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Chancellorsville in retrospect
Date published: Sat, 12/21/2002
Part 42 of a 42-part series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville
FOR NEARLY A MONTH after the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Rappahannock River remained the military frontier between the United States and the Confederate States. Then Gen. Robert E. Lee began to slide northwestward, taking advantage of his victory to seize the initiative and take the war out of Virginia. The armies moved through Culpeper County, on to Winchester, and eventually to a confrontation in southern Pennsylvania at Gettysburg. There the same regiments and officers and men who had fought at Chancellorsville on May 1-3 engaged in a desperate struggle on July 1-3.
Gen. Joseph Hooker did not quite reach Gettysburg. When he threatened to resign in a quarrel over control of supporting troops (a matter in which Hooker unmistakably was correct), the War Department delightedly accepted the resignation. Gen. George G. Meade assumed command of the Army of the Potomac scant hours before the war's biggest battle--and won it. Incredibly, he immediately became the target of widespread carping, including by Abraham Lincoln, for not having achieved an even more resounding victory.
The armies that headed from Chancellorsville toward Gettysburg left behind some 30,000 casualties (about 12,000 of them Confederate), the dead buried only crudely, if at all, and the wounded of both sides suffering under primitive medical care. Some of the dead soldiers lie in unknown graves on the battlefield to this day.
After a Petersburg soldier marched across the battlefield on May 8 he wrote to his mother that it was the "most horrid looking sight that you can conceive of. Men and horses lie mingled together in one bloody mass." A Spotsylvania lad who rode through Chancellorsville described "a horrible sight and odorof dead men hastily buried or only partially coveredwith feet, hands, and heads exposed, blackened in the sun and covered with green flies." George Neese, an artillerist from New Market, camped near Wilderness Run in November and saw a hospital flag still flying from the Lacy House, Ellwood.
Civilians cautiously filtered back into the area, attempting to return to some semblance of normalcy, only to have the armies descend on the region again the following spring. The Chancellors found their grand brick house in ruins. "Mixed with the charred timbers and blackened bricks in the ruins," a local man wrote, "were to be seen the burned skeletons of helpless men caught in the building."
The destruction daunted the Chancellors. Four months after the battle they put the place up for sale. The real-estate fliers cited 854 acres, some of it good "cleared land, mostly fine upland meadow," and said nothing about the battle. The advertisement boasted of 300,000 bricks on the property, in the surviving walls of the shattered building or strewn nearby.
Not long after the war, a rebuilt Chancellorsville inn arose from the ashes, using parts of the existing walls as the outline for a somewhat smaller structure. That reconstruction became a familiar, much-photo-graphed landmark for returning veterans and other tourists. Fire destroyed the rebuilt inn in 1927. In the 1970s, several old-timers in the area told me that Civil War shells collected from the fields and stored in a closet exploded to start the 1927 blaze. Given the nature of ignition in such ordnance, the fire actually must have started in some other fashion, then eventually cooked them off. The old citizens insisted that people could hear the exploding shells both in Fredericksburg and out in Orange. The shell of charred walls that survived the 1927 fire blew down in a wind storm in 1947.
The same year that fire destroyed the rebuilt inn, the Congress created Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, to preserve Chancellorsville and the other battlefields in the region. Local citizens had led the political drive to create the National Military Park, with help from U. S. Marines at Quantico and others of the armed forces eager to protect the nation's historic heritage. A few years later, unfortunately, the National Park Service took over the battlefields from the War Department.
Other battlefield landmarks disappeared because of conscious efforts, both during the war and subsequently. The storms of lead and iron hurled by muskets and cannon attracted Confederate salvage efforts. "For two weeks after the battle," a Mississippian wrote, "trainloads of wagons loaded with bullets gathered off the field of battle came in." In the autumn of 1863, Confederate engineer William W. Blackford received an assignment to destroy the Federal earthworks around Chancellorsville. He reported demolishing fortifications "not less than forty miles in length." After the war indigent citizens, many of them recently freed slaves with marginal economic prospects, salvaged all manner of debris from the battlefields around town. Their efforts sometimes included shoveling earth through a screen to extract bullets and shell fragments.
