- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2009


Edited by Gary W. Gallagher

The University of North Carolina Press

$19.95, 238 pages, illus.


If a poll were taken about Gen. Robert E. Lee’s greatest triumph as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, the result undoubtedly would place the Battle of Chancellorsville at or near the top of the list.

Despite a 2-to-1 disadvantage in strength of forces and having been surprised by Gen. Joseph Hooker and the Union Army of the Potomac’s aggressive maneuvering, Lee’s generalship prevailed in this crucial battle in May 1863. Over the years, historians have chronicled these events in several comprehensive accounts of the battle.

The prolific Civil War author Gary W. Gallagher, the John L. Nau III Professor of History at the University of Virginia, often approaches Civil War battles differently. As in the past, he has assembled experts to address specific subjects in a series of essays. The authors’ names are mostly familiar to a Civil War audience, and their subjects are challenging and varied. The title of this paperback book may sound familiar because a cloth-bound copy came out about 13 years ago.

Following Mr. Gallagher’s introduction, John J. Hennessy sets the stage by providing background on Hooker and his army in “We Shall Make Richmond Howl: The Army of the Potomac on the Eve of Chancellorsville.”

President Lincoln appointed the controversial Hooker to command following Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s debacle at Fredericksburg, Va., in December 1862. Despite Hooker’s having undercut his former commander with unbridled criticism, Lincoln decided to allow him the opportunity to demonstrate he could perform better than his ill-fated predecessor.

To the surprise of some, Hooker reorganized and revamped the Army and, more important, rekindled its spirit through a number of enlightened policy changes. As Mr. Hennessy points out, however, Hooker’s colleagues recognized three main qualities in the Army’s new commander: aggressiveness, self-promotion and political changeability.

In addition, Hooker’s close association with the Army’s more nefarious and pretentious characters, such as Gen. Daniel E. Sickles and Gen. Daniel Butterfield, and the limited number of accomplished corps commanders leading his forces, would impact whether Hooker could in fact “make Richmond howl.”

Mr. Gallagher authored the second essay, “East of Chancellorsville: Jubal A. Early at Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church.” The quick-tempered Early detracted from his exceptional performance while fighting in a semi-independent role against considerable odds at Chancellorsville by subsequently engaging in a public dispute with Brig Gen. William Barksdale.

The controversy related to a disagreement over their respective roles during the fighting. Many years later, publishers offered Early the opportunity to clarify his position by writing a history of the battle. Early turned them down because, he said, “If I were to attempt one … I would at once be called a crank.”

Mr. Gallagher concludes that as a result of Early’s refusal - even though Lee had recognized his work at Chancellorsville and rewarded him with greater responsibility - an assessment of Early’s performance in this battle was left to the “Muse of history.”

One of the most intriguing stories related to the Battle of Chancellorsville is the Union cavalry’s expedition deep into enemy territory. A. Wilson Greene relates this tale in “Stoneman’s Raid.” Brig. Gen. George Stoneman commanded Hooker’s newly organized cavalry corps and led it during a precarious adventure to the gates of Richmond, interdicting railroads and destroying property.

Hooker’s plans for this raid were to cut off Lee’s supplies and create a blocking force to trap the Confederate troops if forced to retreat from the Chancellorsville battlefield. Mr. Greene relates the historic aspect of this raid, its planning and tactical limitations, and its controversial aftermath.

The declining fortunes of the Confederacy are often linked to the death of Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson at Chancellorsville. In “The Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy,” Robert K. Krick meticulously describes the complicated set of events that led to the mortal wounding of Jackson by friendly fire.

In the fog of war, mistakes are bound to happen. The restless and aggressive general, however, must share the blame for his demise with those who believed they were firing upon enemy cavalry. By moving in front of the lines after dark to reconnoiter the enemy position, Jackson placed himself and his party in jeopardy. Mr. Krick laments that nothing could have done more harm to Lee’s army and the Confederacy than this unfortunate event.

Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock is well-known as one of the heroes of the Battle of Gettysburg. Carol Reardon reminds us in “The Valiant Rearguard: Hancock’s Division at Chancellorsville” that he also performed exceptionally well at Chancellorsville, and there was good reason for this Union general to be called “the Superb.”

Hancock was forced to operate in the deadly environment at Chancellorsville that Hooker’s faulty tactics created, and as a result, his division paid the price of more than 1,100 casualties. Ms. Reardon describes how Hancock performed with skill and honor despite the difficult situation he had to confront.

As the bloodiest conflict in American history, the Civil War was an experimental laboratory for the care of wounded soldiers. James I. Robertson Jr. addresses this phenomenon in “Medical Treatment at Chancellorsville.”

Advances were made in the manufacture of ether and chloroform, and better methods discovered in treating gunshot wounds. As Mr. Robertson points out, the “introduction of female nurses was a godsend for many sick and wounded soldiers.”

He says Dr. Jonathan Letterman was a fortunate choice to be medical director for the Army of the Potomac because he worked hard to bring “disease under control while elevating hygiene to a higher plane.” In contrast, the Army of Northern Virginia experienced a shortage of drugs and medical supplies, and its wounded soldiers suffered accordingly. The article highlights the difficulty of operating field hospitals at Chancellorsville under primitive conditions, while being inundated with more than 18,000 wounded soldiers.

The final two articles deal with military justice during warfare (“Disgraced and Ruined by the Decision of the Court: The Court-Martial of Emory F. Best, C.S.A.” by Keith S. Bohannon) and the effects of war on children (“Stern Realities: Children of Chancellorsville and Beyond” by James Marten).

Compiled essentially as a companion to the standard histories about the Battle of Chancellorsville, Mr. Gallagher’s book achieves his goal of “touching on a handful of the myriad facets of this complex event” in greater depth to enhance our knowledge accordingly. While I would have enjoyed reading about Hooker’s pioneering establishment of an intelligence staff known as the Bureau of Military Information before the Battle of Chancellorsville, perhaps that is a subject for a future collection of essays.

• Thomas J. Ryan of Bethany Beach, Del., is past president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table.

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