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.
The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.
It’s freezing outside, Luke thought as he pulled his windbreaker tighter and walked along an old, empty boulevard west of the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg. His parents and he had moved to the city two days ago, and he thought it would be a good idea to wander the town and get his bearings. It was late in autumn, so the wind blew sharply and bit at his cheeks. The houses on either side of the street were all over a hundred and fifty years old, and emitted a pleasant, aged perfume he could smell even from out on the sidewalk. Grand porches stood empty as though not a soul was home.
The future was on Luke’s mind that afternoon. He would be starting school late into the year, and he had a hard time making friends. His was a military family, and his father had been recently stationed at Fort A.P. Hill, a few miles southeast of town. This was their third move in four years. His mother assured him this would be their last for a while, but he could not help but harbor doubts.
As he walked south past Kenmore Park, he caught a glimpse of a person standing beside an old maple tree. The figure, at first obscured by shade, slowly morphed into a young woman with long brown hair that was tied up in a delicate, black snood. The breeze teased the few strands of unrestrained hair neatly away from her eyes, and as Luke got closer, he noticed she was staring at him. He continued walking, knowing it was rude to return the stare, but he could not shake the feeling that there was something familiar about this mysterious woman. She smiled at him as he passed by. He felt a chill run through his body and he hurried toward Cornell Street.
Luke turned north down Cornell and then continued south on Washington Avenue. After a few yards, thick bushes marked the end of the residential neighborhood and a tall brick fence appeared on the right-hand side of the sidewalk. Beyond it, white, granite headstones peppered the sun-bleached field. The sea of graves stretched south and constituted the Fredericksburg City Cemetery and the much older Confederate Cemetery. Luke felt very alone, but he also felt drawn to the graveyard. As he neared the Confederate section of the cemetery, the strange feeling increased until every part of him tingled with nervous anticipation. Not even an animal seemed to stir. He opened the creaking, rusted gate, and stepped inside the cemetery.
Even the trees appeared dead as their long, barren branches sadly swayed in the autumn breeze. Luke speculated that they must have stood there at least a hundred years. He imagined women in black hoop skirts carrying parasols, and men dressed in top hats and black suits with coat tails, coming to the cemetery to mourn their loved ones. He was transported back in time at this place, and a sense of despair hung over the area, as if the cemetery itself longed for bygone days. All of that was gone now, and Luke stood alone under the chestnut trees among the faded gravestones.
He did not know what caused him to turn around, but when he did he was surprised to see that the young woman from the park was standing right behind him. He had not heard anyone coming, and he wondered how it was possible for her to have gotten there in such a short amount of time. She was wearing a long, white dress that was yellowed with age. Her skin was pale and moistened with sweat, as though it was the month was July instead of November.