Lee’s greatest victory?

Stephen W. Sears, Chancellorsville. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Mariner Books, 1996.

For years, Stephen Sears has researched and written on the actions of the Army of Potomac, constructing masterful accounts of military history. Chancellorsville is no exception, representing a strong narrative about a very important and complicated campaign. I admit, I have been putting off certain books from the library or the bookshelf because of their size – this volume comes to 449 pages BEFORE one attacks the appendices. That is a tough challenge, so my second admission is that I will split some commentary over two days.

One aim for Sears was to uncover new material on the battle in an attempt at answering questions of leadership and command structure. Was the victory by Lee his greatest, or, as Sears suggests, was it incredibly bold AND aided by luck on more than one occasion? Lee certainly believed, without question that his army was the superior – perhaps sometimes in war that conviction is enough? An additional important question is addressed – did the victory truly change anything for the two armies? The two forces were almost exactly in their original spaces at the end – the Union army somewhat demoralized and the Confederate army revitalized.

Sears argues from the outset that by examining primary sources previously unused or under utilized, he was able draw new conclusions about a campaign whose “standard” study had been set by John Bigelow in 1910. By combing through papers from Union commander Joseph Hooker as well as diaries and letters of officers and soldiers Sears hoped to reconstruct the “original color” of the campaign.

For a text that is a military history, Chancellorsville offers readers a fair amount of insight as to the men and doing the fighting. Most good histories pursue this approach, hoping to remind readers that these grand historical events took place with actual people at the helm! The end result is a book that not only provides an hourly “wrap up” of the battle, but also keeps people central to the tale.

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