Blog Archives

Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears

chancellorsville-by-stephen-w-searsIn 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.

Read the rest of this entry

Advertisements

To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears

to-the-gates-of-richmond-the-peninsula-campaign-by-stephen-w-searsIn 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.

Read the rest of this entry

Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign by Jonathan A. Noyalas

stonewall-jacksons-1862-valley-campaign-by-jonathan-a-noyalasIn Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign, Jonathan A. Noyalas traces Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign during the American Civil War. Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley was known as the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy” due to its ample harvests and transportation centers. The region became a magnet for both Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War, and nearly half of the thirteen major battles fought in the Valley occurred during this campaign.

Through diaries, letters, and battlefield accounts, Noyalas shows how those victories brought hope to an infant Confederate nation, transformed the lives of the Shenandoah Valley’s civilians, and emerged as Stonewall Jackson’s defining moment.

In March 1862, a 35,000-strong Union army led by Major General Nathanial P. Banks invaded the Shenandoah Valley from the north. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson initially opposed him with just 3,500 men. By June 10, Jackson had driven the Yankees back into Maryland. The story of how he accomplished this is incredible. Professor Noyalas does an adequate job telling this story, but while he paints an interesting picture of the campaign’s impact on civilians, his military history falls short.

How the war affected civilians is a perspective you rarely read, especially when it comes to Union loyalists vs. Confederates in the Valley. Not every Virginian seethed at Major General Banks’ blue ranks marching through the streets. Some even cheered. Their neighbors, however, were happy to later point them out to Jackson’s men. I was surprised to read just how virulent the hatred was for Yankees. In an effort to scare the invaders, one resident of Winchester told a Union officer that after the Battle of Bull Run they collected Northern skulls and sold them for ten dollars!

Read the rest of this entry

The Ultimate Sacrifice

Cold Harbor Battlefield, Richmond National Battlefield Park, 3215 E. Broad St. Richmond, Virginia 23223. (804) 226-1981

Silent Guns

Chancellorsville Battlefield, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, Lafayette Blvd, Fredericksburg, Virginia 22401. (540) 693-3200

Civil War Ballads: Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel

Written by John Reuben Thompson in 1863, “Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel” is a satirical song mocking the Union Army’s inability to capture Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, in 1861 and 1862. It was set to the tune of “Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel” by Daniel Decatur Emmett, who also wrote “Dixie”.

Would you like to hear my song? I’m afraid it’s rather long,
Of the famous “On to Richmond” double trouble;
Of the half a dozen trips and half a dozen slips
And the very latest bursting of the bubble.
‘Tis pretty hard to sing and, like a round, round ring,
‘Tis a dreadful knotty puzzle to unravel;
Though all the papers swore, when we touched Virginia’s shore,
That Richmond was a hard road to travel.

Then pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeve,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel.
Then pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeve,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel, I believe.

First McDowell, bold and gay, set forth the shortest way
By Manassas in the pleasant summer weather
But unfortunately ran on a Stonewall (foolish man!)
And had a rocky journey altogether.
And he found it rather hard to ride over Beauregard
And Johnston proved a deuce of a bother.
‘Twas clear beyond a doubt that he didn’t like the route
And a second time would have to try another.

Then pull off your overcoat and roll up your sleeve,
For Manassas is a hard road to travel.
Manassas gave us fits, and Bull Run made us grieve,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel, I believe.

Next came the Wooly Horse with an overwhelming force
To march down to Richmond by the Valley,
But he couldn’t find the road, and his onward movement showed
His campaigning was a mere shilly-shally.
Then Commissary Banks, with his motley foreign ranks
Kicking up a great noise, fuss, and flurry,
Lost the whole of his supplies and with tears in his eyes
From the Stonewall ran away in a hurry.

Read the rest of this entry