Veterans visited the battlefield steadily during the postwar decades. Joe Hooker came back in October 1876, declaiming emphatically about his own prescience and the foibles of his subordinates: "Sedgwick was dilatory"; Hooker had sent Sickles expressly to obstruct Jackson; hindsight reigned, and reigned mean spiritedly. Gen. Howard, Hooker wrote at about this time, was a "hypocritetotally incompetenta perfect old womana bad man."
Confederates had cause to consider Chancellorsville in retrospect with pride instead of rancor. Two weeks after Hooker retreated, Gen. Braxton Bragg, commanding the primary Southern force in the western theater, used Chancellorsville in an attempt to encourage his dispirited troops. "Let us emulate the deeds of the Army of Virginia!" Bragg exhorted. "We cannot surpass them." Several of the last surviving veterans of Lee's army (and a few bogus impostors, too) attended a May 2, 1935, re-enactment on the battlefield. Douglas Southall Freeman, the army's great chronicler, lectured from a podium beneath a vast map. VMI cadets played Confederates and U. S. Marines portrayed Yankees in front of 30,000 spectators, Sue Chancellor among them.
The military legacy of Chancellorsville has generated several good books about the campaign. Jedediah Hotchkiss and William Allan, both veterans of "Stonewall" Jackson's staff, produced the first of them in 1867. The text of that early volume is too short to be of lasting importance, but Hotchkiss' maps are superb. John Bigelow's thick classic on Chancellorsville appeared in 1910. Two solid studies of the battle that appeared in the 1990s remain in print. Some recent writing, succumbing to the inevitable lust for revisionism, has attempted to rehabilitate Joe Hooker, painting him as a clever and stalwart fellow done in by dullards around him. Although Confederate partisans would relish the chance to have Lee's mighty triumph won against an able opponent, and Federalists would love to burnish the tarnished escutcheon, the image of Hooker-the-Deft seems entirely unconvincing.
In retrospect, the old conventional wisdom about Hooker's loss of nerve seems to stand up to scrutiny. He failed to recognize the military wisdom recorded by the elder von Moltke: "No plan survives contact with the enemy." When Hooker's cherished plan--and a supremely good one it was--fell apart, when Lee refused to cooperate, the Federal commander could not cope with the rapidly changing situation. From the point on May 1 when he yielded the initiative to his enemy, Joe Hooker steadily lost control of the battlefield, having lost confidence in himself. Another European military maxim obtains: "A battle lost is a battle which one thinks one has lost."
In striking contrast, the atmosphere across the lines at Confederate headquarters vibrated with brisk, daring certainty. The fantastic risks that Lee and Jackson took, and turned into an astonishing victory, make Chancellorsville among the most fascinating events in American military history. Undaunted by oppressive odds, the two Southern chieftains not only dared, but won. An aide to Gen. A.P. Hill overheard his chief and Gen. Dorsey Pender discussing the staggering risks as they rode at the head of a division during the May 2 march. They agreed that the movement "violated all the rulestaught at West Point." "We had to surprise & shake the enemy," the generals concluded, and "both agreed that Gen. Lee was not thinking of his reputation but taking all the chances to beat the superior force of the enemy."
The incredible flank march on May 2, and the ensuing attack, simply would not have occurred as an option to most soldiers throughout recorded history. Those few bold enough to attempt such a measure would probably have dispatched a small force to see what might be accomplished--not two-thirds of their available strength. In keeping with the German military axiom, "nicht kleckern, sondern klotzen" (no stinting, but stunning), Lee sent Jackson away into the forest at the head of most of the army, and in consequence won his greatest victory.
"In all history," a British military authority wrote in 1905, "there is not recorded a campaign which exemplifies more fully the preponderance of skilful direction over superior numbers than that weeks' fighting in the forest of Virginia." All of history covers a great deal of time indeed, but the judgment seems valid.
ROBERT K. KRICK of Fredericksburg was chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for 30 years. He is the author of 14 books; the most recent, "The Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy," was published in February by Louisiana State University Press.