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.
In Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, Stephen W. Sears draws on a remarkable cache of diaries, dispatches, and letters to recreate the fateful day of September 17, 1862 as experienced not only by its leaders but also by its soldiers, both Union and Confederate, to produce a comprehensive account of the Battle of Antietam. First published in 1983, Sears’ book is unrivaled in its elegance and complexity, examining not just the military history, but also the politics of the Army of the Potomac, which turned to 36-year-old General George B. McClellan to save the day.
In late summer 1862, the Union’s prospects for victory seemed dismally low. Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia was shattered at the Battle of Second Manassas, and President Abraham Lincoln called on George McClellan to once again take command of the Army of the Potomac and save Washington, D.C. Sears reveals Lincoln made this decision alone, against the wishes of his cabinet. By his own admission, there was no one else to turn to, but many in his administration, particularly Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, regarded McClellan (a staunch Democrat) as a traitor.
Sears excels at explaining the political conflict between McClellan and the Lincoln Administration, making it almost more interesting than the Battle of Antietam itself. It is a side of the campaign you rarely see. In the battle’s aftermath, when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, it incensed many officers and enlisted men. Some openly speculated about a Caesar-like march on Washington. McClellan, to his credit, discouraged those feelings and gracefully accepted his dismissal. In the end, all the talk of disloyalty came to nothing.
In To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign, Stephen W. Sears charts the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, Union General George McClellan’s grand plan to march up the Virginia Peninsula and capture the Confederate capital. More men and weapons of war were assembled for this campaign than for any other operation of the American Civil War. For three months, McClellan crawled toward Richmond. When Robert E. Lee took command of Confederate forces, he drove McClellan back to his ships in seven bloody days. How did this happen? Sears examines the men (from lowly privates to generals) and the politics that changed the course of history.
Major General George B. McClellan was a complex figure. He was an outspoken Democrat who expressly fought only to preserve the Union. He was supremely confident in his own abilities and loved the Army of the Potomac. It loved him back. How then, with over 100,000 men under his command, did he not only fail to capture the Confederate capitol, but fail spectacularly?
Sears’ narrative is unparalleled. His writing is clear, concise, and informative. He portrays a McClellan broken by Robert E. Lee’s aggressiveness–his only thought was to preserve his beloved army from what he believed was a vastly superior rebel force. He gave up strategic ground and countless supplies just to escape. The Union Army’s loss of war material in the campaign was “beyond calculation.”
To the Gates of Richmond highlights many surprising details about this early chapter of the war. Not only did the Union Army employ hot air balloons and ironclad ships for the first time, but some soldiers purchased iron plates to use as body armor (soon discarded for being too heavy). The Confederates had tricks up their sleeves as well. General Gabriel J. Rains utilized improvised explosive devices (land “torpedoes”) to harass the advancing Yankees. The Confederate high command frowned on this tactic, however, and transferred him to apply his particular set of skills against enemy ships in the James River.