This Day (Stumbling About Edition)

Published:May 1, 2013 by Brendan Wolfe

"The Battle of Chancellorsville," by Frederick Chapman, 1865 (National Park Service)

On this day 150 years ago, the Battle of Chancellorsville began. Union general Joseph Hooker, the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, had crossed to the southern side of the Rappahannock River in an attempt to sneak around Robert E. Lee‘s flank. But his cavalry was off trying to create a diversion, which meant that Hooker didn’t know well enough exactly where Lee was.

Which created big problems, as our entry points out:

[Hooker’s] men, in the words of British historian Brian Holden Reid, “stumbled about like partygoers pushed from a brightly lit anteroom into a deep, pitch-black cellar.” When they stumbled into Stonewall Jackson‘s Second Corps while still surrounded by the nearly impenetrable brambles of the Wilderness—a pitch-black cellar is right—they were startled into falling back. By nightfall on May 1, after a fierce day of fighting, Hooker was back to where he had started at Chancellorsville.

This is like a metaphor for the entire Civil War: lots of fighting, not a lot gained.* And then come the recriminations:

An entire school of historians has called this first day decisive, suggesting that Hooker was too cautious, too much in the tradition of Union general George B. McClellan. To quote Reid, “The ghost of McClellan had materialized.” Bruce Catton was harsher: “Perhaps Joe Hooker had lost his nerve.” Stephen W. Sears, in contrast, has noted that Hooker “was neither disheartened nor had he lost confidence in himself or in his plan.” He had always intended to fight defensively, to avoid those ugly headlong charges. And while Hooker busied Oliver O. Howard and his Eleventh Corps with shoring up the end of the line, Lee and Jackson seated themselves on fallen logs and talked late into the night.

That image of Lee and Jackson on a log: that’s also typical of the Civil War in that it has been storified and romanticized nearly to death. Here’s one of the least romantic of those images, sketched by Confederate veteran William Ludwell Sheppard:

"Lee and Jackson in Council, on the Night of May 1" by William Ludwell Sheppard (Library of Congress)

Did they really sit on a log? Or were they sitting in the saddle? Who knows? But as our entry notes, the plan the two generals hatched that night “was nothing short of a desperate gamble.” In fact, it led to one of the most famous attacks of the whole war. Of course, that, too, is part of the story. As Kevin Levin recently wrote in response to some of the sesquicentennial hoopla:

Upcoming editorials will likely wax poetic about Jackson’s flank attack on May 2 and his final hours at Guinea Station and ignore or run rough shod over the fighting that took place the following day, which was significantly more important.  We do love our stories.

* At least in strictly military terms. Don’t tell African Americans that not a lot was gained.

IMAGES: The Battle of Chancellorsville by Frederick Chapman, 1865 (National Park Service) (via, with additional thanks to John Hennessy); Lee and Jackson in Council, on the Night of May 1 by William Ludwell Sheppard (Library of Congress)