Chancellorsville is a classic in the study not only of the Civil War and military history in general, but also of leadership, risk-taking, and military tactics.
The First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) on July 21, 1861, had shown that indeed there would be large-scale, open war between north and south. The Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862) had shown that the war would be long, hard-fought, and bloody. And as the 1863 campaign season got underway, with major battles already having been fought in all theaters, the war appeared to stretch indefinitely into the future.
Thus the armies of Robert E. Lee the Army of Northern Virginia, and Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker the Army of the Potomac faced each other in April-May, 1863, across the Rappahannock River in a thickly-wooded region known as “the Wilderness” west of Fredericksburg. The Army of the Potomac was the Union’s premier maneuver force in the Eastern Theater. Steeped in the theories of Antoine-Henri Jomini (as were all that had attended West Point before the war), Union leadership looked to the east (principally Virginia) as the critical theater of war. Several times the Army of the Potomac had sought decisive victory in major set-piece battles. And despite not yet having achieved victory, Major General Hooker intended to have another go at it. As with his predecessors, he was confident of victory (and admittedly, his, was a good plan of maneuver), yet he was just as unsuccessful as they had been. What makes this battle particularly interesting was that General Lee had absented a major portion of his force (First Corps, under Lieutenant General James B. Longstreet) south to Suffolk, Virginia and nearby parts of North Carolina to forage for food and supplies for the Army of Northern Virginia. Thus General Lee and a reduced Army of Northern Virginia faced a reinvigorated AoP and, making great use of Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, had to execute some truly brilliant tactics to once again defeat it.
Mackowski and White capture the battle with a concise, yet reasonably detailed description of the engagements, supporting movements, and the key personalities, including an excellent description of the wounding of Jackson. The writing is generally crisp and effective, and is supported by maps of sufficient detail to allow the reader to understand the action. There are a large number of photos and diagrams from the time, as well as more current photos of the terrain that will facilitate touring the battlefield, although some of these are dark with resultant loss of detail. The book includes five appendices on related topics, a detailed order of battle for both sides down to regimental and battery level, and a suggested reading list for further study.
All in all, this is a good primer on the campaign. But it is more than that. The book’s strength is its battlefield tour guide. Interwoven into the text, it will facilitate the planning of personal and professional tours of all or parts of the battle area, particularly for families with elementary through high school children who want to walk and see the ground over the course of a two or three-day weekend, perhaps with evening readings as a review of the coming day’s tour. The Chancellorsville battlefield is a beautiful piece of ground and would make for a great family outing. Mackowski’s and White’s book would provide an ideal supplement.
Review by Emil Posey