potomac’s right flank. That flank was held by Oliver Otis Howard’s XI Corps. It was situated where it was precisely because the right flank was considered to be unlikely to be attacked. In addition, Howard deliberately disregarded orders from Hooker to refuse his flank on the off chance that the Confederates might, after all, attack him. As a result, the Union right was dangling in the air when Jackson struck; the XI corps was sent flying from one flank of the Army of the Potomac to the other. However, Jackson was killed by friendly fire that evening, and the Union army still had plenty of fight left in it.

The next day, however, the situation of the army became rather more serious. The Confederates occupied a strong artillery position at Hazel Grove and blasted the Union positions. Hooker himself was concussed when a pillar of the Chancellor house against which he was leanding was hit by a Confederate shell. Meanwhile, on the opposite flank, Sedgwick’s Union VI Corps, temporarily successful at Fredericksburg, found itself surrounded by the Confederates. Additionally, most of the Union cavalry, under General Stoneman, had raided into the Confederate rear, but had not taken — had not even attempted to take — Hanover Junction, the key rebel supply depot in Lee’s rear. Finally, Hooker withdrew his army over the Rappahannock on the night before the Confederates were about to assault his lines once more, an assault that might very well have led to a Southern disaster. The Union lost the battle, but Confederate losses were unacceptably high.

Sears’ book is a splendid account of the Battle of Chancellorsville, highly recommended,
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LibraryThing member Schneider
A very nice read, if one can say that about a battle that took almost as many lives as any other battle in a bloody, sould-reaping war as there ever has been. Sears has challenged my thoughts on the Battle of Chancellorsville in a way I didn't expect. I was aware that this was considered General R.E. Lee's greatest battle. One where the oods were the longest and the risks taken were the greatest. I was under the impression that after such a fight one would think Lee satisfied with such a performance. But after first blush, Sears revealed that it was much more complicated then that. As with the other Sears titles I have read, Chancellorsville's narrative was smooth and clear. Concise and always driving towards the conclusion and not getting muddled up and lost in the minutia. That doesn't mean that this was the greatest thing since sliced bread. There were times where the action was not hot and heavy, the armies just sitting and/or reorganizing which made the reading work.
When all was said and done, Stephern Sears still remains one of my favorite battle authors, and with his solid display of research and writing, Mr. Sears cements himself on my Mt. Rushmore of Civil War authors.
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