In Chancellorsville, Stephen W. Sears charts the 1863 Chancellorsville Campaign, beginning with the recovery of the Union Army of the Potomac after the Battle of Fredericksburg and ending with two armies facing each other in much the same way as before the campaign began. In what was Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s most stunning victory, he divided his army in the face of a superior enemy, in violation of basic military rules, and sent Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps around the Union Army’s flank. Jackson’s death, accidentally shot by one of his own soldiers, has been recounted numerous places before, but less well-known is how Union General Joseph Hooker managed to lose a battle that looked so much in his favor.
One of the most stunning takeaways from this book was the Army of the Potomac’s condition after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Desertion, low morale, in-fighting among officers, and expired enlistments whittled the army down to an empty husk. On January 31, 1863, the Union Army counted 25,363 deserters (1/4 of the army!). In contrast, Lee had 91,000 men under his command. Why didn’t he move against the disorganized and demoralized Union Army?
One reason was lack of intelligence. Lee couldn’t be certain how many (or how few) enemy soldiers he faced. Another was lack of supply. Lee couldn’t stockpile enough supplies to go on the offensive with the trickle coming from Richmond. He actually sent 20,000 men south to relieve the burden. So his best opportunity to crush the Army of the Potomac slowly slipped away.
Chancellorsville is above all a vindication of Major General Joseph Hooker. Hooker is usually portrayed as the Union general on the losing end of Robert E. Lee’s most stunning victory. But he was a brilliant organizer and military innovator. Unfortunately, “Fighting Joe” didn’t get along well with his peers. He was outspoken, a rough character, and a middle-aged bachelor at a time when that was viewed suspiciously.
Hooker most famously implemented the “corps badges” that identified each corps in the Army of the Potomac by symbol and each division by color (suggested by Maj. Gen. Dan Butterfield), but he also created an improved furlough system, reformed the Army cooks and quartermasters, re-established paydays and improved camp sanitation, and consolidated the cavalry into a single corps. He organized several divisions into “flying columns,” units that would pack light and carry eight days’ rations rather than the standard three. By dispensing with wagons and extra gear, these light infantry units would be far more flexible in rough terrain.
Hooker’s most important achievement was to replace George McClellan’s old system of military intelligence with a professional army staff called the Bureau of Military Information. The B.M.I. was so effective that by the end of April, Hooker knew as much about the Army of Northern Virginia as its own commander. They slightly underestimated the number of men under Lee’s command, but were far more accurate than the wild over-estimates of McClellan’s Pinkerton detectives.
Sears makes a compelling case that the Union Army’s loss at the Battle of Chancellorsville was made so much worse by the fact Hooker likely suffered a concussion when a cannonball struck a porch he was standing on. Later, many of his subordinates accused him of being drunk during the battle, but his confusion and slurred speech was probably a result of the concussion. Because nothing was physically wrong with him, no one ever relieved him of command, leaving the Union Army without central leadership at a critical moment.
Stephen Ward Sears (born July 27, 1932), of Norwalk, Connecticut, is a graduate of Lakewood High School and Oberlin College. He began his writing career in the 1960s as a World War 2 historian but later found a niche writing about the Army of the Potomac in the American Civil War, and particularly its most famous commander, General George B. McClellan. His other books include Gettysburg (2003) and George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon (1988).
Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears was published by Houghton Mifflin (Boston, Massachusetts) in 1996. The 593-page hardcover edition retails for $35.00 (softcover, $18.95). The Kindle edition sells for $9.99.