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Book Review: Chancellorsville (Stephen W. Sears) : CWT

Originally published on Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears, Houghton Mifflin, New York, New York, 577 pages, $35.
For the members of the Union Army of the Potomac, particularly those in the XI Corps, the close of May 2, 1863, appeared at hand. Twilight neared, suppers simmered, and men lounged. They believed that Major General Joseph Hooker, commander of the army, had the Confederates where he wanted them. Perhaps in a day or two of hard fighting, the luckless Federals would score a stunning victory.

But before the sun set, a sound came from the west. At first it was indistinct, unidentifiable. Then it became clear the noise was coming from thousands of men, arrayed in battle lines, advancing through the Wilderness at Chancellorsville, Virginia. It was the Rebel Yell. The assault by Lieutenant General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's troops ravaged the XI Corps and unraveled Hooker's carefully constructed plans.

Three more days of bloody work lay ahead for both armies. When the Chancellorsville Campaign ended with the retreat of the Union army across the Rappahannock River during the night of May 5-6, the combined casualties exceeded 30,000. Only the Seven Days Campaign, 10 months earlier, had exacted a greater toll. For the Confederates, however, Chancellorsville marked the zenith of General Robert E. Lee's and their fortunes in the East.

Civil War historians have neglected this complex, 10-day campaign. Their oversight may be attributed, in part, to the shadow cast by John Bigelow's 1910 study, The Campaign of Chancellorsville. A detailed tactical work, Bigelow's book has long been regarded as the standard account of the operations. Ernest B. Furgurson's 1992 study, Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave, presented a modern analysis, but it did not supplant Bigelow's classic.

With the publication of Stephen W. Sears's Chancellorsville, however, Civil War historiography has a worthy rival to Bigelow's book. Although Sears's book does not duplicate Bigelow's in its tactical detail, it renders a fuller overall treatment of the campaign. Sears combines the best of modern history into this finely crafted, superb study. The book is well researched, wonderfully written, balanced, fair, and judicious.

Sears brings years of study and writing on the Eastern campaigns to this new work, and that experience results in a fresh analysis of the Chancellorsville operations. The book opens with the resignation of Major General Ambrose Burnside in January 1863 and concludes with the return of Hooker's army to its camps north of the Rappahannock. In between, the narrative flows through the preparations for spring operations, the campaign's opening movements, the carnage of May 2 and 3, and the ultimate triumph of Lee's army.

If Sears's work does nothing else, it refurbishes the reputation of Joseph Hooker. Sears offers the fairest assessment yet of the maligned general's performance, presenting solid information on the role of Union intelligence operations and communications as they affected Hooker's decisions. He destroys the old canard that Hooker admitted losing confidence in himself. Without sparing the commander from deserved criticism, he fashions a corrective portrait of the general that will undoubtedly spark discussion.

Sears finds fault with other subordinate Union officers who by their action or inaction contributed to the army's defeat. To him, none deserve more censure than Major Generals Oliver O. Howard, commander of the XI Corps, and John Sedgwick, commander of the VI Corps. He presents a compelling case against both generals and also particularly criticizes the performances of Major Generals Daniel Sickles and George Stoneman and Brigadier General Charles Devens. For the most part, it is a damning indictment of these men.

Sears's assessment of the Confederate high command is no surprise. He shows amply why Lee and Jackson have merited history's judgment of their performances on this battlefield. In turn, he clarifies that the decision to attack Hooker's flank was Lee's and that Lee and Jackson then worked out together how to do it. Sears also finds much to praise about Major General J.E.B. Stuart and much to criticize about Major General Lafayette McLaws.

But this excellent book is more than a study of generals and command decisions. There is so much good about it, but at its best, it is a compelling story of common soldiers caught in a battle amid the demonic landscape of the Wilderness. Sears describes much of the combat through the words of those in the ranks, which results in a narrative of particular force. His Chancellorsville is an excellent campaign study and a sheer pleasure to read.

Jeffry D. Wert
Centre Hall, Pennsylvania

More Recommended Readings from the February 1997 Issue of Civil War Times:

* The Civil War in Apacheland: Sergeant George Hand's Diary, edited by Neil B. Carmony, High-Lonesome Books, Silver City, New Mexico, 223 pages, $21.95. Hand, who later became a frontier saloonkeeper, chronicles his adventures with the Union army in the Southwest.

* Now the Wolf Has Come: The Creek Nation in the Civil War by Christine Schultz White and Benton R. White, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas, 209 pages, $29.95. Members of the Creek Nation flee from encroaching Confederates during the winter of 1861-1862, as told from the Indians' viewpoint.

* Dancing along the Deadline: The Andersonville Memoir of a Prisoner of the Confederacy by Ezra Hoyt Ripple, Presidio Press, Novato, California, 185 pages, $19.95. A private of the 52d Pennsylvania Infantry captured near Charleston, South Carolina, tells of his horrors in the South's most infamous prison.

* Andersonville: The Southern Perspective, edited by J.H. Segars, Southern Heritage Press, Atlanta, Georgia, 199 pages, $15. Historian Segars relates the story of Andersonville from the perspective of Southerners past and present.

* "Kill-Cavalry": Sherman's Merchant of Terror–The Life of Union General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick by Samuel J. Martin, Fairleigh-Dickinson University Press, Madison, New Jersey, 325 pages, $48.50. This study of Kilpatrick portrays the inept wartime leader and eventual ambassador and lecturer as an antihero.

* Valor in Gray: The Recipients of the Confederate Medal of Honor by Gregg S. Clemmer, Hearthside Publishing, Staunton, Virginia, 428 pages, $29.95. A Confederate descendant, Clemmer gives information about the award-winners and tells how they earned the honor.

* Two Months in the Confederate States: An Englishman's Travels through the South by W.C. Corsan, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 175 pages, $26.95. An English steel merchant and manufacturer travels from New York through New Orleans to gauge the war's potential impact on his nation and his personal business interests.

* Texas and Texans in the Civil War by Ralph A. Wooster, Eakin Press, Austin, Texas, 318 pages, $27.95. A summary of the role of the frontier state and its native sons in a war that devastated other Southern states.

* Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 650 pages, $60. A comprehensive collection of remarks attributed to Abraham Lincoln by his contemporaries.

* A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of "Crazy Bet" Van Lew, edited by David D. Ryan, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, 176 pages, $22.95. A Northerner in the Southern capital, Elizabeth Van Lew describes her fears and triumphs in helping Union prisoners escape Richmond.

* Richmond during the War: Four Years of Personal Observation by Sallie Brock Putnam, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska, 395 pages, $16.95. Origninally published in 1867, Putnam's memoirs chronicle the degradation of the Confederate capital during the war. CWT

* Collecting the Union Soldier and Collecting the Confederate Soldier,Rockywood Productions, P.O. Box 18844, Denver, CO 80218, $19.95 each or $29.95 for both, plus $4 for shipping and handling.

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